And widow Cassandra Logan was as desperate as they come. Who could blame her for the audacious falsehood she told for the sake of her baby? No oneexcept maybe straight-arrow rancher Morgan Tolliver, who had every right to distrust her lying ways!
When his passion outpaced his suspicions, Morgan knew he was in trouble. After all, Cassandra had suddenly appeared at the ranch carrying nothing but a trunkful of lies. So when exactly had he dismissed her deceit and accepted the truth of his love?
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By Elizabeth Lane
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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Chapter OneLaramie, Wyoming, June 10, 1879
"I know you're in there, girlie," the wheezy voice rasped through the thin planking of the door. "I heered you rustlin' them papers in there like a purty li'l red-haired mouse! Open the door, now, so's I won't have to get out my key."
Cassandra Logan huddled in the shadows beside the potbellied stove, her arms wrapped protectively around her bulging belly. Today was the first day of the month. The rent on the shack was due. The landlord, Seamus Hawkins, was here to collect.
And Cassandra had no money to give him.
Her stomach churned as her ears caught the jingle of his heavy key ring. In a moment he would be inside. Then what?
Things had gone from bad to worse in the seven months since her husband, Jake, had died in a gunfight over a pretty blond saloon girl. For a time, scrubbing floors in the Union Pacific Hotel had brought Cassandra enough money for food and rent. But finding work was impossible now. What employer would hire a woman whose apron strings were wrapped beneath her armpits?
As the key slid into the lock, she forced herself to move. Cowering in the corner would only encourage Seamus to bully her - the last thing she needed at a time like this.
Before he could turn the knob, Cassandra swung the door open and stood facing him, arms akimbo, trying to look as fierce as possible. Since the man was at least twice her size, it was a ludicrous effort. He leered down at her, fat and unshaven, reeking of whiskey and garlic.
"Well, where is it?" he demanded, clearly savoring his power over her. "You knew I'd be comin' 'round today."
Cassandra willed herself not to writhe beneath his gaze. "I'll have the rent by Monday," she lied desperately. "Surely you can wait that long. I've always paid you on time."
Seamus's eyes narrowed to slits. "I'll give you till this time tomorrow," he said. "Have the rent in full by then, or it's out you go. There be plenty folks needin' a roof an' able to pay."
He took a step over the threshold. Cassandra's stomach clenched as she sensed what was coming next.
"You know, girlie, there's more'n one way to pay a man. You let me come 'round whenever I get a yen for somethin' sweet, an' you won't owe me a cent."
"I don't think your wife would approve of that arrangement, Mr. Hawkins," Cassandra said icily.
"What my old woman don't know won't hurt her none." He winked slyly, edging closer as Cassandra battled gut-heaving panic. "This could be a li'l private business deal, just between you an' me. I'd even buy you presents if you was nice to me. How about it, girlie?" His breath was warm and damp, his gaze hungry. "'Twouldn't be so bad. You might even get to like it." He groped for her, but Cassandra slipped away, moving back toward the stove, one hand fumbling for the iron kettle.
"Give me a chance to come up with the money," she parried, stalling for time. "The other - that wouldn't be a good idea with the baby -"
"Aww ... I'd be careful. Truth be told, I'd take you over the money any day. 'Sides, 'twouldn't be the worst if somethin' did go wrong an' you lost the young'un, you havin' no husband and all. Why, a purty li'l thing like you, with no brat taggin' along, you could -"
The words ended in a gasp as Cassandra flung the kettle at his head. White-hot rage fueled the impact of the blow. Seamus reeled backward, blood oozing down his temple. He lunged for her, but she spun out of reach, putting the stove between them as she bent to snatch the hatchet out of the wood box.
"What'll it be, Seamus?" she hissed, gripping the weapon. "A finger? An eye, maybe? Take one step closer and you'll find out."
Seamus edged backward. Then, from a safer distance, he grinned at her. "So you like to play rough, eh, you little hellcat? Well, two can play at that game. If I didn't have my old lady waitin' down on the road in the buggy, I'd show you right now." He turned toward the door, then paused, dabbing at his temple with a dirty handkerchief. "I'll be back tomorrow to collect what's owed me. An' one way or another, girlie, you'd better be ready to pay, or you'll be out in the street. An' that'd be a damned, dirty shame, now, wouldn't it?"
Spitting on the handkerchief, he wiped the blood from the side of his face, then turned away and ambled outside. Cassandra slammed the door shut behind him and barricaded it with a spindly chair propped against the knob. Not that it would stop a big man like Seamus Hawkins. When Seamus wanted to come in, he would. His wife had been waiting for him this time. But what about tomorrow?
Racked by stomach spasms, she sank onto the edge of the bed and pressed her hands to her face. Her limbs felt watery. Her skin was clammy with sweat. She had to get out of this place.
But how? Where could she go? What in heaven's name would she do when the baby came?
Money - she would need money to get away. But she had so few treasures left to sell, and they were so dear - the garnet earrings that had been her grandmother's; her grandfather's fiddle; the gold locket with Jake's picture in it - the only image of him their child would ever know. How could she part with any of them?
A raw wind, rank with the smell of the nearby stockyards, whistled through the cracks in the clapboard walls. Cassandra shivered, her stomach still churning from the encounter with Seamus Hawkins. A cup of hot chamomile tea would do wonders for her body and spirit, she thought. There were only a few sticks left in the wood box, but what did it matter if she wasted them? Tomorrow Seamus would be knocking on her door, demanding payment. She could not afford to be here when he arrived.
Groping on the floor, she found the kettle where it had bounced off Seamus's head. Now for the stove - what a lucky thing she'd saved that discarded newspaper she'd found yesterday in the street. It would come in handy for lighting the fire.
Unfolding the paper, she ripped off the front page and began crumpling it to stuff into the stove. Suddenly her hands froze. Her eyes stared at the page.
There, smiling at her from beneath the headline, was the lean, handsome face of her late husband.
Cassandra's knees went watery. She stumbled back to the bed and sank down on the mattress, her hands smoothing the creases out of the page as her disbelieving eyes scanned the headline: Rancher's Son Missing, Feared Drowned.
Excerpted from Wyoming Widow by Elizabeth Lane Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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