|Publisher:||Whiskey Creek Press|
|Sold by:||SIMON & SCHUSTER|
|File size:||673 KB|
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Rudgewick was going to kill her this time. A sense of dread chilled her and Serenity Springfield gasped for air as she leaned against a cold brick wall. She could hear Rudgewick's heavy measured footsteps gaining on her. Oh, why wouldn't her feet cooperate? She needed to run, but couldn't move. Her body froze, paralyzed with fear. The alley was too dark. She felt so frightened that even the ground shook. Just then, a bony hand gripped her shoulder.
"No!" Serenity tried to scream, but not a sound emerged. Her heart pounded furiously.
Serenity's eyes flew open. A waft of lavender-scented perfume tickled her nose. For a brief moment, she was disoriented. Then, the jarring rhythm of the train brought her back to reality.
Serenity rubbed her tired face. She was safe. Thank heavens, it had only been a dream. Instead of running down the streets of New York, she was sitting on a train headed for Dry Gulch, Kansas. Her hand gripped the soft seat cushion in relief, while four wide-eyed children and an older woman hovered over her. She blinked, staring into the concerned faces of the MacClarron girls. They were her new charges, along with their great-grandmother, Rose MacClarron.
Rose let out a sigh of relief. "Blessed saints, child, you frightened the life out of me. I couldna waken you. You just kept screamin' and screamin'." Rose patted Serenity's leg, her Scottish burr deepening with concern.
"Miss Springfield has bad dreams all the time," twelve-year-old Alisha said with a toss of her red curls. "I have often heard her crying out during the night, since her room is next to mine."
Eight-year-old Emilyput in, "So?" She frowned. "Everyone has bad dreams. Cherise has them all the time."
"You weren't supposed to tell that," ten-year-old Cherise replied in a harsh whisper.
Serenity straightened up in her seat, acutely aware that an odd silence had descended over the other passengers. Merciful heavens, they were listening.
The public car was filled to capacity with a varied assortment of travelers. Everyone from the stodgy, old, bald gentleman in a gray suit to a harried young mother was casting speculative glances at her. What a sight she must make in her travel-stained mourning clothes! Her skin crawled with apprehension. Serenity wished she could vanish. The only possibility left now was to turn the conversation into a less titillating one. She had years of experience changing the flow of a conversation, especially when it had concerned her father's failing health.
"Emily is right," Serenity said calmly. "Having bad dreams is nothing to be ashamed of. I'm just sorry my outburst embarrassed you." She held her head high, trying to ignore the curious stares. "You have been so kind, Mrs. MacClarron, taking me on as a companion and governess to your great-granddaughters. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't come along when you did."
Rose covered Serenity's mouth with a hand, resting her forehead against hers. "I'll not hear another word of thanks. You were the answer to my prayers."
"'Sides," replied little Greta, her springy blonde curls bobbing, "we needed a new nanny."
Emily flipped an ebony braid over her shoulder. "Miss Ironheart--oops!" She slapped a hand over her mouth. "I mean Miss Heartwell didn't like us. She thought we were hooligans. Imagine that? How was I supposed to know she didn't like frogs?" Emily shrugged in an attempt to appear innocent. "You don't get mad at us all the time. We like you."
Serenity chuckled, imagining the very proper Miss Heartwell handling these four lively ladies.
"I dinna ... uh ... do not need a governess. Only babies do." The fact Alisha was perturbed about slipping into her hated Scottish burr was evident by the scowl marring her pretty face.
"Dinna worry," Greta chirped, climbing onto Serenity's lap. "I'm only dis many." She held up three pudgy fingers. "I need you." Her small arms went around Serenity's neck. "I wuv you."
A lumped formed in Serenity's throat as she stroked the back of Greta's frilly yellow dress. In two short weeks, these four mischievous imps had found a place in her heart.
"Doesna matter," Cherise piped up with her usual air of authority.
"Does not matter," Alisha corrected petulantly.
Cherise shot her sister a withering glower as she slammed shut her dime novel. With a grown-up air, she brushed out her pink dress.
"Papa willna let her stay." Cherise pointed at Serenity, shaking her head.
