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Jillian Hart (9 page)

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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    Ben spied Polly slipping into the kitchen. He couldn't help noticing the way her slim hips swayed beneath the cascade of pink gingham that draped her from collar to ankle. The memory of their kiss burned across his lips, and his blood heated at the thought of kissing more than her sensuous mouth.
    "I have the buggy hitched and ready to go." He leaned against the doorway just to watch the skirts swish against her legs.
    "I thought we might eat at home this morning." She tilted her head to watch his reaction.
    "I'm not ready to risk burning down my house."
    "It was a one-time mistake." Her pearled teeth bit into her bottom lip. "I know you could have lost your house–"
    "You're a bounty hunter, not a cook. I've accepted that." And he had. He wasn't happy about it, but they would figure something out. Maybe Martha would agree to teach Polly a few cooking skills. Either way, he wasn't going to risk another fire. "Step away from the stove, Polly."
    "No. I've got to face my new enemy. It's a matter of attitude. I know I can convince it to back down and behave." She tossed a grin at him.
    His knees buckled at the dazzling sight. "The stove isn't trying to thwart your every step."
    "How do you know?" Her eyes twinkled. "Maybe this Family Sunshine range has decided it doesn't want to share the kitchen with me. I've got to show it who's boss."
    "
I'm
the boss, and I say let's go into town to eat."
    "You have little faith in me."
    "You burned down my kitchen. Not to mention what you did to my laundry."
    "What did I do?"
    "Have you taken a good look at this shirt? It's gray."
    She squinted at it, stepping closer and–thank heavens–away from the stove. "It's a lovely shade of gray."
    "It's supposed to be white."
    "Oops." She shrugged. "I've never done laundry–"
    "Before?"
    "On a washboard with all those detergents and bluing and laundry stoves and things."
    "Sure. I believe you." Ben was just grateful she hadn't caught the shirt on fire when she'd tried to wash it. "Oh, no you don't. Don't you dare head back to that stove."
    He caught her by the arm, and she laughed. He tugged, and she whirled into his arms and against his chest. Breathless, she gazed up at him and in the space of a breath he longed to kiss her. He leaned forward–
    "Pa? Polly ain't gonna cook, is she?"
    "I was just trying to talk her out of it." Ben tried to put a damper on his frustration level. He ached for the feel of Polly's lips to his.
    A knock sounded at the front door. He released her, hating to let her out of his grip. "When I come back, I want both of you in the buggy."
    Polly merely tossed him a smile, and he had a bad feeling when he marched out of the room.
    He recognized the gray roan through the window and tossed open the door. "Woody. Any news on those tracks?"
    "We lost them a few miles east of town." The deputy swept off his hat and worked at the brim with his free hand. "I think I caught another set of tracks heading back through the forest. I think he's doubled back to town."
    "Then we start a search. I want him in my jail by nightfall." He wanted Polly safe–and her identity. He intended to keep his vow to his bride-to-be, but he had reasons of his own for wanting her past buried. "I'm about ready to head to town. I'll grab a bite at the diner on the way to the jailhouse."
    Woody tipped his hat and mounted up. Ben turned around, smelled smoke, and ran.

    The Family Sunshine stove puffed smoke when a gust of wind drove down the stovepipe. The lids rattled. The oven belched. Determined, Polly set the brand-new fry pan she'd bought on the stovetop. This time, the lard took a while to melt
    Good. At least she didn't have the blasted contraption too hot.
    "Pa's gonna be real mad if you set the kitchen on fire again."
    Polly gazed down into Emily's grave eyes, full of doubt at her cooking abilities. "Hand me the bowl."
    "I don't think you oughta do this."
    "Trust me." Polly dropped the slices of ham into the frying pan and waited.
    Nothing caught fire. The melted lard hardly even sizzled.
   
So far, so good.
