After his train is robbed at gunpoint, Remington Frost awakens from a blow to find the bandits gone…along with the woman he was shadowing for protection. No stranger to risk, Remington will do what it takes to bring Phoebe Apple to safety and her kidnappers to justice. But ransoming Phoebe is just the start of trouble…
Phoebe is shocked to learn that her mysterious rescuer is none other than Remington Frost, the son of her sister’s new husband. Home at Twin Star Ranch, she falls happily into western life—and cautiously in love with Remington. But danger hides close to home, and their romance illuminates a web of secrets and betrayal that may put the rancher and his intended bride past the point of rescue.
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Frost Falls, Colorado
"He's got eyes for you. I know about these things, and I'm not wrong about this. Just see if he doesn't."
Belatedly, Phoebe Apple's attention was drawn from the window where the landscape passed at a measured, hypnotic speed, to the fellow traveler on her left. "Pardon?" she asked, turning slightly in her seat to address the older woman. There had been precious few words exchanged since they had boarded together in Denver, and Phoebe had a desire to keep it that way. As a rule, she favored conversation, but found it more comfortable when it was going on around her.
She offered an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry. Woolgathering. I didn't hear what you said."
"I see that plain enough. You've had your nose pressed to that window for the better part of the last hour. Like a beggar at the bake shop." She presented this with a hint of amusement, no reproof. "Deep thoughts, I take it."
Phoebe presented a light shrug but made no comment about the depth of her thoughts. She required a moment to recall the woman's name. There had been introductions at the point of taking their seats, but Phoebe found herself struggling to bring forth a name.
"Amanda Tyler," the woman said. "Mrs. Jacob C. Tyler."
"Of course." Having been caught out, Phoebe felt herself flushing. "Phoebe Apple."
"Oh, I remember." Mrs. Jacob C. Tyler leaned a few degrees toward Phoebe and whispered in confidential tones, "Don't look now, but he's glancing your way again."
Startled, Phoebe's chin came up a fraction and she cast her eyes in every direction except behind her. It was the hand suddenly covering one of hers and squeezing gently that grounded her. She dropped her head and stared at her lap, aware now of the softness of Mrs. Tyler's palm, the pressure of plump fingers, and that comfort and admonishment were being offered simultaneously.
Under her breath, Phoebe asked, "Who is watching me?"
"I didn't exactly say he's watching you. More like he's got an interest."
"Why would he be interested in me?"
Mrs. Tyler sat back again and released Phoebe's hand in order to give it a few light taps. "You have a passing acquaintance with a mirror, don't you?"
Phoebe turned fully sideways to regard Mrs. Tyler and was confronted by the woman's clearly entertained expression. "I know what I see in the mirror, Mrs. Tyler, but that is neither here nor there." She wiggled the fingers of her left hand, drawing attention to the gold wedding band. "I am married." She widened the opening of the pale gray cape she was wearing, modestly exposing her rounded belly. "And then there is this." She splayed her fingers across her abdomen. "There is every possibility that I will give birth before I reach Frost Falls. It is that imminent."
Mrs. Tyler chuckled appreciatively. Creases radiated from the corner of her eyes like rays of sunshine, adding lines to what was otherwise a seamless face. Her smoothly rounded countenance made her a woman of indeterminate age, certainly north of forty given that there were silver threads in her sandy-colored hair, but how far north was impossible to know.
"He entered this car after we were seated," she said. "I can't imagine that he saw your ring or took note of your condition. The way he looks at you suggests to me that neither would be an impediment. I have the sense that he's a man who enjoys looking."
Phoebe frowned, troubled. It was difficult not to seek out the man.
Mrs. Tyler's smile faded along with the lines at the corner of her eyes. Two small vertical creases appeared between her eyebrows. "Oh, I see that I've done harm. Nothing I said was meant to worry you. I thought you would be flattered or at least diverted. It seemed to me you were in need of a bit of diversion, but clearly I mistook the matter." She twisted the brilliant cut pear shape diamond ring on her finger. "My husband will tell you that I frequently say what's on my mind with no sense that my observations might not be well received. I do apologize."
"There's no need that you should." Force of habit had Phoebe responding quickly, too quickly perhaps to give her words the weight of sincerity. "Truly. You aren't wrong that I am in need of a bit of diversion."
