Read an Excerpt
Lone Ridge, Texas 1880s
Victoria Thurston paced back and forth across her neatly organized office at the rear of the bakery she had owned and operated for the past eighteen months. She paused to inhale a fortifying breath as she stared—for the forty-eleventh time—at the disturbing letter she had received from her mother.
You have become a successful businesswoman, she reassured herself. You should have enough self-confidence to approach Marshal Daniels with your request.
Only she hadn't worked up enough nerve yet. Victoria huffed out her breath, hoping to relieve the knot coiling in her stomach. Every time the vision of Marshal Logan Daniels popped to mind, she broke into a sweat. Yet, the city marshal was the only man alive who could resolve her problem and place her in good standing with her parents.
"Otherwise, I'll have to conveniently dispose of the city marshal," she mumbled to herself. "That might alleviate my immediate problem, but it will spoil the festive holiday season."
"What am I saying!" she scowled at herself. "Just get this over with so you'll know if you have to resort to drastic measures."
Before her firm resolve fizzled out Victoria wheeled toward the door. She locked up the bakery, drew herself up to the full extent of her five-foot-six-inch stature and pelted toward the marshal's office. Still a bundle of twitching nerves, she halted outside the door to drag in a calming breath. Not that it helped. She was a nervous wreck and she had yet to utter one word of her unusual proposition.
Although she had been practicing what she intended to say for the past half hour, her mind went blank when a deep, commanding voice boomed like a cannon from the other side of the door.
"Stop that racket and sit down right now!"
Victoria's confidence shattered when the city marshal whipped open the door and nearly mowed her over on his way out. The scowl on his bronzed face evaporated as he stared down at her. She felt dwarfed by his muscular six-foot-three-inch frame and her resolve crumbled in one second flat. She squelched the impulse to turn tail and run back to the bakery.
The powerfully built marshal, who was even more physically appealing at close range, stared at her quizzically. She gathered her bravado and tilted her head back to meet his dark-eyed gaze.
"Marshal, I'd like a word with you, but if I have come at a bad time, I can return later," she said over the racket ricocheting off the cells at the rear of the office.
Logan Daniels tipped his hat politely then gestured for her to come inside. "Now is fine, ma'am. My prisoner can chew on his fingernails to stave off hunger until his breakfast arrives."
"I could bring him some pastries from my bakery—"
"No need," he interrupted as he gestured for her to take a seat. "I'm sure Henry Porter will be here shortly. I was going to check on him but we'll wait him out." He glanced curiously at her. "What can I do for you, ma'am?"
Victoria plunked into the chair, but nervousness put her back on her feet as the marshal sank into his seat behind his desk—which was as well organized as hers. She glanced toward the cells where a male prisoner was scraping his tin cup against the metal bars and demanding to be served breakfast immediately. When she re-focused on the ruggedly handsome marshal, her courage faltered once again.
"Pipe down, Tanner, or you'll skip breakfast altogether," the marshal thundered ominously.
Victoria wrung her hands, fiddled with the pleats of her green dress then drew in a determined breath. "You probably don't know me, Marshal, but—"
"You're Victoria Thurston," he interrupted, watching her curiously, while she paced back and forth across the office.
She halted then blinked. She was surprised he knew her. Although they hadn't been formally introduced, she had admired him from afar since she opened for business.
"Please call me Tori," she requested.
He smiled slightly then inclined his raven head. "Very well, Tori. How can I help?"
The moment of reckoning had come. She bolstered her courage and blurted out, "I have a proposition for you."
"Really? I usually arrest women who proposition me."
She hadn't expected a teasing sense of humor from a man who was in the very serious business of dealing with murderers and thieves. Since he was having fun at her expense, she was not particularly amused. She was far too nervous and apprehensive for that.
"Let me rephrase that, Marshal—"
"Logan," he corrected with a smile. Then he glared over his shoulder when Tanner commenced scraping his cup against the bars again. "I told you to clam up!"
His loud voice made her flinch. She shifted uneasily from one foot to the other, ready to get this over with. "I would like to hire you for the holidays. I will pay you exceptionally well for your assistance, Marshal."