    Trying to push away the memories of the day when everything had exploded into flame, Polly thanked Emily for the bowl of eggs and set them on the counter. She took one cool egg in her shaking hand and cracked it on the side of the skillet. She dropped it neatly into the pan and then broke another, and another. Finally, she had them all sizzling slow and happily on the heat.
    She grabbed the platter with one hand and held the spatula in the other. As soon as the edges of the whites crisped, she flipped it. She cracked open another egg. She filled the platter, and then rescued the ham. Each slice was a bit charred on the outside, but just a little.
    "You did it!"
    "Admit it, you had no faith. But I can do more than pan for gold and tell stories." Polly let herself wallow a bit with pride in this accomplishment. The Family Sunshine stove belched another cloud of smoke, as if unhappy to claim defeat. "Hurry, let's set the table, Emily. I think I hear–"
    "There's smoke in my kitchen." Ben burst around the corner, fury harsh on his face. He jetted right past her in a quest for the source of the smoke.
    "It's just the wind." She set the platter piled high with steaming food on the table.
    "Polly cooked and didn't set nothin' on fire, Pa."
    He disappeared from her sight, but the knell of his angry boots told her he wasn't about to back down. He stormed into view. "I told you not to light the stove. You could have started another fire–"
    "I'm not a child, Ben. Maybe you should figure out the difference between Emily and me before you try to talk me into a wedding date." She spread out the napkins.
    Emily stepped into the dining room, wide-eyed, and dropped the flatware on the table with a clatter.
    "You know there's no negotiating on the wedding," he burst, his face set, eyes dark, six feet of towering fury. "I don't want–"
    "Look, Pa. She made eggs and didn't hardly burn 'em."
    Ben's gaze fell to the platter. His throat worked. Some of the rage left his face. "I was worried. You could have been seriously hurt."
    "I wasn't. This time I didn't add so much coal, and that helped." Polly brushed past him, shaking a little. Did Ben care about her? Did that explain his sudden fury?
    She thought of last night and how he'd held her and convinced her he just wanted to know she was safe. Safe. When had anyone ever worried about that?
    A hard ball of ache settled low in her stomach as she crossed through the sun-dappled kitchen.
    The Family Sunshine stove let out another cough of smoke.
    Polly gathered plates, cups, and the milk jug. She felt Ben's gaze on her with every step she took. "Admit it; you were wrong."
    Ben took the heavy crock and set it on the table. His jaw looked tight. "I'm willing to admit I could have been mistaken. I should have given you another chance."
    "I'm not so useless after all." The cups hit the table with quiet clunks. "I have a few valuable skills."
    "I didn't mean to make you feel as if you had no value." His hand brushed hers as he took the plates. "Tell her, Emily."
    "You told me to do anything I could think of to keep Polly away from the stove. You said Ma never learned to cook good either."
    "I'm just getting used to the stove." Polly poured three glasses of milk, hoping Ben wouldn't mind that she hadn't made coffee. "Let's start."
    "That doesn't smell so good." Emily wrinkled her nose. The hat on her head bobbed.
    "Maybe the eggs need salt and pepper. I forgot." Polly looked a little closer. No, they didn't appear all that appetizing with the little greasy edges around the whites. "Well, it just will take more practice. I'll do better next time. That stove is proving to be very tricky."
    Ben stared down at the platter of eggs. "Okay, then, let's dig in." He valiantly plopped three eggs onto his plate, along with as many ham slices. "Emily?"
    The little girl slid one egg onto her plate. "Are you sure you cooked these right?"
    "There's no wrong way to cook an egg." Polly felt her confidence waning, but she'd fried eggs thousands of times. It was practically all her father or his men ate. She pushed the last two eggs onto her plate. They made a sickening plopping sound. Goodness, that didn't sound right at all.
    Emily poised her knife over her egg. Curls tumbled over her eyes, and the hat on her head was in peril of sliding right off. There was no mistaking the trepidation crinkling her pixie face.
    Ben's knife scraped on the plate. She watched as one egg broke open, and runny, yellow yolk streamed everywhere. He cut into another, and it cracked open, the runny insides sluicing out like mud from a dike.
