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Authors: Maclain's Wife

Jillian Hart (8 page)

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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    The darn skirt wrapped around her ankles again and she tripped. She fought for her balance, but she fell fast and hit the ground hard. Rocks dug into her skin. Pain shot through her leg and arm. She heard the fast tap of a man running down the road. That sound faded.
    She'd lost him.
    When she'd seen a man running out of the hotel, she'd taken off after him. If only she'd been able to see his face. Whoever he was, he was a good runner.
    She hauled herself off the ground, wincing at the pain in her arm. Her leg stung something fierce, but it was nothing serious. She hauled the gun out of her pocket, thankful it was loaded. She would have tried to shoot her assailant, but she didn't have the time to stop and aim.
    Now it was too late. He'd escaped anyway, and she didn't know who he was. But she did know who he wasn't. He wasn't any of her father's men. They wouldn't have run away from her–they would have taken her with them.
    She limped toward town, keeping an eye on the road behind her. She was alone, and the man she'd chased didn't return. When she saw the lights of town, relief washed over her. She was starting to get used to this place, it was going to be her home from now on. Home. That gave her a good feeling. She'd always wanted a place to settle down.
    The drum of horses startled her. They galloped hard down the road. She slipped out of sight and crouched in the shadows, heart pounding. But her gaze riveted on one of the approaching riders. She would recognize those broad shoulders anywhere.
    She jumped to her feet. "Ben."
    The gelding reared to a surprised stop.
    "Polly! I thought–" Ben looked down the road, then at the riders behind him. "I thought you'd been kidnapped."
    "I was trying to chase him down, but I tripped." She ambled up to his horse. "I'm not used to running in a dress. That's why he got away."
    "I thought I'd never see you again–that nobody would." He dismounted with one powerful motion. This man as strong as the night stole her breath away when he wrapped her tight in his arms.
    She'd never thought being held by a man would feel so wonderful, but it did. She didn't move away. She let his arms settle around her shoulders and his hands burn hot against her back. She nestled her face against the crook between the curve of his shoulder and the column of his neck.
    "I'm glad you're safe," his voice buzzed against her ear, pleasant and hot and magnificent.
    He smelled like soap and leather and man, and his chest felt as hard as it looked. His heat burned through the dark shirt and she soaked it in, like the comfort he was giving her. Safe and solid, she held onto him tight.
    His lips brushed the top of her head. "Let's get you back to the hotel."
    She nodded. She couldn't think of a single argument. All she wanted to do was be held like this forever–to be safe and protected against Ben's solid chest

    "You didn't see his face. Are you sure?"
    Polly nodded as she shook the wrinkles out of another fallen gown. She knelt on the carpeted floor, the hotel room mostly dark except for the lone lamp. Low flames caressed her face, highlighting the temper in her eyes. "For the sixth time, that's what I said."
    "You have a past you want to leave behind, I understand that, but you must tell me the truth–"
    "You don't understand a thing." Polly laid the dress carefully in the trunk, then plucked another off the heap on the floor. "You're a hard-nosed, do-gooder who has never had a hungry belly or ever been forced into a life that made you ashamed."
    "Don't be too sure."
    "You live in the most beautiful house I've ever seen." She flicked the dress hard. "You have a good job and respect from the people in this town. What do you know about my life?"
    "I know there's a bounty on your head and a man who wants you dead."
    "That's not all that I am."
    "I know." His chest tightened and he couldn't look away from the woman on the floor, who was the biggest paradox he'd ever met. "I know that when you tell Emily a story, she looks more like the little girl she was before her mother died. That's what I know about you."
    Polly held onto the remnants of her anger stubbornly, her jaw tightly clenched. "Do you really think that? Or are you just trying to get me to drop my defenses so you can interrogate me again?"
    "Do you ever drop your defenses?"
    "Not for you." She smoothed the gown's collar before setting it inside the trunk. "If it weren't for you, I'd be trying to track that thief right now instead of worrying whether or not he'll come back."
    "I sent my deputies out to do the job. Halston is one of the best trackers in these parts." Ben didn't tell her about the fear that had been cold in his mouth when he'd gathered up his men, rousting some from their beds, and ordered a search for his fiancée. He hadn't told anyone Polly was Roy Brown's daughter.
   
