Excerpts Books One and Two

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Destitute widow, Maggie Burns is willing to do anything to ensure her children’s well-being, even agreeing to a loveless marriage to a virtual stranger like Luke Carlyle. If only he wasn’t so darn handsome.

Wealthy widower and rancher, Luke Carlyle has had it with housework and raising his two daughters alone. A marriage of convenience with Maggie Burns is the answer. She’ll care for the house and the children, and he’ll run his ranch while downplaying the dangerous situation brewing there. And he’s hardly noticed the fact that the grieving widow is a very beautiful woman.

Now that they’ve formed a new family through their platonic business arrangement, can Luke and Maggie overcome every challenge Fate throws their way? Or due to their secret feelings for each other, is this marriage of convenience about to become exceedingly inconvenient?

Excerpt from NO MORE

Chapter 1

 Spirit Creek, Montana

Wednesday, May 29, 1889

A high-noon sun beat down on Maggie Burns stumbling along the muddy street in the part of town where no one considered wooden sidewalks necessary. Despite the hint of rain that still lingered in the air after last night’s downpour, she breathed through her mouth in an attempt to avoid the objectionable odor of horse manure and kitchen slop. Although distracted by her mission, she minded where she stepped, avoiding the rain-filled puddles as best she could. But her buttoned-up fancy boots might be ruined, regardless.

Maggie’s temples throbbed. She couldn’t believe her situation had come to this. Three short weeks ago she’d been a happy wife and mother, content with her lot in life. The bullet that pierced her husband’s heart had shattered her existence as well. And never in her wildest dreams would she have imagined herself in this area of town.

Finally, she arrived at her destination and, as she had hoped, the street appeared deserted. Grasping the whitewashed handrail, she sprinted up the four wide wooden steps, raced across the narrow veranda, and slipped through the intricately-carved swinging doors of The Joker’s Wild Saloon.

Maggie paused for several seconds while her eyes adjusted to the dark interior. She felt as nervous as a fattened goose the day before Christmas, and the unfamiliar atmosphere induced an involuntary shiver. The odor of stale beer and unwashed bodies assaulted her nostrils. She coughed, patted her chest, and resisted the urge to dig her perfume-scented handkerchief out of the pocket in her long, black skirt.

Maggie gazed at the mahogany arch supported by sturdy pillars that towered above the curved wooden stage where red velvet panels with gold-tasseled tie-backs framed each side. On the wall behind the mahogany-inlaid pine bar hung a rectangular mirror flanked on either side by polished wooden shelves containing liquor bottles and assorted glasses.

“Fellers only, missy. Saloon’s no place for uppity ladies like yerself,” muttered an old codger, slumped in one of the low-back mismatched chairs surrounding the wooden tables. He glowered at her and sent a stream of tobacco juice sailing toward a brass pot situated on the sawdust-strewn plank floor. Muttering to himself, he finished plugging his pipe with tobacco and lit it. Although his clothes looked like they hadn’t been washed in months, the hand clasping the glass of beer appeared surprisingly clean. He drank deeply and set the glass aside, returning the pipe to his mouth.

At another table, a pair of scruffy-looking cowboys openly ogled Maggie and, judging by their raucous laughter, exchanged inappropriate comments about her. She cringed and turned away.

A red-headed young Irishman wearing a grimy white shirt with frayed Kelly-green suspenders popped up from behind the bar like a mischievous leprechaun. “What are you doing in the saloon?” he demanded. A small curved pipe hung precariously from the corner of his mouth. “We don’t allow respectable women in here.”

His angry brogue startled Maggie. “I…I wish to speak to the owner.” If it wasn’t for the pipe, she would have believed the youthful-looking fellow had been hiding in the saloon, hoping to avoid his lessons at the schoolhouse where she’d once taught.

“Darby O’Dell at your service.” A nod accompanied his introduction while piercing blue eyes peeked over his round, wire-rimmed eyeglasses.

You…are the proprietor?” Maggie almost asked his age but caught herself.

“Aye, I am. State yer business and then be on yer way.” The fellow frowned and crossed his arms.

Maggie’s resolve faltered. But she’d come this far. No turning back now. Having failed to acquire a job or sell her furniture, Maggie feared Mr. O’Dell was her last hope of rescuing her four-year-old son, Sam, and herself from total ruin. She squared her shoulders, determined to see this embarrassment through for her son’s sake. “Do you own a piano, Mr. O’Dell?”

“Aye, over yonder.” Darby pointed toward the far corner of the room.

Maggie’s gaze followed his hand and she gasped when she spied the object. One pedal was missing and the keys were yellowed and chipped. The warped lid sat askew on the badly stained and dented wooden case, and one leg on the bench appeared shorter than the others. If the poor thing was a horse, she’d insist one of those ill-mannered cowboys dispatch its life with a bullet and put it out of its misery.

“For heaven’s sake, look at that thing!” she exclaimed, meeting Darby’s eyes. “I own a like-new, perfectly-tuned piano of the finest quality. I’ll part with it for two hundred dollars.”

“Two hundred dollars! Are ye daft, woman? Fifty,” countered Darby.

“Fifty! Father bought that piano for me as a wedding gift. Knowing my father, it’s the best instrument money can buy and easily worth what I’m asking. I’ll not settle for a penny less.” Maggie’s knees shook beneath her skirts, but her voice never wavered and she hadn’t blinked an eye.

“Well, the customers have been complaining about the piano. Suppose it could be considered a lifetime investment. Sold!” Darby slapped the bar and stuck out his hand to seal the deal.

“Thank you, sir.” Maggie vigorously shook his hand. Feeling her face redden from her unseemly display of enthusiasm, she dropped her hands to her sides. “Kindly fetch my payment, please.”

Inwardly, she cheered her success. She couldn’t wait to toss the money in that miserable bank manager’s face. She’d rip up Banker Peterman’s foreclosure notice on her house in front of him, toss the pieces into the air, and dance a jig on them when they fluttered to the floor.

“Aye…the matter of the money.” Darby shoved both hands into the deep pockets of his baggy trousers, extracting several bills. “Would the fifty dollars I offered be satisfactory as a down payment?”

“You don’t understand.” Maggie wagged her gloved finger in Darby’s face. “I require all the money today before the bank forecloses on my house.”

“Peterman’s an ornery bast… feller. Would force his own ma out in the street if she missed a payment.” Darby shook his head. “Imagine that devil foreclosing at a time like this. You’re the sheriff’s widow, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am,” she replied in a whisper. Realizing the barkeep couldn’t pay, Maggie turned her back to him and dabbed at her tears.

“Mrs. Burns, I’m real sorry about your husband’s death. He was a fine sheriff.”

