Diana Rennie, daughter of a wealthy rancher, attempts to persuade mystery man Del Russell to leave his grievances behind and forgive her father for past mistakes. Her careful plan goes awry and results in a shotgun wedding and a prison sentence for Del.
Four years later, Del is back in her life with a vengeance—back for his rightful share of Diana's ranch, back to prove he isn't the criminal she thought he was, back to finish what the two of them started years ago in a passionate daze. And he isn’t going anywhere, no matter what beautiful, treacherous Diana does or says to try to get rid of him.
|Publisher:||The Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.83(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Colorado, September 1884
The rider paused at the top of the hill and tipped his hat forward to cut the sun's glare. Yeah, it was a majestic sight. The broad valley stretched green and gold clear to the Sangres. White-faced cattle plodded and browsed the far hills.
A breeze fanned his cheeks. The stink of cow shit, the stink of money.
And on a near hill lording over it all, a big house built of timber and stone basked in the afternoon sun, its many windows flaming topaz mirrors. King Midas's castle.
Only time he'd ever seen it, he was a kid of ten on a damn cold night in midwinter. He remembered the fancy house, oozing warmth and light. But not for him. Or Pa.
Outside the stable a slim youth in a black Stetson yanked off his gloves and smacked dust from his breeches, then dragged his feet over a patch of grass. As if sensing someone watched him, the youth stared up the hill.
The rider saluted. The youth straightened. Nose in the air, he marched a well-worn path up the slope to the house.
Long blonde hair streamed down the youth's back. So it was a princess, not a prince.
Made no difference. Wait 'til we meet, kid. You'll lose the snooty attitude fast.
* * *
The sound of contentious voices seeped through the door. Someone was arguing. Diana Rennie kicked her grimy riding clothes off the carpet and jerked the door open.
She stopped at the top of the stairs and edged along the narrow gallery. Late afternoon sunshine bathed the air in the big room with shimmering golden light. Owen stood behind a chair, hands clamped on the upholstered back. His flaxen hair formed unruly windrows as if he'd dragged his fingers through it, his glacial blue gaze focused on someone in the room.
The other man had his back to her. A fringed buckskin jacket stretched over shoulders squared for combat. Brown breeches and knee-high moccasins encased legs planted in defiance. A loose plait of black hair hung from beneath his hat.
Cold prickles danced up her spine. She'd seen him earlier on the hill, watching, thinking, maybe plotting. She'd felt uneasy then; doubly so now.
"My father forgave you with his final breath." The stranger's voice pulsed with controlled anger. "Don't you have anything to say to me? No remorse, no regret? No 'I'm sorry'?"
Mouth compressed, Owen seemed a stone statue, so still a trio of porcelain horses on the étagère behind him seemed to cavort across the glass shelf.
He blew out a long breath. "Don't blame me for your father's failings." The bronze glow on his cheeks intensified, a pulse twitched in his neck. "I'll tell you this once, Russell — you don't want me as an enemy." He gestured with his chin to the door. "Get the hell out of my house."
A hay-scented breeze whispered through an open window; sheer curtains shivered.
"Yeah, I'll go. But not far. I rented a place at the edge of town, nice and close."
Owen reared, nostrils flaring. "What do you want? Revenge, money — what?"
"Maybe I want to find my father's bones and give him a proper burial. Or maybe" — he paused and the moment stretched, attended by the breeze rustling through the room — "maybe I want to kill you."
Diana gathered her skirts in a fist and stormed down the stairs. "Who do you think you are, talking to my father like that?"
The stranger whirled. She had a quick impression of beard shadow on a sun-browned face, but his surprised silvery eyes beneath a fan of black lashes stopped her in her tracks. Their gazes locked and held. Unable to find her voice or the words she meant to fling at him, she could only stare back in fascinated dread.
Owen, mouth half-open, stepped toward her. The stranger glared at her, cast a sweeping look about the room, and stalked out.
The front door slammed. Owen rubbed his jaw. "I wish you hadn't heard that."
"Who was he? Why was he here?" Her heart pounded, a storm brewed in her mind — anger at the stranger jumbled with fear for Owen.
He closed his eyes. "Something happened years ago." His voice was rough. "I can't go into it now." He turned, muttered, "I need a drink," and strode to the sideboard where he poured whiskey into a glass and bolted it in one quick swallow.
If only she could do the same. A bracing drink might dissolve the anxiety growing in the pit of her stomach. Owen poured himself another drink. She had a flashing vision — Mother, wearing her woe-is-me face, flouncing about the New York townhouse with a glass of wine, fishing headache tablets out of a silk pouch tied to her wrist.
Mother. How many years had she spent trying to form Diana into her own image? A sophisticated socialite with nothing on her mind but attending the next gala. How many men had she paraded Diana past, hoping she would choose a wealthy, older one? Vain hopes, for Diana had bigger plans. Her goal to become a concert pianist saw her through those times.
And now, living with her father on this incredible ranch, she was free to regain those lost years of her youth.
Golden light faded, replaced by rosy dusk. Soft voices at the other end of the room caught Diana's attention. Teresa was lighting candles on the long table while her thirteen-year-old daughter Nita followed, rolling a cart laden with chittering china and silver.