"Will not," Alisha muttered under her breath.
"Hush!" Cherise elbowed Alisha. "We arena at school. I can talk any way I like."
"Be an unrefined..."
"That 'tis enough, lassies," Rose chimed firmly, cutting Alisha off with a pointed look. "Let Cherise speak, Alisha. There is nothing refined about being rude. I've told you over and over that it's impolite to correct someone while they're talkin'."
Alisha's jaw tightened, but she made no reply.
"Papa will not let us stay either," Cherise continued, glaring at her sister. "He says the West is no place for ladies. It's too dangerous. From what I've read in my favorite books, I'm thinkin' he might be right. It has changed in the last two years. Now dangerous outlaws roam free."
Alisha rolled her eyes heavenward. "Honestly, Cherry," she snapped. "You can't believe everything you read in those dime novels. I've never even seen an outlaw."
"Me, either." Emily's round face brightened with excitement at the thought. Her expression then quickly scrunched into a frown. "But Papa did get shot while riding with a posse. Now that he's recovering, he needs our care."
"I agree." Rose leaned over to stroke Emily's head. Her brows furrowed. "The thought of my grandson all alone and hurting makes me sad. I know he thinks the lasses are better off with me, but I dinna agree. Collin needs them."
She sighed dramatically, sniffled, and then continued. "I let him push me into takin' them after his wife, Katrina, and five-year-old daughter, Felicity--God rest their souls--died of lung fever."
Cherise tugged on Serenity's arm. Her eyes widened with fear. "Our sister, Felicity, is in heaven, too. She was the one in between me and Emily." She spoke in a low, trembling voice. Her face paled. "We were sick, but got better. Poor Papa had to care for us all by himself."
"That's when he sent for Grandma Rose," Alisha said soberly. "Papa could not handle the farm and us, too, so he sent us away."
"It's my fault," Emily whispered in a trembling voice, lifting up her yellow skirt to display a crippled leg. "Papa was mad 'cuz I fell out of the hayloft. Doc Hogan couldna get my leg put back right. It makes Papa sad that I limp. He says he canna be everywhere at once, so we have to stay with Grandma Rose."
Serenity's eyes misted as she reached across the space between the seats to take Emily's tiny hand. The little girl's small body trembled with suppressed tears.
"It's okay, sweetie. You can show your father how well you get around, and he'll change his mind. You girls are older now."
Emily sat back, studying Serenity. "You really think so? I miss my horse and swing and swimming in the pond. I want to go home."
"Not me," Alisha muttered. "I like living in New York."
Serenity brushed back a wisp of Emily's hair. She looked straight at a scowling Alisha when she spoke. "Give your father a chance. He will see that you're ready to be his little helpers. It is hard to not overprotect someone you love. My father was ill for a long time. I tended to do things for him, when I should have let him try on his own. Your father is only doing what he thinks is best because he loves you."
The girls exchanged glances. Silence reigned over the group as they considered what Serenity had said. It only took a few moments for them to fall back into their usual pattern. Emily and Greta played with the rag dolls Serenity had made for them. Cherise went back to her book, while Alisha brooded.
At least they had each other. Now, she had no one. Uncle Oliver is out of the country and Myles ... She wouldn't think about her brother. They used to be so close. Serenity closed her eyes. The past was behind her. There was no sense reliving what couldn't be changed. She had to move forward with her life.
As Rose began knitting, her muscles tensed. Would all those she loved so dearly forgive her meddling? Serenity needed a family, since her father had died and her twin brother had turned against her. Collin, despite his reservations, deserved a new chance at life. His girls were growing up without him. Rose couldn't stand for him to miss so much of the little moments of their lives.
As her knitting needles flew, Rose tried to shove aside her fears about her selfish reasons for bringing Serenity with them. If she could fall in love again at her age, so could Collin. In one easy stroke she could protect her dear friend's niece from Myles Springfield's greedy clutches, while at the same time bring joy and happiness back into Collin's colorless life.
Not a bad day's work for an old lady.
