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June 9, 1883
The church was a weathered, unpainted structure surrounded by undulating summer grass. Organ music wheezed out into the bright June day.
Gideon Marshall kicked at the ground with the toe of one boot and groaned. The last thing he wanted to do was walk into that modest wooden building and interrupt a wedding, but as things stood, he didn’t have much choice.
Much choice? Thanks to his older brother, Zachary, thanks to his own youthful high spirits, he had no choice at all.
He squared his shoulders and approached the open doors of the sanctuary.
Might as well get the unpleasant duty out of the way.
Willow would be furious, of course. Who could blame her?
Grimly, Gideon climbed the sloping, rough-hewn steps and entered the church itself.
He paused in the shadows, letting his eyes adjust to the dimmer light—or so he told himself. The bride stood at the altar with her groom, and the sacred words were beginning.
“’Dearly beloved, we are gathered here . . .”
The pit of Gideon’s stomach quivered, and he cleared his throat, tasted something sour on the back of his tongue. Whether or not this farce was Zachary’s fault, he was the one who would have to make it right, have to take the ultimate responsibility.
Nothing new in that.
All their lives, Zachary had been the one to instigate trouble. He had a gift for making some wild enterprise sound like a good idea, Zachary did, and when he was younger, Gideon had often gone along with his brother’s suggestions.
After all, no one had ever died.
Or been arrested.
Well, okay, arrested. But never actually tried and sentenced.
Irritated regret rose in Gideon. Had it not been for his surroundings, he would have sworn roundly, and at volume. Of course, he couldn’t do such a thing, even though he was not a religious man. And he’d done enough swearing since finding out the true scope of the prank his brother and their mutual friends had played on him, two years before, in San Francisco.
There were a lot of people crowded into the narrow pews, and Gideon imagined how they would turn and stare at him, once his mission became clear. By nightfall, the story would be all over the territory—and if Willow didn’t kill him personally, her father probably would.
It seemed to Gideon that time had frozen. He stood at the back of the little church, wishing he could vanish, preferably in a puff of smoke like a stage magician.
Of course, that wasn’t going to happen.
It would be entirely too easy.
Once again, he centered his attention on the circuit preacher’s words and their portent.
“If anyone can show just cause,” boomed the clergyman, “why these two should not be joined in marriage, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.”
Oh, God, thought Gideon. And then he cleared his throat again and said, “I can show just cause,” in a clear voice that carried through the small sanctuary and brought an immediate halt to the proceedings.
Nobody breathed, as far as Gideon could tell. At least, he didn’t.
The bride turned first, her face—which Gideon remembered as heartstoppingly beautiful—hidden by the dense veil of fine lace. At her cue, the groom and all the guests turned, too.
“I beg your pardon?” demanded the preacher, arching one eyebrow as he glowered at the interloper.
Fully aware that he was as unwelcome in that place as the devil would have been in heaven, Gideon walked slowly up the aisle, wishing that the splintery floorboards would part, Red Sea style, and swallow him whole.
He paused between the first two rows of rough-hewn pews and cleared his throat loudly and, he hoped, with some authority. “Miss Gallagher cannot legally marry,” he said, in that same clear voice. “She is, as it happens, married to me.”
The bride’s bouquet of violets and summer wildflowers tumbled to the floor in a cascade of color, and a wave of excited chatter surged through the congregation, blending with the rustle of sateen skirts, the bumbling buzz of flies, and the speculative whisperings of the men.
The groom, Norville Pickering, a skinny young fellow with an unfortunate complexion, glared at Gideon.
Before he could speak, however, Gideon raised both hands in a diplomatic gesture. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I know this is an inexcusable interruption, but as I said before, the lady is married to me and I have the papers to prove it.”
Slowly, Willow Gallagher lifted the veil from her face—even more exquisite than he remembered—and her expression was unreadable. She simply watched Gideon with those wide, amber-colored eyes that had nearly undone him, back home in San Francisco, just two years before. Her lush, dark-gold hair was done up and threaded through with sprigs of baby’s breath, and there was a beguiling apricot tone to her flawless cheekbones.
“You,” she said, without inflection of any kind. And then her eyes rolled back and her knees gave out and she collapsed to the church floor in a faint.
* * *
Willow opened her eyes and stared up into her father’s face, amazed and shaken. The little room reserved for the pastor’s use seemed close and musty, even though a window was open to the summer breeze.