Hell, Roy Brown's daughter
. He scrubbed his hands over his face. "Was anything stolen?"
    "Just a piece of jewelry and some money from the bureau drawer. About ten bucks." Polly plucked up another garment, folded it, then set it in the trunk. "I don't think he was looking to take anything."
    "He was looking for something."
    "Maybe he was looking for me." She kept folding as if nothing were wrong, but he could see the lines of tension around her mouth and eyes. "Normally I just move on, and that takes care of the situation."
    "You get men following you around regularly?"
    She nodded. "Of course, I thought that sort of thing might stop if I looked like a respectable lady. Maybe it's just the way some men are. They see a woman alone and they figure they can be as bold as they want."
    "Or as sneaky?"
    She swallowed, and her hand slid to her skirt pocket. Her fingers brushed at the gun through the fabric, and he wondered how many times she'd had to save herself because she had no one else to protect her.
    "Maybe this was about Dixon. Or about the price on your head." Ben stepped toward her. "Your wanted poster hasn't been out long. A week or so. It was still in the top pile on my desk. That's how I happened to see it the day you came to town."
    Polly clasped the trunk shut. "I don't know who would recognize me. I kept low and avoided towns, except for having to take the stage. I miss my horse."
    She stood, her dress cascading around her thighs and hips until he couldn't look away. She ambled to the window and stood just to the side of it, gazing out at the night. The late summer breezes puffed out the white curtains, and she pulled them aside.
    "It's Dixon, I think. He might have been watching the hotel." She leaned her forehead against the glass, and her hair billowed in the breeze. She looked tired. She seemed weary.
    He ached for her. He didn't want to. Tonight, he'd held a woman for the first time since his wife's death. It had felt good, too good. He took a shaky breath. He wanted to be alone the rest of his life. His love with Neesa was as good as life got. A man didn't get another chance like that
    "Maybe he was watching from the street and saw my light go out. I went out the front he could have started up the back. I don't have anything anyone would want."
    "You have the Golden Gulch gold."
    "You know I don't."
    "Others might believe it." He laid a hand on her shoulder. She felt as hot as the summer night and as mysterious as the breeze tangling her long, molasses curls. He wanted to know more about her. And he was afraid to. "That's why you're coming home with me tonight."
    "What?"
    "So I know you're safe."
    "You have that wrong, mister." She whirled on him, jaw set, eyes afire, all fight. "I'm not your wife yet"
    "But you will be. You gave me your word. And until then, I've got to keep my promise, don't I? I have to keep you safe, just like I said."
    "Or they will be no mother for Emily."
    "No." His heart knocked against his chest. "Or I'll never have your trust."
    "I told you. How can I trust you? You're holding my life in your hands."
    He leaned forward. He couldn't help himself. Every inch of his body pounded with a growing lust that he couldn't control. And lust was safe. Lust was good. It was a far cry from love, and that was just fine. Lust would never involve his heart. He never wanted to care so much for a woman again.
    "You're going to kiss me, aren't you?" Polly licked her lips, her gaze nervously darting past his shoulder to the door at the other end of the room. "I don't want to be kissed by you."
    "Too bad. I want to kiss you." He leaned so close their breaths mingled.
    "That isn't a good way to earn my trust."
    "Then maybe I'll earn your lust." He couldn't help teasing because Polly, for all her soft edges and kind heart, was a woman who knew how the world worked.
    He splayed his hand around her throat and covered her mouth with his.

