Salvation in the Sheriff's Kiss Kelly Boyce THE MAN SHE COULD NEVER FORGET! Back in Salvation Falls, after seven years in Boston, Meredith Connolly has been transformed into a sophisticated businesswoman with two goals in mind: 1. Prove that her father, who died in jail, was innocent and unmask the real culprits.2. Avoid Hunter Donovan, who broke her heart and ran her out of town. But to achieve her first objective Meredith will have to sacrifice her second. Because Hunter is the town’s sheriff, and that means there’s no escaping him – or the way he makes her feel! “Maybe you should think about going back to Boston,” Hunter said. “This is my home.” Meredith fought to keep her voice steady. “And my father deserves to rest easy in his grave, knowing his name has been cleared of any wrongdoing.” His expression tightened. “Then you’re determined to stay?” “I am staying, and I’m proving my father’s innocence. Now, I would appreciate it if you would step aside and let me pass.” He ignored her request. “I don’t see the point in what you’re doing. Your pa is gone. It isn’t going to matter to him what people think.” “It matters to me. I don’t expect you to understand.” His family had wealth, privilege and a good name. What had he ever struggled for? “It isn’t that I don’t understand.” His voice softened. “I know you loved your pa. I know you want to clear his name. I just don’t want to see you get hurt.” AUTHOR NOTE (#ulink_5da5af1b-bdc3-52b9-bb99-05cbf887cfba) When I wrote SALVATION IN THE RANCHER’S ARMS it was intended as a stand-alone book. I had no plans to return to the thriving little town of Salvation Falls. I was merely passing through. But in the process of telling Caleb and Rachel’s story I couldn’t help but wonder about the future of the handsome (and quite single) Sheriff Hunter Donovan. Needless to say my curiosity won out and back to Salvation Falls I went. As it turns out, the town has some secrets yet to tell about past loves and old betrayals. Both of which come back to haunt Hunter when an old love, Meredith Connolly, returns to town with justice on her mind. SALVATION IN THE SHERIFF’S KISS allows me to explore the extremes people go to when trying to protect those they love and to discover how the results alter and change the lives of those involved. It was a delight to return to Salvation Falls once again, and I hope you enjoy reading Hunter and Meredith’s story. Salvation in the Sheriff’s Kiss Kelly Boyce www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) A life-long Nova Scotian, KELLY BOYCE lives near the Atlantic Ocean with her husband (who is likely wondering what he got himself into by marrying a writer) and a golden retriever who is convinced he is king of the castle. A long-time history buff, Kelly loves writing in a variety of time periods, creating damaged characters and giving them a second chance at life and love. In memory of my grandmother, Eileen Boyce, for always believing I could do it. It meant the world. Contents Cover (#u96443918-8617-570e-b842-7ceff525857b) Introduction (#u8ad3a7ef-810f-5774-b441-a2b20fb2bb93) Author Note (#u914575a0-6046-5455-a335-23bb52ca6e9e) Title Page (#udcd9b3aa-de48-5207-91b0-e41c27092ca1) About the Author (#u83acbedb-d1ce-520f-ba6f-438fa39e964d) Dedication (#uaae520a6-61d6-553f-9081-477f2f8886de) Chapter One (#u1089e922-9f00-563b-a127-959523d9ed1c) Chapter Two (#u4585492e-ff2e-5c19-b8ff-64cf19b94b4b) Chapter Three (#u22bad96a-a384-5fa8-be15-637a6946a3e6) Chapter Four (#u163b14ee-0265-55d2-a433-10ca9d505236) Chapter Five (#uba600f2b-9059-515e-ab20-9f371a64ea31) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Two (#litres_trial_promo) Extract (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One (#ulink_59318202-398c-589f-a1d1-a8f705eb5fe5) Colorado Territory, November 1876 “Hoo-wee! That was a tough one!” “That’s one word for it,” Sheriff Hunter Donovan muttered, bending over to swipe his hat off the saloon floor. He brushed it against his leg then jammed it back onto his head, giving his deputy an exasperated glance. The way the kid was grinning from ear to ear, you’d think he’d lassoed a wayward bronco, not helped take down three brawling idiots too stupid to know when to quit. It was hard to believe only five years separated their ages. Had he ever been that young and foolhardy? If so, he’d be sure and stop by old Sheriff McLaren’s grave and issue a most heartfelt apology. “Aw, hell, Sheriff. It ain’t so bad. Beats sittin’ around all day staring at the walls.” Hunter scowled. “Being a sheriff isn’t about having fun, Jenkins. It’s about keeping the peace, stopping these kinds of things before they happen. You need to be vigilant, because if not, people get hurt.” He’d learned that one the hard way. Unfortunately, it was Sheriff McLaren who had paid the price. “I know, I know,” Jenkins said, his affable smile still in place. “I jus’ hate it