“Was Gideon speaking the truth?” Devlin Gallagher demanded, though his blue eyes were kind. “Are you his wife?”
Willow had never expected to see Gideon Marshall in the flesh again, especially not today, of all days. With great effort, she had put the humiliation and the pain of the joke he and his brother had played on her out of her thoughts, for the most part, anyway. It was rather hard to forget him completely, reprehensible as he was.
“No,” she said, with resolution, sitting up and drawing a deep, sustaining breath. “I most certainly am not Gideon Marshall’s wife!”
At that moment, the door of the small room opened and Gideon himself walked in, looking strained and very determined. His clothes were good but not formal, and the fabric looked rumpled, as though he’d been traveling in earnest and in haste. His hair was darker than she remembered, the color of tarnished brass.
And he was still so damnably good-looking that Willow had no trouble recalling why she’d fallen for the cruel joke he and Zachary and a few of their friends had played on her.
She’d wanted so much to believe that he loved her, even though they’d barely met. Spent only one romantic—and wholly innocent—night together, exploring the city in a hired carriage.
Willow had been seventeen at the time, fresh from the wilds of the Montana Territory, and very naive.
Gideon, a full decade older, with a college education and a trust fund, had been, by contrast, sophisticated. Even worldly.
“Hello, Judge Gallagher,” he said easily. The nod he spared Willow had to serve as a greeting.
Judge Gallagher squared his massive shoulders and clasped his hands together, probably to keep from closing them around Gideon’s throat and strangling him on the spot. “Were you not my wife’s son, Mr. Marshall,” he said evenly, “I would snap your spine like a chicken bone. What in God’s name is the meaning of this?”
Gideon’s jaw tightened and his green-gray gaze skirted Willow’s. “Believe me, sir,” he told her father, “I didn’t want to do this. I had to, however, for your daughter’s sake as well as my own.”
Willow lowered her eyes, unable to look at Gideon. Dear God, what a fool he’d made of her that long-ago night, and how keen the pain was, reawakened after all this time.
Gideon cleared his throat and went on. “Several years ago, Judge, when your daughter came to San Francisco with our mother, my brother and I decided to play a joke on her. I had just gotten home from Europe and—well, the unflattering truth is, we were drunk.
“In any case, I met Willow at a party soon after I got back, and—” He paused, cleared his throat, and finally went on. “I was very taken with her. We meant to persuade one of our friends to pose as a minister and . . .” Gideon paused as embarrassed color surged into Willow’s face, aching there. “For a reason I will probably never understand, Miss Gallagher agreed to marry me.”
Willow felt her father’s questioning gaze touch her and shivered. God, if only a person could will herself to die. She would certainly have done it then.
The judge’s voice was remarkably calm, considering the circumstances. “Did you defile my daughter, Gideon?” he asked forthrightly.
“No,” Gideon replied. “I did take her to a hotel and . . .” He stopped and cleared his throat again. “And I realized what I was doing. I couldn’t go through with it, of course.”
“Of course,” agreed the judge, with raspy disdain. “I could hang you, you realize; no father on the face of the earth would blame me for it.”
“Yes, sir,” answered Gideon, with dignity. “I guess you could.”
An uncomfortable and protracted silence ensued, which the judge eventually broke. “If the marriage was a farce, what are you doing here now?”
At last, Willow was able to look up, to search the handsome face that she had loved for years and years—ever since her first sight of the portrait that hung in Evadne Marshall Gallagher’s fussy sitting room, right there in Virginia City.
She waited, every bit as interested in his answer as her father was.
Gideon met her eyes squarely, then sighed. A muscle jumped in his strong jaw, settled down again. “I became engaged to a woman in San Francisco recently—her name is Daphne Roberts—and she and I have been pledged to each other practically since we were christened. When the official announcement was made, my brother was prompted to intercede. The joke was on me, it seems, as well as Willow. The minister was a justice of the peace, and the ceremony was legal.”
“My God,” breathed the judge.
Willow was torn between launching into a screaming rage and clasping her hands together and offering a prayer of gratitude.
She had had no choice but to accept Norville Pickering’s proposal of marriage, but now she would have a respite. For a few weeks, maybe even for a few months, until an annulment could be secured, anyway, she could keep Norville at arm’s length.
Convince him, somehow, that she’d been looking forward to their honeymoon and lengthy marriage—till death did them part, for heaven’s sake—and was bitterly disappointed that their plans had been thwarted.