Both dark brows shot up his forehead. "Hire me?" he parroted. "To do what?"
Tori felt the flush of embarrassment suffuse her face and neck. In all her twenty-three years, she had never felt so awkward. Logan must have noticed her discomfort because one black brow climbed a mite higher and his sensuous lips twitched as he studied her astutely.
She gathered every smidgen of courage she had left and said, "If you aren't otherwise engaged and can get away from your duties in town, I would like to hire you to be my husband for the holidays."
His onyx eyes nearly popped from their sockets and his unshaven jaw scraped his chest. He stared at her as if she were a strange and curious creature from another galaxy far, far away. "Marry you?" he chirped.
"Pretend to," she amended hastily, and then went back to her pacing.
When Tanner struck up another racket to complain about his delayed breakfast, Tori whirled toward the door leading to the cells. She glared at the scraggly haired, unkempt prisoner who stopped making a commotion to stare owlishly at her.
"Sir," she said tersely. "I am having a serious conversation with the marshal. Where I come from it is considered very rude to interrupt. I will gladly furnish you with a variety of pastries from my bakery if you will allow me to conduct my business here."
Tanner kerplunked onto the cot and stared curiously at her. "What flavors you got, bakery lady?"
"Apple, peach and vanilla-filled tarts that will make your mouth water," she tempted him.
He nodded his greasy brown head agreeably and flashed a smile that called attention to his two oversize front teeth that reminded her of a horse. A moment later, Henry Porter arrived with a tray from his restaurant.
Tanner glanced from the stocky, bald-headed café proprietor to Tori. "I still get the pastries, too. Right?"
"Certainly. My treat. And happy holidays to you, Tanner," she said cheerily.
"Not gonna be happy days if I have to spend them in the calaboose," Tanner grumbled. "I'm innocent."
"No, you aren't," Logan scoffed in contraction as Tori stepped aside to let Porter slide the tray of food under the bars.
Logan appraised the strikingly attractive bakery owner pensively as she came toward him. He was still reeling after her unexpected request. He couldn't fathom why this shapely brunette, who had discouraged potential suitors since her arrival in town, wanted him to marry her. Pretend to marry her, he corrected silently.
What was the catch? There had to be a catch. There was always a catch. Logan was a man who dealt in—and dispensed—consequences. Plus, in thirty-two years of hardscrabble existence, he'd learned that nothing was what it seemed.
Call him a cynic, but he'd suffered through enough life experiences to know that nothing was simple. Especially this attractive female with her startling Christmas request.
His appreciative gaze swept up and down Tori's alluring physique for the tenth time as she approached him. Her curly, mahogany-colored hair glistened in the light. Her luminous evergreen eyes, rimmed with long, sooty lashes, focused directly on him. Her face was still flushed and the scooped neck of her gown indicated that her flush extended farther south.
Logan wondered just how far south her blush went.
This wasn't the first time he'd visualized Tori naked, he was ashamed to say. But she had rejected so many eager suitors the past eighteen months that he had kept his distance. People had been trying to gun him down for years. He didn't need to be gunned down—in a manner of speaking—by a woman. Even the one who had caught his eye the moment she arrived in town.
"Now then, Marshal—"
"Logan," he corrected again.
"Yes, of course, Logan. I realize this is highly unusual."
"You can say that again," he mumbled. "Why do you need to hire a husband?"
"Not just any husband," she inserted quickly. "Just you in particular."
Logan supposed he should be flattered, but he was too cautious by nature and profession not to expect the other boot to drop. "Explain," he requested.
Tori opened her mouth to do just that, but she clamped her lips together when Henry Porter breezed into the main office.
"Sorry for the delay, Marshal," said Henry. "We had an excessive number of customers show up at the same time this morning. The town council is having breakfast while reviewing the last-minute details for the town's holiday festivities."
"Not a problem for me, but Tanner is a bit on the impatient side. Which is why he tried to take money from the bank before he made a deposit," Logan said wryly.
Henry snickered as he nodded his shiny head. Then he smiled at Tori and doubled at the waist in a respectful bow. "Always a pleasure to see you, Miss Thurston. I trust you will furnish us with a few of your delicious pies this afternoon. The usual half dozen, I hope?"
