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Authors: Maclain's Wife

Jillian Hart (7 page)

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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    From his back steps, Ben watched the sun slide behind the Garnet Range, the rugged mountains glowing dark purple as the great ball of light disappeared. The day was over, this first day with Polly in their lives.
    He'd felt watched all afternoon, but there'd been no sign of trouble. The loaded Colt was still unsnapped in his holster, loaded and ready if he needed it.
    He hadn't imagined the trouble. His intuition had saved his life more times than he could count. It wouldn't fail him now. The feeling had eased, but he remained alert. The sounds of night came with the setting sun. He could hear Polly's voice in the kitchen behind him, playing checkers with Emily. One last game, the girl pleaded.
    What should he do about the pretty little gunslinger? He'd made a mistake, that was for sure. He didn't know how much he could trust a gunfighter, but he figured she would at least be able to cook.
    Most of all, he'd gambled that she might want to leave her old life behind.
    Hell, that wasn't what was bothering him. It had been a tough three years for them, especially for Emily.
    He just wanted to make everything right. To give her a mother who would love her. A woman to take care of her. A legal parent in case the past ever caught up with him.
    "Pa, Polly's gonna read me a bedtime story. Do you wanna come, too?"
    "Sure, pumpkin." He wouldn't miss it for anything. He'd tucked Emily safely into bed every night since she was born.
    Polly stood when he entered the room, and put away the last of the checker pieces. She looked at him with wide eyes, as if she expected him to send her back to jail at any moment.
    "You took off your gun belt, Sheriff." She quirked one lean brow. "I can't believe you trust me that much."
    "I don't. I can take you in, with or without a gun." He winked.
    "We'll have to see about that." She brushed past him, leaving a scent of sunshine and spice.
    His pulse kicked at the sight of those worn Levi's hugging her hips and the curve of her bottom like a lover's hand. He followed her up the stairs with his daughter at his side. He tried to remember she was wanted by the law. She was here by the power of his threats and not by her choice. But it didn't matter. His blood heated, and he fought to look everywhere but at Polly. 
    He failed.
    Emily's room was cozy, with a lamp lit on the bedside table.
    "Polly, I wanna hear this story." Emily held out her favorite magazine. The cherished story had been read and reread so many times, the paper was worn around the edges.
    Polly paled, and her gaze flew to him. Ben felt a hard clutch in his guts. She was going to refuse. She was going to break one of Pauline's promises to Emily.
    He stepped forward, ready to protect his daughter from yet another woman's rejection. "I'll–"
    "I'd love to read to you," Polly interrupted, and that whiskey smooth voice of hers had his skin tingling. "I truly would. But you know what? I would rather tell you my favorite story. One my own mother used to tell me when I was your age. Would that be all right?"
    He waited, the fight draining out of him.
    Emily hopped onto her bed, laid back and pulled up the flowered sheet to her waist. Expectation sparkled in her eyes, and she looked so happy. He'd never seen her so happy.
    "Once upon a time in a land far away. . . "
    Polly's voice turned dreamy and mesmerizing, but it wasn't the story Ben listened to. It was Polly–the woman, who'd surprised him more in one day than anyone had in a long time.
    He'd expected the worst from her. He'd learned to expect that from people. But she'd proven she was as good as her word. So he listened to the rise and fall of her voice. She could change a simple fairytale he'd told Emily a thousand times into something magical. He saw the goodness inside her.
    It was a goodness of heart that no bounty hunter could keep for long.
    Ben had to wonder now if he'd proposed to Polly for Emily or for himself–for the young man he used to be before a hard world stripped his heart bare.
    He was glad that hadn't yet happened to Polly Brown.

Chapter Seven

    Polly gazed down from her window. Night enveloped the town. Every evening for a week Ben had his deputy drive her to the hotel. Every evening for a week she'd told stories to Emily, dodging the written tales the girl wanted her to read instead.
