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Denver, Colorado, June 1880
Cornered and nearly out of ideas, U.S. marshal Trey Scott refused to consider retreat. Not while he had a five-year-old little girl counting on him to triumph against the misery that assailed her. What had started as a mere game to the others was a matter of tragic proportions to the child.
Trey would not let her down.
Shivering, Molly Taylor pressed her tiny body closer to him. "You gotta save me, Mr. Trey."
Those big round eyes and that trembling lower lip punched through the last remnants of his resolve to remain neutral in this standoff. He would stick by the kid throughout this battle of hers.
Softening his expression, Trey knuckled a long black braid off her shoulder. "I won't let them get you, kitten. Just stay close."
He scooted Molly behind him, mutiny twisting in his gut. No one would stand in his way as he protected the girl from her dreaded fate. The troubled child deserved some peace and joy in her life.
"Leave this child alone." He fixed an uncompromising glare on the leadera woman of uncompromising valorand ignored the half dozen or so others crowding closer.
The pale-eyed, persistent female held firm against him in their battle of wills. Apparently, this was no game to her, either.
Trey widened his stance and folded his arms across his chest, settling into the standoff as though he had all the time in the world. He wrestled against the knot of regret tangling inside his anger. At one time, he'd considered this woman beautiful, godlyeven fair-minded.
He'd woefully miscalculated.
At least Molly had him on her side. A swift glimpse to his left revealed an opening in the hedge thatran along the perimeter of the yard. Mentally, he measured the dimensions and came up victorious. The hole was the perfect size for a forty-pound slip of a girl to glide through to freedom. He'd catch up with her before she made it halfway down Larimer Street and long before she hit the bedlam of horse-drawn taxis on Tabor Block in the business district.
Comfortable with his plan, Trey inched across the grass, tugging Molly along with him.
The boss matched him step for step.
Shooting the woman a warning glare, Trey then turned to Molly and cocked his head toward the thicket. "You know what to do," he whispered.
Tears wiggled just below long, sooty lashes. "What if they catch me?"
He lowered his voice. "I'll create a diversion."
"What's that?" Molly asked in a whisper loud enough to be heard two counties over.
"Never mind. When I say run, you run."
But the leaderwrapped in that deceptively feminine packagepulled around to the left, effectively closing off the escape. "Don't even think about it."
At the end of his temper, Trey swallowed back a bitter retort.
As though hearing his unspoken words, inflexible blue eyes cut through the distance between them.
"The game is over Marshal," the woman said.
Although he had at least a hundred pounds on the stormy-eyed sprite, Trey had to stifle the shocking urge to withdraw. He'd stood up against cannons, gross injustice, crooked judges and vicious criminals, but nothing compared to the disapproval of Katherine Taylorschool-marm, official custodian of the Charity House trusts and Molly's overprotective sister.
With that inflexible look on her face, Trey knew he could no longer count on the fact that Miss Taylor would set aside her volatile feelings for him and be reasonable, for Molly's sake.
So be it.
He had to delay. Procrastinate. Postpone the inevitable.
The late afternoon heat pulled sweat onto his brow. He'd lost his hat long before the battle had begun. A light breeze lifted the hair off the back of his neck, the comforting sensation mocking his inability to think straight.
He circled his gaze around the perimeter of the yard, taking note of the snowcapped mountains in the distance. Too far away. Growing a little more apprehensive and a lot less confident, he focused on the brick, two-story mansions running shoulder to shoulder for several blocks off to his right. Too many questions. As a last resort, Trey shot a quick glance past the manicured lawn and blooming flowers to the large, fancy home behind him. Too risky.
His only hope was to take the woman by surprise.
As covertly as possible, he inched toward the hedge, but an irreverent growl wafted on a cloud of threat. A quick look to his right and Trey's gaze connected with two more villains joining the foe's ranks. Shifting to face these newest threats, he snarled at the man he'd once called friend and the woman who co-owned the Charity House orphanage with him. "Marc and Laney Dupree, this is not your fight."
