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Jillian Hart (14 page)

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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Chapter Twelve

    "Are you almost ready?" Ben pushed open Polly's bedroom door wearing his black suit and looking like the most handsome man on earth. "You're not even dressed."
    "I can't make up my mind." Polly felt half-naked in her chemise, and she blushed as Ben's gaze swept across her bare shoulders and arms.
    "Wear that. I think it's tempting as hell."
    "Half the town is gathering downstairs. They would probably faint from shock if I married you in my underwear." She turned to lift the gown from the bottom of the trunk. "A groom isn't supposed to see his bride before the wedding."
    "Emily's downstairs inspecting the cakes Martha brought over. I thought I'd better come up and see if you're going to climb out the window or not."
    "The window's awfully tempting." Polly laid the pink silk gown against the white satin. The fabric rustled as it settled. "I decided on the blue, but Emily reminded me that pink is my favorite color, not blue."
    "Emily's helpful, she is." Ben stepped inside and closed the door with a click that echoed in the silent room and bounced against the tension. He could tell Polly was nervous. Hell, so was he. "Let me see the blue."
    "I've already folded it up." She studied the two gowns. "The white is more formal."
    "This isn't a formal occasion."
    "Right. Just a business arrangement to keep me out of jail." Then her eyes widened. "I didn't mean it the way it sounded. I just meant–"
    "I know. This isn't a love match." He brushed a kiss to the back of her neck, then placed another on the warm satin skin of her shoulder. "But it doesn't have to be business. Wear the blue."
    "But it's not Pauline's favorite color."
    "It is yours." Ben brushed at the curls tumbling into her eyes and ached to touch so much more of her. The bed was two feet away. She was already half undressed. It would be simple to wrap her in his arms and kiss her senseless, and lay her back and lift that filmy white slip–
    "Thank you." She bit her bottom lip, and her chin wobbled. "I'll wear my favorite color for our wedding."
    "I want you, Polly. Not Pauline."
    "You don't know what that means to me. I can't cook on your stove and I had to hire Milton's wife to clean the house and pay Mrs. Wu in town to do our laundry."
    "But boy, can you cook over a campfire."
    He held her close, his erection straining the confines of his Sunday-best trousers. He willed his blood to cool down a degree or two. "Let's get you dressed. We have most of the town waiting for the big event."
    She swept away and lifted a sky-blue dress from the trunk. "You'll have to button me up."
    "I'm only good at unbuttoning. I guess I'll save that skill until after the wedding."
    "Keep dreaming, MacLain." She slipped the frothy gown over her head, and the soft fabric glided over her abdomen and hips. The skirt swished, the ruffled hem just brushing the floor. She fit her arms into the short sleeves and turned to face Ben.
    His jaw gaped. "You look perfect in blue."
    She blushed. Perfect?
    He circled around behind her, and his fingers burned a trail along her back as he started to button her dress. "I am proud to marry such a beauty."
    "Now you're sweet-talking me." She wasn't fooled. She had eyes. She'd always known she was far from pretty.
    "Get used to it, Polly." His lips grazed the curve of her neck. "When I look at you, I see the most beautiful woman alive."
    That's how he made her feel when he took her hand and led her down the stairs. The early autumn sunshine teared her eyes and made it hard to see the guests and the minister. When he spoke his vows, swearing to be true to her through good and bad, in sickness and in health, he made her feel beautiful and loved and cherished.
    With Emily at her side and half the town watching, Ben took her in his arms and kissed her so passionately that it left no doubt–she was his wife.

    "Congratulations," Mrs. Roberts greeted her with a hug. "Now that you're married, you won't be able to get out of our weekly sewing circle meetings. We'll pressure you into it. You wait and see."
    "I'm a terrible seamstress." Polly appreciated Mrs. Roberts's fourth offer to join the sewing group.
    "We don't care about that." Mrs. Wu, who owned the town's laundry, congratulated her, too. "I go for the food. Mrs. Watson makes the best cakes this side of Denver."
    "No one mentioned cake before."
    There were more congratulations, and the supper to be served. Ben oversaw the side of beef barbecuing over a pit, and Emily raced around with the other children, laughing and playing beneath the gently turning leaves.
    As night fell, the men lit lanterns and the women popped corn over the fire. The band set up, and soon the stable was vibrating to the fiddler's choice. Snappy music filled the air, mingling with the cadence of the breeze.
