1885, Southwest Idaho desert
"Sorry you got shot, Cole. Damn, this is gonna mess up all our plans."
Cole Richards grasped for consciousness as he pressed the dirty handkerchief to his inner thigh in a vain attempt to stem the bleeding. Bosco's jabbering irritated the hell out of him, but at least it stirred his awareness enough to keep his seat on his horse.
"How in the ever-lovin' hell was I supposed to know that a sweet looking banker like her could shoot the inside eyelash off a grasshopper?" Bosco protested. "Whoo-wee! She batted them baby blues at me and I was a goner."
Bosco was sincere, if not the brightest lantern in the saloon. Cole figured his wound could very well be The Last Roundup, and he didn't want to go to his Maker bearing hard feelings toward anyone.
"Are you listening to me, Cole?" Bosco asked. "Hey, did you hear me? I'm sorry you got shot--really I am. But I just thought if I took the money, the bank couldn't give any to the miners, and then they wouldn't dig up Sinker Creek."
Cole blew out a deep breath. "That's just it. You didn't think." And now they were wanted by the law. Rightfully so. Bosco had tried to rob the bank, and Cole had stumbled in. He'd put a halt to Bosco's nonsense, but the lady banker was quick on the trigger. Now Cole had a hole in his thigh.
He hooked his attention to his partner's incessant chattering to keep from blacking out, but Bosco sounded like he was talking from the next valley. Cole could do without the repetitive apologies, too. The throbbing pain in his leg kept pace with every word out of Bosco's mouth.
"I think we'd better stop." Bosco's voice echoed faintly.
Cole worked his jaw to answer. Instead, the reins slid out of his grip, the bright sun turned gray, and he slipped from the saddle.
* * * * *
"Yes, he's definitely the one." Her sweet tone belied her accusation. Most robbery victims wouldn't be so cheerful. Was he in jail? The aroma of sagebrush and alkali had been replaced by tincture of iodine, so he could be in the doctor's office.
"Fits the description exactly."
Cole's hopes sank at the lady's certainty. While he'd never had a doubt he and Bosco would be caught, he'd hoped to make it back to the ranch to set things right. And the lady didn't have to sound so damned happy about it.
"You're sure about that?" a man's voice asked.
"Well, Doc, he's tall, so he matches the six-foot-two height, he has dark brown hair, brown eyes, and he's wounded on the right leg just like the wire said."
Cole hoped that at least Bosco had made it to the ranch. He was goodhearted, a loyal friend, but not all that quick on the draw.
"Yes," the lady continued, "he's our new marshal, all right."
New marshal? Hell, he was wanted for bank robbery! This didn't seem exactly the right time to mention it, though.
"Good," the man named Doc responded, "then I'll bill the city for his care. The wife will be happy to hear I finally have a cash customer."
"You don't have a wife."
The doctor chuckled. "No, Miss Daisy, but I'd sure like you to change that."
"Not a chance," she teased.
They both laughed, but Cole knew how the doctor really felt. Some men were born to be alone.
A cool cloth smelling of borax mopped his forehead. He forced his eyes to open. He blinked a couple of times and focused on a beautiful woman, her brow wrinkled with concern.
"Come here, Doc," she said with quiet enthusiasm. "He's awake."
Cole heard water pouring as he stared at the lady who belonged to the sunny voice. Her green-eyed gaze bathed him with compassion and reminded him of sunset on Sinker Creek, where the rays glanced off the rapids, and the rippling of the water made a man's heart feel pure.
He wondered what she'd look like if he loosened her auburn hair that was pulled tightly into a bun. She was a beauty, all right.
A slight man dressed appropriately for a doctor, or an undertaker, rubbed his brown handlebar mustache while he mulled over Cole's condition. "His color's much better, Daisy, don't you think?"
"I'll go tell Dad that he won't have to rush over here for the marshal's last prayers." She pulled on her gloves and tossed a cloak over her shoulders.
Damn, a preacher's daughter. What a waste of womanly flesh.