A grin slid between the two. "It is now," Marc said for them both.
As one, they glanced to Katherine, then separated, covering the gaps she'd left when she'd moved in front of the hedge.
Blowing out a hiss, Trey lowered his head to Molly's. "Don't worry, kitten. I have everything under control."
Various snorts and snickers cut through his words as more joined the enemy's ranks. Katherine spoke for the group. "Just hand her over, and no one will get hurt."
Wrapping all four feet of trembling little girl in his arms, Trey darted a quick glance to the house in front of him. "Not a chance."
"This is ridiculous. Surrender the child, now." Katherine spoke in a flat, no-nonsense tone that made him bristle.
Marc took two steps closer. "Enough, Trey. Hand her over."
Trey eyed his friend turned traitor. Clean-shaven, dressed in a fancy vest and matching tie, Marc Dupree didn't look much like the tough, hardened man Trey had once known, a man who had overcome poverty and worse. In fact, with the sun winking off the dangling watch fob, Marc looked more like a dandy than a threatening opponent.
But Trey knew the man had hidden skills. Came from living with that wily, unpredictable wife of his, the same woman who was now conspiring openly with the enemy in this standoff.
"All right, Molly," Trey whispered in her ear. "We're going to make a run for it."
Another low whimper slipped from her lips. "But, Mr. Trey, I'm not fast."
He folded her deeper into his embrace. "Don't worry. I'll carry you."
She wrapped her spider-thin arms around his neck, nodding her head against his chest.
Shifting her to a more comfortable position, he studied the biggest threat to the child. Her sister.
Just looking at the woman made his throat ache. Underneath all that prim schoolteacher starch, Katherine Taylor was a lovely, courageous bundle of feminine charm and beauty. Even amidst this contest of wills, Trey found a part of him admiring her moral fortitude and persistence. She'd triumphed over a scandalous childhood and the unspeakable violence committed against her. She was, quite frankly, a woman worthy of his respect.
With the wind snapping tendrils of black hair free from that hideously confining hairstyle, she looked a lot like an avenging angel sent to demand his reckoning.
It was always like this between themvolatile, unpredictable, confusingmore so over the past few months.
Alarm spread through him, the physical reaction shocking him. The corresponding ache in his gut warned him that he'd made a mistake challenging Miss Taylor on this matter.
Seeking compassion, Trey pivoted to his right. But another glare of disapproval angled back at him. Carrying thirty or so extra pounds and a rounded belly, Laney O'Connor Dupree was just as relentless as Katherine.
"No way out yet, Molly. The flanks are too formidable for a quick escape."
"Don't let them get me," Molly wailed.
"Don't you worry. I'm a United States marshal. They wouldn't dare take me on."
The scoffing and giggles coming from the crowd behind Katherine didn't seem to fill the little girl with confidence. "They don't sound very worried."
"They are. They just don't know it yet."
Balancing on the balls of his feet, Trey tucked Molly firmly in the crook of his arm. Leading with his shoulder, he charged through the front line. With the element of surprise on his side, he knocked his big, overdressed friend back a few yards.
Marc recovered quickly, and while Trey battled with his childhood friend, two pairs of persistent hands worked from behind to wrestle Molly free.
She kicked and squealed. "No, I don't want to go!"
Trey ground his teeth together and dug his heels into the ground.
"Relent Marshal," said Katherine.
Trey pressed Molly tighter against his chest.
"You've taken this too far already," Marc said.
Trey dodged a flying elbow. He spun to his right but slipped, dropping to his knees. Next thing he knew, Molly was wrested out of his grip, and he was lying flat on his back.
The impossible had happened. Trey Scott, defender of justice, protector of women and children, had just suffered defeat. At the hands of a schoolmarm, a dandy and a pregnant woman.
"Attack," yelled the fancy man.
High-pitched squeals lifted into the air.
"And, this time, finish him off."
In a blur, seven children jumped on him, fingers jabbing in his ribs and stomach. Trey clamped his teeth together. "I'm not ticklish."
Undaunted, fourteen miniature hands worked quicker.
