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Jillian Hart (4 page)

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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Chapter Four

    Ben couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You mean you'd rather go to jail than be a mother to my little girl?"
    "I would love–" She stopped and bit her lip. Her eyes darkened and her brow furrowed. It was not defiance or rebellion, but apology that drew a frown to her soft lips. "I can never marry anyone."
    "Why not? Are you already married?" He took a step closer.
    She shook her head.
    "Engaged?"
    "No."
    "Hoping for a better man to come along?"
    Her chin lifted. She was pure fight and hard woman, and not nearly delicate enough for his tastes. "I couldn't–"
    He gestured behind her. "Well, there's the jail cell. It's your choice."
    He didn't like blackmailing her, but he had a little girl who'd been counting on a mother to braid her hair and play with her, to love her in the way only a woman could.
    "I'd rather stand behind those bars and let Dixon find me then to give up my hard-earned freedom to the likes of you. On the outside, you're all respectability. But you'd threaten me with jail or marriage. For a woman, there ain't a whole lot of difference."
    "Is that so? Well, I guarantee there are no bars on my windows and no lock on my door. You can step outside and see the sky and those beautiful mountains as often as you want. In the summers you can go gold hunting with my daughter and in the winters make snow angels. That's a better prison than jail, in my opinion."
    Her chin wobbled. She held herself as tough as any man with her shoulders straight, jaw set, and spine as rigid as iron. He wanted a city-bred woman for Emily, someone with refined grace and elegance who would be a good influence on her.
    Yet all he had was Polly Brown.
    "I can't do it." She met his gaze, level and unflinching, and with a shade of regret. "Even if you offer me the moon. I can't be any man's wife."
    "Why not?"
    She looked away, the muscles in her jaw working. She stared hard out the window that offered a generous view of that brilliant blue sky and those breathtaking mountains she loved so much, and the front street with its cozy bustle of townsfolk.
    "I don't trust a low-down, blackmailing sheriff." She handed him her reticule with the loaded Colts inside, as if welcoming her fate.
    He tugged the iron door open and waited for her to walk into her cell. He closed the barred doors and couldn't stop the hard punch of regret in his chest.
    He wasn't going to give up. Too much was at stake. He heard the door catch and watched the terror darken Polly's eyes. She was afraid of small places, of losing her freedom.
    She made him think of a doe scenting a hunter. He walked away, guilt eating at him. But he wouldn't back down.
    He was afraid that neither would Polly Brown.

