Recently widowed Carly Richards is shocked when a bounty hunter declares her seamstress shop belongs to his sister. But Nate Sergeant has proof–the deed her lawless husband gambled away without her knowledge. Now Carly must fight for her home and her son's future. And until a judge arrives to settle ownership, she's not budging…despite Nate's surprisingly kind demeanor–and dashing good looks.
Nate's faced the meanest outlaws in the land–but this petite, strong–willed seamstress may be his greatest challenge. He owes his sister his life, so he's determined she'll have the property that's legally hers. But as Nate and Carly battle for ownership, Nate realises there's something he's overlooked–the hope of building a family with Carly and her adorable son.
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Gnaw Bone, Indiana, March 1898
A woman should mourn the loss of her husband. Or so Carly Richards once believed.
No doubt she looked the part of the grieving widow as she stood alongside Max's grave clothed in black, her gloved palm resting on her young son, unnaturally quiet and still beside her. Yet the eyes Carly bowed shed no tears. In her chest, her thudding heart beat to a steady tempo of relief.
A fearsome man to live with when he chose to make an appearance, Max had destroyed her love for him years ago.
She pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and pressed the square of linen to her nose. Though the air carried the scent of mowed grass, spring flowers and fresh-turned dirt, the vile odors that had clung to Max filled her nostrils still, as if he stood at her side, not laid out at her feet. Stale tobacco, fresh moonshine, foul breath, permeated with the odor of sweat.
Sweat of a hardworking man, Carly admired. Sweat of a man coming off a three-day drunk roiled her stomach.
She'd never again endure the man's stench or his unpredictable temper. That knowledge purged her, freed her, promised her better days ahead.
Carly bent, cuddling her seven-year-old son close. Henry smelled of soap, innocence, the hope of new beginnings.
Across the way neighbors and members of her church had gathered to see Max into the ground. The tension that had been tangible whenever Max had been around was gone, buried with him. Now no one need keep an eye peeled for an unreasonable man itching for a fight.
Pastor Koontz closed his Bible, offered a prayer for Max's soul and then eyed his parishioners. "Thank you all for coming on this somber day." He turned to her. "God bless you and your son, Mrs. Richards," he said and then stepped aside.
Folks edged toward her, giving her and Henry a hug, mumbling condolences, avoiding her gaze, then hurried toward the wrought iron gate in quiet groups of three and four, eager to escape. Not a single soul grieved Max. He had no family. No friends. At least none Carly knew of.
Henry, his dark brown hair lifting in the gentle breeze, pointed to the hole in the ground. "Is Pa staying in there?"
Carly met his troubled eyes; eyes far too old for one so young. "Yes. Your pa's passed on."
"Like our old hound dog? Pa ain't coming back?"
Her son gave a nod, then stepped to the dirt piled at the edge of the grave and stomped the soil with his scuff-toed shoe.
Once. Twice. Three times.
Henry pivoted back to her, lips quivering, eyes welling with tears. "He can't hurt you now, Mama."
The heartbreaking truth sank to Carly's belly like a stone. Henry had not forgotten the last time his father had returned home. The first time Max had slapped her with more than words. The force of the blow had knocked her to the floor, terrifying her son.
Oh, Lord, why didn't I take Henry and leave long ago? Fear.
Always imprisoned with the certainty that if she fled, Max would do as he'd threatened. Track her down, catch her unaware and kill her, leaving her precious boy at his mercy. Mercy wasn't a notion Max understood.
Nor evidently had his killer, a bounty hunter who'd come to take Max to Kentucky to stand trial for murder. Carly hadn't known Max was wanted by the law. But she hadn't found the news surprising. After almost eight years of marriage to the man, nothing surprised her.
Even with all the prayers she'd uttered, asking God to protect her and Henry, even with abundant evidence God had protected them in countless ways, she'd never expected Max would be the one laid out in the ground instead of her.
An oppressive weight slid from her shoulders. She'd no longer dread Max's footfalls after weeks of unexplained absences. She'd no longer dread that every word out of her mouth could trigger his fiery temper. She'd no longer dread what the next day, the next week, the next month would bring.
A knot of remorse tightened around Carly's heart and squeezed. Forgive me, Lord. What kind of a woman found comfort in the death of anyone, much less the father of her child?
