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By Bronwyn Williams
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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Chapter OneThe paneled door closed quietly behind Jedediah Blackstone, shutting out the noise of the lobby just down the hall. Jed had asked for a room on the third floor, but the hotel had already been full when he'd checked in three days earlier. Something to do with politics, this being the state capitol, the clerk had said.
Crossing to the window that looked out on one of Raleigh's busier streets, he cast his mind back over the past few hours. Had he left any loose ends untied? The property had been identified on a large plat on the wall of the land office. The deed had been signed both by him and by the agent representing the railway company, the signatures duly witnessed. The money had been disbursed as he'd requested, the largest portion going directly into his new account at the bank in Asheville, with only enough held out to cover his traveling expenses, which would be minimal, considering the way he intended to travel. And he still had forty acres left over.
For another few days - a week, at best - he could consider himself a rich man. Hardly in the same category as a man like Sam Stanfield, the man who'd had him beaten, branded and run out of Foggy Valley eight years ago for daring to court his daughter - but wealthy enough to keep the bastard from foreclosing on George's farm.
Looking back through the years, Jed had to admit he'd done a damn sight more than court the girl. Not that that had kept Vera from marrying the same sunovabitch who had branded his ass all those years ago.
"Ancient history," he told the pigeon pacing his windowsill. He had too many more important matters to deal with now to waste time crying over spilt milk that had long since soured. Up until George had wired him about the loan Stanfield was about to call, Jed had been in no hurry to sell the property he'd won in a poker game. Hadn't even known exactly where it was at the time, only that it was worthless as farmland, therefore good only for what the past owner had used it for - to try and parlay it into something of value.
But before he could find another big stakes game, he'd heard about the railroad's plans to move farther west, and the same week he'd had a wire from his half brother, George Dulah, describing the mess he was in.
Jed had been in Winston at the time on a meandering trip that would have eventually fetched him up right on the edge of the continent. He'd had a hankering to see the ocean, now that he'd read about it in the encyclopedias. The Atlantic, at least. He had a ways to go before he got to the Ps.
Instead, he'd headed for Raleigh, where the railroad land office was located. He had taken a room, had himself a bath, dressed the part of a gentleman and set forth to convert the deed he'd won into enough cash money to haul George's ashes out of the fire.
It had occurred to him later that he might have done even better if he'd held out longer, but time was too short. So he'd named a price that was enough to cover the amount of his half brother's loan with any interest Stanfield might tack on, then added enough to cover his own traveling expenses.
When George had first written to him about the drought that had nearly wiped him out, Jed had offered to go back to Foggy Valley and help out on the farm. He'd been flat broke at the time, but he figured another strong back and a pair of willing hands wouldn't come amiss. George had assured him he didn't need help, and that he'd be able to pay off the loan once he got to market with his beef and tobacco.
So Jed had moved on, heading gradually eastward, and continued doing the things he'd enjoyed most: gambling, womanizing and reading encyclopedias. He'd always liked women, ever since he'd discovered them. For reasons that passed all understanding, they seemed to like him, too - a big, rough, uneducated guy who was better known for his skill at cards than any skill on a dance floor.
Before he'd heard from George, he'd been enjoying life, taking it as it came, getting ready to move on to fresh hunting grounds. His half brother had sold his cattle to a drover and come out slightly ahead, but three weeks before the tobacco market opened, his tobacco barn had burned to the ground with the year's crop of burley inside, forcing him to borrow money from the only man in Foggy Valley in a position to help him.
Sam Stanfield. Moneylender, rancher, politician - the man who now owned all the land between Dark Ridge and Notch Ridge. In other words, the entire valley except for the farm that had been in the Dulah family for three generations. According to George, Stanfield was ready to take possession of the Dulah farm, too, unless George could come up with the money to repay the loan, including the wicked rate of interest the old pirate charged.
"Not this time," Jed muttered, dragging his saddlebags out from under the bed. He took off the coat he'd bought especially for the closing in an attempt to look more like a gentleman than a rambling, gambling half-breed bastard with a brand on his behind.
Dressed in Levi's, his old buckskin jacket and his favorite boots, Jed crammed everything else into his saddlebags. As he'd already settled up with the slick-haired kid at the front desk, all that was left was to retrieve his horse from the livery and he'd be on his way.
He would have headed directly for the train station but for one thing. Sam Stanfield's name was not entirely unknown even as far east as Raleigh. Even in the state capitol, Stanfield had friends that kept him informed and Jed wanted his visit to be a surprise. Stanfield had to have known in advance that the railroad was getting ready to make another move, which was why he'd set out several years ago to gain control of as much property in Foggy Valley as he could by driving honest farmers off their land.
George had held out for as long as possible, but when he'd gone hat-in-hand to the bank in Asheville and been turned away, he'd had no recourse but to turn to the man he knew damned well would pull the rug out from under his feet at the first opportunity. The Dulahs might have settled the valley a hundred years before the Stanfields had come carpet-bagging down to the Carolinas, but tradition meant nothing to a man like Sam Stanfield.
Looking back, Jed could see the pattern all too clearly. Like looking at a hand of cards and foreseeing the way it would play out, he'd taken the news about the railroad's westward push through the mountains and added to that the way Stanfield had started finding ways to lay claim to the entire valley.
So far the rails didn't go anywhere near Foggy Valley, but Jed wasn't going to take a chance that he'd be spotted and word would get back to Stanfield that help was on the way. By now he probably knew about the account Jed had opened in the Asheville bank, knew to the penny how much was in it. The fact that Jed's last name was Blackstone, not Dulah like his half brother's, might buy him some time, but not much.
Jed had a mind to travel the back roads. After eight years of wandering, seeking out card games to support himself, professional ladies for entertainment and public libraries where he could further his education, he was well acquainted with the back roads. In the central part of the state the old wagon trails were slowly being replaced by more modern road, but not back in the hills. There were places there where a man could drop out of sight and not be found for a hundred years.
Excerpted from Blackstone's Bride by Bronwyn Williams Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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