If she chose every word carefully, Norville would believe her.
And Steven, the brother she adored, would not be in danger.
“You could have sent a wire or something!” growled the judge furiously, lowering his bristly eyebrows as he glared at Gideon. “Good God, man, what if you hadn’t gotten here in time? What if . . .?”
He reddened and fell silent.
“I did get here in time,” Gideon said reasonably. Now, he seemed more amused by the situation than apologetic. Of course, he’d had time to get used to the idea, which was more than anyone could say for the rest of them. “From my mother’s letter,” he went on smoothly, “I thought the wedding was slated for July. Since I was coming to the Territory on railroad business anyway, I believed I had plenty of time. In any case, something this—delicate—should be dealt with in person, don’t you think, instead of over a telegraph wire?”
Willow, sitting up now but still a little dizzy, sighed and looked down at her hands, which were clasped in her lap. A tear she hadn’t known she’d shed glistened on the curve of one thumb.
Her father patted her shoulder tenderly. “I’ll go out and explain—or try to,” he said. And then the door opened and closed, and he was gone.
Gideon came to Willow; he crouched before her as he had once before, in a faraway hotel room, when she had been willing, so embarrassingly willing, to share his bed. He caught her hands in his and squeezed them gently, just as he had done then. “I’m so sorry, Willow,” he said, and that, too, was an echo from the past.
There was a great stir in the sanctuary beyond as the news was delivered, and Willow could hear Norville shouting in outrage. She prayed that he would not confront her now, that he would not be angry enough to go back on their bargain.
Willow forced herself to meet Gideon’s eyes. Suddenly, inexplicably, she longed to touch Gideon’s butternut hair, learn the texture of it, trace the firm lines of his cleanshaven jaw. She kept her hands together in her lap. What did one say in a circumstance such as this? Should she thank him for the unwitting rescue? Could Gideon Marshall see it in her face, the foolish love she still felt for him, after all this time and in spite of so many things?
At that moment, the door crashed open, causing Willow to start violently, and Norville Pickering filled the chasm, his face taut and red with fury.
Gideon rose slowly from his crouching position before Willow. He turned to face Norville.
“Are you truly married to this scoundrel?” the thwarted groom demanded. He spoke with such force that spittle flew from his mouth.
Willow lowered her head again, lest he see the contradictory emotions in her face. “It would seem so,” she said softly.
Norville’s rage seemed to pulse in the small room. “I will have satisfaction for this, my good man,” he said to Gideon.
Gideon’s aristocratic mouth twitched slightly and then he spread his hands out wide. He was willing to accept Norville’s challenge, obviously, though Willow, watching him from out of the corner of one eye, had to concede that he was trying very hard to be gracious. “There is nothing I can say in my defense,” he confessed.
Norville’s manner, indeed his entire countenance, was petulance at its most essential. He threw back his thin shoulders and tugged hard at the cuffs of his suit coat. “I will not overlook this,” he vowed, and then he raised his fists like a prizefighter prepared for battle. “I will have satisfaction, sir, and I suggest you prepare to defend yourself.”
Willow stood up now, her head held high. “Don’t be an idiot, Norville. Fighting won’t solve anything, and this is God’s house, after all.”
Norville’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, but he lowered his fists to his sides. Turning to Willow and looking as though he might actually burst into tears, he protested, “This is intolerable—good Lord, Willow, how could you deceive me this way?”
Willow swallowed all the things she might have said. After all, Norville Pickering still had the power to destroy her brother. She could not endanger Steven’s freedom, perhaps even his life, by speaking her mind. “I-I truly didn’t mean to deceive you, Norville,” she said gently. “Surely you realize that this cruel trick was more devastating for me than anyone. Imagine how I felt, Norville, why just imagine! I was young, I really believed that Mr. Marshall cared for me and had only the most honorable of intentions . . .”
Gideon thrust out an eloquent breath and rolled his eyes heavenward.
Willow flashed him one scathing look and insisted, “I did!” before turning her attention back to soothing the badly ruffled Norville. “Please”—disgust gathered into a lump in the back of her throat—“darling. You must believe that I was an innocent victim of this-this vicious and unconscionable deception.”
Norville lifted his receding chin. “And I will avenge your shame, my dear,” he promised, turning fiery eyes on Gideon once again. “I swear it. If it’s the last thing I ever do, I will restore your honor—”
Gideon made a sound that could have been either a chortle of amusement or a gasp, probably thinking, as Willow was, that if Norville ever raised a hand to him, it would indeed be the last thing he ever did; he turned away, his coat straining across his broad shoulders as he folded his arms.
