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BOOK: Jillian Hart
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    "Snow angels?" Pauline's voice rose, pleasant as a birdsong.
    "Do you know how to make them?" Emily asked eagerly.
    "I sure do. I always mess them up, though. Most of the time I can't get up without falling back on my behind. That really wrecks a snow angel."
    "Really badly," Emily agreed.
    It was perfect. Ben needed a wife. Miss Curtis needed a home. He could get along with anyone, but waking up to this beautiful woman frying his morning bacon would be pleasant indeed.
    What he liked best about her was that she was just a little distant, not radiating that neediness most women did. The one that let a man know the woman wanted love and romance, wanted to cling to him.
    Miss Pauline Curtis, despite her clothes, beauty and obvious social standing, looked like a sensible, practical woman. It was there on her straight mouth and in her unflinching eyes.
    She didn't look like a woman pining after romance, who was foolish enough to believe that something as fickle as love existed.
    Yes, she was more than he hoped for. And she seemed to be everything Emily needed.

    Polly was getting low on cash. She ought to be worried about it. But that handsome sheriff and his little girl kept filling her thoughts and troubling her conscience. She shouldn't have used them like that. She hadn't wanted to. If she hadn't succumbed to the harebrained idea to dress up in Pauline's clothes, then she would have her gun in hand. She could have at least had a chance when Bad Bart came looking for her.
    Now, she'd only gone and messed everything up. Well, she'd simply have to unmess it. She hadn't made any promises to Ben MacLain. She had tried hard not to mislead little Emily, yet she knew she had. Now all she needed to do was to get some money, buy a horse and leave town–even if her conscience smarted.
    Polly waited until she was certain Bart was nowhere in sight before she ventured from her room. The hotel was clean and cozy. The proprietor's son had personally shown her to their best room. The sparkle in his eyes and his charming manner hadn't fooled her.
    She knew what he was thinking about, what he wanted. And he wasn't going to get it. She might not have the position and education of women like Pauline Curtis, but she knew enough not to let some eager man separate her from her drawers.
    The street was quiet in the late afternoon heat. No trouble, no gunfighters, and most importantly, no sheriff. She felt bad fooling him and his sweet little girl the way she had. How could she make it up to him?
    The saloon was dark and hot. Cigar smoke blended with cigarette smoke and the sharp scent of cheap whiskey. Clutching her skirts awkwardly, she pushed through the batwing doors. Her toe caught on the edge of that darn petticoat, and she almost tripped.
    A big strong hand curled around her elbow, steadying her. "Hello there, Miss Curtis." A voice deep enough to match that grip rumbled in her ear. "I saw you get off the stage."
    She tugged her arm free and looked up at the stranger. "And you are . . ."
    "Deputy Watson, ma'am." Solid shoulders straightened.
    Oh, hellfire. What was a lawman doing in a saloon this time of day? "Is that whiskey for medicinal purposes, deputy?"
    "Some call it that." He toasted her, then drained his shot glass. "What is a proper eastern lady doing in an establishment like this?"
    "For medicinal reasons." Really. How was she going to win the money she needed if the town deputy kept making chitchat? "Excuse me, sir."
    The lawman made no comment as she swished past him with those awkward skirts. She felt his sharp gaze on her back, hot like flaming arrows, but she ignored it. What else could she do? She ordered a whiskey to buy some time.
    As soon as the deputy left, she would join the game going on at the corner table. Then, with money in hand she could buy a horse and be on her way. That's what she wanted, right?
    Still, she couldn't help but wonder. What would it be like to live here? The town was clean and cozy, prospering and peaceful. It was the first place where she hadn't been plain old Polly Brown. Why, with these skirts and fine clothes, no one looked down at her. No one treated her as if she wasn't welcome, wasn't good enough, didn't belong.
    And it was damn nice. For the first time in a long while, she realized just how lonely she'd been–always on the outside, always on the run, always alone.
    She thought of little Emily with her unraveling braids and lace-edged dress. And wondered what it would be like to have a little girl of her own. To have a child full of smiles and merriment. To share ice cream and evenings and, when winter came, snow angels.

Chapter 3

    "Winning?"
    Polly froze. Her heart hammered in her chest. It couldn't be. It just couldn't–
    It was. She looked up. He towered over her, all fury and might. Anger tensed his solid shoulders, clenched his square jaw and radiated in those eyes that were intelligent enough to see right through her.
    "Howdy, Sheriff." She couldn't think of one explanation to offer him. Especially since the pile of greenbacks and gold pieces in front of her testified to her skill at the game.
    "You look like you know what you're doing." He pulled over a chair, all controlled power, and dropped it with a clatter. "It isn't every woman who can beat One-Eyed Tommy at poker."
    "I have a talent."