Maggie recalled the reason why she’d found herself in such dire straits, but she’d been taught the virtue of forgiveness. Mr. O’Dell hadn’t put the cards in her husband’s hands and forced him to gamble away all their money. She met the barkeep’s eyes. “Thank you for your kind words, sir.”

Darby grabbed a bottle off the shelf and poured a shot into a clean glass which he placed on the bar in front of her. Without thinking, Maggie raised the glass to her lips and downed the contents in one gulp.

The fiery liquid stung her tongue and burned a path down to her stomach. Her eyes watered and her vision blurred. The room began slowly spinning, and she slumped against the wooden bar for support. As she furiously fanned her flaming cheeks with one hand, her reticule slipped off her other arm and landed in the beer-soaked sawdust on the floor. Her lungs ached as if she’d narrowly escaped from a burning building.

She gasped for breath.

She was dying.

“Are you all right, missus?” inquired Darby, sounding genuinely concerned.

Maggie could only shake her head. And then an unseen hand pounded her back, and she sucked in precious air.

“There now! She’ll be as right as rain in no time,” spoke a chipper female voice.

“Goodness, Belle, I hope you’re right, lass,” replied Darby.

“Thank you,” whispered Maggie, blinking to clear her blurry vision.

Maggie gasped when the saloon girl stepped out from behind her. The barmaid wore a red lacy creation, the flouncy skirt ending well above her knees, and a sky-blue plume protruded from a thicket of pumpkin-orange hair. A sickening floral scent enveloped her skinny, long-legged body, and the garish red color applied to her plump cheeks and full lips aged her several years, no doubt intentionally.

Forgetting her proper upbringing, Maggie turned on Darby. “What the hell was that?” she demanded.

“Whiskey, missus.” Darby’s face reddened.

“That concoction could pickle your insides!” Maggie had never tasted whiskey before, and now she understood why. “Are you attempting to kill me and just steal my piano?”

Darby paled. “I was feeling sorry for you, being in such a troubling situation.”

“Kindly refrain from extending additional liquid offerings of sympathy. I won’t survive it.” Maggie bent to retrieve her reticule. Overcome with dizziness when she straightened, her knees buckled and she collapsed in a puddle at Belle’s feet.

And then everything went black.

“Mrs. Burns! Wake up, Mrs. Burns!”

Maggie heard a muted voice calling her name from the bottom of a well. Or was she in the well? The buzzing of the thousand bees that had taken up residence in her head prevented any clear thoughts from forming.

“Is she kilt?” inquired a male in a codger-like rasp.

“Charlie, she fainted.”

Maggie recognized Belle’s voice.

“Looks kilt to me.”

Codger again.

“Mrs. Burns!”

Belle, patting her hand.

Maggie forced open her eyes. “What…what happened? Why am I on the floor?” She felt her cheeks heat from embarrassment.

“Up you go, missus,” warned Darby.

Before Maggie realized what was happening, the barkeep grabbed her by one arm, hoisted her to her feet, and busied his hands brushing sawdust from her skirts. Maggie teetered on her fancy boots, too befuddled to object.

With Darby’s assistance, Maggie stumbled out the door a few minutes later and slumped onto a warped wooden bench situated on the veranda. “Thank you, Mr. O’Dell. I’ll be myself in a minute,” she mumbled, arranging her skirts.

Darby observed her for a few seconds and then scurried back inside.

“What will I do now?” Maggie whispered aloud and fought back tears. The day had proven a total waste of time and her efforts almost killed her, death by whiskey that tasted like lamp oil.

Why was this happening to her? She’d always been independent to a fault, due mostly to unaffectionate parents concerned more with their social lives and professions than with her. All of her life, she’d voiced her own opinions and stood up for her beliefs. Even though her parents had forbidden it, eight years ago she’d struck out on her own for Montana to fulfill her dream of becoming a schoolteacher. Now, she couldn’t secure a job or raise sufficient funds to save her home. She hated feeling so ineffectual and helpless. Had marriage and motherhood changed her that much?

Her final option had failed, and she knew for certain her time was up. The whole situation seemed hopeless. She and Sam would be out on the street, homeless and penniless, by Friday.

Maggie burst into tears.

 * * *

 A rose-patterned teacup slipped through Luke Carlyle’s hands and shattered at his feet on the kitchen’s dingy plank floor.

“Dammit, I hate washing dishes,” he muttered, and then grimaced at his verbal slip in front of his eleven-year-old daughter. His thoughts had distracted him. He’d been mentally formulating his plan for days, but that didn’t excuse his outburst.

“Sorry about the cussing, Lucy,” offered Luke, wearing sturdy denim trousers, a blue plaid work shirt and a yellow-striped apron. Until two years ago, a gun to his head wouldn’t have gotten him into an apron, but his wife’s sudden death had changed a lot of things.

Lucy finished drying the dishes with a tattered tea towel, and then stuffed everything into the wooden breakfront. “Papa, I’m heading upstairs to fetch Patti for school.”

“Your little sister surely can dawdle,” observed Luke, unrolling his shirt sleeves. He’d been silently prioritizing the dozen barnyard chores that raced through his mind. But there was one item on his list of things awaiting his attention that had niggled at his conscience for days now, not giving him a moment’s peace. He fully intended to tackle it today.

“The more I tell her to hurry, the slower she goes.” Lucy stood, arms crossed.

“Honey, I’m so proud of you for helping with Patti and the housework since your ma passed.” Luke kissed the center of her forehead, and then trailed his fingers through his daughter’s shoulder-length, golden curls identical in color to her mother’s. He noticed the hem of Lucy’s dress ended well above her ankles, and he recalled Patti was outgrowing her dresses too. He’d neglected his girls’ needs, giving him one more reason to carry out his plan. And he would order new clothes for them while he was in town.

“Thank you, Papa.” Lucy hugged his waist, beaming from his praise. She scooped a small pile of folded clothes off the table and slipped out of the kitchen.

“You work too hard, sweetheart,” called Luke, remembering that horrible day, two Aprils ago, when his beloved wife died of a frightful case of influenza before the doctor arrived. In his opinion, her mother’s passing forced Lucy to grow up much too soon, but she never complained about any of it.

“Mornin’, Sonny Boy,” greeted Ned Armstrong, fumbling with the screen door handle. The ranch foreman stumbled into the kitchen lugging a large basket filled with eggs. The old fellow wore sturdy overalls, one strap hooked and the other flapping loose, over a red and white plaid shirt.

“Good morning,” replied Luke, slapping his father figure on the back.