    As the evening lengthened, Polly's anger grew. That sheriff had no right trying to blackmail her. She sympathized with his little girl needing a mother, but that didn't make it right. It wasn't right to dangle a woman's dreams in front of her nose, when those dreams didn't even exist.
    Goodness gracious, she would never forget the misery of living with her father. He was a man who liked control. What a man expected from a wife or a daughter was slavery, pure and simple.
    No, it was better standing in this lonely jail cell than tossing away her freedom. No matter how much she might want the life Ben was offering her.
    Her heart warmed remembering how little Emily had met her at the stage.
I've been waiting for you forever
–those were her exact words. Polly closed her eyes, holding the memory close. She loved children. But to raise them right, children needed a father. And that was the problem–a big problem.
    She was never going to marry any man. There wasn't one trustworthy or kind enough in the whole of Montana Territory, maybe even in the entire West.
    And yet, the sheriff had the warmest eyes she'd ever seen. The sound of his voice made her feel as if rich, warm whiskey were sluicing over her body. He was a man who loved his daughter and didn't want to see her disappointed.
    Ben MacLain was a man who'd figured out he could tempt her with her own foolish dreams.
    Polly rubbed her aching brow and sat down on the cot.
    The jail cell was small and dark. Even on this hot night of late summer, it felt cold. Maybe it was the steel that caged her in. Maybe it was the stone walls without windows. Either way she shivered, trapped like a bird without sight of the sky.
    Still, she had a clean bed, a comfortable pillow, and a wool blanket the sheriff had given her. This was more than she had some nights. She couldn't truly complain. And if her stomach rumbled, why, she'd been hungry plenty enough times to ignore it.
    Yep, she'd done the right thing. She might want to belong to a real family, but that didn't mean accepting a perfect stranger's proposal was smart. Especially not a stranger who held the power to have her arrested any time he wanted.
    Again and again, her thoughts returned to Emily. She had talked so much. Goodness. What was she doing now?
    Probably watching her father try to fix up supper in their cozy log home. Polly remembered the sweetness of sitting with them today, of Emily's constant questions.
    The lonesome ache in her chest grew. How she wanted a home and a little girl of her own.
    If only she could trust the father.
    She heard a door rattle and hinges squeak open. Boot-steps rasped on the wood floor. Someone dared to step foot inside the jail after hours, and she couldn't see who. She sure hoped it wasn't Dixon. Her fingers itched for the comfort of her friendly revolvers.
    Those boots were getting closer.
    Cold sweat prickled across the back of her neck. Then she heard the rattle of enamelware, and Ben MacLain rounded the corner. My, he was a handsome devil. A shank of dark hair cascaded over his brow. High cheekbones gave his face a strong appearance.
    "Had enough of that jail cell?"
    "Marriage. Prison." She sat back down on the edge of the narrow cot so he couldn't notice her trembling knees. "Like I said–they're one and the same."
    "Don't have to be."
    How sincere he seemed. He balanced a tray in his hands. It wasn't the food or the scent of chicken and dumplings that kept her attention, but the steady gleam of his eyes, dark and honest and filled with integrity.
    Integrity? Now where did that notion come from? This was the sheriff who'd put her in this cell.
    "I'm not offering you the real thing, Polly. Just an arrangement. A long-term, permanent commitment to my daughter. It's that simple and that important. And if you can't do it, then I'll send for the marshal to come get you."
    "Why, you're nothing but a blackmailer, plain, and simple." Indignation burned like a hot ball in her stomach, but it was better than this fear. She hated being trapped in this cell.
    What if she never got out? What if she had to say goodbye to Montana sunsets and wide-open spaces for the rest of her life? "You think you're so fine, MacLain, but you're like every other lawman I've met. You use your badge for personal gain."
    "I'm using it for Emily."
    Even with the bars separating them, she could see the love for his daughter glimmering like a rare and precious light in his eyes. It was the love of a father, something she'd never known or imagined before this.
    "I'll use my badge. I'll do whatever it takes. I can't break Emily's heart."
    "You need a housekeeper–"
    "Emily needs someone to love her. But then, maybe I was wrong about you. Maybe you don't know what it's like to be a child yearning for a mother." He fit a key into the lock.
    "Maybe I know something about it."
    He turned the key. "She talks of horse rides and gold panning and a new doll and the woman who will give her all her love. Emily thinks that someone ought to be you."
    "Not me." Polly smoothed her hand over a small wrinkle in the skirt.
    "Yes, you."
    His gaze pinned her like an arrow. She saw the steady confidence as he swung the door open. The oiled hinges whispered. His boots knelled on the stone floor. "Do you really want to stay in here?"
    "No."
    "Then you don't have to. We can help each other out."
    "But I won't agree to marriage." Her throat constricted. Her mouth went dry. She remembered how hard those years had been keeping house for her father and his outlaws. Sometimes, the others would have a wife or a woman with them, and it was always the same–violence, submission, unhappiness. She'd escaped her father's influence, and she'd struggled hard to keep her independence. "I can't–"
    "What's scaring you?" Ben moved closer. His hand lighted on her shoulder.
    She stared down at that hand, big and sun-browned, his fingers blunt and thick, but not meaty or rough-looking. No, his hand was refined and strong. Heat from that touch penetrated the fine fabric of her secondhand dress, and her pulse gave a hard kick.
    "Tell me why." Sincerity shone in his eyes.
    "No." She didn't know what to do with that. She'd never met a man she could trust. "Go ahead and bring in the food tray, but I don't want to–" She paused. "I don't trust you, Sheriff."
    He withdrew his hand. The light faded from his eyes. "Fine."
    He retrieved the tray with a cold anger and left it on the bed beside her. "Dixon is still in town. I'll do my best to make sure he doesn't find you here, but that's all I'll do."
    Polly stared down at the steaming tray and then up at Ben's retreating back. Steel bars separated her from the world.
I guarantee there are no bars on my windows and no lock on my door.
    "Ben," she called between the cold bars.
    He hesitated in the threshold that gazed out onto the twilight street. Then he smiled. Sure, he was glad. He knew he'd won.
    "If I agree to keep your house, then there's gonna be some rules."
    "What rules?"
    She watched him pivot around. The graceful male strength of him was silhouetted by the thick twilight. With slow ease, he shut the door and ambled through the shadowed jailhouse. He approached her like a hunter with a rifle. Every strike of his boot against the stone floor rang with confidence.
    Yikes, she never should have called him back. She hated being afraid, but she was terrified now. Marriage. Could she do it?
    "Tell me your conditions." His eyes were dark, and his chin set. With those strong shoulders and muscled arms, he looked intimidating.
    "I don't want to be treated like your servant."
    "Servant? You'll be my wife. You'll have to take care of the house."
    "Then I'll be your housekeeper. I might be a bad one, but I'll give it my best shot. I'll take care of your little girl, and we can pan for gold and–"
    "
No
." His voice boomed like a cannon.
    "You said you kept trying to hire a girl, but they kept getting married on the way here. I promise I'll stay–as long as you don't hurt me. I'll do my best for Emily–"
    "I said, no. Emily wants a mother and that's what she's going to get. I love my little girl, and losing her mother was very hard on her. She's got it in her head that she wants a mother, and that woman is you. So, Miss Brown, you can stay in this jail or do as I ask. It's that simple."
    Anger seethed from him. It resounded against the stone walls. It shivered in the chambers of her heart She curled her fingers around the cold bars. Dang it! He wasn't going to give her those dreams. He just wanted a woman to do his housework.
    Somehow, she found a way to say it. "Fine. I'll be your wife."
    She thought it would make him happy, but he didn't say a word. Not one single word. The jail vibrated with his silence and this awful thing she was agreeing to.
    What had she done? Defeat hung on her shoulders like hundred-pound anvils. She leaned her forehead against the cool steel and fought the urge to weep. "Keep this in mind. If you try to harm me–"
    "What do I look like? A man who hurts women?"
    "You're a man who's blackmailing one." She met his gaze and refused to flinch. "Prove to me marriage to you isn't as bad as standing behind these bars."
    "And then what?"
    "I'll marry you. I give you my word, and it's as good as any man's. I'll stay and do my best by Emily, as long as you never raise a hand to me."
    That would be what, all of a week, she figured. Maybe two.
    "It's a deal," the sheriff ground out. "You're doing the right thing."
    Well, anything was better than spending the night in this cell. Polly bit back grateful tears as the door swung open.
    She wasn't free. She feared she would never be truly free again.

