Sitting in the finest secondhand wedding dress she can find, Emma Parker watches the clock tick down. She needs the most willing cowboy in town to become her husband before the sun setsor she'll lose her first ever real home.
Then Matthew "Singing Trigger" Suede saunters in, and his cover as the "Robin Hood of the West" is almost blown as he escapes from a bank. So Emma offers the renegade an alibi to save him from the noose if only he'll escort her down the aisleimmediately!
About the Author
Carol lives with her real life hero and husband, Rick, in Southern California where she was born and raised. She joined Romance Writers of America where she met generous authors who taught her the craft of writing a romance novel. With the knowledge she gained, she sold her first book and saw her life-long dream come true. She enjoys hearing from readers and invites you to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Read an Excerpt
Land sakes! What did a woman have to do to get a husband in this cowboy-thick towndance naked on the back of a steer?
Emma Parker licked a film of dust from her lips to make them look moist and alluring, but it was no use. She had been perched upon the bench outside the land office for so long that the wind, a perverse thing that spared no regard for a woman's appearance, had spun her into a mound of bedraggled frippery.
No wonder the men passing by paid her no mind. July sunshine burned down like a blister to complete the ruination of her gown. Damp pink taffeta clung to her throat while a hank of droopy lace sagged against her bosom. Truly, what had ever made her think to spend a years' worth of egg money on the ineffective garment?
A drip of perspiration trickled between her breasts, not unlike the disturbing sensation of a spider skittering over her skin. Mercy, for a dime she'd take a plunge into the Arkansas River flowing south of town, new dress be hanged.
There might have been a cooler, less dirt-ridden part of town to seek a spouse, but the men here kept up a constant coming and going. Not a moment passed that one didn't come out of the mercantile or go into the saloon. This ought to have been as easy as plucking peaches from a tree.
To bolster her spirits, Emma touched her breast where a letter from a former employer was folded between her skin and the lace of her shift. She no longer needed to see the letter in order to read it. Every word was memorized, burned into her heart, giving life to her dreams.
"'Dear Emma,'" she recited in a whisper. "'We find that we must move on in haste. Our wonderful homestead, a pure piece of paradise, will be free for the taking. We know how you yearn for a home of your own. Time is not on your side, dear. Catch the first train to Dodge before some other lucky soul files on it. May your future return to you all the joy and kindness that you have shown to our children over the years. Please do come quickly. Edna Harkins.'"
So far she had been lucky. The former Harkins place had not been filed on. It was destined to be hers, even if she had to flirt with every last bachelor in Dodge to get it.
Emma watched a prospective groom rumble down the earthen street in his wagon. Her loveliest smile earned no more than a raised hat when he rolled past. Drat if the jingle of his harness didn't sound as if it was laughing at her.
This rough splintered bench should have been the perfect spot to catch a man. She couldn't imagine what she was doing wrong. Weren't the men of the west desperate for helpful mates? She'd always heard that was true, but her efforts at appearing irresistible seemed to be falling flat.
She'd bet a pretty penny that the man in the wagon would have no trouble at all filing a claim. His gender alone would make it a simple thing.
Pinpricks of irritation plucked at her patience. She wouldn't even need a husband if the politicians who had passed the Homestead Act had been more open-minded about the rules. Even the clerk in the land office acted as if he had written them himself, the way he stuck to the very letter of the law.
Earlier this morning she had explained until her voice had grown hoarse that she was an orphan and no one knew her true age.
"The law says you've got to be twenty-one or head of a household. Even if guessing were allowed, you don't look to be more than twenty." The clerk scratched the lower of his double chins and wagged his finger at her. "Besides, I don't see what a pretty little thing like you is going to do with all that land. No sir, it doesn't seem safe or proper."
And when had her life ever been safe or proper? The homestead was the one thing that would give her that. On her own land she'd put down deep roots where life's whims couldn't blow her about.
"As you'll recall," Emma had said, gathering her patience, "I do have"
"Don't tell me again that your blind horse qualifies you to be head of a household. You've got to have a young'un for that."
That male-thinking nonsense curdled her stomach.
Since adopting a young'un was the very last thing she intended to do, she was stuck with finding a head of the household to file her claim for her. Anyone still breathing would do. After all, they would be married only the few moments it would take the gent to file her claim. The lucky man would then walk away ten dollars richer.
Heavy boot thumps drummed the wooden sidewalk. Emma twirled her dainty satin parasol and glanced to her left with a wide blink and a smile that felt like yesterday's flowers.
A tall man, a dandy by the looks of him, blew a ring of cigarette smoke into the fleeting afternoon. He strode past her with his back stiff and his polished boots reflecting arrows of sunlight.
The stench of stale cologne and nicotine trailed behind him long after he disappeared through the land-office doors.
What if the stick-to-the-letter-of-the-law clerk issued the dandified gent the claim to the homestead that she had traveled hundreds of miles by clackety, bone-jarring train to stake as her own? Her mind saw the transaction occurring as clearly as if the building had no walls.
Emma groaned, then glanced across the street through a gap between a pair of buildings. The sun had already begun its long red slide toward a horizon that looked like the end of the earth itself.