Trey finally let out a hoot of laughter. He rose to his knees, just in time to see Molly ushered up the back stairs, caught in the clutches of her relentless big sister. "Mr. Trey," she yelled, "save me."
She reached her thin arms out to him.
Trey hopped to his feet and then darted toward the back porch, but he was held back by the Charity House orphans. One by one, he peeled away hands and feet. A particularly persistent little boy rode on his leg, clutching with the grip of a full-grown man. It took considerable maneuvering to release the kid without hurting him. Trey could use such a man on his side. He nearly considered swearing the boy in as a deputy.
Too bad the brute was only eight years old.
"Mr. Tre-e-e-e-ey "
Trey raced up the back stairs, then shot in front of the door, barring entrance with his hulking frame.
He looked from one woman to the other. "Laney Dupree and Katherine Taylor, I'll not stand by and watch you degrade this child."
Katherine narrowed her eyes, depositing every bit of the formidable schoolteacher in her expression. "A bath is not degrading."
Trey dropped his gaze to Molly, and his gut twisted. She looked so sad and pitiful with her lower lip trembling. "It can't wait until tomorrow?" he asked.
Katherine pulled her lips into a tight knot of disapproval.
Sensing a stalemate, he appealed to the wisdom of the group. "Laney, do something."
Marc's wife shook her finger at him as though he was the one who'd committed a terrible wrong. "I'm going to have to agree with Katherine. The child needs a bath."
"No," Molly cried. She twisted out of her sister's grip, rushed to Trey and hooked her hand in his. "Mr. Trey says I don't have to if I don't wanna."
Laney chuckled, instantly sobering when Katherine leveled a glare on her.
Sighing, Katherine spun back to look at Molly, the first signs of frustration flushing in her cheeks. With fists planted firmly on her hips, she said, "A bath is not going to kill you, young lady. Just look at you. Not a clean spot to be found."
In a gesture identical to her sister's, Molly jammed her balled fists on her hips. "We was playing marshals and bank robbers with the other Charity House kids."
"And losing, from the sight of you," declared Katherine.
Trey took exception.
"We were just letting them win." He winked at the little girl. "Isn't that right, Molly?"
She favored him with a big gap-toothed grin. "Right. We can't never, not ever, let them stinkin' outlaws get the best of us."
Katherine gasped. "Did you teach her that?"
Trey had the presence of mind to cast his gaze to the sky before he responded. "Maybe."
Marc joined them on the porch, turning into the voice of reason. "It's over, Trey."
Trey looked from Katherine to Marc to Laney, then back to Katherine again. Ignoring the satisfied expressions on the faces of the three other adults, he crouched down to the five-year-old little girl's level. Plucking at one of Molly's braids, he said, "Sorry, kitten. Looks like you're taking that bath today."
Her eyelashes fluttered, and one fat tear rolled down her cheek.
Before he gave in to the pleading look, Trey squeezed his eyes shut, rose and shifted out of the way. He opened his lids in time for Katherine to link her disapproving gaze with his. "Stick around Marshal. I'm not through with you."
With that, she spun around and marched inside the house, Molly in tow.
Laney poked him in the chest. "You just made a big mistake, my friend. Big mistake."
With her resolve firmly in place, Katherine marched up the back stairs of the twenty-year-old mansion turned orphanage, tugging a reluctant little girl along with her. The moment her gaze landed on Molly's tear-streaked face, Katherine's determination turned into heart-wrenching guilt.
By engaging in that senseless battle with Marshal Scott, she'd hurt the very person she'd set out to protect.
What kind of big sister did that make her? Usually, she turned to God to help her with the overwhelming task of raising her newfound sister.
Today she'd allowed emotion to get the best of her.
Sighing, she caressed Molly's hair and steered her into the recently refurbished bathroom, where Marc had installed multiple basins for the home's many children to wash up for the evening. On the outside, Charity House looked identical to the rest of the fancy homes on Larimer Street. But inside, the mansion had been perfectly altered to house forty special children and the adults who cared for them.