Read an Excerpt
Cimarron Springs, Kansas 1881
JoBeth McCoy knew Marshal Garrett Cain's life was about to change forever-and all she could do was sit with his young niece until he heard the tragic news about his sister.
The towering double doors behind Jo and five-year-old Cora creaked open, and Reverend Miller cleared his throat. "You can send in the child now." He held out his hand for Cora. "Marshal Cain has been informed of his sister's passing."
Her heart heavy, Jo stood, then hesitated in the dappled sunlight. A soft breeze sent pear blossoms from the trees on either side of the shallow church steps fluttering over them like fragrant snow petals.
Cora rose and snatched Jo's hand. "Will you go with me?"
A riot of flaxen curls tumbled merrily around the little girl's face, but her Cupid's-bow mouth was solemn beneath her enormous, cornflower-blue eyes. Cora clutched a paper funnel filled with lemon drops in her left hand. Her battered rag doll remained anchored to her right side.
Jo met the reverend's sympathetic gaze, grateful for his almost imperceptible nod of agreement. He was a squat, sturdy man in his middle fifties with thinning gray hair and a kind smile.
The three of them stepped into the church vestibule, and Reverend Miller directed them toward his tiny, cluttered office. Jo paused as her eyes adjusted in the dim light.
Marshal Cain sat on a sturdy wooden chair before the desk, his expression grim. Her heart skittered, but she swallowed back her nerves and forced her steps closer.
His eyes were red, and the tail end of a hastily stowed handkerchief peeked out from his breast pocket. As though embarrassed by his tears, he didn't meet her gaze. Instead, he focused his attention on the petite fingers clutching Jo's waist. He didn't stand or approach them, and for that Jo was grateful, especially since Cora cowered behind her.
He caught sight of his niece's frightened gaze and blinked rapidly. "Hello, Cora. I know we've never met, but your mother and I were brother and sister."
Jo had only seen the marshal a handful of times, but he was an imposing sight sitting down, let alone standing. Well over six feet tall, he wore his dark hair neatly trimmed. Though he didn't sport a beard, a five-o'clock shadow perpetually darkened his jaw.
His face was all hard lines and tough angles, with a deep cleft dividing his chin. An inch-long scar slashed at an angle from his forehead through one thick, dark eyebrow. Other women might prefer a gentler face, but Jo found his distinctive features fascinating. Not that she looked. A woman simply couldn't help but notice things once in a while.
Cora took a hesitant step from behind Jo. "Mama is dead."
The marshal's knuckles whitened on the arms of his chair. "I know," he replied, his voice gruff.
Jo glanced between the two, her chest aching for their shared grief. From what little information she'd gathered, the girl's parents had died in a fire three weeks ago. As Cora's closest living relative, Marshal Cain had been assigned guardianship. Reverend Miller had just broken the news, and the poor man was obviously devastated by the loss.
Realizing the reverend had deserted them, Jo craned her neck and searched the empty vestibule. Everyone in town knew she had all the sensitivity of a goat at a tea party, and this situation definitely required a delicate touch.
She caught sight of Cora's dismayed expression and decided she'd best keep the two talking until the reverend returned. "Why don't you show Mr. Cain what you bought at the store this morning."
The marshal's gaze flicked up at Jo, then quickly returned to Cora as she dutifully extended her arm, revealing her precious stash of candy.
"Uh, well, sure." He stretched out one hand and plucked a lemon drop from atop the mound. "Your mother liked peppermints," he added.
Cora nodded eagerly. "Me, too!"
Relieved by the girl's easy acceptance of Marshal
Cain, Jo spurred the conversation. "Cora rode a train all the way from St. Louis, didn't you?"
"Mrs. Smith wouldn't let me sit by the window." Cora fingered a dangling edge of pink ribbon circling the frilly waistband of her dress. "She was grumpy."
A shadow crossed the marshal's eyes. "Sorry 'bout that. I didn't know you were coming. I'd have fetched you myself."
"Would you let me sit by the window?"
"I guess. If you wanted."
The tension in Jo's shoulders eased a bit. They'd been frantically searching for the marshal since the day nearly two weeks past when Jo had transcribed the telegram announcing his niece's imminent arrival. He'd been escorting a prisoner to Wichita and had run into trouble along the way.
By the time they'd discovered his location and informed him that he was needed back in town posthaste, the poor little girl had already arrived with her grim-faced escort. Mrs. Smith had been terrified of Indians, and certain she'd never make it back to St. Louis with her scalp intact.
Since the skittish escort was obviously frightening Cora with her hysterics, Jo had cheerfully assumed responsibility for the little girl and hustled Mrs. Smith onto an eastbound train. Three days had gone by since then.
"When are we going back home?" Cora asked.
Jo's heart wrenched at the innocent question.