She only wished she could tell Serenity the whole truth about her relationship with her uncle, Oliver Springfield, but it wasn't her secret to share. It hurt that his niece knew nothing about them. What stung even more was that Oliver's staff had no idea he planned to marry her. When she showed up at Lord Stratten's town house, they acted like she was an over-stepping mistress.
It made her wonder if she had been wrong about Oliver's intentions. The tender man she had fallen in love with wouldn't have treated her this way. What if the rumors about him were true? Could he be the eccentric bounder the gossips relished discussing? Did he make a habit of making false promises before traipsing off to ports unknown?
Rose watched Serenity cuddling Greta. The woman was a natural mother, so kind and caring. How could Oliver turn his back on his family? After his stuffy butler turned her away, Rose decided to act alone until she could speak face-to-face with Oliver. She prayed, for all their sakes, that she had made the right choices.
Rose leaned forward, squeezing Serenity's hand. "Dinna worry, lassie. I have a plan to solve all your problems." At least, I hope it will. The last thing you need is to be drawn into the uncertain quicksand of my life.
"What is it?" chorused the girls.
"Now, never you mind, lassies." Rose touched the tip of a giggling Greta's nose. "Grandma Rose is entitled to her secrets. I still have a few tricks up my sleeve."
Serenity's eyes met Rose's as the train pulled into the station with a jerk. The older woman winked at her. She had the unnerving feeling that Rose could read her thoughts. The lady wasn't nearly as bad off as she sometimes pretended. Could Rose know how dire her situation was? Would she let the girls near her if she did?
Serenity pressed her face against the warm glass. Dry Gulch--the name suited this area perfectly. Flat, barren land stretched out in every direction. Never had she seen so much open space. Just looking at it made her feel overwhelmed. At least out here, no one could find her--or could they?
New York City
"My sister can't just have vanished," Myles Springfield muttered, slamming his cup down, splashing coffee on the large polished mahogany desk. On it lay a letter from the last one of Serenity's friends he had contacted, Belinda Martin. In it, Miss Martin claimed she hadn't heard from his sister since their father's funeral, four months ago.
His eyes burned as he glanced around the stifling, dark paneled office that had once belonged to his father. His throat tightened. He missed the stuffy old man. More than that, he missed his twin sister. She was the other half of himself. They resembled each other in many ways, both having blond hair and dark blue eyes. He smiled, thinking of how, with his curly hair, children used to tease him about being a girl, too. That was until he blackened some bloke's eye, ending those taunts permanently.
The wooden desk chair creaked as Myles rose to stalk across the room. After shoving back the heavy maroon velvet curtains, he opened the window and leaned out to get a better view of the bustling movements below. Carriages lined the brick streets. He heard a clatter of hooves. How this neighborhood had grown while he was away at school in England! New shops had sprung up. Gaslights were everywhere. A few bicyclists pedaled by the brownstone town houses. The morning milkman hollered his greetings to a lady dodging carriages to cross the street. Fragments of other conversations drifted up to him. A baby cried. Somewhere in their midst, he sensed that his sister, Rennie, was wandering, afraid and alone. Myles gripped the polished windowsill until his knuckles turned white.
He had to do something, but what? He couldn't understand why she ran away. The pieces of that evening didn't quite fit together.
Myles dropped his head in defeat. How had his life spun so far out of control? He'd come home to tell his father that he planned to take Uncle Oliver's offer to be his man of affairs. But that conversation never took place. The news of his father's death did not reach him until he walked through their front door. The days that followed were a haze of funeral arrangements, will-reading and the overwhelming expectations of his father's business associates. His sister constantly correcting his decisions clawed at his insides. Their father had left him in control. Why couldn't she accept that?
He'd thought Rudgewick was the answer to his problems. He could honor his old man's request to find a suitable mate for Serenity and cease the constant friction between them in one easy step. He sighed, palming his tired eyes.
A picture of the brooding Rudgewick Tarrington came to mind. He thought them a good match, his proper British friend and his bluestocking sister. Tarrington had an unquestionable lineage. Heir to an English title, no less. Myles had watched Tarrington court Serenity respectfully. So why hadn't Rudgewick contacted him since his sister's disappearance? Didn't Rudgewick care what had happened to Serenity? Rudgewick had claimed he wanted to marry her. It didn't make any sense.
