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Morrow Creek, northern Arizona Territory June 1883
On an otherwise unremarkable day in Morrow Creek, Owen Cooper stood in the modest quarters where he lived atop his livery stable and made himself a solemn promise: he was going to learn to braid his daughter's hair, even if it killed him.
It looked as though it might. Already, Owen had made more than one attempt. He'd been defeated every time. Still, ten-year-old Elodie appeared to believe he could finish the task.
With every appearance of certainty in a braiding prowess Owen strongly doubted he possessed, Elodie stood with her back to him. With pint-size eagerness, she wiggled on her tiptoes. Then she craned her neck, trying to glimpse one of her pigtails.
"Are you done yet, Papa? Can I look?"
"Not yet. Keep holding still."
"I am! I'm pretending my feet are glued to the floor!"
Hmm. For an instant, Owen contemplated the potential merits of actually gluing Elodie's high-buttoned shoes to the floor, then allowing her to step into them like a pony in a stall. Such a tactic would doubtless make mornings like this one easier. As it was, Elodie had been fidgeting nonstop, even before she'd begged Owen, over breakfast, to take on this delicate maneuver. He squinted, newly determined to master this task.
"Remember, both braids are supposed to be exactly the same!" Elodie reminded him earnestly. "Nice and neat, too."
Nice and neat. Frowning at the twin fistfuls of coppery hair he'd been bundling and twisting in his hands for the past fifteen minutes, Owen shifted his feet. He felt his frown deepen. What he'd accomplished so far was poor, he realized. And raggedy. The horses he boarded at his stable sometimes boasted fancier plaits than the ones he'd created for his daughter.
He'd have to try harder. He could do it. After all, he'd already learned to do so many fatherly tasks that had fallen to him in the years since he'd lost Renee. Owen was proud of the progress he'd made, too. So when Elodie had begged him to braid her hair in a new fashion today, he'd thought the undertaking would be simple enough to accomplish, especially for a man like hima man who was reasonably intelligent, occasionally clever and always skilled with his hands.
Years ago, Owen had earned a good living with those hands. Not good in the sense of untarnished and pure, of course; those were concepts Owen had had only a passing acquaintance with until he'd met Renee, and she'd begun to reform him. What he'd earned with his hands and mind all those years ago had been a profitable living. A frivolous, fun-loving, profitable living.
The truth was, Owen had always enjoyed a talent for the disreputable. Minor thievery had come easily to him; so had running a swindle or delivering a punch or seducing a woman. These days, Owen regretted his rapscallion's pastbut he saw it for what it was, too: a cockeyed blessing. If he'd been a better man, he knew, he might never have met Renee outside his favorite gambling house in Baltimore. As it was, he and Renee had taken instantly and wholeheartedly to one another never mind that the woman had been crusading to shut down the place.
Renee, scarcely nineteen and staunchly naive, hadn't known then that the sizable nest egg Owen had brought to their marriage had been the result of gambling, conning and generally charming the world at large. Owen, already a hell-raising bachelor at twenty-two, had been too smitten to risk enlightening her. She'd discovered his faults quickly enough, thoughand had set out to reform him of them straightaway. Two years later, Owen and Renee had taken those savings with them from Baltimore, intending to start a new, more respectable life together with their toddler daughter in California.
Instead, his wife's journey westward had ended in the Arizona Territory, in the picturesque mountain town of Morrow Creek. After losing Renee, Owen had decided to stay there, too, with tiny Elodie. In the years since then, he'd done his best to care for his daughter the way Renee would have wanted him to.
That meant fancy pigtails and ribbons were his duty.
They were damnably difficult to master, though. Far more so than he'd imagined they would be. But Owen was not a man who entertained the notion of defeat. Not when it came to Elodie.
When it came to his daughter, Owen had to succeed. He was all Elodie had.and she was all he had. He would have died before giving up on hereven when it came to inconsequential matters like intricate braids and froufrou ribbons.
"Maybe this is too much for you, Papa." Elodie's narrow shoulders slumped. She tapped her toes, pondering the issue. "Maybe I'll ask Mrs. Archer to do these braids for me instead."
"No, you won't." At Elodie's mention of the neighboring woman who looked after her while Owen was at work in his stable, he felt his resolve strengthen. He didn't want to give Mrs. Archeror any of the other local womenfolkany more reason to mollycoddle him. Owen appreciated their help. He did. But whether they were flirting with him, admiring him for raising a daughter single-handedly or offering him their assistance with any one of the domestic matters that arose daily, they could be a little too interfering for his liking. "I'm almost finished."