"Well, that's the thing." Marshal Cain cleared his throat. "I thought you could stay out here and live with me." The raw vulnerability in his expression touched Jo's soul. "We're the only family either of us has left."
Cora's solemn blue eyes blinked with understanding. "Don't you have a mama and papa, either?"
"Nope. Your mom and I lost our parents when I was fifteen and your mother was eighteen."
Though his expression remained neutral, Jo sensed a wagonload of sorrow behind the simple words.
Cora clasped her hands at her waist. "Did they die in a fire like my mama and papa?"
Stark anguish exploded in the marshal's gaze, and Jo took an involuntary step backward. His reaction felt too bleak, too powerful for an event that must be almost twenty years past.
Covering his revealing lapse, he absently rubbed his cheek. "Smallpox."
"What's that?" Cora asked.
"It's a sickness." The marshal angled his face toward the light. "It leaves scars."
Jo and Cora leaned closer, both squinting. Sure enough, the rough stubble on his chin covered a scattering of shallow pockmarks. Jo had never been this close to the marshal before and she caught the barest hint of his scent-masculine and clean. Her stomach fluttered. Once again she couldn't help but wonder how all his imperfection added up to down-right handsome.
Cora shrugged. "Your face doesn't look bad."
Jo glanced down at her own rough, homespun skirts and serviceable shirtwaist. Men's flaws made them look tough. But a woman who dressed and acted like a tomboy, well, that was another story. A woman without corkscrew curls and lace collars wasn't worth the time of day. She'd learned that lesson well enough when Tom Walby, the only boy she'd ever had a crush on, had mocked her for being a hoyden before the entire eighth-grade class.
Turned out men fell in love with their eyes first and their hearts second. Which was too bad, really. Nettles were far more useful in life than roses.
"Did you ride a train after your parents died?" Cora asked.
"I don't remember," the marshal replied. "That was a long time ago for me."
Cora nodded her agreement, her flaxen curls bobbing. "You're old, so that musta been a really, really long time ago."
Ducking her head, Jo muffled a laugh. Marshal Cain blinked as though her presence had only now fully registered through the haze of his grief. He hastily stood, knocking his hat to the floor. They both reached for it at the same time, nearly butting heads. Jo touched the brim first. As he accepted his hat, the marshal's rough, callused fingers brushed over hers, sending a scattering of gooseflesh dancing up her arm.
Jo met his dark eyes, astonished by the intensity of his gaze.
"My apologies for not greeting you," he said, sounding more formal than she'd ever heard him. "We met in church once, didn't we?"
"Don't be sorry, Mr. Cain." For some reason, she seemed to have a difficult time catching her breath when he was near. "You've been busier than a termite in a sawmill. I'm JoBeth McCoy."
The admission earned her a dry chuckle. "Seems like you can't turn a corner in this town without running into a McCoy."
Jo grinned. She had five younger brothers, and they never expected her to be anyone but herself. In fact, they'd probably clobber her if she started acting like a regular girl. "They're a handful, yes, sir."
"Reverend Miller says you and Cora have been inseparable."
Jo had taken a proprietary interest in Cora's plight from the beginning. The messages concerning her care had been clipped and chillingly professional. A child thrust into such turmoil needed more than a hired guardian like Mrs. Smith. She needed love and understanding.
Jo squeezed Cora's hand. "I work in the telegraph office. Part of my job is keeping track of unclaimed packages after the trains depart." She winked at Cora. "'Course this was a special case. Everyone needs a friend sometimes, right, Cora?"
The little girl returned the comforting pressure. "Jo-Beth sent twenty-six different messages trying to find you. I counted. JoBeth has five brothers. I counted them, too. I don't have any brothers. Do you have any brothers?"
The marshal and the little girl sized each other up like a couple of nervous spring foals. They were wary, yet curious, too. Suddenly, Jo realized how terribly unnecessary her presence had become. Cora didn't need her anymore-she had Marshal Cain.
Though he'd only been in town a few months, Jo sensed his unwavering resolve. He'd spent his time quietly and methodically cleaning up Cimarron Springs, a Herculean task. Their previous sheriff had been lazy and corrupt, and every outlaw west of the Mississippi had exploited his lax law enforcement. The marshal still had loads of work ahead of him, but he didn't show any signs of slowing.
And now that he and little Cora had each other, they didn't need her.
A band of emotion tightened around Jo's chest. Though she and Cora had known each other a short time, she felt a kinship.
A small hand tugged on her skirts. "How come you don't know Marshal Cain? You said you know everyone in town."
Jo glanced at the marshal and found him studying Reverend Miller's book collection as though it was the most fascinating thing on earth. She wondered if he was thinking about the deluge of invitations he'd received during his first few months in Cimarron Springs. Introducing a new man in town was like tossing raw meat into a pack of wolves. A pack of female wolves.