Luke’s heart still ached whenever he thought of losing his father days after he’d turned twenty-one. Ned had considered him still wet behind the ears and willingly offered an invaluable helping hand. With Ned’s help and his own expertise, a passel of hard-working ranch hands and a generous portion of good luck, Luke had turned his pa’s ranch into an even greater success over the past fourteen years. Everyone considered him one of the wealthiest ranchers in the vicinity, and Luke felt justifiably proud.

“I hate washing dishes, cleaning house, cooking meals,” growled Luke, sending the apron sailing through the air, landing on one of the eight mahogany chairs circling the enormous kitchen table.

Ned dragged his old felt hat off his head, and a healthy patch of brown hair liberally streaked with gray stuck out in all directions. He tugged on his bushy gray moustache. “Reckon I agree with ya.”

Even with Ned’s help, Luke felt overwhelmed with all his responsibilities and raising his daughters alone. “I wish we weren’t lassoed with this damned housework. We’re too busy with ranch work, branding time, and the cattle rustling problem. We can’t keep up with it all.”

“So, hire yerself a woman to help out.” Ned set the egg basket on the table, sank onto the closest chair.

“Do we want a woman interfering in things?” Luke never hinted to anyone what he’d been planning, and the fact Ned had arrived at a similar conclusion surprised him.

“Well, Sonny Boy, do ya want help or not?” Ned’s gnarled hands massaged his knees. “Tripping over female frippery and toleratin’ a few tears once in a while would be a small price to pay, if’n yer askin’ my opinion.”

Luke contemplated his plan. The idea of any woman other than Catherine occupying the house felt like a burr beneath his saddle. Could he accept another woman cooking in Catherine’s kitchen? Touching Catherine’s things? Another woman’s finery hanging on the clothesline? Another woman’s scent teasing his nostrils whenever she passed by him?

For his daughter’s sake as much as his own, he would do it.

“We need help. And I know the ideal woman for the job.” Luke charged out of the kitchen, heading upstairs to his bedroom.

 * * *

 Maggie dried her tears, hearing her Aunt Penny’s voice in her head. Tears never solve anything, only actions. Feeling fresh out of actions, she’d lost track of time, sitting outside the saloon, contemplating the sad state of affairs her life had become. She was pulled from her thoughts when an elegant carriage with ornate harness shining brightly and jangling rhythmically halted in front of The Joker’s Wild.

Luke Carlyle jumped down from the bench seat and marched up the wooden steps. Dressed in a finely-tailored suit, white shirt, tie, and polished boots, he crossed the veranda, paused, and rested his hand on one of the swinging doors.

Maggie lowered her head, fervently praying he wouldn’t recognize her. But in this small town, of course he would.

“Mrs. Burns?”

“Yes, it’s me,” she whispered, feeling her face redden to her hairline as her worst fear was realized. Luke Carlyle of all people discovered her sitting outside the saloon in broad daylight. She wished the veranda floor would open and swallow her whole.

Mr. Carlyle removed his silk-banded black bowler and dragged a tanned hand through the thick brown curls that tickled his shirt collar. “Mrs. Burns, I understand your pain, your recent loss, having been there myself. But turning to drink is not the answer.”

“I assure you, sir, I am not turning to drink!” Maggie leapt to her feet. Overcome with dizziness, she would have fallen had Mr. Carlyle not reached out and steadied her.

He frowned, not appearing to believe her denial. “Please accept my condolences once again. William’s death was a tragedy.”

“Thank you, Mr. Carlyle.” She shook the handsome widower’s outstretched hand and forced herself to make eye contact. His intense wren-brown eyes seemed to gaze right into her soul, and she quickly glanced away.

Luke cleared his throat. “After I…exchanged a word with Darby, I intended to head over to your house to discuss an important matter.”

Maggie’s hands shook, hidden in the folds of her skirts. Why would Luke Carlyle don his Sunday best to meet with her on a Wednesday afternoon? Her intuition warned her that if Luke required Darby’s liquid fortification prior to speaking with her, this matter wasn’t of the good-news variety.

“Perhaps we should converse at my home.” Maggie squared her shoulders and pointed in the direction of her house. At least, it was still her house today. Renewing her resolve, she vowed that the minute she settled things with Mr. Carlyle, she would formulate another plan to raise money. She refused to allow that heartless, miserly banker to put her out of her home.

“Please allow me to escort you in my carriage.” Mr. Carlyle smiled, offered her his arm, and guided her down the steps.

Maggie declined his suggestion that she ride inside the carriage, hoping the fresh air might eliminate the whiskey-induced spots that danced before her eyes. But seated in close proximity to him on the bench, her knees shook beneath her skirts and her heart beat like an Indian war drum. She inhaled deeply to calm her nerves. She’d worked with his late wife on church projects, but she and William had never socialized with Luke or Catherine beyond a polite hello after church.

Mr. Carlyle commented on the weather, but Maggie barely heard a word. She dared to sneak a peek at him. Their eyes met for a moment, and then his attention returned to the rutted road ahead. Did William have unfinished business with Mr. Carlyle? Owe him money as he did the bank? She would drive herself mad with speculation. Between her husband’s untimely death and the disagreeable business with Mr. Peterman, she wouldn’t survive any more bad news.

Finally, they arrived at her small house.

Mr. Carlyle set the brake and leapt to the ground. Before Maggie could extend her hand for his assistance, he planted his hands on her waist and lifted her down from the seat. Hearing her gasp he stammered, “I apologize, Mrs. Burns. I’m so accustomed to lifting my daughters down, I forgot my place.”

“Apology accepted,” she mumbled and flew into the house, hoping to calm her pounding heart by distancing herself from the man, if only for a moment or two.

She removed her small hat and set it atop her reticule and gloves on the hallway table. She felt as wilted as the forgotten wildflowers stuffed into the Mason jar that she’d almost tipped over in her haste. She watched as Mr. Carlyle hung his bowler on the peg William always used.

Maggie smoothed the fitted black jacket that covered her simple black shirtwaist—gone were the days of the satins and silks of her privileged upbringing. “Please, make yourself at home,” she offered as she led the way into her parlor.

The room felt cool with the sun traveling west. Maggie perched on the edge of the sofa and placed her hands in her lap while Mr. Carlyle occupied William’s rocking chair.

“May I offer you something to drink?” she inquired, remembering her manners despite the stressful situation.

“No, thank you. Your home is lovely, Mrs. Burns. May I call you Maggie?” Mr. Carlyle rushed ahead without waiting for her reply. “Maggie, Spirit Creek is a small town and people talk. I’m aware of the foreclosure on your home, and I doubt you’ve found work.”

Maggie twisted her embroidered handkerchief in her hands. “Mr. Carlyle, you have no idea how hard I’ve tried.”

