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Lynna Banning

BOOK: Lynna Banning
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A tiny arrow of unrest lodged in her belly

Jessamyn plunked her cup down on the desk so hard the coffee sloshed over the edge. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ben Kearney amble down the street in his lazy, loose-jointed gait.

Something ballooned in her chest when she watched him move. He reminded her of a big cat, a tiger she’d seen photographed once in a magazine. She imagined its hunting prowess, the taut, coiled strength ready to be unleashed in an instant. Ben’s movements had that same animal grace and economy of motion. It was frightening in some way.

Without a break in his slow, easy stride, the sheriff mounted the board walkway and disappeared into his office. Jessamyn stared after him. Something about Ben Kearney’s languid, controlled body sent shivers sliding up her backbone….

Dear Reader,

Lynna Banning made her debut as an author in our 1996 March Madness promotion with
Western Rose.
This month she returns with
Wildwood,
her exciting new Western about a young woman who puts herself smack in the middle of the investigation of her father’s murder, despite opposition from the local sheriff, who would rather she butt out and let him do his job. We hope you enjoy it.

In
Tempting Kate,
longtime Harlequin Historicals author’ Deborah Simmons returns to the Regency era for her heartwarming tale of a haughty marquis who falls in love with the penniless daughter of a local earl, after she shoots him by mistake. We are also delighted with the chance this month to introduce our readers to a new Western series from award-winning author Theresa Michaels. The trilogy opens with
The Merry Widows-Mary,
the tender story of a marriageshy widow who opens her heart to a lonely widower and his little girl.

The Bride Thief by
Susan Paul, writing as Susan Spencer Paul, is the third book of the author’s medieval BRIDE TRILOGY, featuring the youngest Baldwin brother, Justin, a delightful rogue whom his brothers have decided needs a wife to save him from his wayward ways.

Whatever your tastes in reading, we hope you’ll keep a lookout for all four books, wherever Harlequin Historicals are sold.

Sincerely,

Tracy Farrell

Senior Editor

Please address questions and book requests to:

Harlequin Reader Service

U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269

Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3

Wildwood
Lynna Banning

Books by Lynna Banning

Harlequin Historical

Western Rose
#310

Wildwood
#374;

LYNNA BANNING

has combined a lifelong love of history and literature into a satisfying new career as a writer. Born in Oregon, she has lived in Northern California most of her life, graduating from Scripps College and embarking on her career as an editor and technical writer and later as a high school English teacher.

An amateur pianist and harpsichordist, Lynna performs on psaltery and recorders with two Renaissance ensembles and teaches music in her spare time. Currently she is learning to play the harp.

She enjoys hearing from her readers. You may write to her directly at P.O. Box 324, Felton, CA 95018.

For Mom

With special thanks to Jean Banning Strickland and to fellow writers Suzanne Barrett, Janice Bennett, Ginny Coleman, Dore Corder, Bonnie Hamre and Terrel Hoffman.

Chapter One

Wildwood Valley, Oregon

1868

B
enning Kearney speared one bite of the inch-thick steak he ate every morning with three fried eggs and black coffee, raised a forkful of meat to his mouth and halted.

Through the restaurant’s front window he watched the seven-o’clock stage rattle to a stop in front of the Dixon House hotel across the street. The coach door swung open, revealing a young woman in a black traveling dress and mourning bonnet. She extended one small black shoe toward the ground. At least, her foot looked young. Hard to tell her age under that ridiculous hat

The shoe retreated to the coach step. The other foot descended, and then it, too, withdrew.

Benning chewed his steak thoughtfully and watched to see what would happen next. Both feet now primly touched each other on the iron stagecoach step. Then—

Suddenly she leaped onto the ground and jumped up and down twice, like a frisky colt. He swallowed a lumpy mouthful. Goddamn crazy woman. Benning gulped down
a swig of hot coffee and laughed out loud. He’d seen few travelers that excited about the western frontier.

Eyeing her through the glass panes, he resumed his breakfast. She looked a bit skinny, her waist no thicker than a wasp’s. Probably had a temper to match, from the display of unbridled enthusiasm he’d just witnessed. The stylishly cut dress was Eastern, but that hat—nobody wore swishy feathers like that out here except the fancy ladies at the Red Fox, and this was no fancy lady. Quite the contrary. She looked like a Bible-thumping Good Woman if ever he’d seen one. He grimaced and gulped another mouthful of coffee.

The stage moved away, and in its wake Benning counted three shiny black humpbacked trunks stacked along the board sidewalk. Looked as if this one had come to stay a while.

Ben forked an unbroken egg yolk onto a square of toast and leisurely loaded it into his mouth, his attention on the street outside.