Somewhere on that flat, golden prairie was her new home. She intended to sleep there tonight, to listen to the wind blow over her very own grass. In the morning she would wake to a chorus of birds singing about her shining new future.
Emma redoubled her efforts to attract the attention of a farmer crossing the street only a few yards from where she sat. He stepped into the mercantile without so much as a tipped hat.
"Good morning, Mr. Pendragon." Emma heard an adolescent voice greet the stiff-postured gentleman who had just stepped inside the land office. "Good day for a bank robbery."
"There will be no holdup today, boy," a cultured voice snapped. "I've taken precautions this time."
A redheaded youth stepped outside with a broom gripped in his fists. He shoved it back and forth across the boardwalk with a swish and sway.
The boy paused in his sweeping to nod at her. "You sit there long enough, ma'am, and you'll see The Ghost."
Emma didn't want to see a ghostshe wanted to see a willing man. Too bad this boy attacking the dust on the walk was so young.
What had to be Mr. Pendragon's voicesounding peevedcarried out of the land-office door. "There is no ghost, young sir! It's merely a thief determined to get his neck stretched."
The boy stopped sweeping and leaned against the broom handle. He gazed down the sidewalk, past the mercantile toward the bank.
"He's a thief, all right," he muttered to Emma. "The money's always good and gone. But he's no mortal bank robberanyone will say so."
"They will?" Emma asked, trying to ignore the sun slipping another notch toward the horizon.
"There's a ghost and it's a fact." The boy resumed his sweeping, stirring up a swell of dust that settled on her eyelashes and tickled her nose.
"I expect even The Ghost is married," Emma mumbled.
"Beg pardon, ma'am?"
"Never mind. What makes you so certain the bank will be robbed today?"
The boy sat down beside her on the bench. He lowered his voice to a confidential whisper.
"That fellow inside, Mr. Pendragon, got paid on a load of cattle he shipped east. Made a big deposit to the bank this morning." He nodded toward the doorway of the land office. "The Ghost only robs Mr. Pendragon."
"How considerate." She tapped her toe on the boardwalk. Time was quickly becoming her enemy. "Mr. Pen-dragon sounds like an English gentleman."
"He's someone lordly. Got a huge spread outside of town. Each week he sends in one of his hands to take up homesteads on the deserted places all around. Before long, nobody will have a steer that doesn't graze on Pendragon land."
Emma's heart dropped and spun around. A less purposeful woman might have felt a ladylike swoon coming on.
Lands! She needed a husband. If she didn't get one quickly, Pendragon would snatch up her homestead!
Apparently finished with ghost tales, the boy got up and went back inside the land office.
Emma snatched her shotgun from her lap and tucked it under her skirt, leaving only a few inches of the barrel in view. Maybe that's what was scaring the gents away. They wouldn't know it was unloaded and that she had never fired more than a pebble at a rat in the henhouse. It wouldn't be wise to let it go completely unseen in a half-settled cow town like Dodge, but surely she looked more sociable now.
After twenty minutes of smiling like the dickens and quietly cursing under her breath, Emma stood up to regain the circulation in her backside. She shook the dust from her parasol and brushed up a cloud of it from her skirt. Lord only knew what the palms of her frilly white gloves would look like when she was finished.
After what seemed an eternity, the Englishman strutted out of the land office and blew out a lungful of smoke. He flicked the butt of his cigarette on the sidewalk, then ground it out with his boot heel.
"You'll make sure my man gets that piece of property?" he called back inside.
Emma didn't hear the answer, but it must have been yes, for a smug grin shot over his narrow jaw before he lurched into a buggy and drove his team out of town down Front Street.
It must be her land he had spoken of! Surely it was, since the place was said to be no less than paradise on earth. What other piece of ground could he have wanted?
With her heart flip-flopping in her chest, Emma rushed through the land-office doorway. She stomped toward the clerk lounging at his desk.
Drat, she hadn't noticed that she had led the way with her shotgun until the boy dropped his broom. It clattered like scattered marbles on the floor.
The clerk choked on a swallow of something that he had raised to his lips in a ruby-colored glass. She was unlikely to win any favors from the man now.
"Was that my land he wanted?" She tried to sound like sweetness and light, but it was no good. She pointed the nose of the gun toward the floor. "It's not actually loaded."
A pair of relieved sighs whooshed through the office.
"Well, now, Miss Parker." The land-office manager tipped back in his chair and folded his hands across his wide belly. "Unless you've turned twenty-one or become the head of a household since you came in this morning, I can't give you that homestead."
"Did the Englishman take it?"
"No, miss, he wanted another."
"Praise be!" Emma spun about and fairly skipped out the door, her hope renewed. The expensive lace border on her dress caught Mr. Pendragon's discarded cigarette ashes like the best of brooms. Her gown was getting grayer by the hour. Unless she found a man soon she'd be the dingiest bride to ever wed in Dodge.
She resumed her seat on the bench, fluffed her withered skirt and set her smile in place. In spite of the obstacles Dodge City had thrown in her way, she would catch a husband, and she would do it today.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Cute couple. Plucky girl. Romantic cowboy. Lovableback up characters.