when there’s nothin’ exciting to do is all.” Hunter refrained from telling him there was always plenty to do—people to check in on, disputes to mediate, help to offer. He could stand a little idle time to try and bring Jenkins up to speed on what it meant to be a sheriff. It wasn’t all shoot-outs and saloon fights. Wearing the badge also meant the town’s safety and well-being would become his responsibility. That people would rely on him. It was a bit like a family in a way, not that Hunter’s own family, broken as it was, provided the best example in that regard. And now, more than ever, it was important to be vigilant. Ever since the train station had been put in on the outskirts of town it seemed every piece of riffraff had found their way to Salvation Falls to try and pick up work at the lucrative ranches in the area. Although, in his estimation, they spent as much time drinking whiskey and beer in the three saloons dotting Main Street as they did actually working. One of said riffraff rolled over onto his back and groaned. “We was jus’ havin’ a conversation about Yucton bein’ guilty or not. Didn’t mean no harm.” Hunter gazed down at Roddy Lewis. He was a regular hand from Hunter’s father’s ranch, the Diamond D. “Perhaps you should try agreeing to disagree the next time. It’s up to the courts to decide Yucton’s fate. Not you.” Bill Yucton had become another thorn in his side. Everyone in town had an opinion on his guilt or innocence and no one seemed shy about spouting off about it. Or about the events of seven years ago he was being tried for. He glared over at Kincaid, the bounty hunter who had brought the outlaw to town. He’d said little about where he’d found Yucton, or why it was the man had arrived with his hands unbound, more than willing to ride into town despite knowing it could spell his doom. There was something fishy about the whole thing. “You could have helped,” he said, addressing the bounty hunter. The man had turned in his stool at the bar and watched the fight without so much as lifting a hand. He did so now, however, holding up his shot glass filled to the brim with watered-down whiskey. “Didn’t want to spill my drink.” “You keep drinking at this rate and you’ll burn through the bounty you collected before the trial even starts.” If it started. The circuit judge was taking his sweet ole time getting here. A wire had arrived this morning. The appointed judge had met with an unfortunate accident. It would be another week at least before a replacement could be found and sent their way. “Can’t see how my drinkin’ is any of your business, Sheriff. Thought you’d be a bit more appreciative. I did bring in a wanted man, after all. Made the world a safer place, putting one more outlaw behind bars.” “Right. Because Bill Yucton was such a huge threat.” Fact was, Kincaid was right. Yucton was a wanted man, but the law around here hadn’t been looking for him. He’d been part of an outfit that had rustled some cattle from the Diamond D and got caught, but Yucton had managed to somehow slip out of the jail and disappear into the night. Sheriff McLaren hadn’t bothered gathering a posse to set out after him and eventually, after the trial in which the two remaining rustlers had been dealt with, folks around Salvation Falls seemed happy to put the whole sordid matter to sleep. Hunter counted himself among them and he sure didn’t appreciate it being resurrected now. He pointed at the bounty hunter. “You and I need to have a conversation about Bill Yucton real soon.” Kincaid eyed him for a brief second, downed his drink then motioned for another one. “Can’t say I have much to say.” But Hunter did. It had been bugging him for the past several days. There was no reason in the world for Bill Yucton to come back here. Yet here he was, taking up space in one of the three jail cells in Hunter’s office. To top it off, the bounty on Yucton wasn’t paid out by the U.S. Marshalls Service. It was a private bounty offered to anyone who brought him into Salvation Falls to stand trial for a crime committed over seven years ago. “You plan on sticking around these parts?” Kincaid grinned. Weathered lines creased the corners of his eyes, beaten in by the elements and adding an incongruent nature to the man’s age, though Hunter suspected he wasn’t much older than his own thirty years. “Might. Never know when you’re going to need help with the rowdies.” “Because you’ve been so helpful thus far.” Sarcasm saturated his words. Kincaid shrugged and turned his attention back to the drink Franklyn set in front of him, putting an end to their conversation. Hunter returned to Jenkins who had hauled the current band of rowdies to their feet. Hunter would worry about Kincaid later. So long as he was sticking around, there would be time to question him further about the mysterious return of the wayward Bill Yucton. He knew there was more