    It was dark when Ben and his deputy strode through the batwing doors of Indian Trail's only saloon. Ben's hands landed on his hips, and he was ready to draw. The tinny sound of piano music died. The conversations lulled. Everyone turned to face them except for the lone man at the bar.
    Ben strode past the poker games and the serving women. He kicked away the empty stool next to the gunslinger and stood in its place, towering over the scruffy troublemaker. "You didn't heed my warnings, Dixon."
    "Yeah, well, it's a free country. A man has the right to quench his thirst." Dixon had beady eyes, hard and mean.
    "If I could have found your face on one of my wanted notices, you'd be in my jail right now."
    "Sorry to disappoint ya, sheriff. I'm lookin' for a woman."
    "Aren't we all?" He laid a few silver dollars on the bar, enough to cover the ruffian's tab. "This is a respectable town, and we mean to keep it that way. My deputy and I will be happy to escort you out past the town limits, but it would be better for you if you left on your own."
    Dixon's hand went for his revolver.
    Ben was so fast, he already had his gun in hand, cocked and ready. "I don't want this to get rough, but I'm not afraid of it."
    The gunslinger's eyes widened. "That's the fastest draw I've ever seen on a lawman."
    "Get off the chair, Dixon."
    The gunslinger knocked back the last of his whiskey. "Can't find the gal I'm lookin' for anyway. Thought she may have been the one gamblin' right here in this saloon, but I hear she was yer fiancée."
    "That's right, Dixon. She's not the woman you're after. Miss Curtis is from St. Louis." Ben met the gunslinger's gaze, never flinching. "Be on your way."
    "I don't take kindly to a small-town sheriff givin' me orders." Dixon slammed the glass onto the bar. "Or tryin' to pull the wool over my eyes. Somethin' tells me your betrothed and Polly Brown could be one and the same."
    "If you want to stay out of jail for the night, then you'd best keep your mouth shut. Thinking is dangerous for a man like you." Ben pressed the nose of his Colt hard against the man's throat. "Now, do as I say and get off this bar stool."
    Dixon's gaze flashed, lethal and cold. "Sure, sheriff. You've got me tremblin' in my boots."
    Ben grabbed the man by the collar with his free hand and hauled him off the stool and across the saloon. Dixon's jaw went slack. The gun slid from his hand. Ben slung him through the double doors. He launched him at the hitching post where half a dozen horses stood dozing.
    Dixon hit stomach-first into the bar. He coughed, holding onto the wood, trying to catch his breath.
    "I don't want to see you in my town again." Ben holstered his gun. "This is a peaceful place, and I mean to keep it that way."
    "Say what you want, but I know the truth. You're protecting her." Dixon's threat didn't diminish. "I'm not finished, Sheriff. I'll get even with Polly one way or another."
    "Then you'll have to deal with me."
    The gunslinger paled, but he didn't back down. Dixon limped over to his horse and swung up. He rode away in the darkness, heading toward the lonely trail out of town.
    "I'll make sure he keeps going." Ben gestured for his deputy to follow him. "I need you to watch the hotel. Make sure my fiancée stays put. If she tries to sneak off, throw her in jail."
    "In jail? But–"
    "Lock her up, Woody." Without saying more, Ben loosened the reins from the hitching post and mounted his gelding. The palomino started off without complaint
    He saw her light in the hotel, the corner room on the second floor. The curtains were drawn and that was all he could see. She'd been beautiful in that fine gown and vulnerable behind the bars of his jail. What was she doing, living a life like that?
    It troubled him as the lights of town faded away and he could make out the small shadow of Dixon on the trail far ahead. Was he doing the right thing?
    Polly had said it herself. She wasn't wife and mother material. And yet, he'd seen her eyes light at Emily's attention. He'd seen the dreams there, tentative but real.
    He rode the trail a long time, to make sure the gun-slinger didn't double back. No matter what happened, Dixon would never get his hands on Polly. Ben had given the woman his word. He believed in second chances, and he hoped to hell and back that Polly wouldn't let him down. Only time would tell.

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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