"Of course. I'll get started after I finish my conversation with the marshal," she assured him.
Logan bit back a grin when Henry exited and Tori wrung her hands while she paced.
"I made a critical mistake," she admitted. "However, I did prevent my father from forcing me to close down my business and return home to Fort Worth." She whirled around to pace in the opposite direction. "Six months ago, when my parents insisted that I come home to marry the 'nice young man' they had earmarked for me, I informed them that I had married the marshal of Lone Ridge so they needn't fret over my safety here in West Texas."
Logan barked a laugh then compressed his lips when Tori halted to narrow her eyes at him. "So we have been married for six months already, have we? You do know where people go for lying, don't you?" he teased mischievously.
She planted her hands on his desk and leaned forward. His gaze dropped to the enticing hint of cleavage she unknowingly displayed. Logan had the wildest urge to reach out to drag her across his desk and kiss those lush pink lips right off of her. He was grateful that he was sitting behind his desk. Otherwise, she would know exactly how—and to what extent—she was affecting him.
"It was a white lie," she insisted self-righteously.
"How do those compare to the black ones?" he couldn't help but taunt. "How much are you willing to pay for the white lie that involves me?"
She pushed away from the desk and stood erect. "As much as you make in two months," she tempted him.
He whistled, impressed, then said, "Plus my bounties and rewards? Your bakery must be doing well."
"Plus bounties and rewards?" She scowled at him. "I never expected highway robbery from a well-respected law enforcement officer."
He shrugged and grinned. "White lies don't come cheap, you know. You have to pay here and now or in the Hereafter. Your choice."
When she flashed him an agitated glance, he bit back another grin. Teasing Victoria Thurston was the most fun he'd had in a long time. She added an intriguing spark in his otherwise difficult life of dealing with thugs and scalawags who refused to call a moratorium, just because it was the Christmas holidays.
"Very well then, I'll pay the equivalent of two month's salary plus bounties, if you agree to accompany me to Fort Worth for the holidays." She stared hopefully at him. "You can get away for a few days, can't you? Deputy Horton can fill in, can't he?"
"If I ask him nicely, I suppose."
Gabe Horton, like Logan, had no family to visit during the holiday season. Ordinarily Logan and Gabe worked the holidays together and shared Christmas dinner over the desk in the office. Hell, Logan had no idea what it was like to share the holidays with family. It would be a new experience for him. Maybe afterward he'd fully understand the jokes he'd heard about dealing with in-laws.
Tori half collapsed in relief. "Thank you," she gushed. "I backed myself into this corner when I informed my parents that I was married. If you hadn't agreed to come with me, I was going to have to concoct a tale of your extraordinary bravery and your unfortunate demise in the line of duty."
Logan chuckled when he discovered this spirited female had planned to dispose of him—figuratively speaking—if he didn't agree to her holiday charade. This was an entirely new twist from criminals who actually had been trying to kill him for years, in hopes of escaping the long arm of the law.
"Mind if I ask why you didn't inform your parents that I had to be on duty during the holidays and we couldn't get away? That's a reasonable explanation."
Tori went back to her restless pacing. Not that he minded. It gave him the opportunity to admire her feminine physique without staring rudely at her enticing curves and swells.
"My older sister, Priscilla, her husband and her five-year-old son are coming from Boston for the holidays. It's her yearly visit to Texas," she elaborated. "Since I was busy establishing my business last year, I stayed here for the holidays. My parents sent out the royal command that you and I must put in an appearance because no one has met you. Therefore, I'm forced to produce you for their inspection or dispose of you and arrive in widow's digs, lamenting my lost love."
"You wouldn't have had to kill me off," he suggested. "You could have hired an imposter since none of your family has met me. Edgar Scott from the general store has a terrible crush on you, you know. He might have taken the job for nothing."
She paused to glare over her shoulder at him. Then she wrinkled her nose, shook her mahogany-colored head and said, "Edgar isn't my type."
"And I am?" he teased devilishly. "What is your type, Tori?"
"You are having entirely too much fun at my expense," she grumbled. "If I wasn't at your mercy, I would have plenty to say about it, I promise you that."