    Every day neither Ben nor Emily had let her cook anything. Martha was very happy her business hadn't fallen off because of Ben's new bride.
    But every night Ben or his deputy kept watch on her hotel, keeping her a prisoner without bars.
    She headed down to the hotel's lobby, where the owner looked up from his paperwork and greeted her with a welcoming hello.
    "Nice night out. The kitchen's still open if you need a cup of tea, Miss Curtis."
    "I'll keep that in mind, Mr. Mitchell." Polly laid her hand over her pocket, the ever-present gun tucked away there. She kept it unloaded when she was around Emily, but here, at night, she wanted the safety of her old friend.
    "My missus wanted me to ask you when the wedding is."
    "The wedding?" Then she blushed. "We haven't set a date yet."
    "See that you do. Ben's a good man. He's kept this town free of outlaws and troublemakers, and in this part of the Territory that's a tough feat."
    The kindly old man gave her a wink, then returned to his work. He had no notion that a notorious outlaw's daughter was standing right in front of him.
    She adjusted the brim of her bonnet and headed out into the night. Cool air met her, not cold yet, but the first real hint that autumn was on its way. The night felt solemn; the streets were nearly empty. Polly crossed through the dust and strolled along the vacant boardwalk. Her shoes tapped pleasantly in the darkness. The faint sound of piano music rose on the night breeze, bringing with it the soothing scent of cheap draft.
    "Howdy, Ben." She strolled past him, knowing she'd surprised the heck out of him.
    The shadows moved. '"How did you know I was here?"
    "You aren't as stealthy as you think." Polly kept walking. Sure enough, he caught up with her, his boots falling into a deeper rhythm alongside hers. It was strange to be alone with him, without Emily nearby. "Where's your daughter?"
    "My deputy's wife sleeps over when I need to work nights."
    "Too bad for your deputy."
    "He's working, too."
    The snappy refrain of a familiar barroom ditty rang in the air. She elbowed open one batwing door. "You might as well come in and have a drink with me, since you're bound by duty to follow every step I take."
    "I'm not following you. I'm protecting you."
    How deep his voice, rumbling and sexy. She shivered, and then she realized inviting Ben to spend time with her was a bad idea. She may have accepted his domestic offer, but that didn't mean she liked it.
    "Protecting me? You're the man who threw me in jail, MacLain." She stepped inside, leaving him to catch the door as it slapped toward his chest.
    The busy sounds of the saloon felt like home. The sharp jangle of glass, the din of men arguing and gambling, the tinny tunes of the piano rising above it all, cheerful and friendly. She could practically taste the beer that scented the air.
    "After I saw you with Emily, I knew what I did was right." Ben tugged out a chair and dropped into it.
    She looked at him a moment, then chose another table. "I like to face the door."
    "I should have known." Ben stood, resigned, just as a scantily clad woman sauntered near, bending over to take his order and show him an exceptional amount of cleavage.
    To his credit, Ben turned pink from his chin to his hairline. He muttered something, his strong sheriffs demeanor belying the blush on his face. He placed an order and Polly watched, amused. He acted like a man unbowed by anything.
    Except the blush still stained his face.
    "Did she make you an offer? Maybe you might want to consider blackmailing her with jail." Polly reached into her reticule and pulled out a packet of thin papers. She spread them out on the small table's sticky surface.
    "You smoke?"
    "Now and then. I practically grew up in saloons. When my father wasn't working, he spent his time drinking and gambling." Polly tapped fragrant tobacco out of its pouch. "Those memories aren't the best, but they are the best ones I have. Sometimes one of the working girls would take pity on me and make sure I was fed and had a safe place to sleep. One even taught me how to play the piano."
    "You play?"
    "It's been a long time, but yes." She tucked the pouch back into her reticule and rolled the cigarettes with the tips of her fingers. She handed Ben one.