He remembered how Serenity had begged him not to let Rudgewick escort her to the Billings' Ball. Since three months earlier, she had willingly attended the Maxwells' soirée on Rudgewick's arm, Myles merely assumed she was playing coy games. With his patience at an end, he'd snapped at her. Images of their bitter argument taunted him. Oh, the unkind comments he had yelled that night. Myles cringed. Being her twin, he knew just what sensitive areas to expose. His jabs hit her directly where she was most vulnerable. God, if he could only take back those heated words.
In a fit of anger, he had lashed out at his sister, dismissed her protests, and disregarded her pleas for him to escort her and Rudgewick to the Billings' Ball. Instead, he went gambling. Drowning his sorrows in drink and a willing woman so he could forget all the responsibilities thrust on him. His penance came when he returned to find his house in an uproar. Serenity had vanished. In one night, he had undone all of the promises he had made to himself. God, if he could only turn back the clock.
The door creaked open and Charles, his butler, peered in.
"Can I get you something, sir? Clara said you didn't eat breakfast or lunch," Charles inquired, concern evident on the older man's face.
"No, Charles. I'm going out soon." Myles picked up his walking stick. Somewhere there had to be a clue to his sister's whereabouts. He would turn over every rock until he found her. The only thing his father ever asked him to do was look after her. Be damned if he would be a failure at that, like he was at handling the business.
Dry Gulch, Kansas
The late afternoon sun beat down unmercifully on Collin MacClarron as he stood with the crowd at the train platform. A blast of hot, dry wind sent dust flying all around him. He pulled off his black Stetson, wiping the gritty sweat from his forehead. His shoulder throbbed with the movement. It had a long ways to go before it was totally healed. His body was still weak from the fever following the bullet the doctor had pulled out of him a little over a week ago. He should have sent someone else to pick them up, but he couldn't risk his daughters' safety to just anybody. Besides, he missed his bairns so much he couldn't bear the thought of not greeting them at the station.
"Expecting someone, MacClarron?" Sheriff Wallis's deep voice rumbled beside him.
Collin looked over at his old friend. He thought himself tall at six-two, but Wallis towered over him by a good three or four inches. It was murmured around town that if Wallis's sharp shooting skills didn't scare outlaws away, his sheer size would.
His tall, bulky friend pulled out a cheroot from his vest pocket. "Can't imagine what else would bring you to town on a perfectly good work day."
Collin chuckled at how well Wallis knew him. "My girls and Rose are comin'. You?" He motioned his head towards the train.
"Nope," Wallis replied in a cloud of smoke. "Just checking things out. Been ... what?" He scratched his brown beard. "Almost two years since your girls were here?"
"Somethin' like that," Collin mumbled, hating the censure he knew was unintentionally in Wallis's tone. They had argued the night Collin decided to send his girls home with Rose. It had been a difficult decision, but the only one he could make under the circumstances. If it hadn't been for Wallis's friendship, though, he never would have made it through the lonely years.
The train's mournful whistle sent the crowd into a frenzy. Black smoke billowed up as the engine rumbled towards them. Collin could feel the ground tremble. Anticipation gnawed at his gut. All around him, people pushed to get closer to the arriving passengers.
As the door slid open, he held an eager breath. The conductor got off, snapping shut his pocket watch. A tall redhead descended, followed by a bald, older gentleman. At last Collin saw his Greta's familiar golden curls. How she had grown! She was no longer the wobbly toddler he so fondly remembered. That knowledge made his throat tighten with sadness. God, what precious time he had missed.
His body protested as he knelt, holding his arms open for Greta and Cherise as they came bounding down the wooden platform, their petticoats flying, to greet him.
Pain ripped through his shoulder as Cherise flung herself into his waiting arms. But that was nothing compared to the pain in his closely guarded heart. Greta watched them with rounded eyes and a thumb in her mouth. She didn't recognize him, Collin realized with a jolt. As he savored holding Cherise, he wished Greta would allow him to hug her, too.