"Well, if you're sure." Mrs. Tyler said the words uncertainly, but she did not wait for confirmation before she plunged ahead. "Four seats in front on the left. He is in a seat facing this way, though how he can ride backwards on the train is something I will never understand. He's wearing a black duster and a black, silver-banded hat. Quick. Look now."
Phoebe did. It was only possible to glimpse him in profile before his head began to swivel back in her direction. She could not be sure that he meant to look at her again-if Mrs. Tyler's observation could be trusted-but she did not want to take the chance that she would be spied studying him. The wide brim of his hat shaded his face, making it difficult to see much more than sharply carved features set in a fashion that could most kindly be described as grim. She had the impression of dark, unkempt hair, overlong so that it curled at the collar of his duster, and at least a day's growth of stubble defined his jaw.
Oddly, neither his hard, forbidding expression nor his lack of interest in barbers diminished Phoebe's sense that here was an attractive man.
"Do you know him?" asked Phoebe, speaking out of the side of her mouth.
"No. Never saw him before, but then maybe you don't recall that I told you right off that I'm not from these parts. Saint Louis born and raised."
"Yes. I remember now. You're going to Liberty Junction. That's farther along the line than Frost Falls."
"That's right. My son and daughter-in-law just settled there. He's managing the hotel and gambling house."
Mrs. Tyler surreptitiously nudged Phoebe with her elbow. "I take it you don't know him. The man watching you, I mean. Not my son."
Phoebe shook her head. "I think I might have seen him at the station in Saint Louis, but I don't know him."
"Don't know as you could have any question one way or the other, so it probably wasn't him. His good looks stick in my mind the way hot porridge sticks to my ribs."
Mrs. Tyler shrugged. "Maybe it's different for you. Maybe you only have eyes for your husband, which is nice on the face of it. You're young. Time yet to discover that there's no harm in looking or being looked at."
Phoebe risked another glance four rows up and on the left. The gentleman-and Phoebe was resolute in naming him as such-had reclined in his seat as much as space would allow. He had shifted his long legs into the aisle and rested one boot across the other. His arms were folded against his chest and his head was bowed. She imagined that beneath the brim that obscured his face, his eyes were closed. Phoebe felt completely at ease studying him until she noticed the bulge under the duster at his right hip.
"He's carrying a gun," she said.
Mrs. Tyler nodded and amusement crept into her features again. "I do believe you're right, but I hardly imagine he is alone. Surely you've read some of the popular dime novels. Nat Church is a favorite of mine, and I don't mind saying so."
"Mine also, but I believe the tales of gunfights and entanglements at high noon are exaggerated for dramatic effect."
"Perhaps." One of Mrs. Tyler's eyebrows arched in its own dramatic effect. "And perhaps not."
Phoebe's quiet laughter changed the shape of her mouth, lifting the corners, revealing a ridge of white teeth resting on her full lower lip. Her eyes darted to the beaded bag wedged between her hip and the side of the train car. She slipped a hand through the reticule's strings and pulled it onto her lap.
"That's a beautiful bag," said Mrs. Tyler. "May I?"
Phoebe held it up for the woman to examine more closely but she did not release it. "Seed pearls and jet beads. It was a gift."
Mrs. Tyler tentatively ran her fingertips across the beadwork. "It's exquisite. Wherever did you find it?"
"Paris. But I didn't find it. As I said, it was a gift." Phoebe regarded the bag with more careful study than it deserved and said in a low voice, "He's looking this way again, isn't he?"
"Perhaps he's admiring the bag," she said.
"Lord, I hope not. It would be so disappointing."
That made Phoebe laugh again. She lowered the reticule and Mrs. Tyler withdrew her hand. She was still smiling, carefully avoiding eye contact with the stranger, when she felt a subtle change in the train's rhythm. "Did you-" Her question remained unfinished because the next variation in the clackety-clack cadence was not at all subtle. Engine No. 486, a powerful workhorse of Northeast Rail, regularly carrying passengers, mail, and cargo from New York to points west by way of Chicago, Saint Louis, and Denver, jerked, juddered, stuttered, and squealed, and began to slow at a rate that threw people forward or pushed them back into their seats.
