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Jillian Hart (2 page)

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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Chapter 2

    "There she is, Pa!" Emily bounded up from the table. The water glasses sloshed and her chair scraped against the floor, startling the serenity of the nearly empty diner. Ice cream forgotten, the little girl raced toward the door, braids and skirts flying.
    "I guess we'll be right back, Martha."
    "I'll keep your table for you," the matronly woman called from the back room.
    His piece of apple pie could wait. In fact, he had planned all along to take Miss Curtis straight away to the diner and treat her to dinner and dessert, but the stage was late. Emily's disappointment had touched his heart and he had hoped a bowl of vanilla ice cream would help pass the time while they waited for her new mother and his new bride.
    Bride. He had to admit, it was damn strange. But marrying her was the only way. The other five domestics he'd hired had never arrived. Each one of them received marriage proposals before they ever stepped foot off the stage in Indian Trails. If he wanted someone to take care of Emily, then he was just going to have to marry her.
    As long as she showed up. Ben's guts twisted. Emily was counting on this so much. She'd talked of nothing else.
   
Just don't disappoint my daughter, Miss Curtis, and I will forgive any flaw, and be the best husband to you I can be. Just show up.
    And she had. The way Ben figured it, he owed Pauline Curtis the world.
    He stepped out onto the dusty street just as the stagecoach's door popped open. Emily was already standing before it expectantly, chin up, wind snapping her drooping blue skirts.
    Maybe Miss Pauline knew how to iron, too. Cook and clean and do laundry and sing songs. Yes, that would be mighty fine indeed. He missed a woman's touch in his home, her gentleness in his life.
    A delicate ankle displayed itself, encased in shining black shoes. He saw blue skirts edged with ruffles and lace, fluttering to hide any farther view of that ankle. A woman, young, slender and finely made emerged from the shadowed coach and into the sunlit afternoon.
    Jerrod Mitchell, whose family owned the hotel, dashed up to offer his hand to the beautiful eastern lady. A fresh-faced angel descended from that stage. She was all brown curls, pure blue eyes and grace.
   
That
was Miss Pauline Curtis? Ben's knees gave out. He couldn't believe his luck. She was beautiful. She looked kind. And she smiled. A great big dazzling, friendly smile that made Jerrod Mitchell sputter as he helped her to the ground and eased every last one of Ben's worries.
    This was the woman they had been praying for.

    In all her twenty-two years, Polly had never been helped down from a stagecoach by any man, let alone the eager-eyed businessman who dashed toward her as if she were a fine-blooded horse up for grabs.
    Well, it only went to show how well appearances could deceive. Beneath the satin dress and scratchy petticoats, she was still plain old Polly Brown.
    Her foot hadn't even touched the ground when a little girl dashed up to her. Head tipped back, blue eyes shining, brown curls rapidly escaping loosely plaited braids, the girl gazed up at her as if she were a princess. "Are you Miss Pauline?"
    "Well, uh . . ."
    "I'm Emily. Did you get my last letter? I've been waiting for you forever. How come the stage takes so long? How come horses don't go faster?"
    "Uh . . ." Goodness. She couldn't think of a single word to say to this adorable little girl, talking with her head cocked to one side, hardly breaking for breath.
    "I'm just glad you're here. Wanna know something?"
    "Sure."
    "My pa is sure glad you're here, too. He wrecks his coffee every morning and swears and swears. Do you know how to make something besides pancakes?"
    Polly's heart warmed. Well, she certainly remembered the letter that she'd tried to decipher–the one she'd found in Pauline's satchel about the housework and the child. But she had no idea the little girl mentioned would be meeting the stage. Or be so cute and charming and sweet. And such a talker!
    "I get awful tired of pancakes. Pa can't make anything else but pancakes and eggs. And I hate eggs. They're all slimy."
    "Especially the white part." Polly wasn't fond of eggs either.
    "Miss?" A man's deep voice interrupted.
    Polly's knees weakened. Goodness! She would recognize that voice anywhere. And the distinctive clink of spurs as Bad Bart Dixon strolled closer with his slight limp. The limp she had given him. She looked up and there he was. Dressed all in black from his rumpled, sweat-stained hat to his scuffed, sharp-toed boots.
    Her dreams of simply walking unrecognized and unnoticed off the stage fell like spit in the wind. She couldn't very well admit she was Polly Brown, sometime bounty hunter and gunslinger, the very female who had shot him in the . . . well, in a very private place.
    "Is there another woman on that stage?" Bart asked politely, suddenly a gentleman.
    Polly glanced over her shoulder. There was no one there. Bart was speaking to her! Why, he didn't recognize her. Relief blended with a strange dizziness as she realized what she'd narrowly escaped. She had been mistakenly thinking Bart was trailing her, when he had been waiting for her at this stop all along.
    His eager hands twitched above his double holsters, one strapped to each thigh. He was ready to shoot. Polly thought of her own guns, safely tucked away in the satchel. Fear crept along her spine, gathering like little droplets of sweat. She was unarmed, and that meant she was defenseless against this man, who'd sworn to kill her.
   