    "Then you admit it?" A muscle in his temple jumped.
    "I admit that I won some money. That's not against the law, is it?"
    "No, but against my principles."
    "You're not the one gambling."
Really
. She tried to tell herself she didn't care what handsome Ben MacLain thought of her, but she did. She truly did.
    She could read the disappointment in his eyes like stars in a winter sky. "Am I under arrest?"
    "Come with me." His gaze narrowed, shadowing like twilight. His big hand wrapped around her forearm and lifted her from the chair.
    He must have finally figured out who she was. Disappointment clawed through her chest, but the sadness she felt was greater. She should have known a brown sparrow couldn't dress up like a peacock. Whatever she wore, she was still plain old Polly beneath the satin and velvet, her father's daughter, no one special. She'd always been someone without a drop of luck.
    She managed to stuff her winnings into her reticule before the rock-hard lawman tore her away from the table.
    "Hold on, Sheriff," One-Eyed Tommy called out, cocking his well-polished Colt. "The lady ain't leavin' until I get a chance to win back some of my money."
    "I don't want any trouble, Tommy." Ben's voice vibrated through every inch of her body.
    Polly shivered. She'd never felt so manhandled. His grip on her arm was like steel. He lifted her off the floor with the strength in one arm. He felt as undefeatable as a mountain. She could not escape him and she didn't want to. Ben MacLain was larger than life, all flesh and blood man, and he made her intensely aware of being female. Her body sizzled wherever he touched and in some places he didn't. Goodness, no man had ever affected her this way. Ever.
    She would not lose her common sense over a man, especially one about to arrest her. And never a lawman who represented everything she wasn't, could never be.
    "But she cheated me," Tommy complained, and two other men at the poker table nodded in agreement.
    "I cheated?" Temper sparked to life in her chest, hot and hard. "Why, you lying snake! You were the one cheating. No low-life is gonna accuse me–"
    "Miss Curtis?" The sheriff interrupted.
    Polly fell silent. In fact, the whole saloon was silent The cowpokes at the bar, the men around the tables, the serving girls and the bartender all looked at her as if she'd sprouted five heads.
    "I've never heard words like that come out of a proper woman's mouth." The sheriff quirked one brow.
    "Neither have I." One-Eyed Tommy kicked back his chair. "But there was a fella in here a few hours ago lookin' for a woman who
could
cuss and gamble."
    "Let it be, Tommy." The sheriff stood strong, his words silencing the saloon like a thunderclap. "Put away your gun."
    Trouble. Polly sensed it coming like the quiet before a storm, like the click of a trigger before a bullet fired.
    "And you," he warned low in her ear, so only she could hear. "You have a lot of explaining to do."
    "I know." Her stomach sank. How was she going to make him understand? But more importantly, how could she make up for what she'd done, for how she'd misled Emily?
    Troubled, Polly sighed. She had never felt so low. She was going to jail. She would probably be forced to pay for a crime she hadn't committed. Whatever that crime was. She couldn't read her own wanted poster. She didn't have anyone to help her.
    Polly Brown was tired of being alone, of fighting her way in an unfair and unforgiving world.

* * *

    Ben tried to fight down his anger, but it grew with every step. He hauled her out of the saloon, knowing damn well that by nightfall everyone in town would know his bride was a whiskey-drinking card sharp. A respectable woman, indeed!
    "How did you manage all this?" Sunlight burned low over the tops of the buildings and straight into his eyes. But he had never seen more clearly in his life.
    "Manage what? Beating that cheating, poker-playing Tommy?"
    "No. Faking all those letters. You even had me believing you were a desperate daughter of a bankrupted St. Louis merchant."
    "I didn't fake anything." She tilted back her head, scattering rich, sable curls over her shoulders. "You really did correspond with Pauline Curtis."
    He pulled open the jailhouse door. "What did you do with her?"
    "I didn't do anything. She ran off with Roland, the banker's son." Fear framed her face and shivered in her voice. In a voice not practiced at deceit.
    "Damn." He'd written six times for a woman. Even proposed to one. And not one of them made it all the way to Indian Trails without finding true love. Not one.
    What was he going to do about Emily? She was counting on a new mother. He needed someone to take care of the house and his daughter. He needed someone to do the damn cooking. And all he had was this, this–
    "Explain this." He slapped the wanted poster on the desk in front of her.
    She tumbled out of his grip, rubbing her arm. She looked up at him with true terror in her eyes, in eyes as gentle as morning.
    The jail was empty. Every move she made echoed. Her skirts whispered. Her shoes tapped. Her sleeves rustled as she reached out and took hold of the parchment with trembling fingers. The paper rattled, trembling along with her.
    "Why me?" He bit back anger, and tasted it sharp and bitter in his mouth. "What do you want from me?"