Chapter Eight

    The brush of his lips to hers was sweeter than anything Polly had ever known before. His mouth felt as soft as crushed velvet and tasted smoky, like a hot fire. A hint of cinnamon and apple still clung to him, and she gave a little gasp as he moved away.
    His eyes were dark like dreams, his mouth still shaped by their kiss. A day's growth darkened the bronze of his skin along his jaw, and she wanted to touch him there. She wanted to know the feel of his hot skin and rough whiskers.
    His lips covered hers again–all heat and demand and want. His mouth caressed hers and left tingling pleasure everywhere he touched. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him back. Their lips fit together and moved apart in slow, breath-stopping caresses that left her weak and wanting more.
    His teeth caught her lower lip and drew it into his mouth. He sucked gently, and she sighed. She had no idea kissing could feel so good. It made her breath quicken and her pulse surge. She caught his bottom lip between her teeth and sucked. His fingers curled around her nape and cradled her head. His breath came fast and harsh.
    Then he broke away. Her mouth longed for him, but he took a step back. His eyes were dark with desire for her, and she felt as skittish as a green colt. But she wasn't afraid. She wanted more. Her lips buzzed, and she felt exhilarated. The night breeze fluttered between them and cooled the surface of her mouth.
    How could a man's touch feel so good, his kiss so grand?
    "Will you let me take a look at those cuts now?" He brushed one hand down the length of her forearm.
    She shivered at his touch. "I told you, I'm fine."
    "I want to see for myself." His fingers kept traveling all the way down to her wrist where he turned her arm over to look at the scrapes. "Doesn't look like you need stitches, but I could call the doctor–"
    "No doctor." She pulled back her hand with regret. A part of her ached for someone to care for her–truly care. And yet the sensible part of her knew it was never going to happen.
    She stepped away and closed the window, drew the drapes. Every movement took her further away from him emotionally, and that was good. "Look, I've got to get some sleep. I plan on a rematch with your stove tomorrow, and–"
    "Oh, no. No cooking. That's one duty I'm never going to ask of you again." He grabbed her cloak from the peg by the door. "Put this on. You're coming home with me."
    "Now?"
    He folded his arms over his chest and looked about as easy to conquer as the Continental Divide. "Right now. There's been a threat against you–"
    "I can handle it." She yanked the gun out of her pocket and tossed it on the bed.
    "Can you? If Dixon's back, then he's brought help–"
    "If it was Dixon, he wouldn't have run." Polly tugged her gun belt out from beneath the bed and unsnapped her second revolver. "I'm not afraid."
    "You look afraid to me."
    "This is my life, MacLain. This is the way I've lived since my mother died. It isn't safe and it isn't secure, but it's all I have."
    "Not anymore. You have me." He hefted a trunk up onto his shoulder. "And you don't have a lock on this door."
    "I can fix it–"
    "No. You're going to be where I can keep you safe." He caught the edge of the door with his boot and wedged it open. "You don't have a say in this."
    "We'll see about that." Polly buckled her belt around her hips, despite the dress's bustle. "Bring that trunk back here. I'm going to request another room."
    He faced her. When she expected anger, she saw strength. The kind that wasn't driven by the weakness of fury, but by the solid steadiness of his honor. "There will be no more hotel rooms and no more men thinking you're an easy target. Isn't that what you want?"
    She hesitated. Why was it so hard to accept his help? Why couldn't she just demurely agree with him and do as he asked?
    Because she knew no man was that honorable. In the end, the only person she could really depend on was herself.
    And it was easier, in the long run, to not depend on anyone at all. No disappointments. No broken heart. No hurt.
    "Besides, if anyone's going to try to bring you in for that bounty on your head," he winked, "it might as well be me."
    "See, I knew you just wanted to keep track of me. You're a lawman through and through. The power's gone to your head."
    "Believe me, it would be easier to turn you in for the bounty." He stepped out into the hallway. "My kitchen is never going to be the same."
    Oh, he thought he was charming when he teased. But beneath the glimmer of humor snapping in his eyes and the charming slant of his grin, she saw the steady worry he did not give voice to. He'd truly been afraid for her tonight. She remembered how hard he'd held her and how true his kiss. She found a way to step out into the hall, lift her chin, and say the unthinkable. "I'll go home with you, MacLain."
    "I'm glad. I won't sleep until I know you're safe."
    It wasn't as hard to follow him the rest of the way down the stairs and out into the dark.