“Please, call me Luke.”

Before she could stop herself, Maggie blurted out her tale of failed attempts to procure a job and her fruitless efforts to raise money by selling her furniture. She even recounted today’s dealings with Darby O’Dell before she could stop herself.

“So when you stumbled outside the saloon…” Luke’s expression softened.

“Still a bit dizzy from the whiskey. Thank you for steadying me.” Maggie blushed, unable to fathom why she had shared the embarrassing incident with him. Was she losing her mind?

“No job. No money. And you must vacate this house by Friday.” Luke summarized her situation with a hint of sadness in his voice.

She nodded in answer, not trusting herself to speak, as unshed tears blurred her vision.

Luke slid forward in the rocker and balanced on the edge of the seat. “As you know, since my wife passed I’ve been raising my daughters alone. But I require help with the housework: cooking, cleaning, laundry, mending, and gardening. The things a wife would do.”

“I’m quite familiar with housework.” Maggie’s spirits brightened immediately, realizing this could be the solution she’d prayed for. Was Luke offering her a job as his housekeeper? Surely, the banker would allow her to keep her house if she became gainfully employed.

Luke stared into her eyes and continued. “More importantly, I require a lovely lady in my daughters’ lives to encourage them, guide them into womanhood. You’d be perfect.”

“My training as a teacher would serve me well in that capacity.” Maggie attempted to slow the pounding of her heart. Did she dare hope her problems were behind her?

“You’re well-liked in the community, and I believe we’ll get along.” Luke’s broad shoulders reclined against the back of William’s rocking chair, and he appeared confident and relaxed with his hands dangling over the arms. Maggie’s breath caught at the picture Luke made. If her late husband had spent more evenings relaxing in that rocker instead of playing cards in the saloon, she wouldn’t be in this predicament.

Maggie’s thoughts shifted back to the matter at hand. No doubt her visitor required household help. Last Sunday, she’d noticed his daughters had outgrown their clothes, but she didn’t dare chastise the man for neglecting his children’s needs. But could she trust him? If they argued, would Luke dismiss her as his housekeeper and clear the way for the banker to turn her and Sam out on the street?

“The more I think about this, the more it makes sense.” Luke intently examined her face.

Maggie shifted in her seat, frazzled by his close scrutiny. What did he expect to discover hidden in the depths of her eyes? She’d lived in Spirit Creek for years. If he didn’t know her character by now, he never would. She considered herself a reputable person, a church-going former teacher, and until recently, wife and mother. Now she and Sam were the extent of her family.

“Let me consider the position for a little while,” she blurted. Just sitting in William’s rocker, Luke had unnerved her. How could she work for him every day? Maggie leapt off the sofa and strode toward the parlor’s doorway, hoping he would follow.

“There’s no more time to think.” Luke stood, frowning. “Unless you were planning to return back East.”

“Absolutely not! Spirit Creek is my home.” Maggie would beg in the streets before she’d move back to Philadelphia to endure Aunt Penny’s continued disappointment in her. Returning to her privileged upbringing wasn’t an option.

“Then you should accept my offer.” Luke stepped toward her.

Maggie raised her hand, stopping him in his tracks. “If I was tempted to accept, which I’m not saying I am, there’s something you should know. I consulted Doc Fitzgerald earlier today. I’ve been too preoccupied to realize the reason for my malady.”

“Maggie, are you ill?” Luke whispered the question, paling visibly.

She regretted bringing the subject up, but she had. And his reaction to her news would reveal the sincerity of his job offer. “I’m with child again,” she whispered. Despite her tenuous future she couldn’t help rejoice with the news.

Luke stumbled back a step, as if a thousand-pound steer had kicked him square in the chest. “You’re having a baby?”

“This child is a final gift from William. But I suffered absolutely debilitating bouts of morning sickness with Sam. In time, carrying this baby may hamper my ability to keep house properly.” Maggie wrung her hands. The job offer would be her salvation. But should she accept the position doubting her capacity to fulfill her obligation?

“Carrying a baby won’t be a problem. I employ ranch hands for hauling water, splitting wood, heavy lifting.” Luke’s eyes crinkled at the corners, dimples straining.

Was it her imagination? Luke appeared delighted with her revelation about the baby. “I wouldn’t be earning my pay. I must decline your kind offer.” Maggie swung away, but a sob escaped her lips.

Luke turned her, gently enveloped her in his arms, surprising her. Without thinking, she leaned into his embrace and rested her head against his muscular chest. For a few brief moments, she inhaled the forest fragrance of his soap, the freshly-washed scent of his shirt, relished the comforting warmth of his strong arms. And then she gasped and broke away from him.

His cheeks flushed. “I apologize for holding you like that, but you were crying. I’ve no excuse, no right. You haven’t accepted yet.”

Purely mortified, Maggie wondered what he must think of her. A widow for three weeks, and she’d clung to him in the most shameful way. Would returning back East to face the elderly aunt she’d disappointed eight years ago be as embarrassing as facing Luke every day after her scandalous behavior in his arms?

“I cannot accept your offer. I’m sorry,” she insisted.

“You are the most exasperating woman.” Luke shook his head, spreading his arms wide before her. “I’m the most eligible bachelor within miles. Mothers are throwing their daughters at my feet. You require a husband in the worst way, and yet, you won’t even consider marrying me?”

“Marrying you?” Maggie collapsed onto the sofa, barely able to catch her breath. “I assumed you were offering me a job as your housekeeper.”

“The gossips’ tongues would be wagging in no time if we shared my home without the benefit of the ‘I do’s’. It’s better if you become my wife.”

Maggie stared at Luke. Why was he so adamant that they marry? Was his only intention to help with her desperate situation, acquire help with his housework? Or was there more to his offer? Something he wasn’t sharing with her?

“I’m in mourning,” stated Maggie. No matter how angry she was with William, Untamed West or not, she lived by the standards she was taught. Widows did not remarry for at least a year.

“Maggie, if you become my wife we’ll share companionship and support. Our children will benefit from proper care provided by both a mother and a father. Marriage will solve all our problems.” Luke crossed his arms, suggesting that he considered the matter settled.

“The two hundred dollars I require to save my home will solve my problems. Not a scandalous marriage.” Suddenly, Maggie’s eyes lit up and she leapt to her feet. “Mr. Carlyle, you could buy my piano. You can certainly afford to pay me in full, and I’d save my home. Sam and I would still have a place to live. And I’ll gladly give your daughters lessons…”

“Whoa! Just one minute, Maggie.” Luke raised his hands to halt her verbal onslaught. “There’s an old piano at the ranch. Catherine was teaching the girls how to play. Besides, earning a few dollars from the sale of your piano won’t solve your problems.”