Over the top of Cherise's head, he saw Alisha helping a limping Emily. It stunned him to see Alisha was fast becoming a young woman. While she still had parts of the impish child, she had blossomed.
He smiled at how well Emily had recovered. Despite her uneven gait, she had made a great deal of progress with the help of those doctors back east. He almost burst with pride watching them hurry toward him. He had missed out on so much of their lives. How could he ever let them leave again?
"Oh, Papa, it's so good to see you!" Emily shouted. "Hi, Sheriff Wallis." She turned, beaming up at Wallis.
"Hello, Emily." Collin's voice was hoarse with emotion.
She graced him with a warm smile, too.
"Hi, tidbit." Wallis patted her head. "I'm gonna have to stay alert now that the MacClarron minxes are back."
Collin chortled, thinking of all the trouble his girls had found to get into during the days following his wife's and daughter's funeral. Thanks to Wallis's quick actions, a horse hadn't trampled Emily when she fell from the hayloft. The memory still chilled him.
Greta pointed at him and said, "Ouch." She shivered and her cute, round face wrinkled up with concern.
"She wants to know where you hurt," Cherise interpreted.
Collin stared, unable to speak for a moment. His daughters had almost completely lost their accents. They sounded like strangers. What stunned him was that Gran had discussed his injury with them. How had she known about that unless Wallis, despite his protests, had wired her? Wallis shrugged under his questioning look.
It warmed him that they still cared enough to worry. Of course they would. You're their father. But sometimes he wondered how much the two years of separation had affected their feelings toward him.
"Why canna she ask me--" Collin started, but Emily interrupted.
"What happened to Papa, Sheriff Wallis? Grandma Rose said that we didna need to know all the lurid details."
Sheriff Wallis laughed at Emily's perfect imitation of her grandmother's burr.
"He was helping me chase bank robbers." Wallis leaned down to talk to Emily. He tugged teasingly on a dark braid. "Remind me, and I'll tell you the whole lurid story at dinner. That is, if I'm invited."
Collin groaned as Cherise's and Emily's eyes sparkled with excitement. They always did love Wallis's highly exaggerated stories.
"Really ... you caught bank robbers?" Cherise asked.
"I sure did." Wallis's chest puffed out and he hooked his thumbs in his belt loops. "Got those rascals locked up in my jail, waiting for a deputy marshal to come and retrieve them."
"I gots a sore finger from the sleeping car," Greta said, after pulling her thumb out of her mouth. She timidly held up her swollen pinkie.
Emily rolled her eyes, tossing back her braids. "It happened two days ago, goose. Papa doesn't want to hear about that."
"I do, too." Collin bent to take Greta's small hand in his. His gaze held her surprised one when he kissed her injured pinkie. He wished he could have been there to wipe away her tears. "I wanna hear everything." He ruffled Greta's bouncy curls, relieved when she returned his smile.
They all began talking at once, making it impossible to follow any of the fragmented conversations. Their familiar pattern of interrupting each other amused Collin.
"I play the pianoforte now," Cherise announced with pride.
Emily pulled on his hand. "I can walk without my cane." She whirled around slowly. "See, Papa?"
"So?" Alisha snapped, frowning.
Above their heads, he saw Rose coming toward them, her arm wrapped around a petite blonde.
Wallis whistled tonelessly beside him. "Hoppin' horny toads! Who's that with Mrs. MacClarron?"
"Our new governess," Emily said.
"Think you can adopt me?" Wallis replied before Collin could put an elbow in his ribs.
Rose and her companion moved slowly through the crowd. His heart constricted. Gran looked older this time. He hadn't ever thought of her that way before. She had raised him after his parents died. The woman was his rock.
His eyes met the lady whose arm Gran held. She stood slightly taller than Rose. A heavy black mourning dress swallowed up her gentle curves. A matching bonnet covered most of her golden ringlets, but he could still see her animated oval face, with its pert nose and full pink lips. Sparkling sapphire eyes framed by soft, thick lashes blinked back at him from under golden brows. Her face radiated warmth as she hung on Rose's every word.