Please, don't let him recognize me
. She would be a goner for sure. Polly dipped her chin, then changed her voice so it sounded a little higher. "There's no one in the stage, sir."
    "Dangnabbit!" the outlaw cursed. "I guess I got to backtrack and hunt that hellcat down."
    He strode away, muttering about women who needed to be taught a lesson.
   
Thank goodness
. Polly shivered. She couldn't believe she'd gotten out of that one. Even if her revolvers had been cocked and ready, Bart could have still outshot her. And right in front of this little girl!
    Thank heavens for Pauline Curtis, Roland's undying love, and Pauline's impatience that made her leave her trunks behind.
    "My pa ought to chase that bad man off," Emily declared, fisting both hands over her hips. "My pa is the sheriff. And he's a darn good one. He just got shot last week."
    "Shot? Goodness." Now that Bart was out of earshot, there was no sense in letting this sweet little girl think she'd found her new housekeeper. "Where's your pa now?"
    "He's right there." Emily pointed across the street at a strong, handsome man striding toward them, hands in fists, broad shoulders set.
    "The one right there. Just in front of the livery?"
    "Yep." Emily beamed. "Ain't he handsome?"
    Handsome? Polly's gaze swept over his magnificent body, from broad shoulders to lean, powerful legs. He walked with authority, and his face gave the overall impression of dignity and high standards. The air wedged sideways in Polly's chest. Her heart forgot to beat, just looking at him.
   
Goodness
. This was the type of upstanding, decent and very handsome man who despised her the most. The type that never stepped foot inside saloons, and expected a woman to wear these silly petticoats and bat their eyelids and faint a lot. The type of man who always had harsh words to say to her when she rode into town.
    But he was even worse than that, Polly realized. A silver star twinkled on his broad chest, catching the afternoon light. He was a sheriff. And she was, well, a gunslinger. A woman who earned her living as a hired gun. Sheriffs generally disliked those of her profession, especially when they also happened to be wanted by the law.
    Heavens, what a mess she'd made of things. Well, the sheriff wasn't close enough to recognize her. Yet. Now was the perfect time to leave before that handsome lawman arrested her. And then she could save Bart the trouble of hunting her down.
   
Now, don't panic. Just walk slow and dignified
. She took a sweeping step, skirts whispering, and nearly tripped. Darn these petticoats! Who invented such silly clothing? How on earth did anyone manage to walk around in these things?
    "Miss Pauline?" There was that little girl again, dashing after her, kicking up dust with each beat of her foot against the ground. "What's wrong? Do you think my pa is ugly? Don't you like me?"
    Aw, now that wasn't fair at all. "Why, I like you just fine. I'm–" She twisted around to look over her shoulder to watch the sheriff's approach.
    Heavens, he was getting closer. And worse, there was Bart exchanging words with the stagecoach driver. Gol' darn it. The driver knew she'd taken Pauline's clothes. What if he told Bart? That's when Polly realized she was a dead woman for sure.
    "But you're running away from us!" Emily sounded like she was ready to cry.
    How did this day go from bad to worse? And so fast? "Dear Emily, don't cry. I just need to–"
Hide from the law. Run from a man I shot in the left testicle.
Now, how was she going to explain that to a small child?
    "Do you like ice cream?" The little girl trotted beside her, determined to keep up.
    "Sure I do."
    "Pa said he would buy you some."
    Polly skidded to a stop. Dust powdered the air, and she squinted against the harsh summer sun. "Emily, I don't think I have time for ice cream."
    "Why not? The diner's just over there. Didn't you come here just for me? Isn't that what you said in your letter?" Emily's pixie face twisted. Tears silvered those big sad eyes.
    Polly's heart fell. She wished she
was
Pauline Curtis. She wished she was the kind of woman who could be someone special to this wonderful little girl.
    "Miss Curtis? I'm Ben MacLain." He towered above her, tall, broad and substantial. She couldn't help but notice how his hard muscles shaped his white shirt in a most breathtaking way. "I paid a boy to run your trunks to the hotel."
    "You did?" She bowed her chin, certain that if he got a good look at her face he would recognize her from her wanted poster. "How kind of you."
As long as you don't arrest me.
    The little girl caught hold of her hand and held tight. So much hope glittered there, blue like the sky, sweet like dreams. "You're really pretty, Miss Pauline."
    "And I think you're a beautiful little girl, Emily." Ah, heck. Now what did she do?
    To make matters worse, the sheriff kept staring at her. Lord, he was going to recognize her any minute. Weakness gathered in her stomach.
    "Come with me." His deep baritone voice rumbled through the air, vibrating over her with the sound of impending doom.
    It was over. All over. But with the little girl at her side, she didn't want a fight. Or a fuss. She would go to jail peacefully. "Anything you say, Sheriff."
    "That's the attitude I like." His smile softened the serious lines crinkled in the corners of his dark eyes. "This way."
    Her knees knocked together. She'd never been arrested before. Thank goodness he was a courteous sheriff, walking slow to accommodate her difficulty with the petticoats, staying calm and offering her a pleasant grin.
    And my, what a pleasant grin. Sheriff Ben MacLain looked rock hard from his jaw down to his toes. So well-formed he could make a woman lose control of her senses. He laid his hand on her forearm, escorting her up a set of steps. Heat sizzled where he touched her. He moved away, and a tingling handprint remained.
    "Do you like vanilla or strawberry?" the girl asked as she skipped into the building and toward a waiting table. A table where a plate of half-eaten pie waited and a bowl of ice cream melted in the heat. "I think vanilla is the best."
    "So do I." Polly glanced around. Why, this wasn't a jail after all, but a diner. And the sheriff wasn't arresting her. He was ordering a dish of ice cream.
    Her knees wobbled and she sat down, a little amazed. She wasn't going to jail after all. Yet.
    "We eat here a lot," Emily confessed as she scooped up a spoonful of her melting vanilla dessert. "On account of Pa not being able to cook."
    "We're regular customers." Ben loomed above her, dependable looking and so strong. Goodness, she'd never before understood how a woman could feel safe in the presence of a man. Until now. "Martha is going to go broke because you're here to do the cooking for us."
    Polly stammered. Now was the time to tell him there was a misunderstanding. She could simply explain she wasn't Pauline Curtis. That she wasn't going to cook for them. That she was sorry.
    But a movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. A bell jingled as the diner's door swung open. Bart Dixon filled the threshold, his small, hard gaze searching the room.
    Polly cringed. She could feel him undressing her with those eyes. But could he see who she was? Had he come back to get a closer look at her? What had the stage driver told him?
    "Can I help you?" Ben stood, his guns strapped to his solid thighs, his demeanor tough and unflinching.
    Polly's heart skipped. Goodness, but he was a powerful man. Strong enough to take her breath away. And what a dangerous reaction indeed.
    She knew what happened to women who were blinded by love. She'd seen it all too often. Next thing a woman knew, she was being treated like a servant instead of a human being. She might not have the best life, she might be wanted by the law, she might not be able to afford beautiful clothes, but she had her independence. Polly Brown was not going to be any man's slave.
    "Just lookin' for a meal." Bart bowed his head, trying to keep from looking directly at the sheriff.
    Bart was probably wanted by the law for some crime, too.
    Martha appeared and took the gunslinger's order. Bart took a table in the far corner where he could watch the town's main street from the window.
    Did he recognize her or not? Polly couldn't tell. Maybe he was just waiting until she wasn't in the company of the sheriff.
    "I'll make sure he moves on," handsome Ben MacLain said, as if to reassure her. "I don't tolerate gunfighters in my town."
   