Maggie raised her voice. “Don’t you realize how much this home means to me?”

“Saving your home is the least of your worries. How will you live?” Luke scratched his head. “Unless you move back East, marriage is your only option.”

“This whole idea is preposterous!” exclaimed Maggie. One second William was alive, and the next second he was gone. And she’d lost the battle with Mr. Peterman to keep her home. Now, Luke Carlyle was introduced to the mix. At every turn something new thwarted her happiness and threatened her sanity. Whatever had she done to deserve this?

Should she have forgiven William for his foolishness? For putting her and Sam’s futures in jeopardy? For squandering away all their money gambling and then borrowing against their home to boot? She could never admit this to anyone, but anger had replaced her love for him. Was this her punishment for her steadfast refusal to forgive William for what he’d done?

“I suppose there’s the matter of the marriage bed.” Luke appeared deep in thought, and she wondered if he intended to speak the words aloud.

Then Maggie’s eyes blazed, understanding dawning. “Your priority isn’t your children or the housework. You just want a woman in your bed!”

“I’m determined to marry you, no more housework for me. But you’re still in mourning and I respect that you’re not ready to move on.”

Maggie took a step back, taking a minute to think. Of course she wasn’t ready to move on. At the moment, she doubted she’d ever trust another man as long as she lived. But was she being foolish? Everyone in town admired Luke Carlyle. Even William had spoken highly of him. Handsome, well-educated, wealthy, kind-hearted and generous. Would being his wife be so unbearable? Sam’s face popped into her mind, and she immediately regretted even considering such a thing.

“I could never betray William’s memory by marrying you, no matter how desperate my situation.” She stood, head held high, challenging Luke. Despite his shortcomings, William was still her children’s father. Regardless of her low opinion of him, she wouldn’t shame his memory for Sam’s sake. “But I desperately need a job. I’ll gladly work as your housekeeper.”

Luke’s expression softened. “The townspeople will understand the necessity of our marriage. In the eyes of the church and our children, we’ll be married. In truth, our marriage will be a simple agreement, a marriage of convenience, to benefit our children, nothing more. The marriage will not be consummated, until and unless you’re ready. Could you live with that?”

Maggie felt somewhat relieved. She cringed at the thought of ever trusting another man enough to welcome him into her bed.

Luke reached for her hand and continued pleading his case. “You’ll be providing your children with food on the table and a roof over their heads. William would expect that.”

Maggie studied Luke’s face; his eyes spoke volumes. By all appearances, he genuinely cared about her and her children. “I’ll be your wife in name, but your housekeeper in reality.”

“Exactly, if that’s how you want to look at it. I promise you. Everything will work out.” Luke smiled and she wanted desperately to believe him.

Maggie closed her eyes and prayed she was doing the right thing. She hadn’t realized she was crying, until she opened her eyes. She brushed the tears away, brushing her doubts away with them. “Because of Sam and my unborn child, I’ll marry you.”

“Then it’s decided. We’ll be married on Friday morning.” Luke patted her arm.

Maggie nodded in agreement.

“You won’t regret this.” Luke smiled, broadly.

God help her. Luke had won. His words sounded so final, but somehow so right. Everything will work out. She almost believed him.

End of Excerpt

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Raised in an orphanage, Ellie Thomas worked hard to earn the prestigious position of Spirit Creek’s schoolteacher. With her life in pandemonium and her reputation in jeopardy, Ellie agrees to a marriage of convenience, but she soon discovers her new husband isn’t the man she thought him to be. Despite her attraction to Robert Rutherford, she considers the local lawyer only a friend who has stood by her during difficult times.
Robert Rutherford has loved Ellie from afar for years, and he can’t imagine why she married a total stranger. When Ellie arrives at his law office, he’s dumbfounded by her scandalous request: an immediate divorce from her husband who has gone missing. When Robert is arrested by Pinkerton detectives, he finds his own life in chaos. Will Ellie believe he’s innocent?
Can she find the happiness she only ever dreamed about? Or, yet again, has a man made a fool of her?

 

 

Excerpt from No Time

Chapter 1

Spirit Creek, Montana
Saturday, April 5, 1890

“Are you certain?” whispered Miss Ellie Thomas, slumped on the uncomfortable ladder-back chair across from Doctor Benjamin Johnson’s small metal desk. The room’s antiseptic reek combined with the shocking diagnosis sent Ellie’s stomach flip-flopping. She swallowed hard and met the doctor’s eyes.

He nodded. “Positive.”

Ellie had convinced herself the frenzy surrounding her wedding plans while keeping abreast of her school teaching duties caused her persistent malaise. Although twenty-five, she trembled in her shoes like a panicky child. What she’d just learned changed everything. “When will the…” she croaked.

“You’re at least two months along,” confirmed Doc Benjamin.

Ellie blinked away the tears filling her eyes. One night several weeks ago, she and Franklin had been overcome with passion. He was so gentle, it being her first time. But they agreed not again until they’d exchanged the wedding vows.

Only once. But apparently, that was all it had taken.

“Miss Thomas, many people would disagree with me, but I believe bringing a new life into the world is a good thing, no matter the circumstances.”

Although sunshine streamed through the lace-covered window, a chill ran up Ellie’s spine. Doc Benjamin couldn’t be more wrong; this was a terrible thing. Single. Pregnant. As Spirit Creek’s schoolteacher, her reputation would be ruined.

“Are you not engaged to Sheriff Smith?” Doc Benjamin set his stethoscope on the desk and met her eyes.

“Yes, he proposed on New Year’s Day,” whispered Ellie, glancing at the magnificent family heirloom on her finger. Sunlight caught the emerald brilliance of his mother’s ring. The dear woman would be rolling in her grave if she was aware of Ellie’s condition.

“That’s good then,” acknowledged the doctor, dipping a quill pen into the bottle of ink on his desk and scratching notes on his patient’s chart.

“Franklin is a wonderful man.” Her hand shook, fingers fiddling with the braid of fiery-red hair resting atop her shoulder.

“He’s an excellent lawman and proudly serving his community,” observed Doc Benjamin, leaning back in his chair.

“I love Franklin and I couldn’t be happier.” Ellie closed her eyes for a moment and recalled how her betrothed wrapped her in a crushing embrace against his muscular chest, how her arms encircled his narrow waist while she lost herself in his kisses. Her eyes flew open with the realization those actions had gotten her into this mess in the first place. She loved Franklin, but she should have been stronger. Neither of them had planned what happened, but it was too late to rethink their lapse in judgment now.