Owen set down his empty glass and turned, eyes weary, to Diana. "I can't join you for dinner tonight." Fatigue textured his voice. "It's been a long day. I'm sure I'll feel better tomorrow."
Diana nodded. Dining alone was not a new experience. In New York she had often eaten alone, even when Mother appeared at the table, self-absorbed, swilling wine. This was different. The stranger's visit had upset Owen, dragged him into a past event he wanted to forget. Surely the man named Russell posed no true threat.
Yet as she sat and unfolded her napkin, as the square of candlelit table shrank before encroaching shadows, she recalled his face, his eyes, in amazing detail.
She needed to know his story. Tomorrow. Owen would tell her tomorrow.CHAPTER 2
Three days! Three days had gone by, and Owen still wasn't his normal self.
Oh, they dined together, and they talked about the weather and horses, but it was a stilted conversation, not like their previous ones. Owen used to speak at length with enthusiasm of his fledgling copper mine on Cimarron Mountain and his plans for increasing the herd. He spoke about each ranch hand's often amusing life story and bragged how he had enticed the Rossettis to leave Boston and work for him.
But now his mind was elsewhere, his eyes had an unfocused look that meant he was mulling over a problem.
Diana confronted him about the man's visit.
"Not just now," he replied. "I need to think some things through." And he'd given her a don't-worry-your-pretty-little-head smile that only vexed her more. She needed answers. She needed her father back.
Damn that Russell! He had to leave and never come back. Would harsh words and threats dispose of him? Maybe there was a different way.
The more she thought about it, the more convinced she became that she had to speak to him. She planned a speech and went over it until it was flawless. If her plan worked, Owen need never know.
On the pretext she wanted to order clothes from the catalogue at the general store, Diana accompanied Teresa on her monthly two-day shopping trip to town. When they turned onto the road, she wished she'd worn her Stetson instead of a small frothy hat so stylish in New York, useless in rugged western ranch country. Autumn might be blazing the trees and cooling the air, but the sun shone midsummer bright and glanced off the shiny backs of the sorrels pulling the buckboard.
On the seat beside her, Teresa, in a sensible wide-brimmed straw hat, handled the reins without effort. Charlie, one of the older ranch hands, rode alongside, their escort for the twelve-mile drive to town.
"I need many supplies," Teresa had said, so instead of sitting in comfort in the buggy, Diana perched on a hard wagon seat above wheels that spewed brown dust into the air.
For two hours she counted fence posts and cottonwood trees lining the road, hiding her growing impatience, at times sitting on her hands so as not to drum her fingers on the seat. At last Teresa eased back the reins and slowed the horses to a walk. They passed a sign proclaiming, Welcome to Rennieville, pop. 307. Someone had put a big black X on the 7 and printed 5.
Signs of civilization appeared, each side of the road lined with ramshackle houses, spindly trees, and shrubs.
And there was Russell, walking to the front of a shack, saddle slung on one shoulder. He turned her way and lowered the saddle to the stoop. She couldn't see his eyes beneath the shadow of his hat brim, but she felt the weight of his gaze and stared back until they moved past. Good. Now she wouldn't have to ask anyone where he lived.
* * *
Purchases made, orders placed, Diana and Teresa ate in the dining room of the Rennieville hotel, then retired to their small, plain rooms. Diana paced and rehearsed her speech. Sunset came at last. Twilight lingered; night fell.
She slipped out by a side door and walked through dark, empty streets, hugging her arms beneath a cashmere cape, spooked by the eerie silence. Rennieville's one saloon closed at nine, and everything else looked shut tight. All the town's three hundred and five residents, even dogs and cats, seemed to have retired. Wood smoke drifting from chimneys dissipated in a sharpening wind that tugged at her hair and flattened her skirt against her legs.
The shack was black but for faint glimmers of light behind tar-papered windows. At the door her courage failed her. Was she making a big mistake?
"I'm doing this for Owen." She stiffened her spine and rapped on the door.
The quick opening of the door startled her. He startled her, for he looked as if he'd just come from bed and hastily donned his breeches. Barefoot, shirtless, black hair loose on his shoulders, he lifted a lantern. She stared at the patch of hair on his chest, then at his face, and was startled yet again.
He stared back in surprised recognition, and as their eyes met, it seemed a palpable current coursed between them. Unnerved, she broke eye contact, and the feeling passed, leaving a mild frisson in its wake.
Her mouth had gone dry. She licked her lips and stammered, "Uh — Mr. Russell — I'd like — a few words with you. That is — if you have time —"
"I always have time to speak to a lady, especially a princess." He moved aside for her to enter, looked out both ways, and shut the door against cool gusts that chased her in. He hung the lantern from a ceiling hook, and the amber light showed his sun-bronzed face and a firm jaw shadowed with fine bristle. Straight black brows and thick lashes pulled her attention back to his eyes, gray with a silver cast. A thin bleached scar streaked above his left temple.