With his breath held, Owen gave a few more twists. He peered in fierce concentration at Elodie's hair, then twisted again. He bit his lip. Cautiously, he examined his handiwork.
Yes. That might suit. The braids he'd produced weren't exactly prizewinning quality. But he reckoned they would appear much improved after he wrangled on the ribbons. Probably.
He tried. Unfortunately, the moment Owen wrapped one of the slippery pink ribbons Elodie had enthusiastically provided for him, he lost his hold on the braid he'd fashioned.
It unraveled instantly. He bit back a swearword.
Elodie knew what that meant. Swearing was one of the few disreputable habits Owen hadn't been able to break. Prompted by that stifled expletive, his daughter sent her gaze toward his. She tried to give him a smile. It looked wobbly.
"It's all right, Papa. I don't need those fancy pigtails today, after all. I've just decided it."
The disappointment in her eyes just about killed him.
If Owen had had anything left to gamble, he would have wagered it, just to win a talent for fashioning acceptable pigtails. He'd have promised anything to make Elodie happy.
Unfortunately, he'd already left behind his debauched pastand with it, all his leveraging ability. With Renee's pristine example in mind, Owen had done his best not only to raise Elodie as his wife would have seen fit, but also to live his own life commendably. That meant cussing was off-limits to him. So were gambling, cigar smoking, wanton spending, partaking of the territory's (reputedly) excellent mescal and enjoying.well, pretty much anything at all that was strictly pleasurable.
If it felt good, Owen refused it.
That was his simplified method of living a laudable life. The tactic hadn't steered him wrong yet. Of course, in Morrow Creek, true temptations stood few and far between which was part of the reason he'd remained there. It was better, he'd learned during his early (and sometimes failed) attempts to be a truly good man, to avoid undue enticement at all costs. After all, if he slipped once, who knew how far and fast he'd fall?
Squaring his shoulders, Owen returned his attention to the matter at hand: Elodie's pigtails. Briefly, he considered asking the Almighty to grant him the favor of braid-weaving dexterity. But then he realized the sorry truth: the Lord had undoubtedly washed his hands of the entire Cooper clan years before.
There'd be no help from that quarter. Not for him or his brothers. In this, as in everything else, Owen was on his own.
"One ordinary braid would be fine," Elodie assured him.
"One?" Decidedly, Owen shook his head. One auburn braid was all his daughter usually sported. Today, she'd asked for two. "You asked for two pigtails today. That's what you'll have."
Regrouping, Owen planted his feet. With painstaking precision, he parted Elodie's hair. He handed her the leftmost bundle to holda deviation from his previous attempts, when he'd tried to wrangle both handfuls of tresses himselfthen got to work plaiting the other bundle. Almost there.
"But the horses will be wanting to be watered and fed!" Elodie insisted. "They're probably very hungry by now."
Her stated concern for the beasts didn't fool him. While his daughter did have a strong affection for the horses they boarded, she knew her papa would no more set aside responsibility for those horses than he would wear a pair of pigtails himself.
At the notion of his own overgrown, shoulder-length dark hair plaited in twain, Owen felt his lips quirk. That would be a sight and a half. The whole town would be in an uproar.
Which was saying something, when it came to sleepy Morrow Creek. Around here, the liveliest action that ever took place happened between the banks of the namesake creek, during its typical springtime flooding. Unlike the rowdy Western towns of tabloid periodicals and dime novels, Morrow Creek was sedate and settled. It was not given to shenanigans or uproars of any kind.
Owen doubted the townspeople even knew how to cause a ruckus. That's why this place was perfect for him. Because he definitely knew how to cause a ruckus and refused to do so. For Elodie's sake.
"Gus will take care of the horses." Owen's hired stableman might be wiry and full of jokes, but he was reliable. "Don't you worry about that." Owen reached the end of Elodie's braid, then pinched it between his fingers. With his free hand, he motioned for the pink ribbon, then thought better of it. "Hold still."
Contemplatively, Owen glanced around their quarters' humble kitchen. On the tabletop stood a lamp, a pair of books and the harness he'd been mending last night. Nearby lay an awl, a set of leatherworking tools and a few scraps of rawhide. Eureka.
A few ticks of the clock later, Owen stepped back. He gave a masterful flourish toward his daughter's hair. "All done."
"Really?" Elodie bit her lip. "You mean I can look?"