Doc Benjamin leaned forward in his chair. “Your happiness shows. I wish you and Franklin only the best.”

“Thank you.” Ellie smiled weakly. She’d taught school for years, having replaced Maggie Wentworth as schoolteacher after she married the sheriff, now the late William Burns. Ellie had almost given up on the idea of marriage and children of her own, until Franklin Smith moved to town. He’d courted her relentlessly, and she’d agreed to be his wife. But was she prepared for the enormous responsibility of motherhood?

“I’d like to examine you every month to check on your baby’s progress,” said Doc, standing.

Ellie rose from her chair. “I promise to come by regularly.”

She quickly peeked into the mirror hanging near the door. While she adjusted her small hat, she considered the scandal that awaited her beyond the safety of the clinic doors. If she and Franklin stuck to their original wedding date, another two months would pass before she’d become a married woman. She’d be over four months along by then and most-likely showing. She couldn’t wait that long.

Doc Benjamin opened the office door and Ellie exited the clinic. For a moment, she considered heading home to her room in back of the schoolhouse to indulge herself in a good cry. Instead, she reconsidered and headed toward Franklin’s house.

The long skirts of her simple calico dress rustled as she strode down the wooden sidewalk, and the inch-high heels of her black, buttoned-up boots tapped out a rhythmic staccato as she hurried toward her destination. The afternoon breeze whispered in her ears, and the birds sang a little sweeter. Children’s laughter wafted through the air from behind a fence. Ellie had never heard a more beautiful sound.

* * *

Sheriff Franklin Smith sat on a rickety old chair on the back veranda of the house he rented from local rancher, Luke Carlyle. He wiped his calloused hands on the soiled rag he’d used while cleaning his pistol before tossing the cloth aside. He reached over and patted his old flop-eared hound on the head. “Good dog, Captain.”

Franklin checked his pocket watch. Ellie should be dropping by soon. “I wonder if Ellie plans to bake a batch of cookies when she arrives?” he asked the dog stretched out at his feet, because no lawman worth his salt would be caught talking to himself.

He stood and grabbed his Stetson off the small metal table nearby.

“Franklin!” Luke Carlyle rounded the house and strode toward him.

The sheriff’s heart almost stopped. No lawman should allow a man to sneak up and surprise him like that. Luke, owner of the Diamond C Ranch and the area’s wealthiest rancher, was a bit of a prankster, and Franklin hated to admit it, but he’d almost scared him to death. Franklin would get him back though. He always did. He stood hands on hips and glared at his good friend, while his heartbeat returned to normal.

“I’m glad I found you at home.” Luke paused a second to catch his breath. “We’ve got big problems again.”

“Now what?”

“They’re back.”

“Who’s back?”

“The cattle rustlers…disappeared last fall…they’ve returned.” Luke crossed the back yard to where the lawman stood and bent down to ruffle Captain’s ears.

“Damnation!” exclaimed Franklin.

“Although someone spooked them last September, I suspected the gang suffered from a serious case of stupid, believing if they laid low for awhile all would be forgotten. My patience has paid off.” Luke whipped off his Stetson, wiped his brow with his handkerchief and stuffed it back into his pocket. “We’ll catch them in the act this time.”

“That’s a damn certainty,” said Franklin, sticking his Stetson on his head. “You’re sure it’s the same gang?”

“You recall me mentioning a couple weeks ago that our new ranch hand, Bobby, seemed a little odd? Big guy, didn’t miss any meals? But no ambition and as talkative as a wall?”

“Yep. Said you wouldn’t trust him as far as you could toss him.” Franklin frowned. “Has he done something to justify your suspicions?”

“He snuck out of the bunkhouse last night, and Mike discreetly followed him off the Diamond C,” replied Luke.

“Mike Armstrong, your foreman’s son?”

Luke nodded and settled his Stetson back in place.

“What did this Bobby fellow do?”

“Met up with our former ranch hand, Frenchy, near the Circle M Ranch. We
suspected he was part of the gang who disappeared last fall.”

“Frenchy is working for the Maxwells? How the hell did that happen?”

“Asked myself the same question. I dropped by to see old Buddy Maxwell over on the Circle M this morning. Buddy recently hired his nephew, Russ Maxwell, from Texas to help his son, Cody, run the ranch. Buddy was looking a little peaked, now that I think about it.”

“Is he ailing? Or just getting up in years?”

“Couldn’t say, Franklin. Maybe a bit of both. Anyway, Buddy and Cody warned Russ that there were rustlers in the area, but Russ wasn’t told we suspected a fellow who goes by the name Frenchy of being involved with them.” Luke paced the ground in front of Franklin. “Russ unknowingly hired the man to help with branding season.”

“So what makes you think they’re rustling again?”

“Mike overhead them talking. He couldn’t hear the entire conversation but he distinctly caught the words ‘cattle’ and ‘hidden’ before Bobby and Frenchy parted ways.”

“Hot damn. Let’s send a telegram to the lawmen up in Miles City and get this show on the road.” Sheriff Smith grabbed his newly-cleaned pistol and shoved it into the leather holster riding his hip.

“My thoughts exactly.” Luke grinned from ear to ear. “I’d wager those varmints have stolen over twenty head from me already. Time to put an end to this, once and for all.”

The two men charged down the boardwalk heading toward the telegraph office. Franklin surmised that if a looker-on observed them hurrying as they were, the person might suspect he’d challenged Luke to a foot race. “Do you suppose Frenchy is the ringleader? He could be working for someone.” The sheriff glanced at the rancher.

“Whether he is or not, we’re capturing every last one of them,” vowed Luke. “Ever since my father started the Diamond C operation by driving that first thousand head of Longhorns from Texas to Montana over twenty years ago, the Carlyle family has been plagued off and on by rustlers. It’s just a part of ranching. But there’s nothing I detest more than a dishonest man, and rustlers sit atop my list.”

“Can’t say I disagree with you.” The sheriff quickened his pace to keep up.

“A less-civilized man might consider resorting to the old days’ methods when local law didn’t exist. Cattle and horse thieves were just strung up in the nearest tree. Problem solved.”

“Not on your life, Luke. We’re doing this proper by bringing in two or three more lawmen. We’ll arrest them all well and legal. Won’t be a judge alive discovering grounds to dismiss the charges. The whole lot will rot in jail for a good many years.”

“What if they catch wind of our plans again?”

Franklin yanked open the telegraph office door and the two friends entered. “That ain’t happening. We’ll demand the Miles City lawmen respond immediately.” Franklin fired off an urgent telegram to his colleagues in the neighboring town, advising them that the gang of rustlers had returned. He’d as much as ordered them to get their behinds to Spirit Creek.