"Look for him at your Aunt Grace's house," the doctor advised. "When I picked up the wire telling us the new marshal was riding in, Rayburn told me that your sister had just come home. Seems like some yahoos tried to hold up her bank--put quite a scare into her, too."
Daisy clapped her gloved hands to her cheeks. "Oh, no! Is Iris all right?"
"She's fine," replied the doctor, "but I hear one of the would-be robbers is somewhat worse for the wear. She claims she shot one."
"Oh, my!" Daisy picked up her parasol and reticule. "I'll get over there right away. She may need me!"
Cole's throat tightened as Daisy hurried to the door. She'd put two and two together as soon as she talked to her sister.
"God works in wonderful ways," she exclaimed triumphantly as she unlatched the door. "It's a miracle that our new marshal showed up when he did." She swept out of the room like a queen.
Stay calm and think. So Daisy's sister was the woman who'd shot him. What lousy luck. He had to get the hell out of here.
Especially since Miss Daisy thought he was the town's new marshal.
He didn't even know what town.
* * * * *
"Oh, Iris, are you all right?" Daisy slid to a stop on the polished wood floor of her Aunt Grace's living room. From the clatter of pans and the enticing aroma of roast beef, she knew she was too late to help and that meant her mother would not be in a good mood.
On cue, her mother peeked out from the kitchen and cast a reproving frown. "Will you at least pretend you're civilized?" She ducked back into the kitchen. "I don't know if that girl will ever settle down."
Her aunt's boisterous laughter at her mother's frustration echoed off the kitchen walls--Aunt Grace had never been known for her subtlety.
Iris hopped off the couch and grabbed Daisy in a hug as they danced in a little circle.
"This is so exciting! Oh, Iris! Tell me everything."
Iris giggled. "I guess those robbers will think twice before messing with Herman and Company Banking again." Iris took a coin from her pocket. "Look, I brought you a souvenir. The robber dropped this silver dollar when he escaped."
"Thanks!" She took the coin by the edges and studied at it. "I wonder if I can get fingerprints from this . . . Honey Beaulieu would use it for something clever."
"Oh, you and your dime novel heroines."
Daisy ignored her sister's jibe. "I bet you were scared out of your mind!" She smirked, irritated that exciting things like foiling robberies never happened to her. "What kind of guns did they have?"
Daisy rolled her eyes. "Yes. Gun. The thing you point that goes ‘bang' and a bullet comes out the end?"
Her sister raised an eyebrow, then studied the ceiling like she always did when she concentrated. She lowered her voice. "I, uh, can't remember a gun . . ."
"Oh, I'm sure you were simply too unnerved to notice."
"No," Iris replied, dropping her gaze from the ceiling to peruse the floor, "I think . . . I'm positive neither one of them had a gun." Her eyes widened and she caught her breath. "Oh, Daisy, I must have shot an unarmed bandit!"
Daisy clasped her hand over her mouth. "Oh, my stars!" she whispered. Their gazes met, confirming that the conversation would never venture out of that room. "The new marshal's here--just in time, by the sound of it, what with bank robbers running loose."
"Thank heavens. Is he husband material?"
"Oh, definitely." His rich, brown eyes could tempt an angel. Luckily, she'd managed not to be enticed. All right, some, but not so much that she couldn't keep her mind on her goal.
"Now that you've seen him, are you still planning to marry him?"
Daisy smiled. "He'll do."
"Good. I was a bit worried about your harebrained plan. When are you swearing him in?"
"This afternoon, if he's able. He hasn't spoken a word, yet. But as soon as he's sworn in, he can appoint a deputy to take care of business until he's healed."
Her mother stepped into the living room. She held a large bowl of batter in one hand and stirred up a storm with the other. "Noon's only a half hour away, girls. I want you washed up and the table set for dinner."
Daisy inched toward the door. "Mama, I have to get back to Doc's and see to the new marshal."
"Since when did you decide to become a nurse?"