Had Max been cut down by a bullet before he'd had a chance to ask God's forgiveness for the blackness in his life? Had he gotten a moment to repent, a moment to prepare to meet his Maker? She hoped he had.
Whatever awaited Max, his eternal future was up to God. She would take care of herself and Henry. She'd run the shop. Earn a living. What she'd always done. Perhaps one day she could afford to hire another seamstress, opening more time to spend with her son.
Not that Max's death changed her finances. He hadn't supplied much except trouble. Still, she was grateful for his mother's shop and would never regret a marriage that had blessed her with this child.
Nevertheless, she'd learned a valuable lesson. She'd been a fool to hitch herself to Max Richards. She'd never trust a man again.
Carly grasped Henry's hand and then, with one last glance at the grave, at the overall-clad men already covering the casket with shovelfuls of dirt, stepped away from her past.
A woman stood between Nate Sergeant and a young boy like a petite, beautiful fortress. Pink lips, flushed cheeks, her fair complexion in sharp contrast to her coal-black hair, the delicate female couldn't outweigh a hundred-pound bag of grain. Under slashing brows, dazzling blue eyes met his, sizing him up, her expression wary, alert.
Those penetrating eyes ripped the air out of his lungs like an uppercut to the gut. "Didn't mean to scare you, ma'am," he said, doffing his hat. "I'm Nate Sergeant"
"I'm not scared." Those cornflower blue eyes turned steely, confirming her claim. "And I know who you are."
How could she know his identity? Nate hadn't seen her before today.
Out front, a sign shot full of holes read Lillian's Alterations and Dressmaking. Lillian Richards was dead. Who was this woman? "Do you work here?"
She ignored his question and gathered the boy to her. As she ruffled her fingertips through his hair, dark like hers, her eyes softened like melted butter. "While you were in school, I made cookies. Go to the kitchen and have a couple while I talk with Mr. Sergeant."
The boy turned curiosity-filled eyes on Nate. A gentle nudge from his mother and he trudged toward the rear of the shop. At the doorway he stopped, his gaze traveling between Nate and his mother. As if he picked up on the tension in the room, his brow furrowed in a pint-size warning to treat his mother right.
In that boy Nate saw himself as a youngster. Whether he believed it or not, Nate knew the lad was far too young to wear the breeches in the family.
"Go on," his mother murmured, then watched until he disappeared into the back. With her son out of earshot, Mrs. Richards's gaze traveled to the pistol strapped on Nate's thigh. "You're the bounty hunter who killed my husband."
A chill slid through Nate, pebbling the skin on his forearms. When he'd shot Max Richards, he'd made this woman a widow and her young son fatherless. Nate had been fifteen when he'd lost his parents in a train holdup. The boy must be less than half that age.
"I'm sorry it came to that, ma'am." Nate rubbed a hand over his nape, taut as a stick of timber. "How'd you know me?"
"I'm not likely to forget the name of Max's killer." Somehow this petite woman standing across from him managed to look formidable in a prim, high-necked shirtwaist with its wide collar and tiny waist. "Even if I had, Sheriff Truitt came by earlier to warn me that he'd seen you ride into town."
Truitt was looking out for the widow's welfare. Someone needed to. As much as Nate wished things were different, that man wasn't him. He was here to protect his sister's interests, not this woman's.
How many women had suffered from actions taken by the men in their lives? Including his? He swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat, refusing to think about that now.
"Max was known for his temper. Still, far as I know, he never shot at a complete stranger." Her eyes narrowed, filling with suspicion. "Why would he fire at you?"
"He killed my sister Anna's husband. Shot Walt in the back. That made it personal."
She winced, as if seeing the cowardly act.
"When I explained I'd be taking him back to Kentucky to stand trial for murder, he "
"He didn't want to go."
"So what happened then?"
Why ask? Surely she didn't want to hear the gruesome details. Still she waited for his answer. Unable to cope with a weepy female, Nate fought to keep his tone detached. "He grabbed his gun from his holster and fired. I reeled away, pulling my revolver, and answered before he got off the next round."
"Max wasn't much of a shot, leastwise not with a moving target."
Nate clutched his hat, turning the rim 'round and 'round in his hands. "No, ma'am."