to the story than he was hearing. Instinct kept telling him something wasn’t right. Instinct and Sheriff McLaren’s dying words. Words that had haunted him since Abbott Connolly had stood trial for rustling cattle from the Diamond D Ranch seven years ago. Dig deeper. He’d heeded the sheriff’s words, but it had come to naught. There was nothing new to find. The evidence was what it was, and it had sent Abbott Connolly to prison. Hunter and Jenkins herded the stumbling men down to the opposite end of the street and shoved them all into one small cell. Bill Yucton lay prone on his bed, his legs crossed at the ankle and his hat covering his face. He lifted the brim far enough to slide a gaze at his new neighbors, then dropped it back in place. The fire in the woodstove had dwindled during their absence and the cold air from outside had made the interior a bit nippy. Hunter crossed the room to the woodstove and stoked the embers, putting another log on. He’d put on a pot of coffee just before getting called down to The Seahorse to break up the fight. By now it had likely thickened to a warm sludge. He poured a cup anyway. He’d long ago given up on drinking a decent cup of coffee. “Get these three settled in,” he said, and headed back out the door. Once outside, he leaned against the exterior wall of his office. Things were starting to quiet down. The twilight hour. His favorite time of the day. It was the one brief respite where the town took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then slowly exhaled. The sun had started its descent, leaving the tips of the mountains burnished in bronze and the sky streaked with orange and purple. The colorful display never failed to take his breath away. He’d lived his whole life under the shadow of those mountains and the effect had never lessened. It was the one thing about ranching he’d taken a shine to, the amount of time he spent out of doors, riding the range. But all that would change when he took over the business from his father. He’d spend more time dealing with the management and money and less time actually doing the day to day. The thought saddened him. He had no true interest in the job. He liked what he did now. He’d taken on the role of deputy nearly ten years ago after an argument with his father. He’d been barely twenty, brash and determined to create his own identity apart from the Donovan name. And he had. More importantly, he’d discovered he loved doing it. And soon it would be Jenkins’s job, if he could bring the kid up to snuff. He leaned a shoulder against the post next to the steps that led into the street and stared up at the vista, breathing in the evening. It gave him a sense of peace, of belonging. He knew it would only last as long as the sunset, though. Come nightfall, the loneliness would sink in. He’d eventually retire to the room he kept above the jailhouse and the emptiness would mock him. The memories would seep through the cracks in the walls and remind him of everything he’d lost. Maybe when he moved back to his father’s house and took over the business, the memories would stay put and not follow him there. He doubted it, but it was the only bright spot he could find about giving up his badge and returning to the Diamond D Ranch. He scowled at the fading sunset. The idea of turning in his badge stuck in his craw in the worst way. He hated to do it, to give up the only thing that gave him a reason to get out of bed in the morning. But as his father constantly reminded him, he had a duty to his family. What was left of it. It had been just him and his father since Ma had hightailed it out of town when he was fourteen. He tried not to blame her. Get right down to it, his father was a first-rate bastard. He’d spent his whole married life and longer mooning over another man’s wife instead of his own, turning bitter when he couldn’t have her. Hunter hadn’t heard from Ma since she’d left. Sometimes on nights like this he wondered where she’d got to. Was she happy? Was she even still alive? Why hadn’t she thought to take him with her? He didn’t let the thoughts linger for long, though. Turned out Ma was as interested in being a mother to him as Vernon was in being a father. He guessed that there wasn’t enough about him to love. At least that’s what he believed for the longest time until someone else had shown him different. Someone who had made him dream of a future full of possibilities he’d never considered. Of having a home. Of coming through the door once the sun had sunk into its nest behind the mountains and the stars took over the heavens, and being met by a passel of smiling children and a loving wife with pale blond hair and dazzling blue eyes who’d welcome him with open arms. He’d come so close to having that once, but...well, he’d come close but not close enough. Now, here he was pushing thirty and all he had to show for himself