When the sheriff headed toward the door, Luke dropped several coins on the elderly telegraph operator’s desk. “You keep this business to yourself. Not a word to anyone.”

The sickly old telegraph operator’s arthritic fingers scooped up the monetary insurance that he’d keep mum. “What business?” he cackled with a rotten-toothed grin, adding a wink. “I didn’t hear about nobody’s business today.”

Franklin and Luke strode out the door and stepped into the alley alongside the building to ensure their conversation wasn’t overheard.

“I doubt that ailing old man warned the rustlers last September. It’s purely miraculous he’s still alive. Someone else must have sounded the warning, but not this time.” Franklin shook Luke’s hand.

“The moment you hear from them….”

“You’ll be the first to know,” interjected Franklin.

“Thank you. Appreciate it.” Luke touched his hat brim and strode across the street toward the feed store where the sheriff noticed Thunder, Luke’s stallion, stood tied to the hitching rail.

* * *

As Ellie passed alongside The Spirit Creek General Store, she glanced into one of the front display windows and stared at the image of the smiling young woman reflected back at her. No tell-tale bump yet, of course, but she’d heard women discussing an expectant woman’s glow. Her hand lightly touched her cheek. Was she glowing at this very moment?

Elizabeth Waverly, the proprietor’s wife, stood slightly stooped in one corner of the display area arranging a grouping of men’s sturdy work boots. She spotted Ellie and waved, and Ellie extended a greeting to her through the clear glass pane.

Wilma Wallace, the liveryman’s wife, stepped out of the store, holding her little girl wrapped in a knitted pink blanket. The infant shrieked like a banshee, and Ellie smiled. Would her baby be a girl, too? She really didn’t care as long as the child was born healthy.

“Hello, Mrs. Wallace,” greeted Ellie.

The baby’s mother caught the small fist flailing wildly outside the blanket, gently planted a kiss on the small hand before tucking it back inside. “Good day, Miss Thomas. You must excuse me. I’m late heading home to nurse the boss here.”

“I won’t keep you then.”

“Pleasure seeing you.” Wilma smiled and then hurried across the street, looking both ways to avoid being hit by any passing wagons or horses.

Ellie sighed as she continued on her way. Just thinking about her handsome, six-foot-tall fiancé, the father of her child, incited a surge of flutters in her heart. Franklin must be told, of course. But how would he react to her news? Shocked? Elated? Angry? Ellie erased any doubts from her mind. Only happy thoughts today.

She turned down Franklin’s street, feeling her lips crinkle at the edges. She suspected her eyes were twinkling with joy. A child of her own. Despite the uncertainty of Franklin’s reaction to her situation, she couldn’t contain her excitement.

Ellie spied Franklin’s next-door neighbor’s wife on her hands and knees weeding a flowerbed and she leaned over the short picket fence. “Good morning, Lily. How’s the newspaper business these days?”

Arthur MacDonald recently opened the town’s first newspaper, The Spirit Creek Chronicle, and Ellie visualized her own headlines: Unwed Schoolteacher Thrilled to Learn She’s With Child. Wouldn’t the gossips be shocked?

Lily waved. “Hello, Ellie. Everything is going very well, thank you. Arthur is planning a grand opening, perhaps in autumn when everyone isn’t so busy.”

“That sounds like an excellent idea.”

Lily returned to her work.

Humming a silly tune she’d recently taught her school children, Ellie started up the front walk to Franklin’s home where she spotted Robert James Rutherford knocking on her fiancé’s front door. The lawyer stood rocking on the balls of his feet, not having spotted her approaching yet.

Ellie blanched when he turned toward her, his broad smile displaying a perfect set of pearly-white teeth. When he removed his silk-banded bowler, his pale-blond hair reflected sunlight like a beacon. As usual he was impeccably dressed in woolen trousers, starched white shirt, fitted waistcoat, stylish frock coat and polished boots.

“May I help you?” Ellie forced herself to return his smile while she slowly climbed the front steps.

“Good day, Miss Thomas. I’m delighted to cross paths with you again.” Mr. Rutherford clasped his bowler in his hand.

“Likewise,” she offered. As Ellie turned the handle on the heavy wooden door, Mr. Rutherford stepped closer to her and she inhaled a bay rum soap scent. She turned to speak to him but was distracted by a small cut on his chin where, most likely, he’d nicked himself shaving this morning. She almost reached out and touched the spot but caught herself.

“Franklin…Sheriff Smith…mustn’t be at home.” Ellie fanned her warm face with her small reticule, totally embarrassed by how flustered she suddenly felt.

Whenever she encountered the man, his hazel eyes hypnotized her in a wizardly spell and she’d just stare at him, dumbstruck. For some reason, the clean-shaven, professional gentleman sent her pulse racing and his smile warmed her heart every time. A totally scandalous reaction to the fellow, considering she was engaged to another man!

A stray tendril fell across her forehead and broke the spell. As she tucked her hair behind her ear, she recovered her senses and strode into the house. Setting her reticule, hat and gloves down on the entryway table, she silently pleaded, please just speak your piece and leave.

Mr. Rutherford fumbled a sealed envelope out of his coat pocket and almost dropped his hat while he stepped across the threshold. “I’ve prepared a document according to Sheriff Smith’s instructions, and the papers await his signature.”

Ellie’s head whipped up and she met his eyes. “What papers?” Mortified that she’d blurted the inquiry, she added with a wave of her hand, “I’m sorry. That’s absolutely none of my business.”

“Nothing secretive.” Mr. Rutherford smiled. “Sheriff Smith updated his Last Will and Testament.”

“Oh…” Ellie stared at the lawyer, surprised by his statement. “I’ve never known anyone who wrote a will. Of course, I’ve never known anyone owning sufficient possessions to need one. I always considered a will a document solely required by the wealthy.”

“Now that’s where you’re mistaken, Miss Thomas.” Mr. Rutherford’s expression turned serious. “I would encourage everyone to write out a will. Even meager possessions must be disposed of by some means when something unfortunate happens.”

“Well, I can’t imagine why Franklin would bother with a will. But it appears that he has. Considering he’s a lawman working in a dangerous profession and all, I suppose it makes sense for him to…” She stopped mid-sentence, realizing that she’d been rambling.

“May I leave the document in your capable and trustworthy care?” The lawyer handed her the envelope.

“Certainly…I’ll see that Sheriff Smith…receives this.” Ellie stammered and reached for the envelope with slightly shaking hands. She clutched it to her bosom as if her life depended on its safe-keeping.

“I’d hoped to catch Mr. Smith at home to finalize this. But have him peruse the document in its entirety before returning it in person to my office. A witnessed signature where I’ve indicated with an X is required at that time.” Mr. Rutherford popped his bowler onto his head, touched the brim, and turned to leave.