Evidently believing he’d made his point, Norville turned as well, without another word to Willow, and stormed out, leaving the door to the sanctuary gaping open.
Willow immediately strode over to Gideon Marshall, raised her foot, and kicked him, hard, in the back of his right leg.
After one howl of stunned anger and, she hoped, severe pain, Gideon whirled to face her.
“Why the hell did you do that?” he rasped.
Willow glared up into his face. “Why the hell do you think I did it?” she shot back.
A reluctant grin curved Gideon’s fine lips, and those familiar eyes, the ones she’d looked into so often, in her favorite dreams, assessed her frankly, going as far as her full breasts before returning to her throbbing face. “I guess I deserved it at that.”
“That and more!” Willow spat out, infuriated. God knew she was the subject of enough talk as it was, without this. By nightfall, everybody in Virginia City and for miles around would have heard about the ruined wedding and know what a fool this man had made of her, not once but twice. “You should just be thankful this is a church, because if it weren’t, I would have kicked you somewhere else!”
Gideon grinned that maddening grin and waggled one index finger in amused reprimand. “But this is God’s house, darling,” he reminded her.
“If God were minding His business, the roof would have already fallen in on your head, you-you dreadful man!”
He sighed and his hands came to Willow’s shoulders with an odd tenderness, his touch engendering a riot of inadvisable feelings within her. He gave a ragged sigh, and the look in his eyes was gentle. “What I did to you was unforgivable, I know. And I’m sorry, Willow, I really am. Since I can’t change the past, my apology—and subsequent efforts to make amends—will have to suffice.”
Willow’s heart leaped into her throat and pounded there so hard that she couldn’t speak.
Gideon arched one eyebrow, and the summer sun caught in his golden brown hair. “Why did you agree to marry me that night, Willow? You didn’t even know me.”
Willow’s cheeks turned crimson and her eyes filled with hot tears. She had known Gideon Marshall even then, had loved him because he was the man in Evadne’s portrait. But how could she answer his question honestly without making even more of a fool of herself?
“I must have been moonstruck or something,” she lamented.
He sighed. “Do you hate me so much, Willow? After all, I could have made love to you in that hotel room, compromised you in the fullest sense of the word, but I didn’t.”
The glow in Willow’s cheeks grew brighter still, and she trembled with latent shame and sharp disappointment at the memory of that wonderful, terrible night.
Before she could think of any suitable response to what he’d said, however, Willow’s father had returned, and his wife, Evadne, was with him.
Her fine-boned face was a study in scandalized surprise.
“Gideon!” Evadne almost wailed, wringing her elegantly gloved hands. “What in the name of heaven?”
Gideon sighed again and looked annoyed before he turned to face his mother squarely.
“Am I disowned?” he asked ingenuously.
Forgiveness wasn’t long in coming.
Evadne, a beautiful woman with piles of dark hair and sparkling eyes the same changeable color as her son’s, smiled and flung her arms out wide, enfolding Gideon in a motherly embrace. “We weren’t expecting you until next month!” she trilled.
Gideon cast one look at Willow, standing there in her wedding dress, and shrugged. “From the looks of things, it’s a good thing I arrived early.”
Evadne’s gaze sliced menacingly to Willow. Probably she had already convinced herself that the whole nasty matter was the fault of her wanton stepdaughter, not her son. Gideon was Evadne’s favorite; to hear her tell it, he could do no wrong. “Yes,” she said, in a sandpaper voice, frowning thoughtfully now. “Well, the guests have all gone, but there will be talk of this for years. I do declare, I don’t know how I’ll hold my head up in polite society after this.”
“You’ll manage, Mother,” Gideon assured her wryly. “You always do, don’t you?”
Willow wanted to scream with frustration; if she couldn’t get out of this close little room, away from Gideon and his mother, she would surely succumb to some sort of fit. She gathered her skirts in her hands and made her way, with as much dignity as she could summon up, toward the door.
Evadne’s quiet but still piercing voice stopped her. “You haven’t heard the last of this, young lady,” she warned. “Please go directly home and consider what you have done to poor Norville and his family, not to mention your father and me.”
The judge gave his daughter one beleaguered, sympathetic look and nodded.
