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The Law and Kate Malone
By Charlene Sands
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Charlene Sands
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCrystal Creek, Northern California 1868
Mary Kathryn Malone dashed down the schoolhouse steps, her pace never faltering until she reached the creaky wood gate. With haste she unlatched the thick rope holding the posts together and opened the gate.
"And don't you be running all the way home, Mary Kathryn," Miss Ashmore called out from the doorway. "It's not fitting for a young lady to run wild."
"Yes, Miss Ashmore," Mary Kathryn responded, automatically slowing her stride to a sedate walk. She wished her teacher would call her Kate. All of her life, she'd wanted to be just Kate, but Miss Ashmore said "Mary Kathryn" seemed more civilized and if there was anything her teacher thought Kate needed, it was more civilizing. Kate didn't agree, but since she was only twelve, no one listened to what she wanted.
Except for Cole Bradshaw.
Once out of view of her schoolteacher's sharp eyesight, Kate took off running again. She had to catch up to Cole. They'd be heading down to the creek together this very minute if Kate hadn't had to stay late after her lessons to write on the blackboard twenty-five times, "I will not spit in class again. Ladies do not spit." It didn't matter to Miss Ashmore that Toby Benton had done the first spitting, either.
Kate ran behind old Mrs. Whittaker's Millinery, stopping to make sure Mama wasn't across the street, outside the Silver Saddle Saloon, sweeping away debris from last night's brawl. One thing Mama was for sure, was clean. She hated when rowdies paid her saloon a visit and mucked up the place.
Once she was certain all was clear, Kate took off running again, heading toward the creek. She was just past the back end of the livery stable when something long and dark jumped out at her, tripping her up. She went down with a plunk, landing knee-deep in an untied bale of hay. When she glanced up through a web of straw, she saw the leg that had caused her to fall.
"Ha! Fooled ya, Kate." Cole leaped out from his hiding spot behind the wall and stood above her, gloating. "Bet you didn't know I was there!"
"The only way I'd know you was there, Cole Bradshaw, was by the god-awful smell!" Kate lifted herself from the straw and stood, plucking out flaxen sticks from her long braid. She lifted her nose to sniff air. "And I was racing too doggone fast to catch a whiff, but I do now." She waved her hands in front of him and stepped way back. "Whew, you stink."
"Do not." His brows lifted. "Aw, you're just mad 'cause I bested you."
"Feathers will haul off and fly south from one of Mrs. Whittaker's fancy plume hats the day you best me, Cole Bradshaw!"
"I bested you," he said smugly, folding his arms across his middle. "Always do." He stood tall above her and peered down her slight frame. She couldn't wait to grow another four inches to catch up with him. Then she could look Cole right in those piercing blue eyes, valiantly, being his equal in ability and size. But it seemed every time Kate grew half an inch or so, Cole also grew at least one or more. Didn't seem fair to her, not one bit, even though Cole was two years older.
"Do so. Race me down to the creek."
Kate's hand went to her stomach. She'd just gotten over her monthlies, which tended to make her tired and cranky. But aside from that, she'd been feeling sorta queasy in the gut whenever she was around Cole. Just looking into his face sometimes, or watching how his long hair curled up and teased the tips of his shoulders made her insides churn. Like they were doing now. Kate didn't understand what was happening to her, but she couldn't refuse Cole a race, queasy stomach and all. "I'm getting kinda tired of beating you all the time," she said matter-of-factly.
"I let you win."
He came close and pointed his nose at hers. "Do so."
A small flutter swept through her insides again. Cole didn't smell foul at all. Fact is, with Cole standing so close, Kate liked the way he smelled, like lye soap and earth all rolled up into one. "Cole, I don't feel like racing today."
"Are you scared I'd beat you this time?"
Kate grinned. "You won't beat me. I'm faster than you."
"No, you're not ... hey!"
Kate took off running, whipping past the backs of the shops in town, down a lush green slope and around a cluster of pine trees, the wind pushing hair off her face, the air in her lungs near to bursting. Laughter escaped her throat, and she kept on running, feeling alive and tremendously free. "C'mon, slowpoke," she called out, knowing full well Cole was fast on her heels. She heard his breathing, the puffing sound that meant he was catching up.
She could see Crystal Creek in the distance, a hundred yards away. The giant gray stone, their finishing line, lay just ahead. She had to reach it first. She had to win. She couldn't let Cole beat her. She tilted her head and saw him one stride behind. With oxygen exploding in her chest and her legs burning, she pushed herself even harder.
"I win," she shouted, jubilant, when she kicked her boot to their rock. Cole wasn't but a step behind.
"I bested you," she huffed out, bending to catch her breath.
Cole did the same. Bracing his hands on his knees, he hung his head and took long slow pulls of breaths. "You did. But I'm catching up. Soon," he said with a solemn nod, "soon, you'll never beat me again."
Kate slid down to the ground, stretching out her legs, and leaned back on her palms, looking toward the creek. Runoff from the Sierras kept the stream flowing, the water deep and blue and inviting. Cole's words sank in and she believed him this time. She was winning the race, each time, by less of a margin. He'd nearly beaten her today and, pretty darn soon, he'd be leaving her in the dust.
The crushing thought saddened her, but she would never let him know her fears. He sank down next to her and picked up an old wrinkled leaf, twisting it to and fro. Both their gazes locked on to that nut-brown leaf, contemplating.
Excerpted from The Law and Kate Malone by Charlene Sands Copyright © 2003 by Charlene Sands
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.