“Thank you for dropping by with the papers.” Ellie closed the door behind him and slumped back against it. An eternity passed before her heartbeat returned to normal.

“Get over this silliness,” she scolded herself, as childhood infractions in the Boston orphanage that was home until her eighteenth birthday flashed through her mind. She felt like a total ninny. She was a grown woman and a respectable citizen. There was no need to feel so flustered around a litigator.

Could past unpleasant memories of her own and the other orphans’ encounters with the law explain why she always became so frazzled around this small-town lawyer? Or was it the man himself?

Ellie tossed Mr. Rutherford’s envelope onto Franklin’s hallway table. The papers could wait. Her news couldn’t.

She wandered into the kitchen and dragged a chair out from the table. While she sat absently twisting a tattered handkerchief in her hands, she reviewed the morning visit to Doc Benjamin in her mind. When she first heard the news, she’d believed her life was ruined. Now, having become accustomed to the idea, she couldn’t wait to share the news with Franklin.

But would her betrothed be pleased? They’d discussed marriage but never children. Or had Franklin considered children a foregone conclusion, her being a teacher and all?

Ellie leapt to her feet and headed for the pantry. A batch of fresh-baked cookies never failed to elevate Franklin’s mood.

“Are you here, Ellie?” Franklin inquired from the back doorway.

“Yes, I am and I need to tell you something.” Ellie gasped. Before she realized what was happening, Franklin had swept her up in his arms and captured her lips with a warm kiss.

“Franklin Smith, put me down,” scolded Ellie, when they finally came up for air.

“In a minute.” Franklin prevented further protest with another lengthy kiss.

Ellie savored her betrothed’s kisses, secretly relishing the few minutes delay to organize her thoughts. But this news couldn’t be delayed indefinitely.

Finally, Franklin set Ellie on her feet.

“What did you want to discuss?” He strode across the floor, washed his hands at the sink, and dried them on a tattered brown towel.

“It’s not so much…something to discuss…” Ellie bit her lower lip, telling herself not to cry.

And then a more worrisome notion popped into her head.

Since learning she carried Franklin’s child, Ellie’s concern centered solely on her reputation as Spirit Creek’s schoolteacher. Not until this second had she considered the possible ramifications for Franklin. Would impregnating the local schoolteacher jeopardize Franklin’s career? Diminish his standing in the community? She wasn’t so concerned for herself. The majority of her life she carried the title of ‘foundling’ raised in a Boston orphanage, a child nobody wanted and nobody claimed. But Franklin worked hard all his life, and although he never admitted it, she suspected he hailed from a reputable family. Would Franklin face disciplinary action?

“Don’t tell me you’ve come to your senses, and you no longer intend to marry me.” Franklin feigned a frown but his twinkling eyes betrayed him.

Ellie smiled at his joke. She’d practiced the words in her head for the past hour, but suddenly her mouth felt clogged with cotton. Just tell him. There’s nothing to worry about, she encouraged herself. But in her experience, when she thought those words there was something troubling just waiting around the corner.

She swallowed hard and thrust her shoulders back.

“Exactly the opposite, my darling, I must marry you for certain.” Ellie met Franklin’s eyes and whispered, “I’m going to have a baby.”

* * *

Sheriff Franklin Smith didn’t frighten easily, an admirable trait in a lawman. But for a moment Ellie’s blunt announcement scared him witless. The unexpected news hovered in the air like an unseen wraith leaving a cold chill in its wake. Had he heard her correctly?

“Are you sure?” He frowned. “There was only that one time…”

“Doc Benjamin confirmed my condition this morning.”

Franklin couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. “Honey, that’s…that’s wonderful.”

“Are you truly pleased?”

“I’m going to be a papa,” he whispered in disbelief. And then he reached for her hand. “We should get married tomorrow.”

Ellie burst into tears.

“Damnation.” Franklin groaned with the realization he’d uttered the curse word aloud. But this was hardly the reaction he’d expected from Ellie. Wouldn’t an unwed woman with child insist on a wedding as soon as one could be arranged? An immediate marriage was the first thought that entered his mind. For the life of him, he couldn’t imagine what he’d said or done wrong.

“Why are you crying?” He rubbed her back.

“I had hoped you’d suggest moving up the wedding date, and I know you’re going to be a wonderful father.” Ellie smiled and touched his arm. “But how do we explain the urgency to the community without raising suspicions?”

“Oh, hang the suspicions. Let’s just do it.” Franklin lifted Ellie off her feet and swung her around the small kitchen.

“The good citizens of Spirit Creek can cipher—at least some of them anyway—and when this child arrives no one will be fooled, Franklin,” warned Ellie, hugging his neck and hanging onto his shoulders for dear life as he twirled her about the room.

When he set her down finally, she dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief. Happy tears no doubt. At least, he hoped so. He couldn’t love this woman more.

“Who cares what anyone thinks.” Franklin cupped her tear-stained face in his hands. “I love you to the moon and back. Marry me as soon as possible.”

“Yes,” Ellie whispered. “I’ll marry you, Franklin, tomorrow, in a week, whenever you want.”

* * *

Franklin and Luke strolled across the churchyard after Sunday services, both appeared deep in thought. Luke hoped no one suspected the importance of their verbal exchange.

“I heard again from that fellow named Jimmy George Barkley, the Miles City deputy who contacted us last fall.” Franklin’s eyes darted around the vicinity to ensure their conversation remained private. “Barkley will travel to Spirit Creek in person, accompanied by another two deputies, at the earliest possible date.”

“When will that be?” growled Luke.

“Not certain. Hopefully, within the next few days. But we’re waiting until these reinforcements arrive before we set our plans in motion.” The sheriff stood arms crossed.

Luke glared at the lawman. “I’m not known for my patience. Just doing nothing seems downright wrong.”

“Can’t be helped.”

“Ever heard of this Barkley fellow?” inquired Luke.

“No. But Sheriff Bob Sanders is a former Texas Ranger now employed in Miles City. I’d trust the man with my life. Bob vouched for Barkley. As soon as Barkley and the others arrive in town, you’ll be the first to know.” Franklin touched his Stetson, acknowledging Luke’s wife as she approached holding their four-month-old baby boy in her arms, their three older children at her heels.

“Is anything wrong?” Maggie met her husband’s eyes.

“Nope,” answered Luke, abruptly. He assisted his family into their carriage and then leapt onto the bench seat. “At least, not yet,” he added as an afterthought.

Franklin exchanged a knowing look with Luke, and then sauntered away.

End of excerpt.

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