    Hadn't she cooked them long enough? Polly's gaze darted to Emily, whose face wrinkled up and turned a shade of gray.
   
It couldn't be
. Polly bit her lip hard to keep it from wobbling. She might not have caused a fire, but she had ruined the meal. Was Pauline Curtis a good cook? Polly felt the heavy weight of her failure. She had so much to prove.
    Ben cleared his throat. "Pass me the salt and pepper, will you?"
    "Are you sure?"
    Ben nodded.
    Her hand trembled. She pushed the shakers across the polished table, not meeting his gaze. "Maybe this time I didn't have the stove hot enough."
    "Maybe."
    "At least I didn't start a grease fire."
    "It just goes to show there's a positive side to everything." Ben set down his fork. "I can't eat this. Not even to keep from hurting your feelings."
    "It's okay."
    "Your feelings are important." He pressed a kiss to her cheek. "Maybe we'd better head to the diner. There's always tomorrow morning to do battle with the stove–as long as you don't start another fire."
    "Are you ever going to let me live that down?"
    His eyes sparkled. "No."
    "It was a good try." Emily grasped her hand. "I like you anyway, Polly, even if you're the worst cook in the world."
    "I like you, too." She could hardly squeeze the words out past the emotion in her throat.
    Ben held out his hand to help her from the chair, and she didn't feel like a horrible cook or a complete disappointment.
    With the way Ben looked at her and how Emily clung to her hand, Polly felt measured. She placed her hand on Ben's arm and let him walk her out to the buggy.

Chapter Nine

    "Why, you must be the Miss Curtis who's come to marry our handsome sheriff." The clerk at the mercantile beamed a cheerful grin as she finished counting up Polly's purchases.
    "Yes ma'am. Call me Polly." She might not like using someone else's name, but she did like her new life. "I was hoping this would all fit into the back of the buggy."
    "If it doesn't, I'll have my son deliver it free of charge." The elderly woman, whom Emily had greeted as Mrs. Roberts, finished adding up the long list of numbers. "You tell the sheriff howdy for me."
    "I will." Polly laid out a twenty-dollar gold piece and waited for change.
    Emily leaned on one hip, a peppermint stick in her hand. "What's all that wood for?"
    "Wait and see." Polly glanced out the windows and saw the busy span of Front Street, full of people and horses and wagons. The business day was just beginning, and Ben was nowhere in sight. He mentioned trying to hunt down the man who'd been in her room last night.
    She wished Ben would let it go. He was probably just a thief. If he were Dixon or one of her father's men, they wouldn't have run. A chill chased down her spine and she shivered.
    She collected her change and thanked Mrs. Roberts's son for managing to wedge all but the lumber into the space behind the buggy's seat. She had to put down the top, but it was a pleasant morning. She liked the feel of the wind in her hair as she took up the thick leather reins. She snapped them against the pinto's rump, as she'd seen Ben do.
    The mare took a step forward, but they didn't seem to move.
    "The brake," Emily leaned close to whisper.
    "Oops." Polly fiddled with the lever and finally it moved. "I'm not used to driving a vehicle."
    "That's not what you told Pa."
    "Well, I don't want him to think he's got the bad end of the deal. I happen to like being here with you." She tugged on the brim of the oversized bonnet Emily was still wearing.
    "I'm glad you come all this way. Even though you had to give up your servants and maid and drivers and cook." Emily leaned against her arm. "And you haven't caught anything on fire yet."
    "See? Things are improving already." Polly gave the reins a snap and the mare took off.
    "Whoa!" someone shouted.
    A teamster's wagon lumbered dangerously close to Polly's elbow. She saw the driver look over at her with terror in his eyes as he hauled back on his many sets of reins.
    "Polly! We're gonna crash!"
