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Jillian Hart (5 page)

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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Chapter Five

    Polly pushed open the hotel's front door to the gentle morning light and saw Ben MacLain leaning against a post watching the sunrise, sipping his morning coffee.
    "Going somewhere?" His gaze slid from the subtle shades of pink and lavender at the horizon to the satchel in her hand. "I thought we had an agreement"
    "We do. Are you going to throw me back in jail? Decided you'd rather have the bounty on my head instead of someone to take care of your daughter?"
    He raised one brow. "Depends on what's inside that satchel."
    "This?" She lifted it a notch, suddenly realizing what he was so surly about. "You think I'm trying to skip out of town?"
    "It looks that way."
    "In a dress?" She brushed at the pink calico skirt that wrapped around her legs like a noose. "I can't ride, I can't run. I doubt if I could even catch a fish in this thing. Trust me. If I were going to run, I'd be wearing my Levi's."
    His eyes narrowed as he studied her. "What's in the satchel?"
    "My trousers." That wasn't the right answer, she could see that immediately. He was a big man, as powerful as a bear despite his civilized appearance. His jaw ground. His eyes snapped. He reached out and tore the bag from her grip before she could try to stop him.
    He set his mug of coffee on the porch rail and snapped open the brass clasp. The fancy bag gaped open as he pawed through it. "Trousers, boots, a man's shirt, a gold pan. Fish hooks."
    "See?" At least he could tell she wasn't going to break her promise. "I'm all prepared. I thought–"
    "You admit it?" His mouth twisted. He slammed her possessions back into the bag and thrust it at her. "I guess I know what kind of woman you are. Do I need to haul out my Colt, or will you go peaceably?"
    "I've already agreed to stay." He drew himself up full height, and she had to tip her head back to look at him. Dark hair tumbled over his brow and into his eyes. He looked as untamed as a Montana prairie and twice as dangerous. "Is that why you're here? To make sure I keep my word."
    "Looks like it isn't much of a word."
    She tried to take possession of her satchel, but he wouldn't let go. "This is why I don't want to get married. Look at the way you're treating me."
    "You lied to me."
    "You wouldn't recognize the truth if it bit you in the rear."
    He curled his big fingers around the mug and cupped it in his powerful hand, a hand that was deceptively calm.
    The hair prickled on the back of her neck. His other hand was brushing the handle of his holstered revolver.
    "I don't want any trouble. I hate to lock you up–"
    "You're taking me back to jail?" She didn't understand. "So, this is the way it's going to be. You're going to dangle those darn charges over my head every time I want to go fishing."
    "Do I have to ask your permission for everything? It was like that with Pa. If I wanted to go to the river to fetch water or out to hunt for supper, I had to ask. I'm not a child. Or haven't you noticed?"
    "Oh, I noticed. And no, I'm not going to trust a woman who's packed for a quick trip out of town."
    "Are you always this thick-skulled? I wanted to go fishing or gold panning." Fury battered her like fists, and she felt like flinging the darn satchel at his big, self-important head. He may be the most handsome man she'd ever laid eyes on, but he was just as controlling as the rest of his gender.
    "You really are going to go fishing?" His hand didn't move from his revolver.
    "What did you think? I thought Emily would like–" Then she saw the truth in his eyes. He didn't believe her. He still didn't believe her. "I'm no liar, Ben MacLain."
    She swung the satchel and caught him in the belly. The edge of the bag smacked his shooting hand. She marched down the steps and out into the peaceful morning.
    Dust swirled with each pat of her shoes. Larks and finches glided by, enjoying the fresh morning air. She heard a horse whinny in the livery as she passed. Ripe apples scented the wind.
    "If you're heading out of town, you're going the wrong way." He caught up with her, rubbing his wrist.
    "I'm not heading out of town."
    "Then where are you going?"
    "To rob the bank. Gee, what do you think?" She kept walking. She was too angry to enjoy the morning. The sights and sounds of the new day were some of her favorites, but now they were tainted. Every step she took, he was there, at her side, her very own personal sheriff determined to enforce his own kind of justice.
    Jail or marriage. Maybe she'd made the wrong choice.
    If she were smart, she would run for freedom while she still had a chance.
    The road turned and the tall, majestic evergreens gave way to a small clearing.
    "We're here. Now, let's get one thing straight." Ben's hand encircled hers like an iron band.
    His skin was male-hot, and she could feel the calluses in a rough ridge across his palm. She looked up into his hard, suspicious eyes and then to the house just up ahead. "
your log cabin?"
    "It beats a jail cell. Are you complaining?" He crooked one brow. "It's not as fancy as the hotel–"
    "It's perfect."