    Ben placed his hand in hers. "May I have this dance?"
    "I can't dance."
    "It's easy. You just follow me." He swung her into the crowd of swishing skirts and swirling dancers, and she let him. It felt good to be swept away with his strong shoulders to hold onto. She bumped against several dancers and stepped on Ben's toes three times, but his hand settled firmly into the small of her back as he guided her along.
    "This is fun." Her shoes landed on the toe of his boots again. "Well, as long as I keep looking down."
    "I think that's the fourth toe you've broken."
    "I'm a disaster. At least I dance better than I drive."
    "True." He liked the low trill of her laughter. He brushed a kiss to her temple and breathed in her enchanting scent.
    The mayor saw him and winked. Ben blushed, vowing to control his amorous feelings until he was alone with his bride. The thought of tempting Polly to his bed made his pulse surge. She would be passion and fire. He curled his fingers around the nape of her neck and felt satin skin and silken curls.
    He held her in his arms and let happiness fill his chest. He'd done it, he'd put the last remnants of his past behind him. He'd worked hard to make himself new, for Emily's sake. And he had. No one remembered a scrawny boy who once rode with some of the toughest outlaws in the West. He had a good home, a respectable job and Polly at his side. She was a woman strong enough to protect Emily if the past ever caught up to him.
    It hadn't for the last six years, but a man could never be too certain. The music ended and he stopped, but he didn't let go of his wife. Polly, breathless, was flushed and beautiful. Her gown matched the blue in her eyes, and her cheeks were flushed with a light brush of pink.
    Lust kicked, and he pulled Polly against his chest and held her there. It was more than lust that he felt for this woman who'd become his friend, someone he could count on and trust.
    "Let's go outside and cool off," he whispered in her ear, leaning close just to feel the silk of her cheek against his.
    "Good idea. I think I've pulled a muscle in my calf. It's these shoes. I sure miss my boots."
    Crisp air met them at the wide open doors. Behind them the music started up again, a sprightly folk tune that set hands to clapping and feet to stomping. They eased away from the lanterns' glow and into the shadows of the night.
    Ben pulled her against him and ravished her mouth. She tilted her head back, opening up to him with tricks of her own. Teeth touched, breaths mingled, and tongues met and caressed. She clung to his chest, his shirt balled in her fists. Already he was hard, and he pulled her against his shaft.
    A low moan tore from her throat and she broke away. "Ben, I think–"
    "If you can think, then I'm not doing this right." He caught her mouth with his and let his hand shape her breast. She was firm and fit against his palm as if she were made for him. Need kicked hard in his chest. "Can you think now?"
    "No, and that's the problem." She stepped back, her breath coming in fast little gasps. "We had an agreement."
    "To get married." He traced the shape of her breasts with his fingers. Even through the blue satin she felt woman-warm and heaven-soft.
    "And have separate bedrooms." Her hands encircled his wrists.
    "But I thought–" He blew out a breath. She looked up at him with eyes as dark as the sky. She wasn't ready. Fine, then he would give her time. His body hungered for her, but he lifted her knuckles to his lips and kissed them gently. "Let's find Emily. It's getting late."
    "Ben? Are you mad at me?"
    "Just at myself. You mean a lot more to me than I'd bargained on back in that jail."
    "Me, too." She leaned her cheek against his chest, and he held her tight. It felt good just to hold her.
    She tipped her head back, her rich curls brushing his hands. "I've never let any man this close."
    "With the way you grew up, I can't blame you." He'd lived in his share of hideaways with outlaws meaner than an attacking grizzly. He'd seen how the women were treated in those camps, and the rare child dragged along just to do the work. "I'm not like those other men you've known. I'll never hurt you. I'll never give you a reason to leave."
    Secrets. They gathered in his chest like a hard, dense fog. They made him cold, and he shivered. Polly's arms crept around him and warmed him. He clung to her, pressing kisses in her hair, listening to the dry rattle of the changing leaves and the call of a coyote yipping high in the hills.
    "There's one thing I haven't talked to you about," he admitted, "and it's been troubling me."
    "Tell me." She cuddled against him. "I want to help if I can."
    His past scared him. He'd buried it deep, and he didn't like to think about it. He'd been reborn as a new man that day he'd shot down a rival gang leader and walked away from a lawless life forever. It wasn't a lie he was keeping from Polly–he was a new man, forged on hard work and the love of a good woman. David Benjamin McLaney was dead and buried. He had the newspaper article to prove it, a body found with the gang leader the sheriff had identified.