at the end of the day was the tin badge pinned on his chest. “The men should sober up soon enough,” Jenkins said, coming up behind him. Hunter welcomed the interruption. He didn’t like wallowing in maudlin thoughts for too long. They had a way of making a man see all the things he’d done wrong in life. It could be a long list. “I can spring them once the sun goes down, send ’em on home if you want.” “Let them sweat it out for a bit,” Hunter said. “Maybe it will give them pause if they think they might be bunking down here for the night.” “Yucton wouldn’t like that. Says he don’t cotton to neighbors much. ’Specially smelly drunks who don’t have the sense to know when to keep their mouths shut.” Hunter scowled. “You tell Yucton we’re running a jail, not a damn hotel. If he wanted to choose his neighbors he should have chosen not to break the law.” That’s the way it worked in Hunter’s mind. You broke the law, you paid the price. It was as simple as that. At least it should be. But justice could be a mercurial mistress. “Hey, ain’t that...?” Jenkins took a step forward and squinted through the early-evening light. Hunter followed his gaze. His heart stuttered and his breath along with it. Jenkins made his way to the edge of the planked sidewalk and leaned against the railing, a smile breaking across his young face. “Well, I’ll be hog-tied and roasted on a spit. Will you look at that?” Hunter couldn’t look at anything else. Every muscle in his body went still as rigor. Had someone hog-tied him and roasted him on a spit, he wasn’t sure he would even notice. He knew what he was seeing. He just couldn’t believe it. Or didn’t want to. “Meredith.” He hadn’t spoken her name aloud in seven years, but it slipped off his tongue now as if it had been yesterday, bringing with it all the emotions he’d kept neatly tucked away deep inside. They rushed out now, caring little for neatness or order as each one raged through him and left him standing in front of his office wrecked and broken as if no time had passed at all and she was riding out of town instead of back in. He’d known this day might someday come, but he had prayed it wouldn’t almost as fervently as he’d hoped it would. And now it had. * * * Meredith Connolly sat in the wagon, her fingers grasped tightly around the handles of the small valise resting in her lap. The boned construction of her corset helped keep her back ramrod straight but her shoulders ached from the strain of holding them back while keeping her chin high. She’d had no intentions of riding into town the way she had ridden out of it seven years earlier with a crushed spirit, broken dreams and empty bank account. Granted, the riding into town was mostly for show. Her aunt had squirrelled away some money from her business as a seamstress, a business Meredith had learned backward and forward, but it wasn’t substantial. She’d inherited enough to arrive back in Salvation Falls in style and start over. After that, it would be up to her. A fact that suited her just fine. She didn’t put much stock into relying on others. Not anymore. Pride held her posture in check when her muscles began to ache from the effort. The plumed ostrich feather in her hat bobbed in her peripheral vision, blotting out the image of Hunter Donovan every time the wagon’s wheels hit a new rut in the road. Even from halfway down Main Street she had recognized his likeness, the relaxed posture as he leaned against the post outside the sheriff’s office, every bone in his body a study in ease. He was too far away to see the details of his face, but she didn’t need to. She’d memorized every line, every contour long ago. She recognized the moment he realized who she was. Though his stance did not alter, the coffee mug in his hand went slack, its contents dribbling out and hitting the toe of his boot. She wouldn’t blame him for not recognizing her straightaway. Coifed and dressed to the nines as she was, it was a far different picture she presented than the one he was familiar with. She refused to look his way, to give the strange tingling in her belly any credence. It was only nerves, nothing more. She had put away the feelings she’d harbored for Hunter Donovan a long time ago and she had no intentions of hauling them back out now. Once upon a time, he’d told her she wasn’t good enough to take the Donovan name. Well, she would show him. She would show everyone who’d thought it impossible a Connolly would ever amount to much. Meredith turned her gaze to the craggy mountains off in the distance. Their panoramic landscape refused to be ignored. It had been too many years since she’d seen the view. Its potency had not lessened since then. If anything, the sun-brightened tips of the mountains looked even more golden against the twilight-streaked sky than she remembered. The wildness of it called to her, penetrating the polish and sophistication