"Don't ‘but, Mama' me," she chided without missing a single stir. "The new marshal needs food, so you can take him some dinner after we eat. Tell Doc I'll fix supper for him and his patient around six or so." She turned back toward the kitchen where her sister still worked. "Grace, do you have the cake pan greased?"
Daisy tossed up her hands in defeat. "Come on, Iris, or we'll never hear the end of it."
* * * * *
An hour later, Daisy thought dinner would last all day. Her feet wanted to move and she tried her best not to fidget. She picked at her food.
". . . paid off, didn't it?"
She realized Aunt Grace had spoken to her. "Pardon?"
"I said, all your hard work trying to get Oreana to hire a marshal paid off."
"It seemed ridiculous," Daisy glanced at her sister, who smiled back. "I mean, to build a jailhouse and not hire a marshal. Besides, it's too far from Silver City for the county sheriff to come for anything except major crimes, which I hope we never have." Daisy knew she'd lapsed into her campaign talk, but her mind kept wandering to the man on Doc's table.
"Well, then," her mother said, "you can get back to finding a husband. I heard the Stanton boys over in Henderson are looking for wives. Maybe you could snag one of them."
Daisy's stomach roiled, but she stifled any outward reaction. Not only did the Stantons live thirty miles from civilization, they were both short. She wanted to be a detective and solve crimes and to do that, she had to live in town. So she needed to be married to the marshal. The tall marshal.
"Now, Betsy." Aunt Grace patted her sister's hand. "There's no hurry for Daisy to marry."
"It certainly is time. We were both married and had babies by the time we were her age."
"I'll get the cake," Daisy mumbled, her napkin falling on the floor as she stood.
After dinner, her mother packed the dinner box while Daisy washed the dishes. By the time she finished cleaning the kitchen, Daisy grabbed the box by the string and kissed her mother and aunt. "I'll see you tomorrow, Aunt Grace." She hurried toward the door.
Daisy stopped in her tracks at her mother's stern reproach. "Yes, Mama?"
"Get back in here and put on your bonnet and gloves so you don't look like some sort of trollop."
Daisy rolled her eyes. "Yes, Mama."
The dog bounded in and knocked her aside.
"And get that mutt out of here. Periwinkle doesn't belong in your aunt's house!"
"Yes, Mama." Her little brother, Forrest, should be the one chasing the stupid dog. But she had no time to quibble, so she fetched her gloves and rounded up Winky, who, as usual, jumped up and slobbered on her face.
Finally out the door--and dressed to suit her mother--she breathed in the crisp noon air filled with fragrance of wild flowers and sagebrush. She hurried toward Doc's office, managing her cumbersome skirts with one hand while balancing the dinner box on the other.
She picked her way across the street. Surely the townspeople of Oreana would be pleased with her choice of lawmen. One look at him . . . she smiled, despite her efforts to keep the box upright . . . and she felt satisfied he'd be an honest peacekeeper, unlike so many lawmen who straddled both sides of the law.
She passed Mueller's Confectionery and the bank, then stopped in front of the Doc's office. The shingle with "Doctor Mabry" painted in yellow wafted in the breeze as she rehearsed what she'd say to her husband-to-be. Would he be awake? Somehow, it seemed quite inappropriate for a twenty-two-year-old spinster to visit a man while he was in bed--she, however, had plans to implement.
She took a deep breath and entered. The new marshal lay shirtless, flat on his back. One glance at his muscular arms and broad shoulders all but shattered her resolve, and she resisted the urge to turn tail and run. She chided herself for letting silly womanly emotions get the better of her.
"Took you long enough, Doc," he said, still staring at the ceiling. "I'm starved."
"I'm not Doc," she replied, trying to keep the excitement out of her voice. "I'm Miss Daisy Gardner, the one who hired you." She held up the box. "I brought some dinner for you, and I'll be bringing your supper as well."
He turned his head toward her, his chocolate eyes hiding mystery--and oh, how she loved chocolate. She licked her too-dry lips and placed the box on the stand beside his bed. Her hands shook slightly as she removed the food and arranged it on the plate.
"Shall I feed you?"
