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Erica Chandler is intent on proving she's as smart and tough as her lawman father?and certainly good enough to gain a position at The Chronicle. When she meets mysterious, masked Christopher in the wilderness, she sees a story and hunts him ...
Erica Chandler is intent on proving she's as smart and tough as her lawman father—and certainly good enough to gain a position at The Chronicle. When she meets mysterious, masked Christopher in the wilderness, she sees a story and hunts him out. Then Christopher begins to draw out a gentle side of her few have known .
But when Erica's curiosity uncovers dark secrets, her desire to reveal the truth could send them both to an early grave.
"Could this day possibly get any worse?"
Erica barely whispered the words as she slipped along the wall and to the edge of the building that housed the dry goods store, hoping she had shaken the deputy who tailed her. She peered around the corner and watched the sandy-haired young man who stood in the middle of the packed dirt street, his eyes darting back and forth in his search. Finally, he turned around the way he'd come, and she let out a relieved breath to see him leave.
With that goal met, Erica pushed onward, in search of a story that would prove her worthy to the The Chronicle's editor and lead him to welcome her into his establishment. She continued down the road and cornered Shamus, the blacksmith. He didn't look happy to see her, but she smiled, trying to put him at ease.
After a tedious, slow beginning, like pouring the thickest remnant of honey from a jar, she was only a few questions into learning about the theft of his tools when Shamus suddenly went silent. Curious, she opened her mouth to ask what the problem was, when she heard another man clear his throat from behind.
"Miss Chandler, there you are. I was wondering where you ran off to."
Groaning inwardly, she thanked Shamus for his time and turned to Ralph. "Really, deputy, you mustn't feel obligated to watch over me. I'm sure there are pursuits far worthier of your skills than to shadow me all over town." She managed a little laugh, though amusement was far from one of her chief emotions at present.
"I made a promise to your father when he put me in charge, that being to keep a watch over you, and I aim to keep my word. Besides, it's a pleasure."
She winced at his clear interest. "Thank you, but I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself."
"You can never be too careful."
Her answering smile came brittle. "Really, I'm fine." She walked away and heard him follow.
She fumed, barely keeping a pleasant expression on her face toward those she met in passing. She was twenty years of age now, as of last month, not some tot to be coddled. And she doubted that her father, who currently transported a wanted criminal to the state that issued the warrant, intended his request for his deputy to watch over Erica to be taken in the literal sense. That Ralph must play bodyguard, trailing her every move. Not only did his continual presence annoy her, but some people, like Shamus, were less prone to divulge information with a lawman in her wake. Shamus had been in her father's cell more than once for drunken behavior and clearly did not feel comfortable talking around the man who'd often put him there, even if Shamus was the victim this time.
The unproductive afternoon waned into a tenser evening. At last she found reprieve when some boys ran their way, excitedly telling the deputy he was needed where a fight had broken out. Ralph didn't hesitate. Neither did Erica.
As soon as he disappeared down the street with the boys, she hurried in the other direction—to the front of the jailhouse where she had tied her horse, Ginger. Loneliness was often her companion, but Erica needed a hefty dose of peace and solitude after spending an afternoon with Ralph the Watchdog.
The air was cool but not unpleasant, the sun warm—a perfect summer's evening. Once away from town, safe in the countryside, she slowed her horse to a walk and took a deep, relaxing breath of the crisp air laced with evergreens. She lived in what surely could claim to be one of the most beautiful areas of the country and felt delighted that Washington had recently claimed statehood, proud to be one of its citizens.
At the promise of another glorious sunset, she dismounted near a hill that overlooked a long stretch of land flanked on both sides by a forest of tall conifers. In the distance, the sun's dying rays gilded the river that wound throughout the area, lining it in gold, with the peak of a white-capped mountain, glowing pink, rising far beyond it. Walking to the edge of the hill, she gazed at the heavens just beginning to take on a brilliant rose and violet blend.
Her sole suddenly slipped on the ground, the earth breaking apart beneath her boot. She felt a sharp twist of her ankle and lost all balance.
