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Blue River Junction, Colorado, 1880
Dillen Roach held a letter from Alice Truett in one hand and a half-empty bottle of whiskey in the other. The woman had a gift. Every time he had contact with her, she threw his world off-kilter. This time her correspondence marked a death. The whiskey buoyed him as the grief pressed down hard on his shoulders, chest and heart. According to Alice, his little sister, Sylvia, was gone. Dead and buried shortly after her husband, Ben Asher, who had come down with spinal fever. Sylvia had tried to nurse him and had caught the same damned thing. His end had been quick and Sylvia's had been slow or "exceedingly difficult," to use Alice's exact words.
But she'd had time to make out a will and leave her boys to him. Sylvia's brain fever was the only explanation for such a bad choice. But perhaps she had made it because he was her only choice. Dillen barely managed to keep himself alive and was in no position to take on two youngsters.
The December wind whipped down the street, threatening to tear his battered tan Stetson from his head. Dillen pressed down on the crown, keeping hold of his hat but releasing the front of his unfastened sheepskin coat. The wind sent the sides flapping like the wings of an agitated rooster. The bite of icy cold sobered him enough so that he thought he might reach his destination without falling again, but then he missed the first step to the telegraph office and folded over the sturdy banister. A gentleman, with a trim white beard and a charcoal-gray overcoat that was distinctly devoid of grime or snow, gave Dillen a wide berth and a sour look as he trotted down the stairs as agile as a mink. Dillen leaned against the wall before the door to catch his breath. He had business to attend.
Then he could finish the bottle. He was a big man, but the liquor was strong and his endurance for such indulgences was limited.
Dillen pressed the bottle under one armpit, clamping down tight to keep from losing the contents as he opened the door and staggered into the telegraph office. Good thing he had written out his responses before he'd hit that bottle, because he could no longer see straight.
The clerk spun around when Dillen got tangled up in the chair beside the writing desk provided for customers. He ended up kicking the chair harder than he'd intended, sending it sliding on its casters like a block of fresh-cut ice on a frozen lake.
"Now, see here," said the clerk, lifting the latched portion of the counter to step from the safety of his recessed sanctuary. Then, taking a good look at Dillen, he dropped the section back in place. Dillen had that effect on folks even when he wasn't drinking. His size accounted for some of it, he supposed, his pistol for the rest. Though he wasn't an outlaw or a lawman. Just a cowboy turned showman, trick rider and marksman. That and three years of his life had gotten him absolutely nowhere. In fact, he was further behind now than when he started. Glaring at the clerk, Dillen patted down his various pockets in search of the scraps of brown paper he'd salvaged from a package from the dry-goods store.
"I gotta send two telegrams," said Dillen, rocking forward against the counter and nearly sprawling across the polished walnut surface.
The clerk looked so young he barely had whiskers. But his blue eyes were clear and his movements steady as he pointed to the desk, now lacking a chair. "Just copy them down on the form you see there."
Dillen glanced over his shoulder at the twin desks, one now floating slightly higher and to the left of the first. He returned his gaze to the clerk. "How's about you copy them into your little form? Just take them down as I wrote them."
"That is very irregular," said the representative of the United Telegraph office.
Dillen slapped a silver dollar on the counter. "Make it worth your while."
The coin vanished and the clerk lifted his pen expectantly.
Dillen found the two ragged pieces of paper in his front left pants pocket and ironed them flat on the counter with the side of his broad hand. Then he examined them and set them side by side.
The clerk took down his name and filled in the necessary boxes. He needed Dillen to read the one he wrote to Alice because at the time Dillen had composed that particular missive he'd already been blind drunk.
"Says, 'Situation unstable. Unable to take them now.'" Dillen wiped his nose, feeling the guilt chewing on his guts again. He was their only living blood kin. "I'll take them, by God, but not now."
The clerk scribbled.
"Don't write that last part. Just what I said. 'Situation unstable. Will wire after the first of the year. Regards. Dillen Roach.' That's it. Read it back."
The clerk complied.
