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Jillian Hart (6 page)

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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Chapter Six

    Bart didn't think he was such a bad guy. He was just misunderstood. As he rode into the nothing little town of Paradise Bluff, proper ladies scurried up off the street. The sheriff poked his head out of the jail to size him up. When he dismounted, old men sitting on a bench in the shade looked nervous and gave him a look that told him to leave.
    See? He was misunderstood. He hadn't come to town to cause a single bit of harm. He just wanted to send a telegram, that was all. Sending a telegram was perfectly legal in Montana.
    And unless anyone recognized him from one of the three territories where he was a wanted man, there wasn't likely to be trouble.
    This time. He had more on his mind than looking for mischief. He had all he could handle right now. That high and mighty Polly Brown, her bulldog sheriff, and her double-crossing brother, Junior. He might be dead, but that no-good thug had stolen from him, and he'd be damned if he would let it go.
    Nobody treated Bart Dixon that way, and they would pay for it. Every last one of them.

* * *

    Polly couldn't believe the devastation she'd caused. Ben had hauled the half-burned table outside. Emily had wandered in, wide-eyed at the mess. She and Ben had ridden to town for breakfast
    It was just as well. Polly's stomach rumbled as she wrung the soapy water out of the mop and rubbed it over the scorched ceiling. The wood was damaged, but the soot was the greatest problem. It had worked its way into the grain of the wood and threatened to stain it. She scrubbed until her shoulders and neck ached, then took the water outside to change it.
    She heard a horse coming up the driveway, and was glad she'd taken back her revolver. The Colt was like an old friend, and the most loyal one she'd ever had. When there was danger, it protected her. When she was afraid, it was at her side and always ready. It was her most prized possession for all the times it had chased away trouble and kept her safe.
    She peered through the curtains, now sadly sagging and stained. She saw a brown and white pinto mare pulling a shiny black buggy up the road. It halted in the yard. Ben climbed out and swung Emily to the ground. Her skirts caught the wind and swirled. She kept twirling all the way to the back porch.
    "Polly, Pa says he's stayin' home today. To help with the mess." Emily's brightness dimmed a little. "You're all mad at me."
    "At you? I'm the one who nearly burned down the kitchen." Polly saw Ben lead the mare to the stable, and she took this moment to draw Emily close. "You didn't do anything wrong."
    "But I wanted pancakes."
    They sat down together on the top porch step. Deer grazed in the meadow, almost hidden against the goldtipped grasses. The hush of a quiet breeze filled the morning, and Polly looked down at her ruined dress. "It's my fault, Emily. I should have admitted I didn't know a thing about that stove."
    "You had lots of maids and cooks in St. Louis. Did you have someone to comb your hair every morning, too?"
    "Why?"
    "Cuz your hair's pretty messy."
    Polly sighed. Even before the fire, her hair had been the last of her concerns. Truth was, she could braid, but that was all. She hadn't thought to try to use any of the pretty hair combs she'd seen among Pauline's trunks–
her
trunks, now. "I usually don't fuss over my hair."
    "Pa said my ma had lots of servants, too. He said she set the curtains afire once when she was trying to learn to cook for him."
    "So, your father is experienced with kitchen fires."
    Emily nodded.
    "Your pa looks experienced with everything." She watched him stroll out from the shadowed stable.
    The sunlight seemed to worship him. It glinted in his dark hair and brushed his wide shoulders. Her heart rocked against her ribs. For one moment she forgot he didn't like her, didn't trust her and was blackmailing her.
    He was the most handsome man she'd ever seen. Dressed in black, he should look severe, but the bold color only made him look powerful. Dark from hat to boot, he strode toward her with an easy gait that drew her gaze to his body and held it there. He looked rock-hard and iron-strong.
    "I brought meals for all of us." He didn't look happy when he saw her. "I figure we need a hearty breakfast if we're going to try to save the kitchen."
    That was all he said, but it was enough. He walked right past her. Emily went with him.
    She heard the clang of enamelware, the clatter of flatware and the sound of coffee pouring. It was all she could do to stand and face Ben MacLain.
    He was going to make her pay for what she'd done to his kitchen. She just knew it.

