Rounding up a gaggle of orphans isn't Wyatt Reed's specialty. Still, the bounty hunter is being paid handsomely to bring these children from Evans Grove to the next town. And then he sets eyes on one pigtailed, pint-sized complication, and the beautiful widow who needs his help.
Charlotte Miller's marriage lacked love, but at least it gave her the right to adopt little Sasha. Now without a husband, she can't be a mother. Wyatt agrees to be her groom-for-hireonly until Sasha is hers. But the man who couldn't wait to leave town is finding unexpected reasons to stay and glimpsing a future surpassing any fortune he's known.
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Evans Grove, Nebraska
Late April, 1875
Get in, do the job and get out.
It sounded simple, but Wyatt Reed knew that "simple" jobs seldom turned out that way.
All he had to do was escort a bunch of orphans to Greenville. That's what the town's wealthiest citizen, Felix Baxter, had told him. Apparently, the kids had gotten off in Evans Grove when robbers held up their train. They were supposed to continue on to Greenville the next day. Two weeks had passed, and still no sign of the children.
Baxter had sent telegrams and only got excuses. The town was fed up with waiting, and wanted the children now. That's where Wyatt came in.
The thing he couldn't understand was why. From what he could tell, the orphans had been rounded up out of Eastern cities and sent west by one of those do-gooder charities, the Orphan Salvation Society. Families were found for the children along the way, and Greenville was the final stop. They'd only get the worst of the lot, the children that hadn't been taken in anywhere else. Logic said this would be a rough bunch of kids, yet Baxter, claiming to speak for the town, had pounded his fist on his desk when demanding they come to Greenville as promised. The town wanted those children badlytoo badly.
It made no sense, but Wyatt wasn't hired to ask questions. He was a tracker. He found what needed finding, and he wasn't about to turn down the kind of money Baxter had spread out in front of him.
Get in, do the job and get out.
With luck, he'd finish before the catch in this supposedly simple job reared its head. If not, he'd hightail it out of Evans Grove on his trusted mount, Dusty.
Wyatt dismounted in front of the hotel, his bum knee stiff after the twelve-mile ride from Greenville, and surveyed his surroundings. Baxter said he'd find the orphans here. The town was quiet, cozy, the kind of place where everyone knew everyone. No place for him.
He could spot a few signs of last month's dam break that he'd read about in the newspapers. Water stains marked the wood siding of the hotel at porch height. The lower floor must have escaped flooding. The front door stood open and a couple of gnarled old men sat on the bench outside spitting into a cracked chamber pot that served as a spittoon. Otherwise, the place looked deserted.
"Hotel open?" he asked. Locating eight missing orphans would take more than a couple hours. Any hitch, and he'd need a room.
The men on the porch eyed him warily before the one with a mangled ear managed to grunt in the affirmative.
"Thank you." Wyatt tipped a finger to his well-worn Stetson. "Got a town hall?"
The cabbage-eared man pointed north, across the street and toward a grove of hackberry trees. Beyond them stood a single-story building large enough to house a meeting room.
Must be the place, but would the mayor be there at four-thirty in the afternoon? In towns this small, the mayor usually worked his business by day and officiated in the evening.
He absently patted his ill-tempered Arabian. The horse nipped at his hand as if to tell Wyatt that he should settle them both for the night, but he wanted to see what he was up against. When a boy came bounding out of the hotel, eager to set Wyatt and Dusty up with quarters, Wyatt let him lead the horse to the livery but told the lad he'd register for a room later. For now, he had business to attend to.
First step in tracking is to get your bearings. Wyatt looked past the hotel to a saloon. Piano music tinkled out the open door. Some men fell prey to the lure of whiskey and gambling. In the end, they always lost. Wyatt should know. He'd done his share of stumbling in the war, but he hadn't touched a drop since the march through Georgia. He set his jaw against the swell of memory.
He had a job to do. The sooner he got it done, the better. Baxter had only given him a quarter of the fee up front. The rest would come upon completion.
He looked past the saloon to the creek. Piles of brick and lumber stood between the grain mill and the other creek-side buildings that had suffered the greatest damage. Rebuilding had already begun.
In the opposite direction, the street stretched east toward a pretty little church with a white steeple pointed high into the blue sky. It could have been plunked down here from any New England town. That old longing for the faith he used to know welled up out of nowhere. Wyatt pushed it aside. God wouldn't want someone like him.