    "I don't want anything." Her eyes widened like a doe caught in a hunter's sites. "I only wanted to try on a few dresses. I thought it might be a disguise and fool the man after me."
    "Dixon?" he guessed, remembering the black-clad gunfighter.
    She nodded, chin bowed, staring at the wanted poster where an uncomplimentary drawing hardly looked like her, did not reflect the wide cut of her eyes and the softness at her mouth. An angel's face. A wanted woman.
    "Dixon came into town yesterday. He stopped by the jail to ask about the female on that poster." Ben strode closer, close enough to see the gleam of red strands accenting her brown hair, to breathe in her sunshine and spice scent. "I told him I didn't want trouble in my town. That I wanted him gone by sundown today."
    She ran a slim finger over the big black letters spelling out her crimes. Twin brows frowned over her eyes as she studied the paper.
    "Did you pull a job with him, then run off with the gold?"
    "What?" Her chin came up, all innocent blue eyes and soft, rounded mouth. Not at all the face of the woman in the drawing. But there was no doubt about it. This was Polly Brown, armed and dangerous.
    "You're wanted for robbing the Golden Gulch stage."
    She fingered the word 'robbery.'
    "Is that where you got the money for your pretty clothes?" Ben thought of those three fancy trunks that had arrived with her on the stage.
    She shook her head, scattering her curls over her too-thin shoulders. "I told you. The trunks were Pauline's. She left without them in her hurry to be with the rich banker's son."
    "The wanted poster says you always wear men's clothes. That you ride a roan gelding."
    "He broke his leg in a gopher hole up near Big Horn Creek." She tucked her luscious bottom lip between her teeth and worried it. "That's why I took the stage. I didn't have enough money to buy another horse."
    She looked vulnerable. Still, Ben had to be sure. "Where did you hide the gold?"
    "I didn't hide the gold." She lifted her chin, and she looked straight at him.
    "Then what happened to it?"
    "I don't know. I didn't rob the Golden Gulch stage." Her teeth clenched. Her striking gaze never wavered.
    He tapped the paper, the crackling sound loud in the silence. "It says right here that you did."
    "Well, it's wrong. I'm no thief." Unshed tears stood in her eyes.
    "Then what are you?"
    "You don't want to know."
    She didn't look sorry for herself, Ben realized. She looked angry. And helpless. And damn it, he didn't want to feel sorry for her. Emotions had no place in a business proposition.
    He stepped away, striding toward the only window. The street outside bustled with the end of the day traffic. Merchants closed up their shops. Customers hurried home with last-minute purchases. "I'm a tough man, Miss Brown. I've seen a lot in my twenty-nine years. I can handle the truth."
    Her throat worked. Stubborn pride thrust that chin up higher and fisted those small, callused hands. "The truth is, I make my living sometimes as a hired gun. Sometimes I get a bounty here and there. But I don't steal."
    Ben watched her hands, listened to the conviction in her voice, and measured her unflinching gaze. He'd seen a lot of liars in his line of work, known a lot of men who did more than steal a shipment of gold.
    She wasn't lying. Whatever sort of woman Polly Brown was, she was honest. And she wasn't a thief.
    "As I see it, you've got quite a problem." He considered his words carefully and the step he was about to take. He was desperate. He figured Miss Brown might just be in worse straits.
    Ben took a gamble and made a decision. "Every lawman in this territory is going to be looking for you. Plus, you've got that gunslinger Dixon looking for you. He means business."
    She dipped her chin. "If I'm in jail, it will be easier for him to kill me, as he's sworn to do."
    "Why would he do that?"
    She blushed. From the collar of her fine dress all the way to the roots of her hair. "Bart, uh, tried to take certain liberties with me, liberties I didn't appreciate."
    "He forced himself on you?"
    "He tried to." That softly rounded chin lifted another notch. "But I shot him in the privates, and he's been after me since."
    She wasn't lying. Not a chance. Ben saw the fury spark in the depths of her eyes and heard the challenge in her voice. She was tough–but not too tough. Fear wrinkled her brow, and he saw something more there, shining in her eyes, something deeper.
    Vulnerability.
    No, don't even think it. She was nothing but trouble. Big trouble. With those forever eyes and that angel smile . . .
    He sat on the edge of his desk and crossed his arms over his chest. She gazed up at him, such a small, slender scrap of a woman with a wide, worried gaze and that soft pink lip tucked between her teeth.
    He watched her turn toward the open jail door. Her mouth thinned as she studied the waiting cell with silent dread.
    He took a steady breath. "I've got a problem, too. Emily is expecting a mother. She's been corresponding with Pauline Curtis for the last few months. Pauline made promises about the things that they would be doing together–the doll she was going to make Emily, and the clothes to go with it, and pies and cookies and a quilt for her bed. Emily thinks you are going to give her all those things."