Dillen dictated the other message to the horse trainer in Cripple Creek. His boss wanted those three-year-olds as a Christmas gift for his ten-year-old twin boys. Dillen had seen the twin foals himself and given his report, promising to have them ready for riding by the thaw. He couldn't see to the ranch, break two horses and take custody of his nephews, Cody and Colin. He'd take them, but first he needed a different situation. How old were his sister's children now?
His brain was too fuzzy to do the math.
"You done scribbling?" asked Dillen. He was thinking about his sister, Sylvie, again. He retrieved the whiskey and set it on the counter, squeezing the neck of the bottle as his eyes burned. "Read it back."
"'Interested in taking the pair. Stop. Immediate delivery. Stop. Will pay for transport for both plus handler. Stop. Wire arrival date and time.'"
"Fine," said Dillen.
The bell above the door jangled merrily. Dillen turned to glare at the bell and then the young dandy who took one look at Dillen and decided he had pressing business elsewhere.
"I need the delivery information," said the clerk.
Dillen wondered what Alice would think of his reply. Disappointed, he decided and she had every right to be. He had been nothing to his former sweetheart but one giant disappointment. Still, he'd been straight with Alice. He couldn't say the same for her.
"The recipient?" asked the clerk, tapping his fountain pen now. He recited the address from memory. "Miss Alice Pinter Tru-ett, 1606 South 32nd Avenue, Hanscom Park, Omaha, Nebraska."
"And this one?"
"Mr. Todd Jackson, Horse Creek Crossing Ranch, Cripple Creek, Colorado."
"Send them right out."
Dillen paid the man and waited, dozing as the metallic tap of the telegraph set in motion the first in a string of dominoes that would lead directly back to his door.
His mission accomplished, Dillen staggered out into the blowing snow toward the lights of the Nugget Saloon.
Miss Alice Lorraine Pinter Truett stood on the icy platform of the Blue River Junction train station with her two charges, Cody and Colin Asher, braced against her dark skirts like flying buttresses. She had a horror that the departing train might suck the boys under those steel wheels and so gripped tight with her gloved hand to the narrow shoulders of each child.
Alice had never been outside Omaha, Nebraskamuch less away from the safety of her family, who were less than supportive of her decision to escort her friend's offspring to their uncle.
The whistle shrieked and Alice startled as Colin began to wail. Cody jumped and clutched at her skirts, fumbling to find any purchase that was not taffeta or velvet, and failed. Alice squatted and scooped Colin into her arms and pulled Cody close. The little lambs had lost their mother and father, and she felt a poor substitute.
There the boys huddled like two blackbirds flanking one black crow. She'd bought the traveling clothing for the children, thinking it appropriate for them to wear black to mark the passing of their parents.
Steam blasted across the platform with a loud hiss as the train crept forward. Cody lifted his head to watch the monstrous metal marvel as it picked up speed. The grinding of the wheels on the track was positively deafening, and Alice clamped one hand to Colin's ear and pulled his other against her breast.
Alice hoped that Dillen had received her reply. He did instruct that she bring the children as soon as possible, so she had wired him their arrival details. She was not certain what bothered her more, being called the children's "handler" or his admission that he was interested in taking the pair, as if she would even entertain separating these two orphans. In her heart she feared that perhaps he did not want Colin. Men were funny about young children, feeling they required a woman's hand and so forth, all of which might be true, but
She allowed herself a moment's fantasy in which Dillen would now need her help. The instant she realized what she was doing she cast off the ridiculous notion. Dillen Roach had once told her that he would not accept her help and that he did not expect her to wait for him. He could not have been blunter if he had told her that he saw no future for them. She still wondered how she could have misread him so completely. He had offered small hope, that he still held her in highest regard. But then he'd never come back. His actions spoke much louder than words.
Yet here she was, still turning down perfectly suitable gentlemen of her own class to chase the one man for whom the money did not eclipse her shortcomings. But she wasn't here for him, at least not directly. She was here for the children. Wasn't she?
Blast, where was the man?
The engine puffed, belching black smoke skyward as steam blasted across the platform. Dillen stomped up the planking of the station stop that was so new he could still see the sawdust frozen to the seams. What the Sam Hill was Alice Lorraine Pinter Truett doing ferrying his sister's boys out here anyway? Couldn't she hire a servant to run her errands?
