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Dutchman's Creek, Colorado May 1920
The sooty cobweb stretched from the chandelier to the high ceiling, a good four feet out of reach. Lurking near its center was a spidera monster with long, prickly legs and a body as big as a copper penny.
Ruby Denby Rumford glared up at her adversary. She'd always had a mortal dread of spiders, but she couldn't let this one get the best of her. If she wanted to attract good tenants for her boardinghouse, the place would have to be spotless from floor to ceiling. The spider had to go.
Circling warily, she plotted her attack. She might be able to reach the web with the broom. But if she knocked the spider loose, it could end up anywherein her hair, in her face, down her blouse Ruby shuddered as she weighed her options. The only way to make sure the creature didn't land on her would be to capture it first.
A dusty Mason jar with a lid sat on the kitchen counter. That would do for a trap. But she'd need something to climb on. Ruby sighed as she surveyed the rickety cane chairs that had come with the old boardinghouse. Maybe she should have paid four-fifty for that stepladder at the hardware store. But buying the property had taken almost all her money. Until the rents started coming in, she would need to hoard every cent she had left.
Moving a chair to the center of the room, she tried standing on the seat; but the spider was still out of reach. She needed something morethat wooden crate in the corner might do. Placed on the chair, it would raise her a good eighteen inches.
With the crate in place, Ruby retrieved the jar and prepared for battle. She could do this, she lectured herself. A woman who'd fired three bullets into her raging, two-hundred-pound husband at point-blank range should have no trouble facing down a creature the size of her thumb.
Hollis Rumford had deserved to die. Even the jurors had agreed after they'd heard how Hollis had abused her and threatened worse to their two young daughters. At the urging of the best lawyer in the state, they'd acquitted Ruby on grounds of self-defense. But her wealthy friendsmostly Hollis's friendshad been less forgiving. The Springfield, Missouri, social set had cut her off cold.
Exhausted and needing a change of scene, she'd fled to Europe with her little girls. A few months later she'd returned to discover that her late husband's estate had been gobbled up by creditors, leaving her with little more than a pittance.
There was nothing to do but pull up stakes and make a new start.
Dutchman's Creek had been a natural choice. Ruby's brother Jace, her only close kin, had settled on a nearby ranch. He and his spirited young bride, Clara, were expecting their first baby. They'd urged Ruby to come to Colorado so their children could grow up together.
Ruby had welcomed the invitation. She'd seen the town on an earlier visit and been captivated by its peaceful mountain setting. She'd always been close to Jace, and Clara was like a sister to her. But she had no intention of becoming a burden to them. Whatever it took, she'd vowed, she would find a way to provide for herself and her children.
The vacant boarding house at the south end of Main Street had looked like an answer to her prayers. She and her daughters could live on the main floor and rent the four upstairs rooms for a steady income.
Only now was she beginning to realize how much she'd taken on.
She was glad she'd accepted Clara's invitation to take the girls for the week. Mandy and Caro were having the time of their lives on the ranch, riding horses, climbing trees, bottle-feeding orphaned calves and gathering eggs in the chicken coop.
Meanwhile, their mother had a spider to dispose of.
Clutching the jar in one hand, she hitched up her narrow skirt and hoisted herself onto the edge of the chair. Her brother had offered to come and help her get the place in shape. Ruby had turned him down out of stubborn pride. Jace had already done enough for her, risking his life and freedom to protect her after Hollis's death. It was time she learned to manage on her own.
Holding her breath, Ruby mounted the crate. Her knees quivered as she steadied her balance on the wooden slats. Seconds, that was all she'd need to do the job.
Close up, the spider looked bigger and nastier than ever. Steeling herself, Ruby twisted the lid off the Mason jar and positioned it below the creature. A little more stretch and she could use the lid to maneuver it inside. Heart pounding, she eased onto her tiptoes.
A wooden slat splintered beneath her weight. Thrown off balance, Ruby lurched upward. The jar shattered against the floor as she grabbed for the chain that suspended the small chandelier. Miraculously, the chain held. But her thrashing feet had toppled the crate and chair, leaving her to dangle above the wreckage. The distance to the floor wasn't all that far, but falling could land her on a splintered board, a jutting chair leg or shards of broken glass.