Boston had adorned her with. The wagon jostled to a stop and the driver, a man she didn’t know, hopped down. “Meredith!” Bertram Trent’s robust voice cut through the melee of people milling about at the end of the day. He bustled toward her and shooed the driver off, helping her down on his own. He had always struck her as a tangible version of Old St. Nick, and in the seven years she’d been gone time had only solidified the image. Thick white hair with a matching beard framed a round face and apple cheeks. Even his blue eyes sparkled with a merry twinkle that never seemed to dim. She set aside her valise and let him assist her down. Her feet no sooner touched the ground than he enveloped her in a warm embrace. “Bertram! It is so wonderful to see you.” “And you, my dear girl.” He pulled away and held her at arms’ length, giving his head a small shake. “As I live and breathe you are a sight for these old eyes. Every bit the vision of loveliness your mama was.” “Oh, pish.” Meredith smiled at the compliment but shook her head. Vivienne Connolly had been a raven-haired beauty with the warm olive skin of her Irish ancestors. Even illness hadn’t been able to rob her of it. Meredith, on the other hand, was fair-skinned and prone to burning whenever the sun found its way beneath her bonnet. “We both know I favor my father in that regard.” “I don’t remember your pa being quite so pretty, or dressed in such finery.” Meredith glanced down at her traveling dress. It had wrinkled somewhat from the trip but had fared better than she expected. Aunt had allowed her a new dress each season once Meredith convinced her it was the best way to advertise their services. Business had picked up afterward, and soon Meredith began designing her own patterns, of which this was one. “I suppose it’s a far cry from what I wore when I left.” When she’d left, she’d barely had more than the worn-out clothes on her back, a suitcase full of bad memories and a broken heart. Now she returned a woman of some means, with the knowledge of how to run her own business and succeed in doing so. Never again would she have to rely on the charity of others or worry where her next meal was coming from. “Indeed. Now how was your trip? Never did cotton to riding the rail. Seems a dangerous way to go if you ask me. Thing moves faster than a body ought to in my opinion.” Meredith smiled. “It didn’t move fast enough in my estimation. But I’m happy to be home. Happier still to find a proper bed to sleep in.” “Come, come then,” he said, reaching past her to retrieve her valise. “Your room is ready and waiting. Top floor. Nicest one The Klein has to offer, just as you requested.” “Thank you, Bertram. I do appreciate all the effort you’ve put in on my behalf.” “It’s nothing. I’m glad to be of service. How are you doing?” “I’m fine.” The lie tripped easily off her tongue but left behind a bitter residue. Her father had returned to Salvation Falls a month before in a casket. She hadn’t seen him since she’d left town. She wouldn’t see him now. The knowledge left her hollow and hurting. “Good, good.” Bertram held out his arm and she slipped her hand through it, noting the fine fabric of his coat. Business must be good. With the growth of the town, she had no doubt Bertram’s client list had grown. She was happy to see the old lawyer still prosperous after all this time. Though he spoke occasionally of retirement, she doubted it would ever come to that. He enjoyed his work, enjoyed the people and the challenge of the law. He’d been a godsend when she’d needed it most, even if the result hadn’t been what they had both wanted. “I was sorry to hear about your aunt.” She accepted his condolences with a nod of her head as they stepped inside the hotel and out of the cold bite of the November evening. “It was difficult, but she had been ill for quite some time. In some ways, it was almost a relief knowing she didn’t suffer any longer.” Though she and Aunt Erma hadn’t seen eye to eye on many issues, Meredith had always appreciated the woman who had taken her in when she’d had nowhere else to go. “Well, it’s good to have you home. I only wish it was under happier circumstances.” Bertram patted her hand in a grandfatherly gesture that warmed her heart. As much as she had come to appreciate Aunt Erma, her aunt had never been an outwardly warm woman. Meredith had missed the connection a thoughtful touch brought. Bertram extricated himself for a moment and went to the front desk where a trio of finely dressed people stood chatting. She looked them over and recognized the rich fabric of the women’s dresses. The younger lady in particular caught her eye. Her dove-gray dress was constructed of multiple pieces draped over each other and the bodice, cuffs and skirt were trimmed in royal blue velvet. Meredith knew from experience the amount of work that went into creating such a complicated