The woman pivoted, putting her back to him. The movement was so sudden her dark skirt swirled about her ankles, revealing a ruffled white petticoat underneath. Dainty, laced-up shoes, slim ankles. And a bustle bouncing enticingly on her backside.

She tramped onto the sidewalk and bent to peer into the barbershop window, one hand shading her eyes against the hot June sunshine. The bustle rose to attention, then bobbed as she straightened and moved next door to Zed Marsh’s undertaking service.

What in hell would she want with an undertaker? He watched the bustle twitch as he absently slid his fork under the egg white.

Or the barber, for that matter? The pile of dark hair beneath that hat looked unusually neat.

The bustle fluttered as she moved on to the newspaper office. This time she didn’t bother to look in the window. She pulled something out of her bag and bent over the door.

Benning stopped chewing. She jiggled the key in the lock, withdrew it, then thrust it in again.

Now, just a darn minute, lady! Nobody tried to sashay into Thad Whittaker’s office without so much as a by-yourleave, even if Thad was dead. Not as long as
he
was sheriff, anyway.

Benning gulped the last of his coffee and stood up. He’d just mosey on over and see what Miss Bounce-Bottom was up to. He dropped two coins on the table, ‘retrieved his hat from the rack in the corner and ambled out onto the board walkway.

Out of habit he scanned one side of the street, then the other before he headed for the door of the
Wildwood Times
office. He took his time crossing the wide, wheel-rutted street. Moving so deliberately the metal rowels on his spurs made no sound, he approached the wooden boardwalk at an angle.

Her back was toward him as she dipped and again peered through the newspaper office window. Straightening, she dropped the key back into her reticule and scrubbed her gloved fist over the dust-smudged glass. Once more she peeked through the smeary circle. With a sigh, she spit on the dark material and rubbed the dampened glove into a lozenge-shaped clear space on the pane. Bending at the waist, she squinted again through the glass.

Ben watched the saucy bustle ride up and down on her backside. She danced from one foot to the other like a bumblebee sizing up a honeysuckle vine, then wiped her glove across the glass once more.

“Merciful heavens,” she muttered just loud enough for Ben to overhear. “A veritable pigsty!”

She jerked open her black bag, withdrew the key and again jammed it in the door lock. The bustle bounced as she rattled the knob.

Fascinated, Ben stood stock-still, one boot poised over the walkway. She snatched the key out, stared at it for a long moment, then once more shoved it into the lock. The
bustle danced gracefully on her hips, but the door refused to budge.

“Lord have mercy!” she swore under her breath. She drew back a tiny foot and gave the oak door two swift kicks.

The noise jolted Ben to life. Without a sound he stepped one boot onto the boards. When she whacked the door again, he brought up his other foot and started forward.

She was hunched over the lock, poking about with a hairpin, when he came up behind her.

“Best not pick it, ma’am. Unlawful entry.”

She jerked upright as if branded with a hot poker. “Oh!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Heavens, where did you come from?”

“Across the street. I saw you get off the morning stage.”

She stared at him, her mouth rounded into an O. “And you sneaked right over here to spy on me.” She propped her hands on her hips and stared up at him. “Men!” she huffed.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I’m the sheriff here.”

Eyes the color of Spanish moss flared into his, then narrowed to a bone-penetrating look. “I’m Jessamyn Whittaker. I own the
Wildwood Times.

“Ben Kearney. Like hell you do.”

She blinked. “I beg your pardon? I most certainly—”

“Prove it,” Ben drawled. “Thad Whittaker left no surviving family.”

“The only time Thad Whittaker stuck to the truth was when he was setting type! The rest of the time, I assure you, my father’s forte was stories so fantastical it would put Fenimore Cooper to shame.”

“Yes, ma’am. Still, would Thad lie about his family?”

“Especially about his family,” the young woman snapped. Her voice softened unexpectedly. “He didn’t lie, exactly. He just…tended to forget about us.”

Unconvinced, Ben nodded. It would be hard to forget someone like Jessamyn Whittaker. Of course, Thad had
lived in Wildwood Valley for almost fifteen years, long before a daughter would have grown up enough to wear a bustle. Maybe old Thad never even knew he
had
a daughter.

Ben leaned against the hitching rail, crossing one long leg over the other. “Can you prove you’re Thad’s daughter?” he repeated.

Jessamyn blew her breath out so fast the ostrich feather in her hat swayed. “Look, Mr…. Klooney, I haven’t jounced my way across this godforsaken desert for the last six days to be put off by a busybody claiming to be a law officer. You have no badge. And where’s your gun? If you’re the sheriff, I’ll eat my—”

Ben straightened. “Kearney,” he corrected. “Badge is on the desk in my office. Never carry a rifle, just a revolver. That’s back in my office, too. Next to,” he added with quiet emphasis, “the jail. And from the looks of it, that fancy hat of yours is going to make mighty fuzzy eating.”