The web was empty now. The spider, she realized, could be anywhere. Panic clenched Ruby's stomach. Her grip was getting weaker, and she had no safe place to fall. There was only one thing she could do.
Scream bloody murder.
U.S. Deputy Marshal Ethan Beaudry had been assigned to weed out bootleggers, not rescue females in distress. But the shrieks coming from the old boarding house were too urgent to ignore. Vaulting the picket fence, he charged up the steps and burst through the front door.
His breath caught in his throat.
The woman had stopped screaming. She hung by her arms, staring down at him from beneath a tumble of red-gold hair. Her eyes were as blue as the heart of a mountain columbine.
She did make a fetching sight, dangling like an acrobat from the chandelier chain, with her white blouse pulled loose and her skirt hiked over her shapely calves. Ethan was tempted to spend a few more seconds admiring the view. But then she spoke.
"What are you staring at, you fool? Stop gawking and get me down from here!"
Her voice was low, with a taut, gravelly edge that roused Ethan's senses. "Do you trust me to catch you?" he teased.
"Are you sure you're strong enough?" she retorted. "I'm not what you'd call a little woman."
No, she certainly wasn't, Ethan observed. At five foot eight or nine with a body that could grace the bow of a frigate, she'd make an armful for any man.
He wouldn't mind being that man.
Kicking aside the debris, Ethan stood beneath her and held out his arms. "Come on," he said.
She hesitated, her eyes taking the measure of his broad shoulders and six-foot-two-inch height. One by one, her fingers peeled away from the chain.
With a little yelp, she dropped straight down, feet first. Ethan caught her awkwardly around the knees. From there she slid down the front of him, delicious curves gliding intimately down his face, over his chest, down his belly to
Lord have mercy, he was in trouble now. His erection had sprung up with coiled-spring efficiency, ready for playtime. She would have felt it all the way down.
Feet touching the floor, she pushed away from him. Her face was flushed, her full lips parted. Ethan fought the temptation to fling caution to the wind, seize her in his arms and kiss her till she burned. The lady would probably slap him hard enough to dislocate his jaw. And she was a lady. Ethan made a practice of reading people, and he was certain of that. Her clothes were simple but expensively made. The Irish-linen blouse, smudged with dust and edged with the barest touch of lace, looked European, as did the daintily pointed kidskin oxfords. And he would bet money that the pearl studs in her earlobes were as genuine as her upper-class Midwestern accent.
So what was such a woman doing in this run-down boardinghouse, a rumored delivery point for the bootlegging trade? He didn't want to believe she was involved. But he'd known stranger things to happen.
A flick of her tongue moistened her lower lip. Her complexion was like a porcelain doll's, but close up, Ethan could see the careworn shadows beneath her eyes. He estimated her age at about thirty, and something told him she'd had her share of troubles. He'd noticed right off she wasn't wearing a wedding ring. But she was far too stunning not to have married. A widow, Ethan surmised. A luscious redheaded widow who'd been around the block and knew every step of the way.
Intriguing. And damn tempting.
Ethan brought himself up with a mental slap. He'd come here to do a risky job. As long as he was working undercover, he'd be crazy to get personally involved even with a female as enticing as this one.
But that didn't mean he couldn't have a little fun.
The silence between them had begun to crackle like the air before a summer storm. Ethan cleared his throat.
"Are you all right?" he asked her.
She hesitated, as if examining herself for inner wounds. "Yes, but I think I oh!"
Her body stiffened, eyes jerking wide. With urgent gasps, she began yanking at the front of her blouse, popping the tiny shell buttons in her haste. Ethan made a gentlemanly show of averting his eyes, but continued to steal furtive glances desire warring with dismay. Either the woman was in genuine danger or her nerves had snapped.
As the last button gave way, she ripped the blouse off her body, shook it furiously at arm's length and flung it to the floor. Ethan felt a touch on his arm. Turning, he met her frozen gaze. "If you please." Her voice was a husky breath. "I need you to look."