    "What did your father do?" Ben's fingers brushed hers as he took the cigarette. "Something tells me he wasn't a bartender."
    "You know he was an outlaw." Polly struck a match. "Roy Brown, leader of the notorious Brown gang."
    Ben's jaw tensed. "The man wanted in six territories?"
    Polly blew a ring of smoke. "He's a tough man. I ran away from him when I was sixteen. I'd been trying for years, but it was the first time I succeeded."
    Ben's face shadowed. He lit his cigarette and wouldn't look at her. "Roy Brown's daughter."
    "I thought you knew, since you had that wanted poster in hand."
    But he hadn't known, she guessed, and now it changed how he looked at her. She'd gone from beautiful belle to bounty hunter to being a vicious outlaw's offspring. Ben's opinion of her must be so low it was slithering below ground.
    The saloon girl swirled by with two drinks on a tray. She leaned over Ben and batted her eyes, offering more than just the draft
    Polly looked at the glass. "What the heck is this?"
    "Sarsaparilla." Ben was blushing again.
    "Bring me a beer."
    "You're my fiancée. I don't want you drinking spirits. You're an upstanding lady." Ben's gaze pleaded with her.
    She stared hard at the soft drink. "Bring me a good draft."
    The serving woman shrugged, snatched up the glass, and sauntered away with a generous sway of her hips. Ben didn't look, but he was still blushing.
    "I've tried hard to be what you want. I've put up with you watching my every move and always expecting the worst. I've worn dresses and played with your daughter and tried to be presentable enough."
    "You don't like playing with Emily?" He challenged, suddenly hard as rock.
    "That's not what I said." She thanked the waitress for the beer and took a sip. The malty brew smoothed over her tongue and reminded her of better days. "I like Emily. I really–" She stopped before she said words better left unsaid. "I might as well be in jail. If you aren't following me everywhere, then one of your deputies is."
    "With good reason."
    "You think I'm going to break my word. Because I'm wanted by the law–" she lowered her voice. "You think Roy Brown's daughter can't be trusted."
    "That's not what I said."
    "I'll have you know every penny I've ever put in my pocket has been earned, not stolen. I hated what my father did and how he hurt people." She shuddered, remembering. "I lived under his rule for the first sixteen years of my life, and I won't live like that again."
    "Your father isn't here, Polly."
    "No, but you are." She took a puff on her cigarette, taking pleasure in blowing another smoke ring. It was the real reason she smoked, the relaxation and concentration it took to make one perfect circle after another. "Now it's your choice. You either lock me back up in your horrid jail, or you trust me to keep Pauline's promise to Emily."
    "You're right. I thought you were going to leave–at first." Ben set down his glass and stared hard into the foaming beer. "It's hard, but I can admit when I'm wrong. I knew it the moment I saw you teaching Emily how to pan for gold in the creek. You were patient with her and you gave her something she hasn't had since her mother died."
    "What?"
    "Dreams." It was all he could do to keep his hands wrapped around the cool glass. He wanted to brush at those flyaway curls always falling in her face, untamed and unruly and as sexy as sin. "It's like a light has gone on in her world."
    "And you're afraid I'm going to leave and take that with me."
    "No. I'm afraid someone is going to hurt you." Ben tapped ashes from his cigarette. "Tell me why you're carrying a loaded gun."
    "Because it's nighttime and a woman alone isn't safe on the streets."
    "You knew I was watching you. You weren't alone."
    She blew another smoke ring, her luscious lips curling like an open-mouthed kiss.
    Desire thundered through him. Hard and hot and heavy. He didn't want to feel this way. He didn't want to love any woman, not again. He stared hard at his beer, at the table, at her hands stubbing out the cigarette. Strong, finely made hands that would know how to touch a man, how to give pleasure.
    He took another drink. "You never take that gun out of your pocket."
    "I keep it unloaded around Emily. You're right. A loaded gun shouldn't be near a child." She bit her lip. "Do you think Dixon will be back?"