    And it was. Honey-colored logs were neatly chinked and laid. The roof looked newly shingled. A center door stood in the middle of the house and wide windows flanked it. A porch roof would keep the snow off the steps in winter, and the second-story sported tall dormer windows facing the rugged peaks of the Rockies. Tall pines spread their gentle boughs skyward, guarding the house. Colorful wildflowers danced in the front yard, in tune with the morning breezes.
    The front door slammed open and a little girl dressed in blue calico burst into sight. "Polly! Polly, you came."
    "Right on time, too. Just like I said."
    Emily's fingers curled around hers, taking her from Ben's grip. "Come on. Hurry. You have to come in. I've been waiting for you
    "All morning?" Tenderness for his daughter sparkled in Ben's measuring eyes. "Why, the sun isn't even up all the way."
    But Ben's tenderness didn't last when he looked at Polly. He wasn't cold, but she knew he looked past the pretty calico dress she'd chosen this morning and saw the gunslinger beneath. He didn't look at her the same way as when she'd climbed off the stage.
    And that stung.
    "Yeah, but it feels like I've been waiting forever." Emily threw open the screen door with a bang.
    "Me, too." Polly followed her through the door. "This has been the longest morning of my life."
    Ben frowned, the hardness returning when he looked at her. He was a no-nonsense sheriff and used to being in charge. She sighed. How could she walk away now?
    Emily's hand held hers with unbreakable force. The girl dragged her into the parlor. "See our house? I dusted the furniture and everything. I'll be real good. I promise. Want to see what I did?"
    Polly couldn't help it. "Show me."
    "In here." Emily led the way past pine walls and a gray stone fireplace and big windows that let in the sun.
    They wove around furniture finer than she'd ever seen in her life. Emily dragged her through a doorway.
    A polished table sat in the room's center. Three places had been set, each knife and fork and spoon in perfect alignment. "Why Emily, you set the table."
    "I did. I can do lots of things. You'll stay, right?" A world of worry shone in her eyes, and Emily's grip on her hand tightened. So much need.
    Polly knew exactly how it felt for a little girl to lose her mother and to want another desperately. Someone with a gentle voice and loving touches, who could soothe away fears and right every wrong. "You did a perfect job. I couldn't have done better. What do you want for breakfast? I can fix anything you like."
    "Pancakes. Pa makes them all the time cuz they're my favorite. Ain't that right, Pa?"
    "That's right. It's the only thing I can cook." Ben leaned his shoulder against the threshold that separated the parlor from the dining room. His black shirt emphasized his wide shoulders and broad chest and made him seem invincible.
    Was he just standing there, or blocking the only escape?
    "The kitchen's behind you and to your left." His gaze narrowed. "Leave your satchel with me."
    "Let me guess. You're not a trusting man." She tossed him the bag.
    He caught it easily with one hand. "I just don't trust you."
    "So, is this the way of things? Are you going to watch over me all day long, making sure I don't break my word and head for Canada?" She tried to turn away, but he stopped her.
    "Trust is something that's earned."
    "That goes two ways."
    Let him think what he wanted. She knew the truth. He looked at her and saw a gunfighter. He saw someone he thought lived outside the law.
    She turned on watery knees and marched into the kitchen. She hardly noticed the pleasant room as she skidded to a stop in front of the stove. She was shaking, feeling both anger at Ben and anger at her father. She'd never wanted to be an outlaw's daughter, but she'd done the best she could.
    "Don't you like Pa?" Emily whispered as she ambled into the kitchen.
    "I'm just a little mad at him right now." Polly was more than mad, but she didn't want Emily to know it.
    "You aren't going to leave, are you?" The girl's chin shot up, and she took a step back. "You said in your letter that you wanted me."
    It wasn't pleading. It wasn't accusation. There weren't even tears. And that's what hit Polly the hardest.
    "It's okay if you don't want me." Emily's chin hiked higher. Her jaw tensed. "Pa said if you came, you might not like us or we might not like you. That we had to wait to see for absolutely sure."
    It was there in her eyes, veiled but there, the disappointment. She was trying so hard to be grown-up.
    Polly's hand shook as she reached for the match tin. She fingered a wooden match and knelt in front of the stove. "I don't have anywhere else to go. If it's all right with you, I'd rather stay here."
    Emily's chin lowered a notch. "That would be all right with me."
    Sadness for this child ached in her chest. Polly knew what it was like to be without a mother. She still missed the quiet woman with the gentle voice. She sensed that same kind of person was what Emily needed.
    She wasn't quiet and she wasn't gentle. She knew nothing but what she'd learned from her father–how to shoot a gun, how to track down a man, how to cook over a campfire. She didn't know what a child like Emily needed.