Beyond the church loomed an unmarked building and then the general store. Wyatt strolled in that direction. A wagon rumbled past, and several women picked their way around muddy potholes. One glanced his way, and he nodded politely. She looked away and whispered to her companion, probably wondering who he was. This sure wasn't a town where a stranger could go unnoticed.
The cries of children rang out in the distance. The orphans? Or just the local boys and girls? He had no way of knowing. Orphans didn't wear signs. They didn't look any different than any other child. Except, like him, they didn't have a home. Like him, they belonged to no one. Like him, their future looked bleak, and they'd know it. They wouldn't be laughing and squealing. Those playing children couldn't be the orphans. No, orphans didn't belong in a hopeful town with scrubbed buildings and spring blossoms any more than he did.
He absently patted the front of his buckskin jacket and his too-thin wallet. After this job, he'd have enough to settle in San Francisco. He wouldn't have to track another fugitive or desperate soul. Maybe he'd open a shop, do something respectable. Yep, once he got paid in full, he'd never again have to take orders from men whose honor he couldn't trust. But he hadn't gotten paid yet.
Wyatt had lived in Greenville less than two months, but it was long enough to hear rumors about Baxter that made him doubt the man's sunny promise of a simple, quick and completely legal job.
The plaintive cry halted Wyatt in his tracks. A child. Very young. Female. His tracker's instinct clicked into place. Her hiccups and wordless sobs came from very close, between the church and the unmarked building. These weren't the ordinary cries of childhood. This girl was terrified.
He slipped into the narrow alley between buildings, but a pile of empty crates blocked his view.
"Ma." Hiccup. "Ma."
Wyatt paused before the crates. What was he doing? He didn't know the first thing about children, and he didn't know a soul in this town. Where would he take her once he found her?
He started to back away until a string of unintelligible words came out at a fevered pitch, followed by what sounded like choking. If someone didn't calm that child down, she'd stop breathing. Seeing as he was the only one nearby, that someone would have to be him.
He skirted the pile of empty crates, but she wasn't there. He followed the sobs to the back of the building and a muddy lane where a small, thin child with raven-black pigtails sat in the dirt. He wasn't much of a judge of children's ages, but she looked younger than school-age. Maybe three or four. Too young to be wandering around on her own.
Wyatt hesitated, unsure what to do as she lifted her tear-stained face to take in his considerable height. The sobs stopped. Her blue eyes widened so big they seemed to take over her whole face. One grubby hand went into her mouth, just like
By all the stars in the sky, she looked just like his kid sister, Ava, had at that age. Same pigtails. Same blue eyes. Same need to suck on her fingers.
The girl examined him with curiosity. She'd probably never seen such a tall man.
He knelt, his knee protesting. "Howdy, there. My name's Wyatt. What's yours?"
The hand didn't budge out of her mouth, but those sky-blue eyes continued to stare at him. What lashes! They practically brushed her eyebrows. One day this little girl would break men's hearts.
Today he needed to find out why she was crying and where she belonged. "Do you have any scrapes or cuts?"
She just stared.
He tried again. "Can you move your legs?" They looked fine, not obviously broken, but he wasn't a doctor.
She didn't budge. Clearly she wasn't going to answer him. Either she was too scared or too shy.
"Are you lost?"
This was getting frustrating. "Can't you nod yes or no?"
Naturally, she didn't move her head one inch.
He rubbed his chin and attempted to ignore his aching knee. He'd try the obvious. "Did you lose your mama?"
"Mama," she echoed, somehow getting the word out despite the fingers in her mouth.
"Great." Finally, he was getting somewhere. He stood to take the pressure off his knee. "Where did you last see her?"
She went back to staring silently.
"Of course she doesn't know that, Reed," he chided himself. Some tracker he was if he couldn't remember that a lost child would be disoriented. Trouble was, he couldn't quite figure out what to do. Missing children weren't his specialty. He'd never worked with children until this job. Could this child be one of the orphans? He shook off the idea. She'd called for her mother. This girl had a family. In a town as small as Evans Grove, someone would know where to find her ma or pa.
He crouched again, ignoring his knee's protest. "If I pick you up and walk around town, do you think you can point to the last place you saw your mama?"
The girl answered by sticking out both arms.
She trusted him.
The knowledge kicked him in the gut. No one trusted Wyatt Reed. Not since before the war, anyway. If this girl only knew what he'd done. If she'd heard the screams of terror, she wouldn't trust him now or ever. But she didn't know who he was or what he'd done. She just trusted him.
"Get ahold of yourself, Reed." The girl didn't know anything about him. She trusted him to get her home, and he'd do it, the same as any paying job.
