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Leanna Cahill figured the good folks of Cahill Crossing might have forgiven her the sin of bearing a child out of wedlock were it not for the fact that she was managing quite nicely.
Indeed, had it not been for the tidy sum of cash that she had accumulated during her stay in Dead-wood, they might have considered her afflicted and therefore worthy of their benevolence.
Bless their shriveled little hearts.
Coming home today for the first time in two years, she had no intention of being ashamed of either her child, her abundant funds or the way she had come by them.
She lifted her chin and tweaked her best hat to shade her eyes from the glare of heat rising from the road in simmering waves. She tugged the brim of a tiny Stetson over her son's eyes, then hugged him close to her in the saddle.
The satin border of her gown, lying neatly across her horse's rump, winked purple flecks at the sky with the shifting of the animal's gait.
She could have crept into town, hiding in the shadows as though she were ashamed. Crawling on her knees, sackcloth and ashes style, might have made people look more kindly at her.
The plain fact was, she wasn't ashamed. Why should she be? The fifteen-month-old child snuggling into her, with his little boot-clad legs too short to even dangle over the horse's withers, was perfection.
He was as worthy as any Cahill had ever been. Anyone who tried to say otherwise would answer to her. Even her own brothers if it came to that, but it was her daily prayer that they would not hold the sins of little Cabe's parents against him.
Her dearest hope was to reunite with her brothers. It might not be possible; they had parted with hateful words and bitter accusations. Guilt and blame had torn them apart. It wasn't only their parents that had died that day two years ago; the whole family had been destroyed.
To add to the tragedy, it had taken Quin's telegram, with the awful news that Mama and Papa had not died by accident, to bring the family back to Cahill Crossing.
It made her sick, knowing that murder had been what finally brought her home. Not her bone-deep love for her brothers or even family loyalty but murder. If it weren't for sly glances peering at her from every direction, she might dissolve in bitter tears for everyone to see.
Now, for good or ill, here she was. The ties of home wrapped her up. If she let everything about her fade to quiet, she could almost feel Mama's arms about her.
Even though she would have to be careful where Cabe was concerned, he deserved to be home with his family. Thankfully, he was too young to understand what folks whispered about his mama.
Just up the street a man and a woman strolled along the boardwalk. They didn't scowl at her, most likely because they were caught up in admiring the infant the woman cuddled close to her breast.
Leanna grinned, disguising her pain because she couldn't give her child that happy picture. She hugged his warm, solid little body closer.
She would be enough for him. Whatever his future held, she would be enough.
And he did have uncles. Now that she was home she would do her best to heal the rift with them and give Cabe the family he ought to have had all along.
In spite of the scorn she was enduring at the moment, she was glad that she had come home. With time, her brothers would come to love her boy as much as she did. In the end, family was everything.
Leanna glanced backward at the buckboard trailing fifteen feet behind. She waved. "Chins up, ladies, smiles bright!"
While her brothers might accept her child, she had doubts that they would be so welcoming of the four reforming prostitutes coming home with her.
At first sight, they did present quite a vision. While the ladies had determined to reform their behavior, their resolutions hadn't quite reached their manner of dress. Their gowns were proper enough to cover newly respectable bosoms, but feathers and gaudy be-bobs announced their former professions.
Leanna urged her horse past a new hotel in town on the way to her destination, Marshal Bowie Cahill's office.
The front door of the Chateau Royale opened and stylish Minnie Jenkins, who owned the place with her husband, Oscar, stepped out.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Jenkins." Leanna nodded her head and smiled.
In years past, Leanna had been a welcome guest at the Jenkinses' home. Their daughter, Ellie, had been her closest friend. How many times had Mrs. Jenkins encouraged Leanna to set Quin or Bowie in Ellie's path? It would have been quite a social coup in Minnie's estimation for Ellie to land a Cahill.
Recently, Leanna had heard rumors about both of her older brothers being madly in love. That left Chance as the only Cahill male available. Minnie would have an apoplexy if Ellie ever took up with him. As a bounty hunter, his social standing might be almost as low as Leanna's.
Well, not quite, if the expression now crossing Minnie's face was anything to go by. The woman sniffed and pointed her dainty nose in the air.