With a shocked cry, she fell to her backside and slid downhill, her skirts riding up and exposing her bloomers. Small stones bit through her dress. Vainly she grabbed clumps of ground to stop her descent, the grains and grass sifting through her fingers. She landed at the bottom in a bedraggled heap, soiled and breathless. But except for the throb in her ankle and the sting of scraped palms, she seemed unharmed.
Looking up with a groan of dismay, she wiped away the hair sticking to her jaw, at least grateful the hill wasn't so steep that she couldn't crawl her way back upward. She hoped.
"Are you hurt?"
At the unexpected sound of a deep male voice in this wilderness, Erica acted on instinct, grabbing her Derringer from her boot and twisting around to aim.
A stranger stood close to the fringe of trees in the shadows. Tall and lean, broad of shoulder, his appearance suggested strength. He stepped forward into the dying light, and she saw with alarm that he wore a dark mask that covered his forehead and ended below his cheekbones. A gun belt was slung around his hips.
"Don't move or I'll shoot," she warned. "I haven't any money."
"I'm not here to rob you," he assured, lifting his hands in the air, as if in surrender. "I heard you scream when you fell. I only want to make sure you're all right."
"Yes, I'm fine," she clipped. "I don't need your help." The fiery twinge in her ankle told her otherwise. Embarrassed that he saw her fall, and in such an unladylike fashion, she realized her current state and hastily pulled down her skirts, ineffectively brushing the dirt away.
Wishing to keep an eye on his movements, she looked back
to see that he had gone.
Christopher stood at the fringe of forest, using the trees as cover, and watched the feisty brunette, disbelieving her claim that she wasn't hurt. He had heard pain tighten her voice and seen the wince in her brown eyes when she ordered him away. And while he waltzed with danger, even the shadow of death, to let her know of his presence in these dark woods, he couldn't leave an injured woman alone in this wilderness, especially with night fast approaching.
Her ringlets of dark curls were a mass of tangles and dirt almost to her waist, her cheek smeared with soil. After that slide downhill he imagined her dress must be torn. He watched her tuck her small handgun back into her boot and push herself up to stand. She might know how to take care of herself and use a weapon, but in her current state he doubted she could make it uphill. Her condition fragile, she seemed unable to manage the trek. He watched her hobble a few steps and fall.
Not surprised, he shook his head at her stubbornness and left the trees as silently as he first appeared. He had no wish to stare down the barrel of her weapon a second time. Without a word, he came up behind her, turned her around, and slung her over his shoulder like a sack of sugar. She let out a startled gasp and beat on his back with her fists.
"Let me go, you rogue! Put me down—now!"
"Stop fighting me. I told you I have no intention of harming you."
His calm warning went unheeded, just as he ignored threat after threat she violently hurled his way.
"Your words don't correspond with your actions." Her replies came more stilted as she struggled for breaths. "You don't call your manhandling harmful? You'll not get away with this, you—you cad. Put me down, now, or I'll make sure you regret ever crossing my path." Again she pounded on his lower back.
His arm tightened across her struggling body, until finally he gave an impatient slap to her backside. She froze and gasped in clear shock that he would do such a thing.
"That's better," he said with a satisfied smile. "Use a little sense, miss. You'll only get hurt worse if you cause me to fall. I'm trying to help you."
He headed toward an easier path that led to the top of the slope, one he could manage with the light burden on his shoulder. She had stopped wriggling, but her breathless string of insults and threats continued. Once at the top, he spotted her horse and moved to where she had tethered it to a tree.
"If you don't take your hands off me right now, I'll scream until—"
Her words came to an abrupt halt as he set her down with little finesse atop her saddle.
Clearly astonished, her flushed and damp face a becoming shade of rose, she stared with wide, unblinking eyes of an even richer, deep golden-brown than he'd earlier thought, watching all the while as he untied her horse and pushed the reins into her motionless hands.
"I trust you can find your way home?"
Without awaiting her answer, Christopher turned and trekked back down to the bottom of the hill.