    "Dangnabbit!" She kept the mare to the right to avoid hitting the loaded wagon, but the buggy jerked when one wheel hub clipped the hitching post. She heard a terrible scraping sound, but a bunch of horses stood tethered up ahead and she didn't want to hit them. She yanked hard on the left rein and sent the mare darting out into a space right in front of the teamster's horses.
    "Crazy woman driver," the teamster shouted.
    Goodness. This was much different than riding astride. It would take some getting used to.
    Polly took the turn off Front Street and onto Pines, but she turned too sharp and the wheel scraped along the edge of the boardwalk. Several bystanders jumped back.
    "You're a terrible driver, Polly." Emily crunched the last of her peppermint stick.
    "I know."
    It was better once she got out of the town traffic. The road was empty and she could relax. Larksong trilled in the air and the leaves of cottonwoods, maples and ash whispered merrily with the breeze. A wild rabbit hopped out into the lane and studied them before diving out of sight.
    It was peaceful.
    "Why's Pa's deputy always followin' us?"
    Polly glanced over her shoulder. She should have known that after finding a man in her room, Ben wouldn't put a stop to his spying ways.
    And that was comforting.
You're not alone, Polly. You've got to get used to it. You have me.
Ben's vow swept through her mind.
    The way he treated her was much different than she'd expected. She'd seen men with women all her life. In the outlaw hideouts and the mountain shanties and in the ramshackle hotels they'd stayed at, Pa and his men had women. Mostly working girls, but now and then there would be a girlfriend or a wife who joined them for a spell. She'd seen a lot of life and knew how the world worked.
    But until Ben dragged her into his jail and offered her a choice, she'd never known that a man could truly be different. Some men didn't treat women as if they were servants of little worth. Sure, Ben had been angry when she'd burned up his kitchen, but his anger had been honest and fleeting.
    And even after what she'd done, he still treated her as if she mattered. He didn't seem to mind she'd ruined his white shirts or couldn't cook on that fancy stove. Her suspicions were wrong. He wasn't spying on her he was protecting her, just like he said. He did trust her to take care of Emily. He trusted her to keep her word.
    Two gunshots shattered the peace. The pinto jumped in a panic, and Polly hauled back on the reins hard, using her voice to calm the animal. Another gunshot exploded on the road behind her. She heard a shout of pain, and a horse whinnied with fear.
    Every instinct told her to get Emily away from the danger, but she had to at least turn around. She had to see if she could help.
    The deputy lay facedown in the road, not moving. His horse was nosing him, clearly worried. Polly scanned the forest, but the foliage was too thick. A dozen gunmen could be hiding in those shadows and she couldn't spot them.
    Get Emily away from this, her instincts warned. But how could she leave an injured and unconscious man in the middle of the road? She knew Ben wasn't at the jailhouse, and it was a good ten minutes to town. The deputy might need a doctor.
    If she'd been on horseback, Polly would have had no doubts about turning back. But how could she put a child in the line of fire? Yet how could she let a man die? Emily was safer on the floor of the buggy than the deputy would be if she left him behind.
    "Polly, I'm real scared. Milton's hurt."
    "I see." She grabbed her reticule, hauled out both revolvers and started to load them. "Don't worry. I know how to use these. I want you to lie down on the floor and don't get up, no matter what happens. Do you understand?"
    Wide-eyed, Emily nodded. She slipped off the seat and crouched down on the floor. "I don't wanna leave Milton behind with the bad men."
    "Good, cuz we're gonna go rescue him." She laid one revolver in her lap and forced the pinto to turn around and lope back down the road. "Whoever you are out there, don't shoot. I've got a child in this buggy."
    No answer.
    The vehicle bounced and jolted over the ruts and potholes in the road. Polly didn't take her eyes off the forest. The wind flicked boughs into motion and rustled the tall, seed-heavy grasses along the roadside, camouflaging any human movements. Warning crawled down her spine and her finger brushed the trigger, ready to fire. She could feel someone watching her. Someone who dared to shoot a lawman.