He smiled ever so slightly. Her heart fluttered at the sight of his straight white teeth. She couldn't have hired a more handsome marshal if she'd picked him out of a Montgomery Ward catalogue.
"My leg's gimped, Miss Daisy, but my arms work just fine."
Her cheeks burned, but she fought to maintain her aplomb. "Of course. Can you sit up?"
"Some. Doc told me to keep my leg elevated." He jammed his fists in the mattress and raised his torso. The blankets fell from his most extremely naked chest, the well-defined muscles covered by a generous sprinkling of dark hair.
She stared at his bare flesh. She'd seen her dad's chest, but the marshal's chest . . . Gadfreys! Catching her breath, she adjusted her gloves and schooled her expression to appear as poised as possible. She absolutely must make a good first impression on him.
He cleared his throat and nodded toward the floor beside his bed. "Grab those extra pillows. I'll lean forward while you put them behind my back."
"Uh . . ." Closing her mouth, she concentrated on stopping the warm flush creeping up her cheeks again. She picked up the three pillows and started to place them between his back and the headboard--looking most efficient, she thought. Until she noticed his muscular back. Unnerved, she accidentally brushed her knuckles against his warm skin. A tingle shot up her arm and down to her abdomen, causing a low, unsettling ache. She jammed the pillows down.
"Uh, I have to go."
She fled the doctor's office, chastising herself all the way to the confectionery for the being such a coward.
* * * * *
Cole couldn't help but appreciate the backside of the flustered woman who dashed out the door as if her skirts were on fire. Or she'd seen a naked man. No respectable woman had ever seen him without a shirt on. Hell, even the sporting gals didn't give a man enough time to bare anything but the essentials.
He smiled and remembered how appealing she looked when her tongue darted across her lips. That girl was a sight for sore eyes, all right. The bustle emphasized her tiny waist and curvaceous bosom, and even though small of stature, she held herself tall and proud.
But he'd keep his thoughts and hands to himself. He needed to get out of this God-forsaken town. Bosco, too. Not only might the real marshal show up any time, but Daisy's sister could get them thrown in jail--or hanged.
At least Daisy hadn't asked him his name, but then, he supposed she thought she already knew it. Cole decided he'd answer to whatever she called him. He couldn't do much about her misconceptions except play along, or else he and Bosco would surely be suspected of holding up the bank at Silver City.
Cursing both his wound and lack of mobility, he wondered if her sister had reported Bosco's attempted crime. He would have cursed Bosco, too, but his friend had meant well.
Cole needed to get back to his ranch on Sinker Creek where he had a thousand things to do, but mainly to run those damned miners off the upper creek. He'd nearly lost his herd from thirst last year, and this year promised to be even worse, what with the sluice operation drying up the water supply.
The fried chicken Daisy had brought smelled delicious and he took a bite from a drumstick. His stomach rumbled, reminding him that it had been a long time since his last meal. He set to polishing off every morsel, but couldn't seem to keep his mind off his troubles long enough even for a peaceful meal.
From what he'd heard, the miners had come up empty so far. He had a distant hope that they'd give up, but he knew that once gold fever hit, the miners wouldn't quit until they'd dug up every bit of that creek. When the water dried up for good, his ranch and all the hard work he and the others had put into it would be worthless.
He took a slurp of hot coffee. The man who married Daisy wouldn't be slurping coffee around her. He'd have to mind his manners, but he'd be a lucky man nonetheless.
"Damn her!" he muttered. She distracted him, and he needed to concentrate on the business at hand. If he didn't get out of Oreana soon, he not only ran the risk of dangling for bank robbery, his ranch would go to ruin. Then he'd never be able to turn it over to his brother and make his escape to Baker Valley in Oregon.
All he wanted was to live in peace, away from his sister-in-law, the woman who'd jilted him last year to bear his brother's child. But after what he'd done to his brother, Thomas, Cole had to make sure he left the ranch in good shape.
"Damn women," he cursed.
The click of the doorknob interrupted his thoughts. Doc came in with a parcel.