And then he saw her, and his feet stopped of their own volition as his heart took up pounding like a cobbler's hammer. He would recognize her anywhere, the way she moved, the inclination of her head.
She stood all in black in a perfectly tailored coat that clung to her in all the right places and showed that her figure had only improved in his two-year absence. He let his gaze wander appreciatively up from the expensive skirts hemmed in real velvet to the fur-trimmed coat. Was that sable at her cuffs and collar? Her head was capped with a felt-and-fur hat secured to her elegant upswept hair with a hatpin topped with a pearl the size of a pinto bean. It was a shock to see her as she really was, a wealthy woman who had come to do her duty by his sister.
He'd known from the instant he'd met Alice that she was uncommon, but how could he have failed to recognize how uncommon?
He wondered if her features had changed as he recalled her big, wide-set, green, earnest, intelligent eyes. He was so focused on trying to see her face that it wasn't until he caught movement at her side that he noticed that one child was pressed close to her skirts and she held the other one in her arms. His nephews, he realized. If he didn't know better, he would have sworn they were hers. He'd never thought of her that way, but now wondered what kind of a mother Alice might be.
With a stab of guilt he realized she would likely already be one now if he hadn't run like a colt in a summer meadow.
Alice lowered the little one to the ground and took each boy by the hand. Dillen looked at his sister's sons. The smaller one would be Colin, the youngest, he realized. Why, Dillen recalled when he was just a baby. And now Colin would be six. The child had thinned out and his hair was even a lighter brown than Sylvia's had been. Dillen looked at the other boy who was a few inches taller and clung to Alice's opposite hand as he strained for a better look at the departing engine. Cody, he recalled, was eight and was also in black right down to the high socks and shiny shoes. He looked to Dillen like a tiny undertaker in short pants. This one might be old enough to recall him. Cody's mink-brown hair curled from beneath his cap and was the same color exactly as his mother's had been. Dillen's smile faded as an unfamiliar stab of grief pierced him.
He wanted to go to his nephews and hug them and tell them that he'd take care of them, but the truth was he could barely take care of himself.
His attention turned back to Alice. He drank in the sight of her. Damn, he thought, what he wouldn't give to have a woman like Alice Truett. Everything, anything, but wanting didn't make that possible. He sure had learned that lesson well.
Dillen found the strength to step forward. This next part would sure be hard. But it had to be done, for the boys' sake.
As he neared her, he became aware of the mountain of luggage on the cart behind her. It looked like they'd emptied an entire freight car. He had a sudden horror that all that gear might belong to Alice. But that was impossible, wasn't it? Dillen counted four hatboxes and knew with cold certainty that they all belonged to the wealthy, entitled miss who might already be spoken for. That thought put a hitch in his stride. He fumbled in his pocket, feeling the two silver dollars knock together. How much would it cost to take all that gear to the hotel? Worse still, how much would it cost to rent her a room?
More than he had, he knew. Dillen gritted his teeth. He couldn't afford Alice for even one afternoonlet alone a lifetime. The truth bit into him with sharp teeth, but he couldn't shake it off.
He came to a stop before them. Colin leaned back to stare, his mouth dropping open as he gaped, looking very much like he might cry. Cody had also spotted his uncle and gave a sharp tug on Alice's sleeve before turning around, almost like a soldier awaiting inspection.
Colin likely knew his uncle only through stories, if his uncle ever came up at all. Dillen wondered which stories he might have heard and scowled as a series of possibilities danced through his mind. He met Cody's gaze. Two years was a long time to a child. Did the boy recall him?
Alice did not need Cody's warning for she now regarded him with a steady stare and a tight expression that took the lush, full curve from her enticing lips. Didn't matter. Even frowning, seeing Alice was like seeing a butterfly in December. He still felt dizzy with the effort of not reaching out to touch her. He noticed the hollows beneath her cheeks now. She'd lost weight and sleep, he realized, judging from the smudge marks under her eyes. Had she been at Sylvie's grave when they'd lowered his sister into the ground?