    "I didn't know." Polly Brown paled. Her face pinched tight. "You have such a wonderful little girl. I never meant to pretend to be Pauline. It's just that Bart was standing there." Her lower lip trembled. "Are you going to lock me up now?"
    "That depends on you." He stood, looming tall and distant, his intense gaze probing hers.
    "On me?"
    He quirked one brow. "I'm going to give you a choice, Polly Brown. I can arrest you, toss you in that cell and hand you over for trial. Or, you can keep Pauline Curtis's promise to my daughter and marry me.
    "What? You want me to marry you?"
    "Why not?" He reached for his ring of keys. They jangled and clanged together as he paced toward the open barred door. "You say you aren't a criminal. You say a man wants you dead."
    "It's true."
    "Then you're no threat to Emily. You need help with Dixon and the law. I need help with my daughter and my home."
    "And I'm supposed to marry you instead of letting you toss me in jail?" She took a step back. Horror furrowed across her forehead and tensed her rail-thin body.
    Ben stopped at that. Someone had hurt her. He could see it in the way she automatically turned toward the door, looking for escape, and in her quick, startled breath. "I'm not blackmailing you, if that's what you think."
    "Then what are you doing?" So thin that voice, struggling to sound brave.
    "Think of it as a business arrangement. A permanent one."
    "Permanent?"
    "Emily is going to need a mother for a long time."
    "But you want a wife, isn't that right? You want to–" Pink swept up her face. "I see what you want from me. Just like any man. You think that because I'm not like other women, that I'm not decent, that I'm loose.'" Tears stood in her eyes, and her voice caught, as if she were trying not to cry.
    "That's not what I meant, Polly."
    "I don't believe you."
    "Do you really think I would want a woman with weak morals around my daughter?"
    She looked down and released a shaky breath. "No. I guess not."
    "I know an honest person when I see one. You might have let me think you were Pauline Curtis, but your kindness toward Emily was genuine. You made her very happy today."
    "I did?" A flicker of warmth crept into her eyes. A shade of hope. "I liked your daughter. I wish–"
    "What?"
    She shook her head. "Never mind. You said it yourself. Both Dixon and the law are after me. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't–"
    "What?"
    She wrung her hands. "Couldn't accept what you're proposing."
    "Why not? I can fix anything." He held out his hand, palm up, waiting.
    She studied it, uncertain. "You can get rid of those charges?"
    "Sure. I can run Dixon out of town. But what I really want is a woman who will be kind to Emily, who will love her and won't break her heart. My daughter has waited for each woman who promised to come. Each time she was forgotten and I had to try to console her and promise it would be better next time."
    He caught Polly's slender hand when she refused to offer it to him. She felt like new silk and smelled like a forest on a spring day. In her blue gaze, he saw an angel's gentleness. "Emily has waited for that stage for the last time. Her heart is set on you."
    "Only because she thinks I'm someone else." Her fingers wiggled against his, but he didn't let her go. This time when she lifted her gaze to his, there was no sign of fear. "She wouldn't want me, if she knew."
    "You were the one who came, who showed up and made her smile." His throat caught He hurt all the way down to his chest "People make mistakes and sometimes, if they are good people, they can make the best of a second chance."
    "Does that mean you aren't going to arrest me?"
    "Or force you into anything you don't want to do." He wasn't Bart Dixon. He wasn't a man who could take anything from a woman that wasn't offered. "Our marriage can be an arrangement, not a marriage in fact. You can have your bedroom, and I will have mine."
    "Why me?" She laid her hand to her chest. "Why would you give me a second chance? Look what I've done to you. You must think–" She paused. "I don't know what you think."
    "I've been around. I've seen all kinds of people, done all sorts of deeds, learned a lot." His voice deepened, low and soft like midnight. "You have a good heart, Polly Brown. That's something not even you can fake, and it's what Emily needs in a mother."
    "I don't know anything about children." It didn't seem real he could be asking her this, saying such kind words that almost made her believe in happiness and forever, in things she could never let herself believe in. "I'm not wife and mother material, Sheriff. I didn't grow up in a nice house with flowers around it. I don't know much about being a wife."
    "Are you willing to learn?"
    He was serious. So strong and honest and kind, looking down at her as if she could give him something he wanted, fix his most troubling problems. A mother to Emily. Heavens, she couldn't do it. And yet, the thought of having a home, her very own home, and that sweet little girl who could give her a future tempted her, made her hope.
    A future. That meant no more running, no more sleeping wherever she could find a place to lay her head, no more lonely nights. A home, a place to belong, and most of all a child to love, sweet Emily who liked ice cream and snow angels.
    Polly's knees shook, but she knew what she had to do. "No deal, Sheriff. I will never be your wife."

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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