Warmth crept up Jo's neck. Of course, no one had considered her as a possible love interest. Not even her own parents had invited the marshal for dinner. Not that she cared, since she never planned on marrying. She'd pinched her cheeks and fluttered her eyelashes for Tom Walby and look what that had gotten her. He'd told her he'd rather court his grandfather's mule.
She wasn't about to make the same mistake twice.
Covering her unease, she fanned the tip of her thick, dark braid. "Marshal Cain has only been in town a few months. I guess he's never had call to arrest me. If I was a cattle rustler, we'd be on a first-name basis by now, I'm sure."
Cora giggled. The marshal sputtered, then coughed, and Jo immediately regretted her joke. A little ribbing always worked on her brothers when they were tense, but the marshal seemed embarrassed by her teasing. As the silence stretched out, the walls of Reverend Miller's office closed in around her, and the air grew thick.
Oblivious to the tension gripping the adults, Cora plucked a lemon drop from her paper funnel and popped it into her mouth. "Can I have a puppy?" she spoke, her voice muffled around her candy. "Mama said we couldn't have a puppy in the city. But you live in the country, don't you, Mr. Cain?"
Jo caught the marshal's helpless expression before he quickly masked his thoughts. He'd lost his sister and brother-in-law and discovered he was guardian of his five-year-old niece in the course of a few tragic moments.
He didn't live in the country. He lived in a set of rooms above the jail.
Cora spit the candy into her cupped palm. "The bears won't eat my puppy, will they? Mrs. Smith said Kansas was full of giant man-eating bears."
"Mrs. Smith was mistaken," Marshal Cain replied, his voice no more than a whisper.
Jo instinctively reached out a hand, but the marshal flinched. Flustered, she clenched her teeth and let a flash of anger douse the pain. "I was just being nice. It's not like I was gonna hit you, fool man."
For years after she'd socked Tom in the eye for humiliating her in public, the boys in town had made a point of shrinking away from her in mock terror.
The marshal gingerly touched his side. "It's not that, I bruised a couple ribs in a scuffle up north."
Jo mentally slapped her forehead. Of course he wasn't mocking her, he didn't even know about her humiliation. Why was anger always her first line of defense?
"I'm sorry," she spoke quickly. "Can I get you a a pillow or something?"
"No need. I've suffered worse."
Every time she tried to say the right thing with a man, the feminine thing, it always fell flat. And how had Reverend Miller gotten lost in a two-room church?
She whirled and collided with the object of her ire.
The reverend steadied her with a hand on her elbow. "I see the marshal and his niece have gotten acquainted."
"No thanks to-"
A commotion outside interrupted her words. The reverend clasped his hands, his face pinched. "I believe you're needed outside, Marshal Cain." He glanced meaningfully in Cora's direction. "Tom Walby is in one of his moods."
Jo and Marshal Cain groaned in unison. Tom had grown from an adolescent annoyance into an adult bully with a nasty temper and a penchant for drinking. Every few weeks he got into a fight with his wife and took out his frustration on the local saloon. Jo flipped her braid over her shoulder.
Tom's wife never resisted the opportunity to smirk at her, still lording over her victory all these years later. Considering the prize had been Tom, Jo figured it was a loss she could endure.
"Can you look after Cora?" Marshal Cain directed his question toward Jo, and she eagerly smiled her agreement. "I'll take care of Tom as quick as I can."
The marshal knelt before Cora and enveloped her hand in his grasp. "Don't worry. We have each other now, and everything is going to be all right."
Jo's throat burned with rare emotion. They did have each other. They were a family. Not in the regular way, but a family nonetheless. If God had blessed her with a little girl as precious as Cora, she'd never let her go. Except she'd most likely never have a family of her own. Men didn't court girls who wore trousers beneath their skirts.
Jo shook off the gloomy thoughts. She had five brothers, after all. More family than one girl needed. With the boys already courting, she'd have her own nieces and nephews soon. She'd be the favorite aunt.
Just as long as she didn't end up like Aunt Vicky. The woman had fifteen goats and was known to dress them up for special occasions.
Marshal Cain slapped his hat back on his head. "Much obliged for your help."
He strode out the door, taking with him the crackling energy that surrounded Jo whenever he was near. While she didn't envy the marshal's task, she was grateful for the reprieve.
Surely by the time they met again, this strange, winded feeling would be gone. Besides, she liked him, liked the way he smiled at her, and she didn't want to ruin their camaraderie.
Cora tugged on her skirts. "You have something in your hair."
Ducking, Jo checked her disheveled reflection in the reflective glass of Reverend Miller's bookcase doors. She smoothed her fingers over her braided hair and released a scattering of pear blossoms, then threw up her arms with a groan.
She'd spent the entire conversation with white petals strewn over her dark hair.