His big hands more than encircled her tiny waist. He lifted, and her thin arms wound around his neck. So trusting. This girl would crack his tough veneer if he wasn't careful.
He cleared his throat. "Let's find that mother of yours."
And soon. He couldn't take much more undeserved trust.
Charlotte Miller fingered the paltry selection of ribbons in Gavin's General Store. The emerald-green one shone against her pale fingers. The lovely ribbon would match her best dress, but she must buy the black. Custom dictated she hide beneath heavy black crepe for the next year or more while mourning the husband she'd never loved.
Charles Miller had treated her kindly, but all his love had been reserved for his deceased first wife. His marriage to Charlotte had been a business arrangement. She'd needed a husband when her parents died months after they arrived in Evans Grove. He'd needed a housekeeper and cook. Simple and sensible. Yet deep down, she'd hoped their marriage would one day develop the warmth and love that would usher in a large family.
She sighed. At least he'd agreed to take in one of the orphan girls. If not for Sasha, she would have no one.
Charlotte cast a glance toward the toys where Sasha and Mrs. Gavin's granddaughter, Lynette, were playing with the dolls. The two looked so much alike they could have been twins. Each wore their dark hair in pigtails. Today they wore nearly identical dresses in the same shade of blue. The Gavins had stocked a large quantity of that particular fabric, and most of the girls in town sported play dresses in royal blue.
"I'm so sorry for your loss, dearie," Mrs. Gavin said as she cut a length of ribbon sufficient to adorn Charlotte's hastily dyed bonnet. "At least you're still young." Mrs. Gavin tried to lift her spirits as she handed Charlotte the ribbon.
At thirty-one, Charlotte didn't feel terribly young. After a year or two of mourning, she'd have lost even more child-bearing years.
She dug in her bag for payment, but Mrs. Gavin refused to take her money.
Unbidden shame rose to Charlotte's cheeks. "Charles provided for me." Unlike her parents, he'd left her enough to last three or four years if she was frugal. And she would be. Thirteen years might have passed, but not the memory of the empty cupboards and gnawing hunger following her parents' deaths. Charles's proposal had filled her belly if not her heart, and for that she would always be grateful. It had taught her to fight for what she needed. Never again would she let herself become that destitute. Never would she let Sasha endure the pain and humiliation she'd faced. "I can pay."
The plump proprietress patted her hand. "It's something we do for all widows."
Widow. The word ricocheted through Charlotte's head. A widow had few options. If she wanted to provide for Sasha once Charles's money ran out, she must either work or marry. But what man would marry a woman who appeared unable to bear children? To any outsider, thirteen years of childless marriage meant she was barren.
Sooner rather than later she must find work. She couldn't run Charles's wheelwright shop. The flood had destroyed it. Charles's apprentice had rebuilt the forge portion, and she'd accepted his generous offer to assume Charles's debt in exchange for the business.
No, she must look elsewhere. Perhaps Mrs. Gavin needed help.
"I wonder if" she began to ask, but the proprietress had hurried off to help Holly Sanders, the schoolteacher and Charlotte's friend.
"Miss Sanders," Mrs. Gavin exclaimed. "I hear congratulations are in order."
"Congratulations?" Charlotte drew near her friend.
Holly blushed furiously. "Mason proposed."
"He did? Oh, Holly. How wonderful." Charlotte enveloped her friend in a hug. "I'm so happy for you." Truly, she was, though the irony of their situations didn't elude her. She, once married, was now a widow. Holly, who'd admired Sheriff Mason Wright for ages, would now be married.
Holly pulled away. "Enough about me. How are you doing?"
Charlotte couldn't believe Holly would think of her at such a time. "I'm doing better. Having Sasha to care for helps pass the time. She's such a dear."
"How is she handling it? She seemed so bewildered at first." Holly had gotten to know all the orphans in her role as part of the orphan selection committee responsible for placing the orphans with families. She'd grown very attached to the children since their arrival in town.
"The poor girl has seen so much death. Losing her parents, and then Charles." Charlotte shook her head. "I had no idea his heart had weakened."
"No one did."
Charlotte fought the rush of memories. "There's so much to take care of. I should go through his things, but I can't bring myself to do it."
"Would you like help?"
Charlotte couldn't believe Holly would consider helping her when she had a wedding to plan. "Aren't you busy with the wedding?"
Holly waved a hand. "It won't be anything fancy. Besides, we haven't set a date yet. I can certainly manage an hour or two for a friend."