Pride squared Willow’s shoulders and she walked out, through the empty sanctuary, directly across the wide, rutted road, and up the stone walk that led to the front door of the judge’s magnificent brick house.
She would change her clothes first thing, she decided, still dizzy with a combination of shock and undeniable relief, and then remain in her bedroom, giving the impression of guilty reflection. When it was dark, though, she would escape to the hills.
“Miss Willow!” shouted Maria Estrada, the housekeeper, as Willow started up the main staircase, the skirts of her modest wedding gown held high.
Willow froze, shut her eyes for a moment. “Yes?” she asked softly.
“Is the wedding over? Where is your new husband?”
Deflated now, Willow turned and looked down at Maria. The woman had been so much more than a housekeeper—she’d been a substitute mother. “It seems that I’m already married,” she said, and the words felt shaky as she said them, like loose floorboards under her feet.
Maria’s mouth made a perfect O; then she gasped, her dark eyes wide with amazement. “Madre de Dios,” she whispered, aghast, crossing herself with the hasty expertise of the very devout. “How can you already be married?”
One hysterical giggle bubbled up into Willow’s throat and escaped. She was going to catch hell, not only from her stepmother but from the entire town as well, but that was nothing compared to the joy of knowing that she would not, in the near future, have to share Norville Pickering’s bed or endure his presence from day to day.
“What mischief are you up to?” demanded Maria, resting her hands on her ample hips now, skepticism rising in her wise and gentle face like water in a new well. No doubt, she would light candles and say many novenas for Willow’s immortal soul, but for now she was set on getting answers.
Willow couldn’t resist teasing a little.
Horror rounded Maria’s eyes to impossible dimensions and a bluster of Spanish invective followed.
Willow laughed and took pity upon her old friend. After all, this was a woman who had held her, dried her tears, taught her to make tortillas. “Relax, Maria. I didn’t set out to have two husbands, I honestly didn’t.”
“But . . .”
Willow wanted very much to be alone to sort out her thoughts and make some sort of plan, so she smiled warmly and promised to tell the whole story after she’d had time to collect her wits.
Ten minutes later, she was struggling with the fastenings of her wedding dress when Maria knocked lightly and then entered the bedroom with a tray and a raft of questions.
Although she would have liked more time—once she was free of the dress she prayed she would never have to wear again—comfortable in her satin chemise, Willow suppressed a sigh, helped herself to a cup of tea from the tray, and laced it with generous portions of sugar and milk.
“Are my father and Mrs. Gallagher back from the church?” she asked, mostly to stall.
Maria looked avid and exasperated, both at once. “They are in the sitting room, with Lancelot.”
Willow winced, closing her eyes. Lancelot was the silly nickname she and Maria had given Gideon long ago, when they’d known him only as the figure in the painting Evadne so cherished. How embarrassing it would be, though, if that were to slip out in front of Gideon.
Thanks to the interrupted wedding, Willow was mortified enough.
“You mustn’t call Mr. Marshall that in his hearing, Maria.”
Maria sighed dreamily. She’d taken a seat on the lid of Willow’s hope chest, a cup of tea in hand. “He is handsome, is he not? Just as handsome as his portrait.”
Willow suddenly wanted to cry. Over the years since she’d come to live with her father and Evadne, soon after her mother’s death, she had made up many romantic stories, all of them centering on the painted image of Gideon Marshall that hung in the sitting room downstairs.
Meeting him in San Francisco, at seventeen, had seemed the culmination of a wonderful fantasy. Because she had loved Gideon, through the portrait, for years, Willow had agreed to his proposal with joy.
Of course, she was nineteen now and, looking back, she realized all too well how silly it had been of her to ever believe that such a man would want her as a wife, and after knowing her only a few hours, too.
He was a rounder and a rake—what other kind of man would do what he did?—but the fault had not been entirely his. Willow herself had been gullible and stupid.
Glumly, because she knew Maria would insist, Willow explained about the fraudulent marriage ceremony back in San Francisco, which had turned out to be real. She went on to tell how Gideon had stopped today’s ceremony barely an hour before, leaving out an unnecessary account of her jubilation at escaping Norville Pickering. Considering what he could cause to happen to Steven, her brother, the reprieve was probably only temporary anyway.
* * *
Gideon was relieved when his mother left the judge’s study. She would go off to her room, no doubt separate from her husband’s, and shed melodramatic and copious tears. He didn’t envy Devlin Gallagher the days and weeks ahead.
