Rhyne Abbot is fierce, brave, and used to a life of isolation on her father's spread on the outskirts of Reidsville, Colorado. But when, overcome with sickness, she collapses, she knows she must return to town if she is to have any hope of recovery. Only there is no place for her but the new doctor's home, and he wants more than just to heal Rhyne. He wants her hand in marriage.
Until One Man Found The Key
Doctor Cole Monroe's hands are already more than full with his orphaned little sister to look after, and yet somehow he can't resist the magnetic pull of Rhyne's bewitching eyes--or her tempting kiss. But convincing her to trust him won't be easy. For Rhyne's heart needs as much tender care as her ailing body. And the only cure is the thing she most fears: to let herself fall in love. . .
Praise for Jo Goodman and The Price of Desire
"Once again, Goodman delivers a luscious and sensual romance."
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By Jo Goodman
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Joanne Dobrzanski
All right reserved.
Chapter OneReidsville, Colorado September 1884
"I reckon you're thinking this is a fool's errand."
Coleridge Monroe glanced up from closely watching his mare's progress on the narrow mountain trail. He was convinced that her steadiness was directly related to his sharp eye, that if his attention wandered for long, she would happily throw him off. "You don't strike me as a fool, Deputy," he said.
Will Beatty turned easily in his saddle to get a look behind him. "Now that's real kind of you to say so." One corner of his mouth kicked up when he saw how closely Monroe was watching the mare's step. The doctor had about as much schooling as a man could stand, but he didn't know his way around a horse. "No point to you starin' at her like that. I guess Dolly there knows this trail about as well as most trackers. Better than some."
"Really." Cole was skeptical.
"It's a fact. She's as sure-footed a mare as you're likely to find in Joe Redmond's livery, and she's been all over the territory more than once."
Cole dared to look off to his left where the side of the mountain seemed to have been sheared off by a single slashing stroke of the Almighty's hand. He thought of the mountains back east, the ones with the rounded tops and less dramatic inclines, and decided that for all the majesty of the Rockies, he infinitely preferred the gentler, aged Allegheny and Appalachian ranges. He didn't mention this to Will Beatty. The deputy was clearly comfortable with his surroundings. This climb was simply all in a day's work, and this day being Monday, it was his turn to provide escort up the mountain to the town's outliers and loners.
"You all right, Doc?" Will asked. His glance didn't miss much as it took in Coleridge Monroe. The doc was long and lean, but he rode like he had a poker for a spine-one that had been inserted right up his ass, if Sid Walker was to be believed. Sid, who suffered from crippling rheumatism, made this pronouncement after meeting with Monroe for the first time and not caring for what the doctor had to tell him. Worse, he informed everyone, "He's no Doc Diggins. Didn't even offer me a drink." Will was prepared to give the doctor the benefit of the doubt, if not quite as much leeway as the women were. Every female in town seemed to like Coleridge Monroe just fine. Most of them had already found a symptom of one kind or another that required the new doc's attention.
Will didn't see that a thick head of hair the color of an old copper and a couple of green eyes were all that much to stamp the doc as handsome, but even his wife seemed to think different. Normally she was sensible about men, which served her well enough when she had been the town's sole madam, but now that she was his wife, she liked to tease him by waxing on about Coleridge Monroe's fine looks. Patrician, she called them. Outside of her hearing, he'd asked the sheriff what that meant. Noble, he'd been told. Women apparently said that when a man had a nose like a blade, a jawbone set so tight it could grind glass, and a certain remoteness that was not unattractive. Be that as it may, right now the noble doc looked as though he'd like to puke. Will thought that was probably why he took some pleasure in pointing it out. "If you don't mind me saying, you're looking a little peaked."
Cole refocused his attention on Dolly's progress. "Peaked. That's a good word for it considering our location."
It took Will a moment to catch the doctor's meaning. When he did, he slapped his thigh. "Well, I'll be." He grinned, and two deep, crescent-shaped dimples appeared on either side of his mouth. "That ain't half bad. A little peaked." His smile faded when he saw Coleridge start to weave in the saddle. "Lean forward. Grab Dolly's mane. You gotta help her up the slope."
Cole was loath to release the reins, so he plunged his gloved fingers into the mare's ebony mane with the reins still wound between them. Dolly tossed her head at the suddenness of his move, but she held steady to the trail. Cole caught his breath, sucking in air between clenched teeth. Light-headedness faded.
"How you doin'?" Will asked. "Should we stop for a bit?"
"No. I'm good. Just some vertigo."
"How's that again?"
"Vertigo. Dizziness." He didn't explain it was a common enough symptom in response to heights. He doubted Will Beatty had ever experienced it. "I don't recognize this route we're taking. I had a map the sheriff drew for me the last time I attempted this."
"Oh, Wyatt wouldn't have sent you this way. Not on your own. There's another trail we could have followed, but that would have taken longer. I figured you were anxious to make the acquaintance of the Abbots and get back to town straightaway."