    Breakfast was quiet and strained, but the food was good. Afterwards, Emily went outside to play in the sunshine while Polly mopped. She could see Emily through the kitchen door, chasing butterflies in the meadow.
    Ben didn't look up, but worked hard scrubbing the soot out of the wood. It wasn't easy work. Three hours later, the mess was cleaned up, but the burns in the beautiful wood remained. Polly was heartbroken.
    When Ben headed out to the stable, Emily came in.
    "Did you catch any butterflies?"
    "Nah. I just like to run." She tossed back her braids. Grass seeds clung to the front of her dress and a few shocks of grass had snagged onto her hem. "What's in your satchel?"
    "My play clothes." Polly set the bucket and mop out in the sun to dry. "I thought you might like to do something fun today."
    "Like what?"
    "We could go panning for gold or–"
    "You learned to pan gold?" Emily clasped her hands together. "Oh, we could have heaps of fun. Can Pa come, too?"
    "It doesn't hurt to ask." For the life of her, Polly couldn't imagine tight-jawed Ben MacLain relaxing with her next to a peaceful stream.
    "I'll go see." Emily threw her arms around Polly's shoulders.
    Those reed-thin arms clasped her tight, and it was a wondrous feeling. Emily darted away too soon, calling out to her father as she raced across the back yard.
    Polly knew Ben would join them. He didn't trust her
before
she'd set his kitchen afire. He wouldn't trust her afterward.
    As she headed inside to grab her satchel, she saw the blackened wood, like a horrible wound in the pretty kitchen.
    She headed upstairs to find a private place to change.