garment and could only stare in appreciation. The young lady must have felt her gaze and turned. Her ebony hair stood in stark contrast to her pale grey eyes and ivory complexion. A fairy-tale princess plucked from the pages of a book Meredith might have read as a child. Her cool gaze slid over Meredith with little expression before she turned away. Bertram returned with the key to her room and noted the direction of Meredith’s gaze. “Oh, heavens, let me introduce you to the Bancrofts. They’re new in town. Looking to buy property and settle from what I hear.” She stopped Bertram when he took her arm. “Perhaps another day,” she said. Seeing Hunter had left her rattled. She wanted to escape to the quiet of her room and regain her weakened composure. “I find I’m quite exhausted from my travels.” He patted her hand. “Of course, my dear. Silly of me.” They turned away from the Bancrofts and Bertram escorted her up the stairs to her room, stopping outside the door and pressing the key into her hand. “The boys will bring up your trunks shortly.” “Thank you, again, Bertram. You’ve made my homecoming much easier.” The older man nodded and let go of her hands. “You’ve only to call on me if you need anything. My offices and apartments are still in the same spot. Don’t hesitate.” “I won’t.” She leaned in and gave her old friend a peck on his bearded cheek. “Good evening, Bertram.” “Will you visit your father tomorrow?” She took a deep breath. “Yes, I believe I will.” It wasn’t the visit she had envisioned with Pa, not the one she had hoped for, but it was the only one she would get. Sadness seeped into her bones, and with it came a deep sense of regret. And failure. Bertram’s voice softened. “Would you care for some company?” She shook her head and fought back a sudden urge to cry. She had forgotten what it was like to have someone show true kindness and caring. She took a deep breath and swallowed against the lump in her throat. She didn’t have time for tears. “Thank you, Bertram, but I’ll be fine. I plan on visiting Bill Yucton afterward.” “See if you can’t convince the old rascal to avail himself of my services, would you? He’s yet to hire himself proper counsel and time is running out.” “I will. Good night, Bertram.” She entered the room and listened as Bertram’s heavy footfalls disappeared down the hallway. The room left her awestruck. In all her years living in Salvation Falls, she had never even set foot inside the Klein’s lobby, though she’d peered inside the doors while running errands for her mother and one day dreamed of seeing the rooms upstairs. She was not disappointed. Her suite was separated by an archway allowing for a sitting room in front and a bedroom in back. She could see the bed from where she stood. A colorful quilt in burgundy, white and green covered the thick feathered mattress, and Meredith longed to sink into it. A bell pull hung near the bed, and another one in the sitting room. She had only to give them a yank and one of the hotel staff would arrive to see to her requests. What would the townspeople think to see Abbott Connolly’s daughter living high on the hog in her luxurious hotel room wearing the height of Paris fashions? That she was someone to be noticed? Listened to? She hoped so. Because they certainly hadn’t listened to poor little Meredith Connolly, the girl who wore charity cast-offs and whose family struggled to put food on the table. She’d learned the hard way if she was going to accomplish what she had come home to do then she needed to set herself up as someone of account, even if it meant using up the nest egg Aunt Erma had left her. She crossed to the bedroom window and pulled back the heavy brocade curtain, letting in what little light remained in the evening. The sunlight was beginning to fade and the moon had yet to make an appearance, leaving the main thoroughfare ensconced in a shadowy haze. Outside, activity was minimal—that much hadn’t changed. Salvation Falls, despite its growth, was still a family town, settled and well-lived. This was the time of day when people went home to their families. In another hour, those without such ties would begin to crop up to take the night air, visit the saloons, maybe find themselves some companionship paid for by hard-earned or ill-gotten coin. The town had two faces in that respect and once the night encroached, the town changed hands. She’d always liked that part of the day, watching the two sides ebb and flow. They rarely seemed to butt up against each other, and in the bright light of the sun they existed amiably enough. Her traitorous gaze wandered to the jailhouse, but Hunter was no longer there. Had he gone home? Did he have a family now? The thought cut into her, slicing through the well-constructed walls she’d built. How close she had come to that being her life. How quickly it had been torn away. Part of her had hoped Hunter