Cole would not let himself dwell on what route the deputy meant for them to take on their return. It would be a true measure of Will Beatty's compassion if he elected to follow the trail first suggested by the sheriff.
The deputy and his mount crested the ridge first, and Dolly dutifully followed. It took Cole a moment to realize they had ceased to climb. His grip on the mare's mane eased, and he sat up straight, shrugging the knots out of his shoulders and between his blades. Will slowed and allowed him to draw close.
"Not bad for a greenhorn," Will said. "You did all right, Doc."
Cole's tight smile was more in the way of grimace. "Thanks. I think."
"No, I mean it. You spooked me a little back there. Dolly, too. Thought you might slide right out of your saddle, but you held fast. I don't tell everyone this, but I had some of that vertigo once watching ol' Doc Diggins take a slug out of Wyatt's chest. Had to hold a bucket in my lap and my head over the bucket. I reckon that's the kind of thing that doesn't bother you at all."
Coleridge Monroe regarded the deputy a long moment, this time with appreciation for the man's forthrightness. "Was that the last time someone was shot in town?"
Will thought about it, then nodded. "Yeah, that'd be right. Guess that'd be a year and a bit now. We had a hangin' since then, but that was after a regular trial. Judge Wentworth saw that everything was done proper. Anyway, Wyatt and me don't hold with lynchin', though Lord knows, it's tempting when you gotta wait a stretch for the judge to make his rounds."
Cole wasn't certain how he should respond. He elected to offer up a noise from the back of his throat that could be interpreted as the deputy saw fit. It turned out to be enough encouragement for Will Beatty to continue in the same vein.
"Now, outside of the town proper we had a couple of miscreants-that's the sheriff's word for them, and he does set store by a particular word now and again. You know what that means, don't you, Doc?"
"Figured you did, you being an educated man and all. Columbia, is that right?"
"Yes. How did you know? You weren't on the search committee."
"No, but my wife was. Still is, matter of fact, if you don't work out like they hope. Contract's for a year, ain't it?"
"Well, don't you worry. I'll put in a good word for you now and again. I can see you got grit, comin' up here the way you are, 'specially after being shot at on your last trip."
Cole was fairly certain he didn't want to think about that. The bullet had shaved the bark off an aspen only a foot away. His mount, demonstrating more skittishness than the stalwart Dolly, unseated and abandoned him. He'd walked most of a mile before he caught up with the horse, wondering a good part of the way if he could expect a bullet in his back. "What about the miscreants?"
"Uh? Oh, those poor bastards. Forgot all about them." Will saw that the doctor was handling the pace he'd set well enough, so he increased it slightly as they rode the ridgeline. The goal he'd set for himself was to get where they were going and get home again with some daylight to spare. He didn't think Monroe or Dolly would do nearly as well after dark. "Let's see," he went on. "That was about four or five months ago. They say trouble comes in threes, but these two didn't need help. They rode out this way from Denver after getting drunked up and shootin' off their guns in a fancy house. Killed one of the girls, though no one's sure they meant to. Seems they were out of sorts with someone at their card table, and she happened to be sittin' in the fellow's lap. What I heard is that they finally got him and then they ran."
Cole glanced around. The landscape was as rugged and harsh as it was breath-stealing. Much higher up, snowcapped peaks glinted in the bright sunlight. Rocky crags made the climb to their summits appear unforgiving if not impossible. Around him, aspens shivered one after the other as the air stirred, their timing and execution as exquisite as a corps of ballerinas. Cocking his head to one side, Cole sought out the sound of a mountain stream. The swift rush of water made its own music, a steady percussive accompaniment to the occasional cries of birds and the murmur of the wind through the trees.
There was a terrible beauty to the vista that could make a man admire it and be cautious at the same time.
"Why did they come this way?" he asked, though he suspected he knew Will's answer. A man could get lost here.
"Lots of hidey-holes," the deputy told him.
That was another way of saying it, Cole supposed. In aid of suppressing a wry smile, he raised his gloved fist to his mouth and cleared his throat. "You found them, though, didn't you?"
"That's a fact. Sheriff's a member of the Rocky Mountain Detective Association. We went out as soon as we got the wire up from the Denver marshal, though I recollect now that there was a delay at the Denver end, and that gave them a good jump on us and every other lawman in these parts. Sheriff and I were out the better part of three days before we caught their trail. It wasn't hard after that, what with them circling back on themselves. When it was all said and done, Wyatt thought we could have saved ourselves a heap of trouble if we'd stayed in one place and just let them come to us. O'course, that wouldn't have really worked since they were dead when we found 'em."
"Dead," Cole repeated. "Shot?"
"Hell, yes. That's why I'm telling you this story, ain't it? You asked about shootings, remember?"
Reflecting on their conversation, Cole thought he probably had. There was a lesson in this, he decided, one of many he was likely to learn if he stayed in Reidsville: don't ask that no-account Beatty boy a question if you didn't have time for the answer.