"After all that hard work I just did?" Owen crossed his arms over his chest. "I'd be plumb disappointed if you didn't."
With no further nudging, Elodie ran to her bedroom's cheval mirrorone of the few keepsakes she'd inherited from Renee. By the time Owen caught up to her, his daughter stood examining her pigtails with awestruck eyes. Carefully, she stroked her hair.
"These are nice, Papa!" Smiling, Elodie turned in a circle. She wrapped her arms around his middle, then squeezed. "Not even Maman could have done better! I'm sure of it!"
At Elodie's mention of her mother, Owen couldn't help feeling his heart turn over. Not for the first time, he wished he could give Elodie more. He wished he could give her the warmth and caring Renee would have given her.
Owen could be gruff at times. Taciturn. He knew that. Hell, the whole town knew thatall his friends and neighbors and customers alikeand had for years. Why else would Mrs. Archer and everyone else keep pestering him to get remarried?
Because they rightly loved Elodie and wanted the best for her. They wanted a mother for her, plain and simple.
Owen wanted that, too. But he refused to marry a woman he didn't love, simply to find a caretaker for his daughter. Besides, he was doing fine on his own. He'd mastered pigtails, hadn't he? He could wait to find someone of his own to love.
"What's wrong, Papa?" Elodie touched his arm, gazing
up at him with concern. "You look so sad. Don't you like my hair?"
"'Course I do." Owen couldn't quite smile. But he could still reassure Elodie. So he did, as best he could. "And I'm not sad. I couldn't benot with my favorite girl here with me."
To prove it, he gave Elodie's braid an affectionate tug. It had been a stroke of genius to bind those plaits with fine strips of rawhide before fastening the ribbons on top. He'd have to remember that trick for later, he told himself, for when Elodie moved on to even more elaborate hairstylesones designed to capture men's eyes and win their hearts.
At the thought of his loving, trusting daughter putting herself in a man's handsany man's handsOwen narrowed his gaze. He knew, more than most, the dastardly deeds men were capable of. He didn't want Elodie to be at the mercy of a scoundrel.
A scoundrel like him. Like the man he used to be.
It took a thief to catch a thief, Owen reasoned. So it probably took a heartbreaker to stop a heartbreaker. That meant
"Now you look scary, like a big black bear!" Elodie said.
Owen didn't doubt it. Thinking about his daughter's future left him feeling decidedly protective. And a little growly, too.
Thankfully, he had years ahead of him before he needed to worry about Elodie being courted by scurrilous beaux with questionable intentions. For now, his daughter was a ten-year-old innocent, well pleased with her appearance in the mirror.
"You look prettier than a field of flowers," Owen told her.
"See there? That was a very kind compliment. Thank you." His daughter swept into an elaborate curtsydoubtless learned from the Morrow Creek ladies who'd taken her under their wing. "I can't imagine why Mrs. Archer insists that you have 'a heart of stone and no verifiable sign of a working smile.'" Playfully, Elodie grinned. "See how wrong she was?"
"At least about the heart. Mine's tin."
"And about the smile. I know I've seen it at least once!"
"Just once?" Owen asked. Could that be true?
Surely he'd smiled more than once in all these years.
"Well, your smile almost came out just then, too!"
Mischievously, Elodie poked him. Owen paused, struck by the frolicsome expression she wore. For an instant, he glimpsed the shadow of his own fun-loving tendencies in his daughter's impish faceand it worried him anew.
Could he have bequeathed Elodie some unstoppable bent toward ruination? Could Elodie, like her ne'er-do-well father, find herself drawn toward irresponsibly pleasurable pursuits? Or, just as alarmingly, toward irresponsible suitors?
If so, Owen didn't know how he would forgive himself.
Renee had rightly disapproved of Owen's less-than-admirable qualities. She'd considered him an imperfect husbandat least she had, once she'd gotten to know him better. His rakish and reckless tendencies were supposed to have been cured by their migration west. Unfortunately, Owen had never had a chance to prove himself to Reneeto prove he could be the good husband she deserved. And now, seeing Elodie behave so mischievously.
Well, it was like being visited by the ghost of his own past. A ghost who charmed freely, squandered its money, wasted its time and never quit laughing over its own carefree ways.
Owen frowned. Allowing those selfsame unfortunate traits to flourish in his daughter would be an affront to his wife's memory. However much he didn't want to admit it, Owen realized, he might need further help with Elodie, now that she was growing olderthe kind of help only a good woman could provide.