"Here are your clothes. I see someone brought you some dinner."
Cole nodded, grateful to see those clothes. He hadn't relished the thought of escaping with only a sheet to cover him. "Yeah, the woman who was here earlier."
"Miss Gardner. She's quite a lady." The doctor untied the package. "I'm Doc Mabry."
Cole grunted a greeting. For some reason, it vexed the hell out of him that Doc was smitten with Daisy. "She said she's bringing supper."
"You'd better lie back down. I want your leg higher than your head for a few days."
Cole shook his head. "First, I want to put my clothes on." His shirt was clean-smelling and mended. He slipped it on and buttoned it, relaxing immediately. It had been a long time since he'd worn clean, pressed clothes.
Britches posed another problem. Longhandles were out of the question because of the bandages. Maybe the doctor could find a seamstress to make a pair of knickers. No real man would be caught dead in them, but they'd be better than wearing nothing at all.
"You're doing well," the doctor reported, "so you'll be moved over to the Gardners' house tomorrow morning."
Gardners' house? Cole groaned. "I'd rather stay somewhere else." Daisy's sister would be there, sure as the world. And so would Daisy. He really didn't know which one of them posed the bigger threat.
* * * * *
Daisy nearly flew into Howard's Livery, knowing she presented quite a sight to the townspeople with her unladylike pace. Nothing settled her mind better than the smell of fresh hay and saddle soap.
She ate the last bite of the chocolate confection and brushed her palms together. The encounter with the new marshal had been all too unsettling. She sank onto a pile of straw in front of Gal's stall.
"Jonas, would you please saddle Gal for me?" She extracted a carrot from her pocket and held it over her shoulder. The velvety muzzle of her horse whisked over her skin as Gal chomped the carrot.
The burly blacksmith, Jonas Howard, put the tack he'd been oiling aside and stood, shaking his head. "What's the bee in your bonnet this time?"
"I just want to get a little air." She slipped the bit in the mare's mouth and fastened the headstall.
Jonas flopped the blanket and sidesaddle on Gal and cinched it tight. "Sarah was in here a while ago looking for you."
Daisy needed to get away from everyone, including her best friend, so she pretended like Jonas hadn't mentioned his daughter. Daisy had a new Honey Beaulieu mystery waiting for her, just the distraction she needed from the handsome man she'd hired to be marshal.
Jonas patted the mare on the rump. "Sarah said the new marshal hasn't been sworn in yet. You gonna wait until he's on his feet?"
How did Sarah know that? She turned her head to hide her frown from Jonas. "No, Dad will do it later today, after he closes the store."
"Doc says the marshal will stay at your folks' house."
Her house? She fanned herself and changed the subject. "It's certainly a warm spring. The snow's already melting off War Eagle Mountain, Iris says, and Jordan Creek's running high. I guess the Masonic Temple's practically floating."
Jonas seemed to take her babbling in stride. "That's what they get for building it astraddle a creek. Don't make a whole lot of sense."
Glad she'd diverted his attention, she mounted and wiggled around on the sidesaddle until she was comfortable. "Let's go, Gal." She gave her horse a nudge and charged out of the livery.
As she turned onto the street, a man walked in front of her. Gal slid to a stop and Daisy nearly kept on going. She pulled leather and managed to keep her seat, but bit her tongue.
She pressed her hand to her breast and tried to catch just one little breath. Dang it all anyway!
Bosco Kunkle patted Gal on the neck. "In a hurry there, little lady?"
The man who'd brought the marshal to town held out his hand to assist her down. Mr. Kunkle's pants were dusty and his hair held the crease of his missing hat.
Daisy declined his offer to help her dismount. "I'm so sorry." And she truly was. That her impulsiveness got her in trouble more often than not was bad enough, but she felt awful when it harmed others. "Are you hurt?"
"Nope." He picked up his slightly bent hat, dusted it off, and jammed it on his head. "How's Cole?"
"Uh, yeah. The marshal."
"The marshal's name is Sidney Adler. Why'd you call him Cole?"