Mrs. Tyler threw an arm sideways in aid of protecting Phoebe and Phoebe's swollen belly. It was of marginal helpfulness, keeping Phoebe from becoming a projectile that would have landed her with considerable force against the empty bench seat across the way, but not keeping either of them in place. They both dropped to the space between the forward and rear seats, banging their knees and landing in an awkward brace of limbs. Mrs. Tyler's arm was squeezed between the lip of the forward seat and Phoebe's abdomen. There was time enough for her to give Phoebe a curious look before the train bucked and buckled and they were thrown sideways into the aisle. Mrs. Tyler took the brunt of the fall, supporting Phoebe's slighter weight in the cushion of her plump bosom, arms, and thighs.
"Don't try to move yet, dear," Mrs. Jacob C. Tyler said. "I'm fine. You're fine. No sense-" She stopped because men were shouting, a woman was weeping, and at least two children were caterwauling in a forward car. There was no point in talking when action was what was called for. She held Phoebe close, keeping her still until she realized that Phoebe was not moving. "We need some help here!" she shouted. "Help here!"
She was in no expectation that help was coming. She could not be sure that anyone had heard her above the din. The train was moving but still slowing; the floorboards vibrated against her spine and backside. "Mrs. Apple?" She raised her head as far as she was able in an attempt to reach Phoebe's ear. "Mrs. Apple?"
Phoebe groaned. Her eyelids fluttered. "I'm here. I'm fine."
"How's that? Did you say something?"
This time Phoebe nodded. It was more effective than trying to speak. She managed to place her hands on either side of Mrs. Tyler's shoulders and push herself high enough to create some space between her and her comfortable cushion. She slid a knee between Mrs. Tyler's, found more leverage, and was finally able to sit up. She scooted backward, took Mrs. Tyler's hands in hers, and pulled her to a sitting position as well.
They stared at each other for what felt to be several long moments but was probably no more than a couple of pounding heartbeats. Nodding simultaneously, they yanked at their skirts, untangling them from under their knees so they could rise unimpeded. Using the seats for purchase, they lifted themselves just far enough to collapse into their respective places.
The train stopped. The silence was eerie. It was not that people were no longer shouting or weeping or caterwauling, it was merely that the train had ceased to be the steady, comforting percussion that meant there was forward progress. There was none of that now.
Phoebe looked around to see where she could help. Behind her, passengers were getting to their knees or coming to their feet. One man held a handkerchief to his nose. Blood speckled the white cotton. He waved her on, indicating he was fine or that he would be. A mother was huddled in one corner of a bench seat, her young daughter in her lap. They were locked in a fierce hold that looked to be reassuring for both of them.
Phoebe moved her gaze forward, four rows up and to the left. Her lips parted on a small, sharp intake of air. He was not in his seat. "He's hurt," she said, no question in her mind that Mrs. Tyler would know to whom she was referring. Without communicating her intention, she sidled past Mrs. Tyler and stepped into the narrow aisle. She started forward, felt a tug on her skirt, and looked back and down to find Mrs. Tyler holding a fistful of mint green broadcloth. "It's all right. I think he's unconscious. Someone needs to attend to him."
Mrs. Tyler unfolded her fingers. "Fine. But have a care. Handsome doesn't mean he's not dangerous. Sometimes they go hand in hand."
Phoebe knelt at the stranger's head and put one hand on his shoulder. She shook him gently. There was no response. Out of the corner of her eye, Phoebe saw his hat lying under a seat. She leaned sideways, pulled it out, and set it on the flat of his abdomen. His duster lay open, and what she had suspected was a gun was exactly that. Without knowing why she did it, she raised the right side of the duster and drew it across the weapon, then secured the coat by tucking part of it under his hat.
Phoebe raised her head. The man who had addressed her was peering over the back of his seat. His bowler sat at an angle on his head that might have been jaunty once but was now merely askew. He regarded her out of widely spaced gray eyes that indicated he was experiencing some pain. He did not ask for help. There was a trickle of blood at one corner of his mouth and another just below his left ear. He alternately dabbed at the wounds with two fingertips and then patted the breast pocket of his jacket for a handkerchief. He merely shrugged when he came away empty-handed.
"He was trying to move toward your end of the car," he said. "Perhaps to go to that mother and her child. I don't know what he hit when he went down, but I heard a crack. Or at least I think I did. You might want to look for a bump. I'm going to go forward. Seems to be the heart of most of the commotion."