    "Please, Pa? Pretty please?" Emily clasped her hands together. "Why can't we? Polly brought her pan and everything. It would really make her happy. She's really sad she burned down the kitchen."
    "I know." Ben's throat tightened. His gaze wandered to the house and to the open back door. He couldn't see Polly inside, but he knew she was there.
    "Do you hate her now? Is she gonna have to go back to St. Louis?"
    He heard the wobble in her voice, a wobble she wouldn't admit to if he asked her. Over the past year, he'd watched his daughter lose some of her sparkle with every disappointment and every broken dream. Losing her mother had been hard enough, and being on their own was even harder. She'd wanted them to move back East to be with her grandparents after the funeral, but he couldn't. He didn't dare risk leaving Montana Territory.
    Emily must never learn of the man he'd once been.
    He saw a movement in the upstairs window.
Polly
. He caught a glimpse of her lustrous brown hair flowing freely down her back, and then she breezed away from the window.
    His conscience hurt. He never should have been hard on her this morning. It just wasn't easy for him to admit when he was wrong. And now he knew he'd been wrong about her satchel.
    She just reminded him of Neesa–just a little, but it was there. His wife had been delicate and innocent, more girl than woman. For at the time he was still more boy than man. She'd grown up in a wealthy home and had never set foot in a kitchen before she'd married him. Seeing Polly this morning and the grease fire made him remember the woman he'd lost to a stage accident
    She'd left to visit her ailing father, waving goodbye to little Emily as the coach pulled out of Indian Trails. With the wind in her hair and tears in her eyes, she'd hung out the window. That was the last time he saw her alive.
    "Look." Emily squeezed his hand.
    Polly trotted down the stairs in a pair of denims and a blue muslin shirt Her curls tangled in the wind, but she didn't seem to mind. She dropped a battered Stetson on her head and, carrying her gold pan in one gloved hand, slowed her gait as she approached.
    She looked every inch a female gunslinger. She might be graceful and feminine, but she walked with an uncompromising gait. She didn't lower her gaze. She didn't shy away. She looked more dangerous than he'd ever imagined.
    He never should have taken her from that cell. He never should have made her that blasted offer. Doubts plagued him as he watched the wind tousle her hair the way a lover's hand might.
    "I hear you might want to go adventuring with Emily and me." She met his gaze. "Let's head out."
    Emily tugged on his sleeve. "Do we getta ride, Pa?"
    "Sure."
    He headed to the stable with Emily and Polly at his heels. Emily started talking about the creek on their land, just out back of the cabin a ways. With the morning's argument between him and Polly forgotten, Emily began to smile again as she talked. She told Polly about the raccoons who lived in the nearby woods and the little finch nest she'd found in a tree.
    Polly looked interested as she lifted the second saddle off the sawhorses. She shouldered it easily, and he figured she'd probably been riding all her life. She set it gently on the pinto's back, double-checking the blanket to make it smooth.
    He watched the way she moved–gentle and quiet. The pinto appeared soothed by her touch. Polly's long mane of molasses hair shivered over her shoulders and hid half of her face as she reached down to give the cinch a good pull. The fabric of her shirt tightened across her breasts.
    His gaze stroked those soft curves. Heat gathered in his groin. He took a ragged breath and looked away, but he noticed the stretch of her hip and thigh as she straightened up.
    Desire slammed through him. He didn't want another woman. He hadn't been truly prepared for this, he realized now. From the moment he saw Polly Brown and her satchel this morning, fearing she would try to run, he'd known it. She made him hunger. She made him ache.
    What he wanted was a marriage in name only. But with the way his blood heated, he was kidding himself.
    For the first time since he'd buried Neesa, he realized she was truly gone from his life. He'd held pieces of her close, but until this morning no other woman had cooked at that stove. And, until now, he had never desired another woman.
    He wasn't ready for this. He didn't want this.
    Worse, he didn't want these feelings for a gunslinger, a woman on the wrong side of the law.
    "I wanna ride with Polly, Pa." Emily flashed him a charming smile. "Can I?"
    "You'll stay with me. This time." He scooped her up onto the palomino's withers, in front of the saddle.
    Emily's hand caught his shoulder, keeping him from turning away. "You don't much like Polly, do ya?"
    Her whisper was quiet, but not quiet enough. He could see Polly stiffen. She looked pale as she studied him over the top of the saddle.
    His chest tightened. There was no way Emily was going to lose Polly, the mother she'd been praying for since Christmas, nearly nine months ago.
    "She's pretty, don't you think?"
    Emily nodded vigorously. "I don't think she can cook."
    "I think you're right."
    He watched Polly mount up, all graceful womanly strength. She looked at home up on the pinto. The animal was a little skittish with strangers, and so kept sidestepping. Polly laid her hand on the mare's neck and crooned softly to her.
    He didn't know why, but the more he looked at her, the more he didn't like her. He'd been the one to force this arrangement. And he knew it was the best he would be able to do for his daughter.
    After so many tries, he didn't think a single woman could survive the long trip through Montana Territory with so many bachelors on the loose.
    Polly would just have to do.
    "Lead the way." She wasn't easily cowed, that was for sure. She gazed at him now with big eyes the color of dreams and he saw for the first time what those dreams might be.
    The wind snapped her hair across her face. When the trail shifted south, the wind rippled those rich mahogany curls behind her. She rode the trail with an ease he'd seen in no other woman. He noticed how her denim-encased thighs gripped the saddle.
    "Pa, why are you so mad at Polly?" Emily wound her fingers through Fugitive's creamy mane.
    "She nearly set the house on fire."
    "You were mad at her before that."
    "Well, it's nothing you ought to worry about."
    "But if you don't like her, Pa, then she has to go back to St. Louis." Emily swiped at a stray tendril.
    He brushed her gossamer curls out of her eyes. "Do you like her?"
    "She's got a gold pan." Emily paused. "When you wrote those letters for me, I told her all the things we could do when she got here. We could fish and hunt for gold. And she said she didn't like the woods or being in the dirt. But see, she changed her mind and all for me."
    "All for you, huh?"
    She nodded vigorously, betraying her tender heart. "She must really wanna be my ma."
    Ben pressed a kiss to her brow and hoped her words could make it true.
   
Don't let my daughter down, Polly. I can forgive anything but that
. But when he felt that telltale tightening around his spine, he knew they were headed for trouble. He didn't know what, but he could feel it.
    Someone was watching them.