Half a second later she noticed the reforming harlots in the buckboard. She pressed her hand to her chest as though she might faint dead away, but the scorn in her expression had enough starch in it to hold anyone upright.
Upstairs, second floor, in the corner window, a curtain moved. Ellie peeked out. Her friend was as pretty as ever, although she would never believe that of herself. Ellie waved her hand, but before Leanna could return the greeting the curtain dropped.
If Minnie had any say in it, and she would have, that was as close to Ellie as Leanna was likely to get.
Minnie Jenkins's rejection stung, but that was something she would have to get used to from her former friends.
Thanks to Preston Van Slyck gleefully spreading the word about her illegitimate son, Leanna's fall from grace had occurred well before she returned home. It was unlikely that she had a single friend remaining in a town that used to adore her.
She couldn't hide from that situation so she rode on, sitting as proud as she knew how and wearing her most dazzling dress.
As she had expected, not-so-secret glances from behind curtains and turned backs greeted her passing. One pinched-faced woman even spat on the sidewalk. As far as the citizens of Cahill Crossing were concerned, she was no better than the women following her in the wagon.
It was a lucky thing that little Melvin Wood, an abandoned boy that her fallen friends had taken in, slept soundly on the buckboard floor. A child of eight did not deserve the mean-spirited glances coming the way of the wagon.
Leanna led her entourage past the livery and the dry goods store, gathering ill wishes along the way.
She passed the law office of Arthur Slocum, the attorney who had handled the Cahill legal matters for as long as she could remember. Arthur, sitting outside and smoking a cigar, shot her the oddest look. It wasn't antagonistic, exactly, but it was something and it was not welcoming.
She had chosen her route and her attire for a very good reason. Gossip and whispers were bound to spread; at least by making her entrance a public spectacle she directed most of the attention to herself and away from her innocent little son.
The circuit through town was her announcement: here he is, a Cahill as worthy as any other.
Still, the ride couldn't end soon enough. Her cheeks ached with the strain of her forced smile. Her heart ached with the rejection of former friends.
With Bowie's office only steps away she let her expression fall.
She cast one more grin back at the ladies, but that one was real, to give them encouragement. They needed to believe that she believed that their return to respectability was possible. Her show of reassurance was important even though it was all show.
Now, facing Bowie's front door, she had nothing left. Her heart beat triple time in her chest. Her palms grew damp gripping the horse's reins. Would he look at her as everyone else had?
If he did, her heart would split down the middle. She might begin to sob and thoroughly ruin her grand and scandalous parade through Cahill Crossing.
The front door opened and Bowie's deputy stepped out. He squinted at her through the bright sunlight.
Glen Whitaker arched his brows. His chin jutted out so that his narrow beard pointed at her like an accusing finger.
"Well, look here! See who's come home with her tail between her legs." He spat on the ground, but the effect of that gesture had long since lost its shock.
"Please send my brother out." She smiled as sweetly as she could manage. In the past this expression had sent men running to fulfill her merest whim.
"He's not here." Whitaker dragged his sleeve across his sweating brow. "Even if he was, he wouldn't want to see you or your bas"
"Don't say one more word, Glen." She leaned forward in the saddle. She covered her son's ears with her fingers. "It's been a difficult day. Don't test me."
"I'm scairt now."
"You ought to be." This time she glared at him. In the recent past, this expression had gamblers backing away from her poker table, ashamed of suggesting that she might want to make some extra money upstairs. "This little fellow is a Cahill, just like me, just like my brothers. I'd be careful about insulting him."
Glen opened his mouth but Leanna cut off whatever he had to say since it likely wasn't "Welcome."
"Have you ever run across an angry mama bear, Deputy?" He nodded and shrugged. "She can't shoot a bug out of the air, but I can. I learned that from my brother, Chance, in case you hadn't heard."
Evidently, he had heard. He tugged at his shirt collar and backed into the office, slamming the door behind him.
Leanna led her horse and her ladies away from the business area of town, toward the residential area where she had rented a secluded home for her and her son.
"We're home, Boodle." She hugged him closer. "Heaven help us."