would have pulled up stakes and moved on, but she hadn’t put much stock in it. He lived and breathed this town and its people. It ran in his blood, flowed through his veins and beat in his heart. He would never leave until they put him in the ground, just as they had the sheriff before him. Even then, he would likely still linger like a ghostly specter refusing to leave. The way he had haunted her. The rebellious thought wound its way loose from her subconscious. She tried to tamp it down, but once free, it demanded attention. Her heart raced and her pulse jumped. Even in thought, her body’s response to him belied the number of years since she’d last laid eyes on him. She shook her head. It was strange to be back, to be a stranger in a town so familiar she could envision every inch of it by simply closing her eyes. It smelled and sounded the same, as if nothing had changed. And yet everything had. She had. Meredith let the curtain drop and turned away from the window, wishing she could shut out his memory with as much ease, but she knew from experience that would not happen. And sooner or later, she would have to deal with him in the flesh. There was no way around it if she wanted to see Bill. She reached into the sewn-in pocket of her traveling dress and retrieved the wire Bertram had sent her the day before she left Boston. Bill Yucton in custody. Stop. Wishes to see you upon arrival. Stop. Best regards. BT. Stop. She refolded the message with her fingers and slipped it back into her pocket. She hadn’t seen Bill in forever. Why did he want to meet with her now? And what in Heaven’s name had possessed him to return to Salvation Falls? A knock sounded at her door. Meredith left the bedroom and crossed through the sitting room, happy to finally have her trunks arrive. She wanted nothing more right now than to rest her weary head on the soft, feathered mattress. She opened the door wide and swept her arm toward the far wall. “You can put the trunks right over here.” But it wasn’t her trunks waiting for her on the other side. It was her past come to call. Chapter Two (#ulink_443963bc-cfa7-518e-b1f9-ec2bf3390fcf) Meredith was saying something as the door opened but the words died on her tongue. Not that it mattered. Hunter’s brain had stopped working the moment he laid eyes on her up close. It simply fizzled out and rolled over like a possum playing dead. She looked different. Poised and sophisticated in her fancy green dress that reminded him of spring leaves newly budded. Lord. Was he really going to wax poetic about her dress? Focus man! A feat much easier said than done. Surprise brightened her eyes, which were far bluer than he remembered, but she schooled her features quickly, and in a blink of her eyes it disappeared until he wondered if he had seen it at all. His own recovery proved slower coming. His tongue remained tangled behind his teeth and all he could do was stand there and stare like a first-rate idiot. She was the one who finally broke the growing silence. “Can I be of some service to you, Sheriff?” He didn’t miss the way she stressed the sheriff bit, cutting it off sharply at the end. He’d been newly appointed shortly before her departure. He remembered how it had filled her with hope, as if it would somehow change things, make them better. And he remembered how he’d taken that hope and crushed it. Guilt clawed at his insides. “I saw you arrive. Figured you’d come to see your pa.” “Did you?” It wasn’t much as far as conversations went. She’d yet to fully open the door and the way she had one hand on the doorframe and the other one on the inside doorknob, it didn’t appear she was interested in having an extended chat. He tried again. “I thought I’d come over and pay my respects.” One blond eyebrow arched upward. The hat she’d worn earlier with the strange feather thing jutting out was gone, but the wild mane of wheat-blond hair that taunted his memories remained tamed and twisted into submission, save for one curl dangling just in front of her left ear, as if it refused to be constrained by the pins she’d inflicted on the rest of it. “Your respect?” The frost from her words brushed against him like a bitter wind and pulled his attention away from her hair. “Yes. That’s right.” He didn’t like the tone in her voice. It set him on edge, as if whatever answer he gave would be the wrong one. Women had a funny way of doing that. He’d never quite figured out how they managed it but— The frost turned to shards of ice. “Given that I never had your respect in the past, I see no reason for you to pay it now.” And there it was. Hunter’s face burned. He wanted to defend himself, but what ammunition did he have? She was right. He hadn’t treated her with respect. He had meant to. His intentions were honorable in that regard, but it hadn’t turned out that way. Instead, he had jilted her in the worst possible way