Flustered by the masked stranger's gall, Erica fumed and fretted during the short ride home. By the time she reached the three-story frame house that her father had built on the site of land her mother had dreamed of owning—"away from the bustling town but not so far as to be a daily hindrance in getting there"—Erica's anger had simmered to a low boil. She reasoned that the stranger's aim had been noble even if his methods were boorish and crude. On the heels of that assessment, she realized her own conduct had hardly been appropriate for a lady.
Nora, who was more family than cook or housekeeper and had filled the shoes of Erica's mother since her death, dropped her cleaning and rushed to Erica once she hobbled through the door. The matronly woman exclaimed over her soiled clothes, fussed over her overall condition, bandaged her ankle, and cleaned her palms, swabbing some foul home remedy over minor cuts and bruises. Erica wrinkled her nose at the stench but thanked Nora with a hug then reclined on the parlor's divan.
There she spent the next two days.
She talked with the lively Nora, when she could persuade her to take time from chores to rest, immersed herself in twice-read novels to counter boredom, and penned ideas for newsworthy articles. By the time she returned to town, she had no doubt the theft of Shamus's tools would be old news, one of the journalists having snapped up the opportunity.
She wondered if anyone knew of the stranger.
Erica blew a stray curl from her eye as her mind again wandered. No matter how she tried to remain in the present story of choice—whether a novel or her own work—her mind often returned to her strange and awkward meeting with the man in the mask. Now that the passage of time had settled things, calming her emotions, she no longer felt entirely angry with him and was more than a little intrigued.
The sprain turned out to be minor, and on the third morning, Erica could put her full weight on her foot. Confined to the small parlor for two long days that seemed never to end, unable to make the journey up the steep, narrow stairs to her bedroom, she was restless and eager for the wide outdoors. Once she washed and dressed and felt like a member of humankind again, she saddled Ginger and returned to the spot of her fall. Her journalistic spirit assured her a story would be found in this place.
That is, if she could find the stranger.
She frowned when she noticed the small chunk of hill that had crumbled away, resulting in her fall, and dismounted, carefully leading her bay mare down the same path her rescuer had taken to carry her uphill. At the bottom, she tied Ginger to a tree and scouted the area, peering intently at the dense pines from where he once emerged.
"I'm glad to see that you recovered from your fall "
His deep voice came so unexpectedly she whirled around in shock.
He stood directly behind her, as tall and powerful as before, and she found it hard to take in a breath as she studied him this close. Hair the color of burnished black grew past his ears to his nape, and his eyes glittered a smoky, intense green beyond the mask. The bare hint of a cleft lined a stubborn chin, while a shadow of dark whiskers dusted a determined jaw and the area above the curve of his upper lip. He didn't smile, but his mouth bore a natural tilt at the edge of well-shaped lips, almost mocking. A small hollow of a dimple appeared at the right side. The strangely cut mask, somewhere between charcoal and dark gray, covered his forehead and nose, curving at a gradual slope below his cheekbones and ending near the bottom of his ears. This close, she could tell the mask was made of suede, a thin band of the same material securing it around his head.
"Now, mind telling me why you've come back?" he asked when she continued to stare.
Erica's mind became a sudden blank. Her mouth went dry, and she tried to think. Although she had been looking for him, his sudden and overwhelming presence startled her.
"I I wish to thank you for the other day. To apologize for my rudeness when you were only trying to help. I realize that now."
His eyes flickered in surprise and suspicion, but he nodded in acknowledgement.
His steady gaze made her strangely flustered, she, who rarely grew that way. Her face warmed, and she turned from his intent stare, walking a few short steps from him while searching for appropriate words.
"I wasn't in the best frame of mind; I'd had a bad day. But I shouldn't have said those things, and really, I've never spoken like that before. You took me entirely by surprise, though I realize that's no excuse for my bad behavior ." Erica turned to look at him, her budding smile freezing then fading.
He was nowhere to be seen.
She blinked in utter shock. How did he do that? Once more he had swiftly arrived and departed without her hearing him come or go.