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Jillian Hart (13 page)

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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    "Hey, Ben," Woody called from the doorway. "You gotta come look at this."
    Ben heard the amused chuckle and rubbed at the ache behind his brow. "I'm signing off on the paperwork for the marshals."
    "Forget it. Put down that pencil. This is something you gotta see. It's your fiancée."
    "Polly?" Ben stood up so fast that his chair banged against the wall behind him. The marshals followed him through the office, hands on their guns, expecting trouble.
    Ben knew it wasn't that kind of trouble. He tore out the door and into the hot blast of the late summer day. Through a haze of dust stirred up by the lazy wind, he saw his sturdy pinto mare careening down the center of Front Street, hauling a wobbling buggy behind it.
    "She's going to cause a wreck." Woody shook his head.
    Ben's stomach plummeted as he watched the mare dart left and nearly take out a horse and rider. Polly apologized, but the rider didn't look too happy. She eased the buggy across two lanes of traffic, barely missing the tailgate of a wagon loaded high with fresh hay. She misjudged the hitching post, and the front wheel hub scraped against the wooden pole with a protesting rasp.
    "Whew, we made it." Polly set the brake and greeted him with a beaming smile. "This is only my second time at driving a buggy."
    "I'm speechless." Ben swung Emily to the ground. He noticed the lady's hat on her head and the beads around her neck. "You look very lovely, Miss Emily."
    "Oh, Pa. Polly and me, we've come to file a real gold claim."
    "Did you two beautiful women strike gold?"
    "Maybe." Polly held out one suntanned hand.
    Her palm fit into his. Her skin was brown from the sun and her fingernails were badly chipped, but it was a beautiful hand. She swept from the buggy in a swish of blue checks, and he couldn't look away from her. The soft hue of her dress brought out the sparkling blue of her eyes.
    She smoothed out her skirt that had become rumpled from sitting in the buggy. "I have no idea where the land office is."
    "Just around the corner." His heart thundered in his chest, pumping pure lust through every inch of his body–every throbbing inch. "I'd go with you, but I have the marshals ready to take Dixon and his men."
    "Will you still be able to make it home this afternoon?" Polly tilted her head back to study him. The brim of her blue bonnet cast a shadow across her face, protecting it from the sun. She looked every inch a lady, but he could not forget the feel of her straddled on his thighs, clinging to his body.
    Polly Brown was no lady, and that's the way he liked it.
    She smiled up at him, as if she felt the charged attraction between them, too. She pushed the floppy brim out of her eyes. "Was I right about the bounty on Dixon?"
    Ben shook hot, lusty thoughts from his head. "Yes. The marshals tell me it's a sizable sum, and there's a reward on each of his men. I told them to make the funds payable to you."
    "To me? I didn't take those men down alone. You–"
    He pressed a kiss to her shapely lips because he couldn't hold back any longer. "You shot Dixon. It's your right."
    "Then I'll put aside half of it for Emily's education."
    Emily frowned with great disapproval. "I'd rather have a pony."
    But Ben liked the idea, Polly could tell. Her cheek still felt the heat of his kiss. Her body felt taut with the need for more. "We'd better get moving, Emily. We don't want anyone to steal that claim out from underneath us."
    "No, sirree." Emily began skipping down the boardwalk. "We're gonna be rich."
    "Maybe." She released his hand and walked away, wishing he could go with them–and relieved that he couldn't.
    "This is the place." Emily patted the flat of her hand on the wooden door.
    Polly stared at the sign overhead. A green striped awning shaded the painted letters from the sun. She recognized the word 'land' and figured Emily was right.
    The office was small and dark and contained only one desk, which was empty. A thin, pale man ambled out from a back door. She explained the plot she wanted to claim in great detail.
    The clerk took out a bottle of ink and a quill and scratched out letters she couldn't read.
    "That'll be twenty dollars."
    She set the heavy coin on the desk. Emily stepped forward with a swish of skirts and a jangle of beads to drop her half of the payment on the desk.
    "My name goes on it, too," Emily explained. "Polly an' me are partners."
    The man looked ready to argue, and Polly decided she was ready to argue with him. She knew Emily was too young to place a claim.
    But then the man smiled and asked Emily's age. Polly spoke up and said Emily was twenty-one.
    That made them all laugh and filled the silence when the clerk handed her a slip of official-looking parchment to read over and verify.
    She studied the letters and strange words. She couldn't find the courage to admit she couldn't read it. "This is fine."
    The door squeaked open, and Ben filled the threshold.
    "Pa! Come see. Polly and me own a real gold claim. We'll be real prospectors."
    "I finished up with the marshals and decided to come see what you two are up to. I hope you filed a claim close to home." He strode across the room, and every confident step brought him closer.
    Polly's skin heated. The blood pulsed in her veins. Then his fingers curled over hers, hot and claiming. Her stomach began falling, end over end.
    This man was hers. Now, what was she going to do with him?