"One in the face, the other in the crotch," Will said. "Wyatt thinks they had a falling out and turned on each other. Guns were right there beside them. The one shot in the face still had a cold grip on his. The one that took it in the privates dropped his Colt and was curled up like a baby, still clutchin' his balls when he died. Guess that comforted him some, knowin' he was leaving this world with his parts attached-even if he knew he was going to hell, which I think he must have suspicioned."
"I'm sure he did."
Will simply nodded. He pointed off to the right, indicating to Cole that he should start moving in that direction. "I guess it's not all that odd that it should come back to me so clear now."
"What do you mean?" asked Cole, ducking under the low spiny branch of a pine.
The deputy shrugged. "Don't know exactly, except that I can see their twisted selves like they were lyin' there on the ground in front of us. We found them in a scooped out section of hillside. Not properly a cave, on account of it not really going anywhere. Might have been a mine entrance once upon a time, though it didn't look as though it had ever been shored up with timbers. Probably abandoned right off when there was a strike somewhere else. That happened a lot in these parts in the early days."
Cole remained quiet, letting Will sort out his thoughts. A sideways glance revealed the deputy's contemplative profile. "What I mean about it not bein' odd," Will said at length, "is that it wasn't but a piece from here that we found them. Seems like it might be natural to see it so clear like in my mind right now." He fell silent again, then said suddenly, "I could take you there if you want. That is, after we get you introduced proper to the Abbots. There's enough time for that, I reckon."
Coleridge Monroe had no idea what a proper response might be. He was saved from having to come up with one by the blast that reverberated through the mountain pass. He ducked instinctively.
Will Beatty was careful not to laugh, though one corner of his mouth twitched. "Been expecting that," he said. "That'd be Runt warning us off."
Cole was prepared to say that perhaps they should heed the warning when Will drew his rifle from the scabbard and fired a shot in the air. His ears were still ringing as the deputy paused for a ten count and fired a second round.
"That'll let Runt know it's me," Will said, sheathing the rifle. "He won't know who you are, but he'll give you the benefit of the doubt 'cause I'm with you."
Cole looked to his right and left, peering back over his shoulder as much as he was able.
"Don't get all twisted there, Doc, and take a tumble. You won't see him until he's of a mind to let you. That's how it is with Runt. He's real cautious of folk. Always was more or less, but it's worse now that his brothers are gone."
"Runt? I thought the sheriff said it was Ryan Abbot that most likely took a shot at me the last time."
"Ryan. Yeah. He's the one. Call him Runt the same way folks like to call me that no-account Beatty boy. You get a name put to you around these parts and it pretty much sticks like pine sap."
"Things aren't so different where I come from."
Will thought he detected an undercurrent in the doctor's tone, not bitterness precisely, but something akin to resignation. "Reckon it's a universal condition, Doc, unless you got something in your little black bag for it."
"No." Cole shook his head. "No, I don't."
"Well, then, back to Runt. You can guess how he got his name."
"Smallest of the litter?"
"That's right, though there aren't but the three boys. Like I said, the older ones have moved on. Last I heard, Rusty-he'd be the oldest, about thirty-five or so, I'd guess-"
Cole interrupted. "Redhead?"
"What? Oh, his nickname, you mean. No, he was born Russell Abbot and has hair as black as a sinner's heart. He was called that on account of a crick in his knee that sounded like a hinge needin' some grease. Like I was saying, last I heard he found religion and two wives when a group of pilgrims came through here a while back. Settled himself in Utah."
"Seems like. If Runt's in a favorable mood, I might ask after Rusty."
The trail widened as they made a gradual descent. They left the relative protection of the trees for a gently sloping grassland. A scattering of black-faced sheep on the hillside suddenly huddled together and then moved as swiftly as a nimbus cloud toward a rough-hewn cabin and outbuildings set in the bed of the valley. Chickens ran in circles in the yard. A cow lowed mournfully.
Cole had come upon this scene before but not from this vantage point or at so close a distance. The shot that drove him away with his tail between his legs-if not his horse-had come when he was still on the periphery of the clearing, just barely revealed amidst a phalanx of aspens. He raised the brim of his hat a fraction and squinted against the sunlight glancing off the stream that ran through the valley.
"Where is he?" asked Cole. "I don't see anyone."
"Well, he sure as hell isn't waiting for us on that sad excuse of a porch. C'mon, we need to keep going."
"What about the other brother? You said he's not around either."
"That's right. Randy left about the same time Rusty did. Now, he had a way with the ladies. Always did, though I think they called him Randy 'cause his Christian name was Randall. Still, I remember people speculatin' on whether he just grew into his name, like the egg maybe came before the chicken."
Cole had been to Longabach's restaurant with his sister several times since their arrival. Estella Longabach's meaty stew was served with a side of speculation, giving her customers a double order of something to chew on. Cole could easily imagine the chicken and egg debate occupying the diners for an evening.
Excerpted from Marry Me by Jo Goodman Copyright © 2010 by Joanne Dobrzanski. Excerpted by permission.
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