Jessamyn bit her lip and studied his face. Abruptly she dived into her handbag and pulled out a crumpled letter. Standing on tiptoe, she thrust it under his nose.

Ben snagged the envelope with one thumb and forefinger. “Miss Jessamyn Whittaker,” he read aloud. “Care of the
Boston Herald.”

He scanned the contents, refolded the letter and handed it back. “Give me the key.”

Her eyes widened. After a slight hesitation, she opened her handbag and plopped the key into his outstretched palm.

“Lock sticks,” Ben offered. “Trick is to lift up on it.” He inserted the metal implement into the lock, brought one knee up to the knob and pushed upward.

The door scraped open. Before he could draw breath, Jessamyn Whittaker brushed past him, her bustle dancing a quadrille.

Ben swallowed. Next to those soft graygreen eyes, that backside was the prettiest sight he’d seen since—

Instinctively, he squashed the thought. Those eyes of hers were unsettling. Something about them made him sick for home, hungry for the smell of plantation tobacco and jasmine vines in bloom over the arbor. Suddenly he ached for all the things he’d tried to forget for the past four years. Things he’d lost.

She had no right to be here nosing about Thad’s office as if she owned it. Not only that, she’d come from Boston. She was a Northerner! A Yankee. No Yankee had a right to have eyes that color.

The woman moved about the room, blowing dust off the scarred oak desk, opening cabinets, even inspecting the plank floor beneath her feet. Her mouth made continuous tsk-tsking sounds.

What the hell was she looking for? The last newspaper Thad had printed was a month old now, run off just a few hours before he died. Did she know her father had been shot? Worse, had she come out to the valley to meddle in his investigation of Thad’s death?

Probably. She looked like a real busybody.

Thad had never mentioned a daughter. Ben knew the older man’s wife had died during the war—sometime between Shiloh and Vicksburg. After Ben’s internment at Rock Island.

An involuntary shudder moved up his spine. Outside of Jeremiah, Thad was the only human being Ben had ever told about the horrors of the Union prison in Illinois. The older man had listened, nodding and sucking on his pipe, until Ben’s voice had faded and only the crackle of their campfire remained. Then Thad had hoisted his stocky form off the log he’d been straddling, squeezed Ben’s shoulder and trudged off into the woods.

“Sometimes a man’s gotta talk” was all he’d said.

Now Ben watched Thad Whittaker’s daughter move to the open doorway of the
Wildwood Times
office. Turning her back to him, she peered out at the street and propped her hands on her gently curving hips.

His breath caught.

And sometimes a man’s got to keep his attention on the business at hand.

He’d have to find a way to get Miss Busy Bustle out of his hair and back to Boston where she belonged. He nodded to himself. Shouldn’t be too difficult. She looked as out of place in this dusty town as a silk bow on a steer’s tail.

Jessamyn positioned herself in the doorway of her father’s newspaper office and studied the dirt trail that passed for Wild wood Valley’s main street.
I’m here, Papa, just as you wanted
Her heart swelled with a mixture of joy and regret.

Something told her Wildwood Valley wouldn’t be as enthusiastic about her arrival as her father would have been. Her throat closed. But here she was, as he had asked, and here she intended to stay.

She gazed at the ramshackle buildings on either side of the street and her heart sank. A dilapidated hotel and restaurant, a saloon—no, two saloons, one across the street from the other—Frieder’s Mercantile, Addie Rice, Seamstress, the sheriffs office and three other weathered structures with painted signs that were no longer legible.

That was all? No church? No library? Not even a doctor’s office?

Her father had exaggerated. This wasn’t a town, as she had pictured it—whitewashed buildings and neat picket fences. This was nothing but a motley collection of graying clapboard shacks plunked down in the middle of nowhere.

No, she amended. In the middle of Wildwood Valley. Oregon, she thought with a shudder. Rampaging Indians. Drunken cowboys. Worn-out women with sun-scorched, leathery skin. Lord help her, she’d left a position on a thriving newspaper in Boston for this?

Yes, she had. She hadn’t lurched in stuffy railroad cars and bone-rattling stagecoaches all the way from Boston to quail at the last minute. She’d come because Papa had
needed her, and she wouldn’t retreat unless she failed to accomplish what she’d come out here to do.

“And that,” she said aloud with a determined stomp of her small, leather-shod foot, “a Whittaker never did.” She was her father’s daughter. In her entire twenty-six years of life she’d never failed at anything she set her mind to.

She drew in a double-deep breath of the warm, dusty summer air and straightened her spine. Well, then, she’d better see what was in store for her before she grew one minute older. God had no love for sluggards.

Jessamyn turned to face the open front door of the
Wildwood Times
office and prepared to embrace her future.

BOOK: Lynna Banning
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