    A bounce on the mattress next to her rousted Polly awake. She opened her eyes to the first rays of sunlight and Emily crouching over her. "Pa says you're gonna stay with us forever and forever."
    "That's what he says, huh?" She crawled up onto her elbows.
    "What's in all those trunks? Can I see?"
    "Sure." Polly tossed off the sheet and stood. Her nightgown shivered down around her ankles and she stretched. Her hand was scraped and her left leg was stiff where she'd fallen on it but other than that, she felt in good spirits.
    It was nice waking up in a real bed in a real home. Sunshine glinted through the only window, and she stepped into its light. Through the boughs of a pine, she could see the rugged peaks of the Rockies, dusted pink and purple with the new day's glow.
    "Real silk!" Emily's delight shimmered in the sweet morning air. "Are these real pearls?"
    The girl knelt on the floor before one of the trunks. She swept one timid hand across the bodice of a beautiful pink gown. Polly knelt down beside her and rubbed her thumb over the satin smooth gems that marched down the front of the dress. She didn't know if it was real pearl or not. "Would you like to try it on?"
    "Can I?"
    Polly reached in and lifted out the gown. The dark pink fabric caught the light and shimmered. Emily tugged her calico dress over her head and got stuck.
    "Unbutton first." Polly caught hold of the inside-out button and pushed it through, freeing the girl. "Dresses are tricky with all those clasps and bows. That's why I like my trousers. Here." She held up the beautiful satin. "Step into it and I'll button you in."
    "Listen. It rustles." Emily's eyes shone.
    Warmth tugged at her heart. Polly lifted the dress by the shoulders and helped her find the armholes.
    "Do I look like a princess?"
    "You're just as pretty as one." The buttons were smooth beneath her fingertips. "There. Let me look at you."
    The dress was far too big, but the color was stunning. Emily's face was still round and soft, but time would bring out cheekbones and the sleek line of her jaw. She had a pixie's face and a darling's heart.
    Polly's throat ached, and she unclasped the lid of the second trunk. "You need a hat. Help me pick one out."
    "Look at all the bonnets!" Emily dug through a pile of them with great enthusiasm. She chose a beautiful straw bonnet with a sprig of flowers and satin ribbons on the brim that exactly matched the dress.
    "Perfect choice." Polly set the too-big hat on Emily's head and caught the ribbons into a bow beneath her chin. It wasn't a big, fat poofy bow, the kind most ladies knew how to make, and Polly regretted that. "Go ahead and keep digging. There are some necklaces in there."
    "Goody." Emily dropped to her knees and continued her search. "What's in the other trunk?"
    "I don't know. I haven't opened it. The clasp broke, and I never–"
    "You don't know what's in there?" Emily shook her head, as if adults were very silly indeed. "Pa's real good at fixin' things."
    "So am I." Polly grabbed her reticule, dug around inside and pulled out her pocketknife.
    "You gotta knife?"
    "Yep. And I know how to use it, too." Polly chose a blade.
    "It looks real sharp."
    "It is. I sharpened it myself." She hunkered down in front of the trunk.
    "I'd better go get Pa."
    "Look, I've almost got it." Polly wedged the tip of the blade beneath the bent metal and pushed. The strip of metal began to uncrumple. She forced it back into place, then easily opened the clasp.
    Emily stared at her with rounded eyes.
    "You thought I was going to cause another disaster, didn't you?" Polly clicked the blade safely into place.
    "A lady has to have a lot of skills. She shouldn't depend on a man for everything."
    A man's step sounded behind her. "Is that so?"
    His voice rumbled through her, as intimate and sensual as last night's kiss, and Polly shivered. She tossed her pocketknife onto the bed. "I know I'm going to regret letting you move me in here."
    "Why? You're going to marry me in a few days–"
    "A few days?" She planted her hands on her hips.
    "Sure. By then you'll see that I'm right and we can just get it over with."
    "So, that's how you see marriage?"
    "Well, yes." He winked, obviously thinking he was much more charming than he really was. "Marriage or jail, what's the difference."
    Polly shook her head. "You're not one bit funny."
    "Pa." Emily dashed up to him, holding her dress high above her knees so she wouldn't trip. "You gotta stop arguin' with Polly or she'll go away."
    "Polly isn't going anywhere." Ben's eyes shadowed and he knelt down to wrap his daughter in a gentle hug. "Look how beautiful you are. Polly's letting you try on some of her dresses."
    "Yep, and look what I found." Quickly comforted, she darted away. "Books."
    "
What
?" Polly spun around to stare at what lay inside the third trunk. Her heart dropped to the floor. Goodness, it couldn't be. It just couldn't–"
    "Lots and lots of books!" Emily dropped to her knees with a thud, the dresses, hats and accessories forgotten as she pulled out one leatherbound volume after another. "I love stories. As soon as I start first grade, I'm gonna learn how to read real good."
    Ben strolled in, interested now. His eyes brightened at the leatherbound volumes accumulating in great piles on the floor. "No wonder that darn trunk was so heavy."
    "You said in your letters you were gonna bring me lots of books. You promised to read me to sleep every night" Emily gazed up at her as if she were a queen. "You didn't forget."
    Polly's heart sank. So much hope burned in Emily's eyes, so much longing for a mother's care. How could she keep her vow to Ben? How could she tell Emily that she couldn't read? That she wasn't the fancy lady Emily had wanted–she was just plain Polly Brown.
    "I don't know about you two beauties, but I'm hungry." Ben balanced one book in his palm, but his eyes were traveling down the front of her nightgown.
    Polly blushed. "Let me get dressed, and then I'll be right down."

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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