Beyond the circle of lantern light, a snapping fire in a potbelly stove sent bright shafts leaping into gloomy corners, revealing a narrow bed with a rumpled blanket shoved to one side, the pillow still indented from his head. Her cheeks warm, she looked away.
The dim room was too cozy, the air thick with the scent of saddle leather, burning wood, and the more subtle scent of man. Diana capped a mad urge to fan herself.
He strode to a washstand and bent over a basin, splashed water on himself, and dried face, neck, and hands with a cotton shirt. He was lean, with firm shoulders and solid muscles in his arms. When he straightened, he flicked his hair back, turned, and gave her another curious look. "You plan on buying the place? Or d'you plan on buying me?"
More heat crept up her face. "Mr. Russell —"
"My lady friends call me Del." His eyes narrowed as they roamed the length of her body and returned to her face. "You look older than the kid I thought you were."
She pursed her lips. "I'm twenty. And not your lady friend." She shook her head. "Mr. Russell, I have business to discuss with you."
"Business, is it?" The assessing look returned. "Friend of mine had a blonde, blue-eyed china doll looked just like you. Nice body, too."
Disturbed by his direct gaze, his words, she strove to maintain dignity. Her hair was pulled back and tied at the nape of her neck. Had the brisk wind disheveled it? She defeated the impetus to check. She needed to stand firm because the speech she'd prepared had sprouted wings and flown away.
A suspicious slant to his eyes, he said, "Why would a princess rouse a beggar from his bed near midnight?" Two bottles sat on a scarred table. He twisted out a cork from one and took a swallow. "Want some whiskey? Sorry, no glass."
Of course he would have the wrong idea. Proper ladies didn't go calling on men alone, even in a safe town like Rennieville. She needed to douse his suspicion. If he saw her as a friend and ally, her chances of success would increase, wouldn't they? Though she'd never tasted whiskey, she said, "Yes, I'll have a drink." A surprised frown notched his brow. She added, "If you put on a shirt."
"Only business I'm interested in is bed business. Why would I get dressed just to undress again?" Eyes skeptical, he offered her the bottle.
Very well. She wouldn't look at his chest, however tanned and hard-muscled, however taut and — oh, damn. She lifted the bottle to her lips and swallowed a big mouthful, then gagged and coughed as the whiskey boiled up in her throat.
He jerked the bottle away and held it to the light. "Take it easy."
Eyes watering, she forced the liquor down and composed herself. A deep breath, a nervous swallow. Yes, better. Her face and body hot, she doffed her gloves and cape, dropped them on a chair, and swept a hand across her burning brow.
His gaze again moved from her feet to her head, pausing on her silky white shirt. "Did the old man send you, China Doll?" A silver flare beneath those thick lashes, a quick feral show of teeth. He took another, longer drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
She took a steadying breath. "My name is Diana. Miss Rennie to you." Did that sound too challenging? "Um, my father doesn't know I'm here." She sensed his rising animosity and forced herself to meet his belligerent gaze. They must seem to be on the same side. "He hasn't been himself since the day you came to our house."
"Must be his conscience getting after him. He tell you how he caused my father's death?"
"He told me nothing. Whatever Owen did —"
His black brows lifted. "Owen?"
"Owen. My father." Defensiveness would only stir his hostility. Time for a little history, enough perhaps to gain some sympathy. She paced a slow circle. "I was born on the ranch. When I was three, my mother took me to New York. I returned nearly four months ago upon Mother's passing." Seeking his gaze, she added, a small throb in her voice, "I was lost all those years, lost in a big cold city until I found my home again and my beloved father." She swallowed. "Yet — I couldn't call him that, so we settled on his given name for now."
Was there even a smidgen of empathy in his eyes? She couldn't tell by his stony expression. He set the bottle down with a thump and leaned back against the table, arms out at the sides, hands resting palm down on the plank surface. The lantern dropped a beacon of light on him, capturing her attention despite her vow not to look at his body. There was insolence in his stance, an overt display of virility. She stared at his muscular thighs and the coarse hairs rising above his breeches.
"Yeah, it's a sad story. I've got one too, because when I was ten I watched your old man send my father to his death. But you, miss well-bred, didn't come here to chat about your past. What's your real reason for this visit?" He picked up the bottle and took a deep swallow, eyes on her the entire time.
Controlled anger seemed to roll off him in waves. This wasn't working as she had planned. She stepped to him. "May I have another drink?"
He passed her the bottle, then crossed his arms over his chest and watched her. Eyes squeezed shut, she took another mouthful and felt the same slow burn as before. She managed not to gag this time but couldn't stop from grimacing.
"All right." She spoke with careful precision. "Mr. Russell, um, Del, when you said you might kill Owen, I grew afraid. Terribly afraid. I came here to appeal to you to leave Rennieville, leave my father in peace. He — he's very torn up about this business. He's remorseful and sad and ashamed, and — oh — it breaks my heart to see him that way." Was this working? One more mouthful of whiskey. God, it was awful. She shuddered and scrubbed her mouth with the heel of her hand.
He grabbed the bottle and set it away. "You'll be on the floor if you keep drinking."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Queen of Paradise Valley"
Copyright © 2017 Cathrine Dubie.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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