Devlin laughed gruffly as he filled a snifter with brandy the color of his daughter’s eyes. “Damn,” he marveled.
Gideon stared at his mother’s doting husband, amazed. If the situation had been reversed, and he’d been in Judge Gallagher’s position, he would have been furious. Looking to take a strip out of somebody’s hide.
“Have a drink,” said the judge, almost cordially.
The idea held infinite appeal. Gideon went to the side table and helped himself to a generous portion of straight whiskey. Two gulps washed a good bit of his nervousness away, along with a measure of the weariness of traveling so far.
“Sit down,” prompted the judge, indicating a leather chair facing the fireplace.
Confused, Gideon sat. Good Lord, a man would almost think that Gallagher was pleased that his daughter’s wedding had been spoiled, and in such a scandalous fashion, too.
“I ought to have horsewhipped you in the street,” observed the older man, in companionable tones, as he settled his powerful frame in the chair opposite Gideon’s.
Gideon took a sip from his whiskey. “Why didn’t you?” he asked.
“I was too goddamned relieved,” Gallagher replied, lifting one booted foot to rest on his knee.
“You didn’t want your daughter to marry?”
Devlin Gallagher flashed Gideon a quelling look. “Damnit, would you want that pimply squirrel Pickering to marry your daughter?” he demanded.
The groom had been rather unprepossessing, but Gideon hadn’t thought much about it until now. He’d been too intent on averting the complications of bigamy for that. “She must care for him, if she agreed to the marriage—”
The judge interrupted with a snort. “Care for him? Willow despises Pickering!”
“Then why in God’s name would she consent to becoming his wife?”
Gallagher shrugged. “That’s what I’d like to find out. My guess would be that it has something to do with my son.”
Gideon was reminded of his other business in Virginia City—railroad business that had nothing whatsoever to do with stopping Willow’s marriage to the squirrel. “Steven,” he said cautiously. Admire Devlin Gallagher though he did, he couldn’t afford to tip his hand now.
“No doubt, my dear wife has regaled you with an account of Steven’s many sins,” the judge said wearily, his blue eyes faraway and full of pain.
Gideon paid little attention to his mother’s opinions of other people, as a general rule. She was inclined to look for the worst and keep searching until she found it, regardless of the effort involved. “She mentioned him,” he said, in classic understatement.
The judge sighed again and took a drink of his brandy. “I suppose it’s my fault. Steven is an outlaw, after all, and Willow—well, Willow is a constant reminder of my first wife. I know Evadne finds the resemblance trying.”
Gideon sat back, remembering. Evadne had been delighted at the prospect of raising a daughter, when Willow first joined the Gallagher household. After Willow’s ill-fated visit to San Francisco, however, her attitude had changed. Ever since the two women had returned to Virginia City, his mother’s long letters had been filled with bitter references to Willow and the shameful circumstances of her birth. It seemed that Devlin and his former wife, Chastity, mother of the notorious Steven, had engaged in some sort of tryst later on, and the girl with amber eyes had been the result.
But Evadne must have known the truth about Willow’s conception, Gideon reasoned. Apparently, she’d been able to overlook her husband’s obvious infidelity—she’d tried to launch her stepdaughter socially, after all. When that effort failed, Evadne had turned on Willow. Permanently.
Recalling that made Gideon feel even worse, if that was possible, about the prank he and Zachary and their friends had pulled on the girl.
“Willow and Steven are close then?” Gideon dared, pretending an interest in his drink. He was uncomfortable with his thoughts; besides, he had important business in the Montana Territory beyond ruining a wedding.
“Very close. They were together until Willow was nine. Steven brought her to me then.”
Gideon treaded carefully onto sensitive ground. “As Mother tells it,” he began, “it came as something of a surprise, Willow’s existence, I mean.”
The judge’s still handsome face tightened. “I knew I’d sired a second child,” he said, “a daughter. But I couldn’t find them. God knows I tried.”
“My mother’s reaction to Willow’s arrival must have been interesting,” observed Gideon quietly.
“It was,” the judge allowed, with a sound that was part sigh and part chuckle. “But Evadne is a good woman, and she forgave me, as far as possible anyway. She tried to be a mother to Willow, and I will be forever grateful for that, but, well, things just didn’t work out. It isn’t as if Willow hasn’t contributed to the problem—she’s high-spirited and impulsive. I suppose it’s natural that the two of them would butt heads.” He paused and made a rueful sound. “Once Willow came to live with us, there was a lot of talk, and that made things even more difficult for your mother.”