"Well, Collin, I've come all this way. Are you gonna greet me?" Rose spread her arms open wide. Her snapping green eyes defied him to say he hadn't invited them. She knew damn well how he felt, and her expression told him so. Now she challenged him to make the next move. The words froze in his throat.
When he didn't respond right away, she turned her attention to Sheriff Wallis. "Hello, Sheriff." Rose gifted Wallis with a smile. "Still keepin' the town safe, I see. My, how it has bloomed. I was surprised that the train stops here now. It didna the last time I came. I dinna miss that bumpy stagecoach ride, mind you."
"Yes, ma'am." Wallis tipped his white Stetson. "We're right proud that Dry Gulch was selected for a stopping point. We aim to keep it that way, so all our beautiful ladies can arrive in comfort. It's good to have you back, Mrs. MacClarron."
Rose tweaked Wallis's cheek. "Rascal. You always could make me blush."
"Wallis has a way with women, all right. Has them lined up along the street. In fact, I see one now." Collin pointed off in the distance. "Isna that the Widow Darcy? Thought you promised to help load lumber in her wagon."
"Yoo-hoo, Sheriff!" A bubbly, red-haired lady waved at Wallis from the other end of the platform.
Wallis's tanned cheeks colored. "Gotta go. Duty calls."
Collin laughed as Wallis strolled off toward the sawmill with Darcy's arm linked in his. He pulled Rose into a fierce embrace. She felt so small and fragile nestled against his broad chest.
Stepping back, he swallowed hard, trying to regain his composure. "I'm glad to see you, Gran," Collin said, his voice rough with emotion. "I'm just amazed you came. The telegram dinna give me much time to change your mind."
She patted his stubbly cheek. "That was the point, Collin, my boy." Her voice faltered as she pushed a wayward strand of silver hair behind her ear.
"This is my companion, Serenity Springfield." Rose motioned at the slender woman dressed in somber clothes. He immediately wondered for whom she grieved. His heart went out to her. Losing a loved one was never easy.
He extended his hand, taking her black-leather-gloved one in his large, calloused one. It felt delicate in his firm grip. Her cheeks turned a light pink. The effect was endearing. Serenity reminded him of fresh air and sunshine.
"This is my stubborn grandson and the wee lasses' father, Collin MacClarron."
"I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. MacClarron. Your grandmother has told me so much about you," Serenity replied in a soft, cultured voice that held a slight British accent. Her fingers gently squeezed his. In her gaze, Collin read the sincerity of her words.
For the life of him, Collin couldn't make himself release her hand. It felt so right in his. She had such dainty wrists and arms. The knowledge Rose would be watching over this gentle beauty seemed oddly comforting.
Rose cleared her throat loudly, stepping between the two of them, breaking the spell. "I'm glad to see I havena lost all my wits." She rubbed her hands together. His girls giggled. "I can see the lass appeals to you."
Collin forced his gaze away from Serenity, wondering what his grandmother was up to. Appeals to me? What the hell did that mean? The self-assured look on Gran's face made him nervous. A knot formed in the pit of his stomach.
"Aye, the lass isna hard on the eyes," Collin teased half-heartedly, trying to lighten the mood. He winked at Serenity, who blushed an even deeper shade of red.
"Good, then my request willna be too difficult," Rose went on, her voice growing stronger. "You owe me a favor, Collin." She wagged the famous finger. "I kept your secret and helped you out all those years ago. Now I'm calling in my debt."
Collin shifted uneasily. His girls were staring at him with an expectation of something--he wasn't sure of what--sparkling in their eyes. What ever it was, Gran was behind it. He had no doubt of that.
Saying no to Gran was next to impossible for him. She had comforted him the night he'd brought news that his brother had been lost at sea. Gramps had railed at him, but not Gran. It had been his fault, but Gran never accused him. She had just listened as he poured his heart out.
In the years that followed, Gran had never mentioned the money she gave him to start his farm, or how her moral support had swayed his grandfather into letting him leave the family shipping business. He owed her more than he could ever repay.
His girls all stared expectantly at him.
"You know I'd do anythin' for you, Gran. What is it you want?"
"I want you to marry Serenity," Rose said in a tone that brooked no arguments.