Her lacy camisole and gently cinched corset covered her modestly. Still, the woman looked good enough to lick like a strawberry ice-cream cone. Ethan feasted his eyes as she slowly turned.
There, clinging to the back of her pink satin corset was a Texas-size brown spider. It didn't strike him as a venomous sort, but he couldn't blame the lady for being spooked. He wasn't crazy about spiders himself.
"Hold still," he muttered, raising his hand.
A quick brush sent the spider flying toward the floor. Ethan would have crushed it with his boot, but it skittered down a crack in the planking and disappeared.
The woman's knees sagged. Ethan readied his arms to catch her in a faint, but she righted herself as if by force of will. Snatching up the discarded blouse, she thrust her arms into the sleeves, pushed the remaining buttons through their holes and tucked the hem into the waist of her skirt. Only when she was as presentable as she could make herself did she turn back to face him. Her face was pale, but her ripe lips managed a smile.
"We haven't been properly introduced," she said, offering her hand. "I'm Ruby Rumford. I just bought this place, and I'm very much in your debt."
"Ethan Beaudry. Happy I could be of help, ma'am." Ethan accepted her handshake. Her fingers were strong and smooth, her manner so genuine that it made him want to cringe in self-disgust. Only a low-down snake would lie to such a woman. But that was exactly what he was about to do.
Ruby turned the name over in her mind like a child examining a pebble. She liked the sound of it, and the way it suited everything about himdark, rugged features, a rangy body and a drawl you could cut with a butter knife.
She remembered how he'd caught her in his arms and lowered her to the floor, paying no heed to the sparks their bodies had ignited on the way down. Ruby understood men well enough to know that some things couldn't be helped. But she'd been surprised at her own response to that brief contact. It had been so many years since she'd experienced anything good with a man, she'd forgotten what it felt like.
Sliding down the front of Ethan Beaudry had sent a shock of pleasure all the way to her toes.
But what was she thinking? With Hollis gone barely a year, the last thing she needed was another man in her life. She had a future to forge and two daughters to raise. And she had her own shattered sense of self to rebuild. After what she'd been through, she was no longer fit to be any man's sweetheart, lover or wife. Maybe she never would be.
She was damaged goodsdamaged to the roots of her soul.
"I'm sorry I can't offer you something to drink." She glanced toward the front door. Ethan realized it was his cue to leave. But he wasn't ready to walk out on what might be his best chance to learn more about her.
"You say you just bought this property?" He righted the chair, inviting her to sit.
"Yes. I signed the papers two days ago." She sat on the edge of the seat, clasping her fingers in her lap. "I'll be open for boarders as soon as I get the place cleaned upif the spiders will let me." Her edgy little laugh deepened the dimples in her cheeks. Ethan swore silently. Why did she have to be so damn appealing?
"Don't you have anyone to help you?" he asked.
"Nobody that I can afford to pay. My brother offered to come, but I didn't want to impose on him." She glanced down at her hands, then met his eyes again. Her long lashes were the color of molasses taffy. "How was it you were able to hear me and rush right in, Mr. Beaudry? You must have been close by."
"Please call me Ethan. And yes, I was out for some morning air, just passing this place when I heard you. It was pure luck."
Lie number one. Ethan had been keeping an eye on the vacant boarding house since his arrival a week ago. The recent passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, outlawing the manufacture, transportation and selling of alcohol for consumption, had spawned an epidemic of illegal whiskey stills and a network of criminal activity. The U.S. Marshals Service had been assigned the job of law enforcement in this matter.
The back cellar of the hitherto-empty boardinghouse was a suspected drop-off spot for illegal moonshine whiskey, to be loaded onto trucks and hauled away for clandestine sale in places like Denver, Omaha and Kansas City. Ethan had seen tire tracks and boot prints leading around the building though he had yet to catch anyone in the act. But identifying the deliverymen wasn't why he'd come to Dutchman's Creek. He was after the boss who was running the operation, not his errand boys.