   
So far, so good
. Polly drew the pinto into a skidding stop in front of the deputy. The lawman's horse trumpeted protectively and then jumped out of the way at the last moment. Fortunately the buggy rocked to a sudden stop.
    "Milton!" Emily cried out.
    "Stay down." Polly pressed Emily gently to the buggy's floor and then jumped out of the vehicle. Watching both sides of the road, keeping her back to the horse, she knelt in the middle of the road.
    "Can you hear me, Deputy?" She grabbed his fallen revolver, a brand-new Colt, shiny as a new silver dollar. The nose was hot and the acrid scent of gunpowder filled the air.
    She'd heard three gunshots. Likely the deputy spotted trouble in the forest and shot first, without asking questions. And so had the armed villain.
    She hoped it wasn't Dixon. This wasn't Dixon's style, though. Polly knew the worst of the West's outlaws by name, so she knew how a man like Dixon thought. They didn't hide behind trees without firing first, and they didn't run when caught snooping through a woman's trunks.
    The deputy groaned but didn't wake up. Polly grabbed him by the arm, and her fingers touched blood. It was warm and sticky, and there was a lot of it This man needed a doctor, and fast. She hauled his arm over her shoulder, taking his greater weight on her back. She stood, knees wobbling. She didn't forget to watch the forest.
    The gunman was still there, whoever he was. She could feel his gaze on her. Was he going to pull the trigger? Polly grabbed the deputy's horse and used him to block her from any bullets the man in the forest might send her way.
    She knew where he was now; she could feel him. She dumped the deputy's body as gently as she could in the buggy. The gelding nickered, clearly concerned for his master.
    The gentle old horse reminded her of the sweet roan she'd had to put down, the horse that had been her constant and only loving companion for thirteen years.
    Best not to think of it, or her heart would just crack wide open. A woman had to stay tough to survive in this world. Moving quickly, she ducked into the buggy, which was rocking with the mare's nervous prancing.
    Just then, armed men tore out of the forest with gunfire and shouts. Goodness, she thought they were charging right at her. She snapped the reins and shouted, scaring the mare into a full gallop. Panicked, the animal ran full out, dragging the buggy over every bump and rut in the road.
    Gunfire peppered the air, and she knew those gunmen–whoever they were–would catch up to the wagon in no time. She had to discourage them. She had to keep Emily and the deputy safe.
    "Stay down, Emily, no matter what happens." Polly dropped the leather straps and twisted around on the seat. She gripped the revolvers in both hands, ready to fire.
    But the men behind her weren't outlaws. She saw Ben haul an armed and bleeding man out of the shadows. Thank heavens. He'd somehow found her. He must have followed the trail that led him straight to her. The danger had passed. She hauled the buggy to a stop with shaking hands.
    "Milton." Emily started to cry. "Is he dead, Polly?"
    "Not yet." She yanked off her petticoat and tore it in half. She put pressure on the chest wound until the bleeding slowed.
    "Polly, what–" Ben hopped off his horse when he spotted his wounded deputy. "Where's Emily?"
    "Here, Pa." The little girl launched through the air and into her father's strong arms.
    Polly saw the naked relief on Ben's face, betraying deep love. He held his little girl as if she were the most priceless person in the world, and it brought a lump to her throat. She peeled back the deputy's shirt. When fabric stuck to the wound, she dug out her pocketknife and stripped away the shirt and vest.
    "How does it look?"
    She dabbed at more blood. "Not good. The bullet missed his heart, but it's still in there or he'd be bleeding from his back, too. How good is the town doc?"
    "Damn good."
    "Then I'll leave this to him. Let me bandage this better." If the wound had been worse, Polly would have lain the deputy out on the road and done the work herself. She tore the remaining half of the petticoat into long strips and bound the deputy's chest good and tight.
    "You're a wonder." Ben tipped his hat to her, pride in his eyes. "You can't cook, but you're handy to have around in a gunfight."
    "Funny. I'm beginning to think the same thing about you." Polly grabbed the reins, and they raced to town.

BOOK: Jillian Hart
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