    Bart Dixon nodded to the scruffy youngster standing on the corner. The pup had joined the gang last winter. Said his name was O'Banyon, didn't have no family and followed them from job to job. Soon they gave him a few jobs scouting firewood, tending the horses, that kind of thing, and he looked like he was gonna fit in real good.
    Young O'Banyon knew what to do. Dixon had left a message with the boy, just in case. Dixon didn't expect to spend much time in that hellhole they called a prison, and hard labor wasn't how he wanted to spend the next ten years of his life.
    Dixon smiled to himself as the marshal rode him past the boy on the corner and out of town. Poor Polly Brown. She was going to get what she deserved.
    Too bad he wouldn't be able to see the look of horror on her face.

    "Cut that just a little bit more," she coached as Ben lifted the ax a final time and buried the blade deep into the log. The pine split apart and the bottom edge tumbled free to the ground.
    "You sure know how to treat a man to a good time." Ben swiped the sweat from his brow.
    "A girl has to try." She knelt down to study the wood. Stripped, the pine log gleamed in the fading afternoon light.
    Dark clouds gathered overhead, and a strong breeze gusted through the trees. She hoped the coming storm wouldn't put a stop to her project.
    "Mind telling me what you're doing?" He leaned the ax against the side of the house.
    "Fixing your kitchen." She clipped the hatchet into the edge of the log and chipped away until a two-foot long piece popped free.
    "You know how to work wood?"
    "Grab the bag of pegs, would you? I whittled some this morning while Emily napped along the river bank." Polly hurried past him. "I want to check this fit."
    She smelled like sawdust, sunshine and the tang of the autumn wind. Her skirts swirled around her ankles as she hopped up the steps and disappeared into the house. He heard the bang of the hatchet and the grate of sandpaper.
    He snatched up the leather pouch of small wooden pegs. She made him feel a thousand different things– want and wonder and joy and lust. And they all melded together as he halted in the threshold and saw her perched on a chair fitting a new piece of wood into die scarred pock made by the fire.
    "It will look as good as new." Her smile beamed.
    But it wasn't her smile he looked at. Her dress clung to her soft breasts as snug as a lover's hands and draped over her hips and thighs so that he could imagine how she looked underneath–smooth, curvy and tempting.
    Lust drove him forward. Want had him taking the hatchet from one hand and the hunk of sanded wood from the other. She watched him with huge eyes. He lifted her down and pulled her into his arms. She went willingly against his chest. Her mouth met his with a whisper of a sigh. He kissed her until she melted against him.
    Outside their cozy house, lightning flashed and thunder boomed. Rain fell in heavy sheets that pinged off the windows and hammered the ceiling. He pressed Polly against the wall and kissed her hard, demanding all the pleasure he could take from her mouth. She moaned low in her throat, a sound of approval.
    Gaining courage, he ran his knuckles down the length of her throat, then covered her breast with his hand. She moaned again, her body stiffening. But he stroked her through the layers of cotton and felt her nipple bead against his thumb.
    "Ben?" She rasped out his name, breathless, jaw slack, eyes lidded. "I don't–"
    "You don't like this? Doesn't seem that way to me." He tugged at her buttons and the bodice of her dress opened up, revealing a thin camisole so sheer he could see the dark discs of her nipples through it. Three little buttons separated him from her breasts. He ran his fingers in circles around her aroused nipple and watched pleasure twist her face.
    "You want it. I want it." He ran his tongue along the outer shell of her ear. "Let's go upstairs. Emily's busy in her room–"
    "I can't." She sidestepped, rebuttoning her dress. "I have this wall to finish."
    "Look outside." He gestured toward the wide-open door where rain slashed through the threshold, wetting the braided carpet. "We can't cut any more wood out there. Not until the storm passes. We can spend the time making love. You know it will be passionate between us."
    "But you said–" She paled. "You promised we'd have separate bedrooms. You wanted a marriage in name only–"
    "I want you." He took a ragged breath. "We're going to be man and wife–"
    "This is not what I agreed to." Her face twisted, and she spun away. "I can't–"
    She dashed out the door and straight into the storm. Rain sluiced over her, and she was drenched in seconds. Her hair darkened and clung to her neck and shoulders. Her dress adhered to her like a second skin, outlining every curve. She was power and fragility, temptation and angel. But he knew now, watching her, how wrong he'd been. She wasn't experienced. She'd never been loved by a man.
    He jogged out into the storm. Water pooled everywhere. The sky above gleamed dark and leaden, sheets of cold rain washed over him until he shivered. She stared off at the mountains shrouded with wisps of low clouds.
    "Polly?"
    She looked so lonely and didn't move toward him. "I need to gather my tools."
    She brushed past him, avoiding his gaze.
    He shouldn't have waited to marry her. He never should have agreed to give her time. He wanted her in his bed. But more than that, he wanted her as his wife.
    "Polly?" Emily stood on the covered porch, her eyes pinched. "You were gonna play dress-up with me after you got done fixin' the kitchen. Are ya done yet?"
    "For now." Polly snatched up the woodworking tools she'd found in Ben's shed and carried them to the porch, safely out of the rain. The wind blasted against her wet skin, and she shivered. "Come upstairs while I change."
    She felt Ben's gaze on her and was glad to escape. Her breast still burned with a strange, quick sensation and she didn't want to feel it. She didn't want to let anyone this close.
    Not even Ben.