How about at your table?
Troubled, she took a bite of ice cream. But the sweetness soured her mouth and curdled in her stomach.
    What was she doing? She was plain old Polly Brown and not terribly ingenious. A man as smart-looking as the sheriff wouldn't be fooled for long. No, sir. After polishing off his pie, he was probably going to throw her in jail, right beside Bart Dixon.
    "See something interesting?" he asked.
    Her hand shook. A slice of ice cream plopped back into the dish. "It's sure a nice town you've got here."
    "And I aim to keep it that way." He was proud of his work here, proud of this town. "I never told you much about the house."
    "The house?" She set down her spoon, her angel's gaze focusing on him.
    "My log cabin. Where we all will be living." Ben polished off the last bite of apple pie. "I thought you might like to see it. Before you move in."
    She had the widest eyes. As big and blue as heaven. "Gee, I'm not sure–"
    Emily dropped her spoon. "You don't like log houses?"
    So much worry rang in the air. But Miss Curtis, to her credit, softened like new butter. "I love log houses. They're so neat and cozy. And they smell good, like fresh pine."
    "Pa built our house all by himself." Emily wiped her mouth on the back of her sleeve. "And I have a room all my own."
    "What a nice pa you have." Pauline cast him a quick, appreciative gaze.
    And he liked it. Satisfied, that's what he was. Pleased she was here, just like she promised. Pleased that his troubles were over.
    "I've been waiting for you forever," Emily sighed.
    "Really?" Pauline's mouth twisted. Even, white teeth dug into that pink, luscious lip and he couldn't tear his gaze away.
    Just looking at her made him relax. She was beautiful. She liked log cabins. And best of all, the kindness in her smile was genuine, the attention she paid to his daughter as honest as daylight.
    Still, she was from a much finer lifestyle than he expected, finer than he could provide. "How do you like Montana Territory so far?"
    "I love it." Sparks lit her eyes, glinting like dawn. "It's beautiful country. And so free."
    "There aren't a lot of women in a town like this." He wanted her to know for sure what she was getting into. He didn't want to scare her off, but he couldn't mislead her, either. "A woman from St. Louis might not be happy here. We have no theater, no opera house. Not even a lady's club."
    "I suppose a woman from St. Louis just might miss those things." Unaffected, Miss Curtis shrugged one slim shoulder. "But it would make her darn stupid. Look at that sky. And the mountains. What more could a person want?"
    "That's just how I feel." Ben loved Montana, too.
    "We don't need no clubs and operas around here." Emily's adoring gaze never left Miss Curtis's face. "In the summer we can hunt for gold and in the winter we get snow. We can sled and make snowmen and snow angels."

BOOK: Jillian Hart
2.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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