    But now and then, the nightmares would wake him and the worries would haunt him. "Your father won't be showing up in my town, will he?"
    "To pay a family visit? No." She held him harder and he could feel her shiver. "I've been gone four long years. He tried to find me for a long while, but he gave up. I don't want anything to do with that man."
    "He's a hard man, tough and mean." He hated that Polly had grown up under the thumb of such a man.
    "You know of him?"
    He nodded. Instead of answering, he caught her mouth in a kiss. He wound his fingers through her hair. He was still hard and throbbing, his blood as hot as a firestorm. She leaned into him, all heat and soft curves.
    But he heard voices approaching and he stepped back. A mother was rounding up her children. He took Polly's hand and they found Emily playing in the straw pile with several other girls. With straw sticking out of her hair and clinging to her dress, she muttered an "oh, Pa," but she came along to the house with only a small grumble.
    Ben watched Polly take his little girl upstairs, and his heart stopped. How was he going to get through the night without Polly in his arms? Without her kisses and caresses and the fire of lovemaking?
    He took a long, cold drink of water and stood on the porch, watching the night. Then, when the driving sexual need for his wife ebbed, he headed upstairs. The slash of light through an open door drew him. He leaned against the doorframe and watched Polly tuck the blankets up to Emily's chin.
    "You gotta read to me."
    "It's late," Polly's voice soothed. "You just close your eyes–"
    "I'm too tired to sleep."
    "It was an exciting day." She sounded as if she meant it, as if she were glad she was now a wife and mother. "Close your eyes anyway, and I'll tell you another story."
    "But I wanna know what happens next to Jo and Beth and Meg and Amy." The plea was just short of a whine. Emily was tired. "I
love
that story."
    Emily pressed a leatherbound book into Polly's hands.
    The light brushed Polly with golden warmth. He watched the change on her face, the apology slipping away to something else. Something sadder. She traced her fingers over the book's embossed title.
    "I can't read this to you, Emily." All the joy and music was gone from her voice. "I'm sorry. I'll tell you a story–"
    "That's not the same. Why won't you read to me? In your letters, you promised to read to me every night. You
promised
."
    Polly gazed down into eyes filling with tears. Promises were important to Emily. Very important. She thought of all the other women who promised to come and take care of her, but didn't. She thought of Pauline Curtis on the stage, running off to be with her banker's son, never once regretting all these vows she'd made to the little girl who needed her.
    "I can't read." Polly set the book on the nightstand.
    Emily studied her for a long moment. Then she let out a breath. "I know you're not Miss Curtis, Polly."
    "You do?"
    A vigorous nod. "You're like Pa. You're a lawman. You saved me up in that tree, and you weren't even scared of all them bullets."
    "I'm no lawman." Polly brushed the stray bangs out of Emily's eyes. "I was a hired gun."
    "And a gold panner?"
    "That, too. Whatever it took to make a living honestly." She stared down at her unlady-like hands, scarred and suntanned and callused. Hands that didn't know how to sew or cook pancakes on the Family Sunshine range. "I'm afraid I might not be a very good mother, Emily. I can't read, and what I know, I doubt your father wants me to show you."
    "You knew how to find gold along the river."
    "True, but–"
    "And you catched more fish than Pa ever has."
    "Yes, but–"
    "And you saved Deputy Milton's life and mine." Emily flew out of bed and wrapped her arms hard around Polly's neck. "You're the best ma ever."
    Tears burned in her eyes and hurt in her chest Polly held tight to her daughter–
her
daughter–and didn't ever want to let go. "You're not so bad of a little girl."
    "I know." Emily just held her harder. "It's okay if you can't read none, cuz this month school starts. I'll learn how to read real good."
    "Of course you will. You're the smartest little girl I've ever known." Polly brushed a kiss to Emily's brow. "Do you want that story now? Or should we call your father in to read from your book?"
    "Those stories you've been tellin' me are about you, aren't they?"
    "Yeah." She'd run out of fairytales long ago. "Do you want to hear about the greatest danger I've ever been in?"
    "Is it scary?"
    "Very." Polly leaned back on the pillows. Emily snuggled close. She wrapped her arms around her daughter and began the story of the day she beat Deadeye Cletus and Bobby the Kid in a Wyoming poker game.

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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