    "Which one should I pick?"
    Polly reached around to button up the last of her dress, straining to catch the buttons in the stitched holes. She took one look at Emily crouched down beside the pile of books. "Whichever one you want."
    "Ooh, look." Emily pressed her fingers across an embossed title. "Adella's ma has this book. Is it
Little Women
? I've wanted to read it ever so much!"
    Emily hopped to her feet and held out the book for Polly to see.
    Polly recognized the word 'little.' "Looks like it." At least she hoped that was true.
    "Goody. Will you read it to me now? Please?"
    How could she tell Emily the truth? Polly grabbed the silver-handled comb and drew it through her wet hair. "Don't you want to save it for tonight so your pa can read it to you?"
    Boots knelled on the floor just outside the open door. "I don't think I want to read anything called
Little Women
."
    Ben filled the threshold, dressed in fresh denims and a white shirt. His hair was windblown and tousled. His gaze brushed her from head to toe.
    How was she going to marry him now that he wanted a real marriage?
    "It's still raining like the devil out there." Wind gusted against the window, and Ben's eyes darkened. "Why don't we all go downstairs together and read this book Emily wants."
    "I knew you would, Pa." She took his hand, all enthusiasm and happiness. "Polly, come on."
    "Yeah, come on." He held out his hand.
    She remembered how that hand had touched her, and where. She recalled the hot, sharp burst of pleasure at her breast as he'd caressed her. Panic wedged like an ax blade beneath her ribs.
    Ben's fingers closed over hers and led the way. She felt helpless to refuse. She wanted to be with Ben. She wanted to be with Emily.
    In the parlor, Ben lit a lamp and Emily hopped onto the horsehair sofa.
    "Do it now, Pa." Emily squirmed, hugging the book to her chest. "You gotta ask her now."
    "You don't want your story first?"
    "Nope. Just Polly for my ma."
    "Okay, then." Ben took Polly's hand. He looked serious and irresistible. "Sit down."
    She did. Her heart skipped up into her throat, and she felt it beat there, fast and hollow.
    Ben studied her with dark, inscrutable eyes. "Emily and I are very anxious to ask you a question."
    "A really important one," Emily added.
    "You saved my life and protected my daughter from gunfire. You've brought light back into our lives, Polly, and we want you to stay with us." He knelt down before her. "Marry us. Marry Emily and me."
    Air caught in Polly's chest. She couldn't believe this. He'd already gotten her to agree to marriage, but this– Why, it was a real proposal. Based on caring and trust and friendship.
    Emily tugged on Polly's sleeve. "You gotta say yes."
    Polly looked from the man kneeling before her to the sweet little girl clinging to her side. "Are you sure? I mean–"
    "Please, Polly." Emily's hand gripped hers with a stinging need. "You wrote and said you'd marry us. You promised. You said you would love me forever and ever cuz that's how I love you."
    "Oh, Emily." Polly pulled her close and hugged her hard. "No one has ever said such sweet things to me."
    It was a business arrangement. She knew that, but her silly heart just welled right up with emotion because she'd never felt wanted before. She'd never felt needed.
    But these two people wanted her. They truly did.
    Ben pushed a ring on her finger. A Montana sapphire, as blue as the Rockies on a summer's day, sparkled in the lamplight. The gold band gleamed on her finger.
    "Well, are you going to say 'yes,' or are am I going to have to haul out my handcuffs?" Ben's eyes sparkled. This was no threat.
    Her decision was clear–it came straight from her heart. "Yes, I'll marry you. I'll marry you both."
    "Yay!" Emily cheered.
    Ben silently folded her into his arms and held her tight against his chest. She went willingly. She laid her ear against his breastbone, and she could hear the fast thud of his heart. He wasn't as calm as he appeared.
    He brushed a kiss to her temple and when she looked up, his mouth met hers with a fiery kiss that left her breathless, left her wanting, left her weak.
    She would marry Ben. But how was she going to keep from falling in love with him?

BOOK: Jillian Hart
5.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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