    The girl skipped to a stop. "I can help."
    Polly shook out the match's flame as the fire inside the stove's belly caught. "You know where the pantry is?"
    Emily whirled in a froth of blue and dashed to a small door at the end of the row of cabinets. Polly stood and followed her.
    Ben's step sounded behind her and his hand caught her elbow. He freed her revolver from her pocket. "I don't want you to carry a loaded gun."
    "But I–"
    "You're not a bounty hunter anymore."
    "I need that gun." It was the only way she had to protect herself.
    The hard line of his mouth eased. "If you're going to be my wife, like you promised, you don't need to be watching your back. I'm here to do it for you."
    "But Dixon could still find me–"
    "I chased Dixon out of town last night"
    She glanced at the door where Emily had disappeared. The girl was still safely out of hearing range. "He's gone?"
    "Just like I promised. I threw him out of the Lazy Horse Saloon last night and followed him out of town, just to make sure he left." He laid a hand on her shoulder, a touch that scorched through the thin layer of cotton straight to the skin beneath. "He could always come back, but you're not alone. I gave you my word, Polly. I'll keep you safe."
    And he meant it, this man who held her freedom in his hands.
    Emily stumbled out of the pantry. "Are you two still fightin'?"
    "We're done, as long as your father is through ordering me around." Polly took one last long look at her gun before she snatched it out of his hand and slipped it back into her pocket
    Ben opened his mouth to protest, but when Emily pulled up a chair and knelt on it, ready to help Polly with the meal preparation, he seemed to deflate a little.
    "Just don't keep it loaded." He turned, conceding this small defeat.

    Polly watched Ben settle down at the table. Sunlight washed through the windows, burnishing him with a soft golden glow as he unfolded the morning's paper. Newsprint crinkled as he began to read. She could just see him through the wide doorway that separated the rooms. He glanced up at her over the top of the paper and studied her.
    She turned away, heart strumming. He was still watching her. Dangnabbit! She didn't need an audience while she was trying to figure out the big black hulking contraption she had to prepare breakfast on.
    She'd never cooked on a stove before. It was fancy and polished to a shine. While Emily separated the bacon slices, Polly knelt down and added more coal to the fire. Heat radiated from the monstrosity, and sweat beaded her brow.
    Goodness, cooking in a house wasn't as pleasant as she'd hoped. With a campfire, she might get smoke in her eyes, but at least there was always a cooling breeze.
    Well, this couldn't be all that hard. After all, she'd been cooking for herself and her father's men for years. She had the coffee ground and measured. She had the potatoes grated and waiting, and the eggs counted out and ready to crack. Emily was wrapping up the bacon in butcher's paper.
    "How come you ain't cookin' yet?"
    "I like to get organized first." Really, she just didn't want to admit she was nervous. She swiped the dampness from her brow with the sleeve of her dress, then set the coffeepot on the stove.
    She felt Ben's gaze, curious and measuring, as she reached for the smaller fry pan. She set it on the stove, and the dollop of hard butter instantly melted.
    Emily inched close. "The stove's awful hot."
    Polly dumped the potatoes into the pan and gave them a stir. They immediately sizzled. She salted and peppered them as the coffeepot began to rumble. Dark liquid frothed up beneath the lid and hissed on the stove's cooking surface.
    Dang! The coffee kept erupting and she couldn't find a hot pad. Finally she spotted a thin dishcloth slung over the basin by the pump and she grabbed it. The heat from the stove nearly blistered her, but she managed to rescue the coffeepot. Thick liquid still hissed and bubbled out from beneath the lid. Uncertain what to do now, she smelled the scorching potatoes.
    "Having any trouble in there?" Ben called from the dining room.
    Was it her imagination, or was he laughing at her? She hiked her chin higher. "No, don't get up. I'm doing fine."
    She swiped at the smoking potatoes with a spatula, but they were stuck to the bottom of the pan. She applied a little more pressure, but the grated slivers of potato had congealed into a solid mass that was beginning to turn black around the edges. Smoke curled upward in dark black wisps.
    "Sure you don't need any help?" Ben lowered his newspaper. "I smell something burning."
    "Oh, no. I'm managing just fine." She beat into the center of the smoking potato mass with the edge of her spatula and managed to break it into two chunks. She wedged the metal tool underneath the charring half and flipped it. It sizzled, and the rest of the potatoes began to spark.
    Egad! What was wrong with this stove? Polly beat at the flames with her spatula, but that only fanned them. Little fires broke out along the surface of the blackening potatoes. Lord, what did she do? This wasn't a campfire. She couldn't just toss the pan from the heat.