    "I think it's a possibility." Ben turned when he heard the door swing open. He didn't like having his back to the door either. "Maybe he'll heed my warning and stay away, but I have a bad feeling about it."
    "So do I." Her chin shot up, trying to look as tough as nails. "I can take care of myself."
    "Polly, it's too late. I've already seen your defenses down." He laid his hand on hers, and his pulse jolted at the contact. "I'm not going to fault you for your soft heart, Polly. Or the fear in your eyes. Everyone gets afraid, whether they show it or not."
    "I'd rather not show it." Her set chin, her unflinching gaze, and her tensed stance all said she was a woman able to take care of herself.
    But the satin ribbon edging her collar was blue, the same shade as her eyes, and it was hard not to notice the dark fringe of lashes above those eyes, and the delicate cut of high cheekbones and a sensual mouth. Her lips narrowed into a compressed line, but it took no imagination at all to see the vulnerability there.
    A vulnerability that touched him, even when he didn't want it to. "I gave you my word, and I mean it I'll protect you."
    She didn't believe it. It was there in the dip of her chin and the wince around those forever-blue eyes. She wasn't used to trusting people. She wasn't used to trusting a man. Well, she would learn in time.
    He took a final swig of his beer. "We haven't set a wedding date yet."
    She stood, tossing down a silver piece on the table. "I won't marry you."
    "You said–"
    "I don't care what I said. You're treating me like a criminal and it's over, MacLain. I won't be afraid of you anymore." She rushed past him, nearly tripping when her hem wrapped around one ankle.
    He left enough coins for the beer and a tip and strode after her. "Polly, I don't want to frighten you."
    "You can send me to jail any time you want."
    "Have I threatened you with that lately? Since that day at the creek?" He caught up with her as she tripped again on her dress.
    "But the threat is there." She lifted the hem up with both hands and charged across the road. "It's you I have a problem with, not our arrangement. I
want
to take care of Emily. I
want
to have a safe bed to sleep in every night. But if I wanted to be watched and judged every time I take a breath, I could have let my father find me–"
    "Find you?"
    "I mean–Oh, heck." She pointed at the hotel's second-story window where a single light glowed against closed curtains. "I didn't leave a lamp burning when I left my room."
    Could be Dixon. Could be just a thief. Either way, Ben didn't like either in his town, much less in his fiancée's room. He loped down the boardwalk just ahead of Polly, who was sprinting like a true champion. He shouldered open the back door and tore up the stairs.
    "I'll take the front," she called out.
    "Wait–"
    She was already gone. Damn. He should have seen that one coming, but he was preoccupied. Polly's words tonight had confused him. He hadn't realized how she'd seen events. And even then–
    Geez, she was Roy Brown's daughter, an outlaw who'd been caught but never imprisoned for long. He'd killed nearly a dozen lawmen over the course of his career, and more victims than anyone could count. He was believed to be responsible for the theft of nearly half a million dollars over his twenty-year career.
    He was also a man Ben used to ride with.
    Sick to his stomach, he charged down the hall and hoped to high heaven whoever was in Polly's room wasn't a member of the Brown gang. Her door was cracked open and he kicked it wide, both revolvers already in his hands.
    The room was empty. A lamp with its wick turned low flickered on the bedside table and cast enough light to see that the trunks on the floor had been thrown open. Various articles of clothing littered the floor. The bureau's drawers gaped wide.
    Polly. If the intruder had escaped down the front stairs, she would be alone with him. Ben wheeled around and raced down the hallway, hoping he wasn't too late.
    He barreled down the stairs, but saw no sign of her. The banker and his wife were emerging from the dining room and were putting on their coats, discussing the lovely tea they'd had. Mr. Mitchell never looked up from his paperwork.
    Ben tore out the front doors onto the empty street.
    There was no sign of her. Anywhere.

BOOK: Jillian Hart
12.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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