Not much of a man, either. No point grinding that truth into his widow. Perhaps she already knew. She wasn't wearing widow's weeds and appeared more somber than distraught. But then, everyone handled grief differently.
Well, she'd be distraught soon enough, once he got to the point of his visit. Mrs. Richards seemed like a good woman, a good mother with a small boy depending on her. If only he could express regret for taking a life, perhaps do a chore or two and be on his way.
But he couldn't. Anna needed this chance. For once in her life she'd have a way to handle her future, set her own course.
The widow considered him and then nodded, as if she'd accepted his lack of options. "I'm sorry about your sister's husband." Moisture welled in her eyes. "Please give her my condolences."
He shoved past the tightness in his throat. "I will."
"If that's all, I need to check on my son." Mrs. Richards turned away, as if finished with the conversation.
She turned back, eyes wide, as if surprised to find him standing there instead of heading for the door. "Yes?"
A gust of air escaped his lips. No decent man relished bringing a woman trouble. "I'm afraid I have bad news."
"Worse than killing my son's father?"
At a loss for words, Nate merely stared at her.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Sergeant. That was uncalled-for, but I have a boy who needs my attention and a shop to run." Her gaze traveled to the door, her desire for him to walk through it abundantly clear.
No point in putting off what he'd come to say. "This shop is mine," he said, settling his Stetson in place.
The air stilled, caught in the heavy hush of surprise. She took a breath, then another; in, out. Her gaze hardened. "You're mistaken. The deed to this shop is in my possession."
"My brother-in-law Walt won the deed in a poker game. Your husband killed him for it, and then terrorized my sister Anna, who had no idea where Walt had hidden it. Richards never found the deed before he rode off. But recently I did. As my sister's representative, I'm here to take possession."
"That can't be true!"
She met his gaze. As if seeing the truth in his eyes, the blazing confidence in hers ebbed.
With a gasp she whirled to a small wheeled safe on the back wall. The dial clicked right, left, right. Then, with the chink of moving tumblers and the clank of the latch, the thick door opened on quiet hinges. She knelt, reached inside, patted the interior. Came up empty.
She staggered to her feet and crossed to him, her skin ashen, eyes dazed. "It's it's gone," she said in a reedy, strangled voice.
Then she wobbled, as if the starch had gone out of her. In one slow motion she crumpled, limp as a rag doll.
Nate caught her before she hit the floor. With the pale woman in his arms, his mind zipped back and remembered another woman.
Nate's head snapped up, his vision cleared.
Eyes wide with fear, the son ran toward them. "Is she dead?" he said.
Rachel was dead. Not this woman.
Poor tyke had lost his pa and now must believe he'd lost his mother, too. "Your ma's fine. She's fainted, that's all."
"It's like falling asleep." Nate forced a reassuring smile. "She'll wake up soon."
Beside Nate, the little boy settled on his haunches and patted his mother's arm. "Mama, are you tired?"
Nate removed his hat and fanned the widow's face. Smelling salts would bring her around. Not something Nate carried in his line of work.
He brushed a tendril of hair off the widow's pale cheek. Under his fingertips, her skin was soft as silk.
The click of a clock's pendulum echoed in the silence. With each passing tick, the boy's bravado crumbled. "Mama, wake up! Please!" he said, tears spilling down his face.
In way over his head, Nate groped for words. He'd never been around children. How could he comfort this one?
The widow groaned, rolling her head from side to side.
Her son gazed up at him, panic sparking in his eyes. "Something's wrong with my mama. Help her! Please, mister!"
"I'll help her, I promise." As soon as the words left his lips, Nate knew he'd made a hasty promise to stop the boy's pleading. A promise he couldn't keep.
Once again. Another failure. More lives ruined.
He tamped down the remorse swirling in his gut. This woman wasn't his responsibility. How could Richards wager his family's future on the turn of a card? His wife and son deserved better.
A temptation to give back the deed slid through him. Only for a moment. Nate couldn't sacrifice his sister's future. Not after what she'd sacrificed for him.
Once Mrs. Richards had time to think about it, she would know, as he did, she'd lost the shop. Though he didn't relish the pain he would cause, Nate would not help the widow as he'd promised her son.
All he would bring Carly Richards was trouble.
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