    "Polly." She felt a tug on her skirt. "The stove's on fire."
    "I see."
    Thick black smoke began to rise from the burning potatoes. The pan was too hot to touch. Panicked, she scouted for a hot pad. "Get me a towel."
    "There's one." Emily pulled open a drawer.
    Polly took the duck towel and tried to grab the skillet off the burner. More black smoke curled upward from the pan and before she could move it from the stove, the flames doubled in height. They leaped upward, and fire stung her hand. She pulled back, heart pounding.
    The flames crackled, feeding on the sizzling grease.
    "Stay back, Emily. I don't want you getting burned."
    Light flashed and danced dangerously. Panic drove her across the kitchen. There wasn't much time before the fire got out of control. She grabbed the pump handle and pushed. Water flew into the pail. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the flames roil upward to scorch the ceiling.
    "Hurry, Polly!"
    "Stay back." Polly grabbed the bucket and hurled it as hard as she could. Water flew onto the stove, and the fire flickered.
    It didn't go out. Flames exploded against the wall, across the floor, and onto the nearby worktable.
    Polly snatched Emily out of the way, shielding her from the fire with her body. "Are you hurt? Are you burned?"
    Emily shook her head.
    Thank heavens. Polly felt weak as she set Emily down.
    "What the hell?" Ben burst into the room just as the back wall caught fire.
    Polly raced back to the pump. "I'm trying to put the fire out."
    "Ever thought of asking for help?" He grabbed a big kettle lid and tossed it over the flames. The fire struggled for life, but smothered into a deep black smoke. "Emily, go outside and wait."
    "But Pa–"
    "Do as I say. Use the front door. Hurry."
    Ben was sending Emily far away from the flames. Good. She wanted the child safe. She'd never intended–Goodness, the fire just kept spreading. She pumped the handle furiously. Water sloshed into the bucket.
    "Hurry!" Ben beat at the ceiling fire with a small braid rug he'd scooped off the floor. "Throw that on the wall. Quick, before it starts to burn through."
    Polly hurled the water at the flames. Water sizzled. Smoke curled upward. Heat arced outward at her, and the sting of it chased her back several feet. The bright flames on the wall were out, but now thick, choking smoke filled the room. She couldn't see. She couldn't breathe. More bright spots of flame glowed through the thick mantle of smoke. Desperate, she refilled her bucket.
    She tossed the water, and more flickering tongues of flame sputtered and died. Ben filled two buckets at the pump. She grabbed a full one, leaving her empty pail, and ran to douse the last of the flames.
    Soot and smoke were everywhere. Polly saw Ben's face, dusted with ashes, through the thick black cloud separating them. She could taste his anger, smell it. Without a word, he stalked across the kitchen and threw open the door. She was too afraid to move.
    The smoke started to dissipate. She could see Ben clearly and how tensed he held himself, a tall pillar of restrained male fury. A muscle jumped in his jaw. His big hands curled into fists.
    Polly turned to stare at the devastation. Black soot marked the beautiful wood of the walls and floor. The acrid scent of smoke tainted the air. Smoke stained the pretty white curtains and the ceiling overhead.
    She'd done this. Polly set her chin, determined to take her punishment. It was all over. This respite here, in this cozy home among the pines, was over. She'd proven her lack of worth, just as she'd done with Pa.
    Surely, Ben would throw her in jail now.
    "You could have burned down my entire house!" Finally, Ben's anger exploded like a gunshot, sharp and booming.
    "I know. I guess I had the stove too hot."
You guess
?" Cords stood out in his throat. Muscles turned to stone beneath his black cotton shirt. "Did it ever occur to you to ask for help? To say, 'Ben, the kitchen's on fire. Could you come help me put it out?' "
    "I–" She didn't know what to say.
    "You could have burned down my house."
    "I know." She felt awful. She braced her feet, bowed her head and waited.
    Ben vibrated with anger. He'd looked up to see Emily in Polly's arms, several yards from the dangerous fire, and he'd gone crazy. Now the fire was out. "Hold out your hands."
    She extended them, palms up, but she didn't look at him. Her pretty dress was stained with ashes and soot. Her face was smeared with grime and smoke.
    He could have helped her. He could have shown her how much coal the stove needed. But he hadn't. He'd barked at her this morning, afraid he'd made a mistake in trusting her, and she couldn't lower her pride enough to ask for help.
    He curled his fingers around her delicate wrists. Her hands were so slim and stained with soot. He saw no burns or cuts. No blisters or welts.
    He released her. "I guess that's what I get for asking a gunslinger to cook my breakfast."

BOOK: Jillian Hart
9.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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