“I can imagine.”
Devlin’s blue eyes came to Gideon’s face, their expression shadowed. “You didn’t come all the way to Virginia City to stop Willow from marrying Pickering, did you?” he asked evenly. His was the tone of a man who already knew the answer to his question.
“No, sir,” Gideon admitted. Virginia City was a small community, and Devlin Gallagher was a prominent citizen. He wouldn’t be able to keep his intentions secret for long.
“Railroad business, you said?”
Gideon got out of his chair, moving to stand at one of the heavily curtained windows near Devlin’s cluttered desk. There was obviously no point in lying to the judge; the man was nobody’s fool.
The judge gave an unsettling burst of laughter. “You’ll never get him,” he said, with relish. “Do you know what the Indians call Steven, Gideon?”
The liquor was easing some of the tension in Gideon’s shoulders, though they still ached. He remained silent, too stubborn, he guessed, to admit that he knew the enormity of the task that had been set for him.
Devlin Gallagher was only too happy to elaborate. “They call him the Mountain Fox,” he said. “And not without reason, my friend. Not without reason.”
“He’s wanted,” Gideon said spiritlessly, not bothering to turn from the window and face this man who was, oddly, both his stepfather and father-in-law.
“By the railroad?”
“By the law. The railroad has a vested interest in his capture, of course. Steven has been robbing trains, Judge Gallagher. We can’t afford to overlook that.”
“I suppose not,” said the judge, in a sad voice. “I don’t believe Steven’s your man, for what it’s worth. His robberies are invariably designed to hurt me, you know. Steven inherited a great deal of money when my mother passed away. The funds have been held in trust for him, and he has full access to them, no questions asked.”
Gideon turned from the window at last. After the events of this day, he’d thought that nothing could shock him, but Devlin Gallagher’s words had. “And you truly believe his only aim is to cause you trouble?”
“My son hates me—and rightfully so, I’m afraid. I’ve never known him to waylay a train or a stagecoach that wasn’t carrying something of mine—like one of my payrolls, for instance.”
Beyond the window glass, the skies rumbled. The clouds that had been gathering in the distance all day were closing in.
“Two months ago Steven Gallagher and his men held up the Central Pacific. They took twenty-five thousand dollars.”
Devlin nodded. “Twenty-five thousand dollars of my money and not one damned thing else. I didn’t hold the railroad responsible and I wonder why they’re so all-fired anxious to see Steven prosecuted.”
“The passengers were terrified, for one thing,” Gideon said, albeit with less force.
“None of them was hurt,” argued the judge.
“That still doesn’t excuse your son—the man cannot be permitted to stop the Central Pacific at will!”
“They’ll figure out a way to hang Steven if you bring him in. You know that, don’t you?”
The whiskey was suddenly roiling in Gideon’s stomach, and he set his glass aside with a thump. “He’ll be tried fairly, Judge Gallagher.”
Devlin gave a hoot of laughter. “God, you have a lot of confidence in yourself and your railroad, boy. Vancel Tudd’s been after Steven for six years, and he’s never even come close. Do you know who Tudd is, young fella? Well, I’ll tell you. He’s the best goddamned bounty hunter in the territories. How the hell do you expect to find my son if he can’t?”
Gideon thought of the golden-haired, wide-eyed young woman upstairs. Thanks to all he’d done to her, here and in San Francisco, she would be seen as a scarlet woman from now on. And yet she was, he sensed, the key to finding Steven Gallagher. “I don’t know,” he lied, in answer to the judge’s question.
Suddenly, he was bone tired, even though it was only midafternoon. He still had to write a letter to Daphne; certainly, some sort of explanation was in order, since he was supposed to marry the woman the first week in September.
Gideon went to the coat tree just inside the study doors and took down his dusty, travel-rumpled jacket. Under the circumstances, he couldn’t very well stay under this roof. “I’ll be at the Union Hotel,” he told the still and thoughtful figure of Judge Devlin Gallagher.
“Your mother will be furious,” replied the judge. He spoke wearily.
Gideon shrugged and opened one of the double doors. “Your Honor?”
Gallagher rose from his chair and turned to face Gideon. “Yes?”
The look in the judge’s eyes was incredibly patient. “I know,” he answered.
Gideon went out into the rain, raising his collar against the wind.