    "Polly. This is the creek where I found that gold nugget." Emily hit the ground running. "It was worth a whole dollar."
    "I found a hundred-dollar nugget once." Polly felt the pinto sidestep, and she tightened the reins and gave the animal a comforting pat.
    "You learned to pan on the way here?"
    "Well, yes. You could say that." Polly swung down, her conscience wincing. "I bought my pan from a miner who'd struck gold on his claim. He said he found such a rich vein, he was selling it to a big company and didn't need his mining things anymore. He claimed this pan had brought him luck."
    "Have you been lucky with it so far?"
    "Well, I found that hundred-dollar nugget."
    Ben's hand curled over hers. "You tell a good story, Polly."
    She could read the skeptical slant of his brows. "You don't believe me?"
    "The stage line
does
go through the mining camps." He took the reins from her.
    "It's true, can't you see that, Pa?" Emily took the pan Polly offered her and stared at it as if it were gold itself. "I bet we can strike it rich, Polly."
    "We might as well give it a good try."
    Ben's hand caught hers. "I want you to stay in my sight."
    "Afraid I'll take off for the hills?"
    "No, bears live in these woods."
    She didn't believe him. He led the horses away to water them. He watched her every step as she joined Emily at the creek bank. She felt his gaze like a long hot touch on her face and then on her body as she took off her shoes, waded into the creek and helped Emily pick a spot to pan.
    Whenever she looked up, there he was, his gaze unblinking, his attention on her. When the horses were watered, he tethered them in the sunshine where they could graze and drowse. The lazy breeze carried his low voice as he spoke with the animals.
    Although she seemed to have her own personal sheriff watching her every move, jail was not a better choice. Polly vowed to remember that. The blue sky stretched overhead, and tall trees spread their leaves toward the sun. Birds sang and insects buzzed. A toad plopped a few feet along the bank to follow the sunshine. The wind tousled her hair and she breathed in the fresh woodsy scent of the forest. The creek gurgled over rocks and brushed cool water against her ankles. No stone cell could feed her heart like this.
    With the sunlight on her face, she knelt beside Emily.
    "I don't have nothin' but rocks." The girl swiped at her bangs. "So far this pan ain't very lucky."
    "Sure it is." Polly took the pan, cool from the stream, and held it to her chest. "Let's pick another spot. How about over there? See how the water slows down around that bend? It's a better spot."
    They sloshed together against the current, scaring little tadpoles and tiny fish. A bird landed on a rock and squawked in protest, then took off for a quieter perch. She spotted Ben on the bank, shoulder propped against a tree, still watching her.
    She shaded her eyes with her hand, dripping water onto her shirt. "You're still mad about the kitchen fire."
    "I'm not mad." His mouth quirked in the corner.
    "He's mad," Emily whispered.
    "If you'd set my house on fire, I'd be more than a little mad." Polly flicked water off her fingertips, then shaded her eyes again just in time to watch that hard line at his jaw soften. "You could have done a lot more than yell. I guess you'll just hold it against me for the rest of my life."
    "That's not what I'm holding against you."
    "Hmm." He didn't look mad, but he felt distant. "You don't want me teaching your daughter to pan for gold."
    "Next thing you know, she'll refuse to go to school and head off into the gold fields to file a claim."
    "Oh, Pa." Emily leaped out of the creek and grabbed him by the hand. "I wouldn't leave without you."
    "You like the idea of owning a gold mine, is that it?" Ben's eyes warmed, and there was no hiding the love he had for his daughter.
    What would it be like to know love like that? The emptiness of her childhood stretched behind her, vast and dark. She'd grown up thinking that's all there was in life, but now, watching Emily pull her reluctant father toward the creek, she saw something else.
    The stories her mother had told her were true. There
was
a magical place where little girls were more valued than gold. It wasn't just in those stories Mother read at night, but here in Montana Territory where fathers protected their daughters and took the time to play with them in the creek.
    Emily came up with nothing but gravel again. Father and daughter grumbled about their failure together.
    "It was just a story," Ben said. "This pan is exactly like every other."
    "That's what you think." So, Ben couldn't see the magic. He'd probably grown up like this, with a safe childhood and a comfortable home and endless stability. But she hadn't, and she could see what he did not.
    She wrestled the pan out of his hands and worked it into the creek bed. She went by feel, by heart.
    When she hefted it from the water a good twenty minutes later, there were two small nuggets winking in the sunlit water in the bottom of the pan.

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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