and at the worst possible time. Still, the remark hurt and he shot back without thinking. “Nice room. Quite a step up for you.” Anger and pride hardened her features. Stupid. He should have left well enough alone. Heck, he probably shouldn’t have come over here in the first place. A fact he realized too late. “I don’t see how my accommodations are any of your business.” Her arms crossed just beneath her chest, pushing the soft mounds upward enough to draw his attention. He quickly looked away, but not quick enough to stop his body’s reaction. She’d always done that to him. He’d been a fool to think seven years would lessen the effect, smother the need. It hadn’t. If anything, it had only intensified. He just didn’t realize it until she opened the door and everything she was, everything she had become, reached across the threshold and slammed into him with the ferocity of a runaway horse. “Being Sheriff makes a whole host of things my business.” “Well if I intend to break the law, I’ll be sure and let you know. Now if you’ll excuse me.” She moved to close the door. Without thinking—because, really, why start now?—he stuck his foot out and pressed his weight against it. She looked down at his foot, then met his gaze. A low fire kindled in her eyes, but not the kind he remembered. “What do you think you’re doing?” Hell and damnation, he was making a total muck of this, but he’d stepped in it now and there didn’t seem to be a graceful way to pull his boots out of it. He’d come here with one intention—to find out how long she planned on staying in town—and the next thing he knew, he was jamming his foot in her door like he had some right. “Are you planning on staying long?” “That is none of your concern.” She pushed at the door, but he kept his foot lodged in place receiving a deathly glare for his trouble. “I’m going to keep my foot here until you tell me.” “Then I’ll scream until—” “Until what? Someone sends for the law?” He tapped a finger against the tin badge pinned to his chest and smiled. “At your service, ma’am.” Somebody ought to shoot him now. Given Meredith looked angry enough to spit, he guessed she’d be the first to volunteer. The thought sent his attention to her mouth. Bad idea. Full lips he’d once kissed with more passion than a body could contain were pulled into a tight line. It did nothing to diminish how badly he wanted to kiss them all over again, taste her sweetness, lose himself in her. Damn it! “If I tell you why I’m here, will you go away?” “Likely.” But he didn’t want to. As much of an idiot as he was making of himself just being this close to her again made him feel alive. He hadn’t felt this good since...well, since before she’d left. “Fine. I have moved back to Salvation Falls for good.” “For good?” He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He had a sinking feeling if she stayed put he’d spend the rest of his days reveling in his stupidity every time she came within sight. “Yes. I plan on opening my own business.” “And what business might that be?” And when had she become Little Miss Entrepreneur? She had never expressed an interest in running her own business before. Before, she’d wanted to get married, have babies. His babies. And as stupid as it sounded even to his own ears, the idea that she no longer wanted that felt like a betrayal. He really was losing his grasp on his sanity. “A dress shop.” Her chin lifted and pride shone past the irritation in her eyes. “I design and sew my own creations, as well as patterns I have sourced from Paris. I owned a successful dress shop in Boston and now I plan on doing the same here.” Hunter tried to marry the idea of the sweet, loving girl he had known with the confident businesswoman who knew her own mind and was willing to give him a piece of it with little provocation. It created a strange dynamic, a potent infusion that made him want her even more for reasons he couldn’t even determine. “I see.” “So glad to hear it. Will you remove your foot from my door now please?” “Is there a problem here?” Hunter turned, the movement forcing him to remove his foot from where he’d propped it against Meredith’s door. Coming up the hallway was the gentleman who’d arrived in town a little over a week ago. Bannerman...? Baxter...? Bancroft. That was it. Anson Bancroft. “Mr. Bancroft.” Hunter looked up at him. He had to. Even at six feet, the man had a good half foot on him. A person could get a crick in the neck holding a long conversation with this man. Not that he seemed prone to long conversations. The most Hunter had ever gotten out of him was a nod of the head in passing. Hunter did the same now to the two well-dressed ladies who flanked either side of him. “Mrs. Bancroft. Miss Bancroft.” “Oh, good evening, Sheriff Donovan. You remember Charlotte, of course.” He didn’t, given that they had never been introduced, but that little detail didn’t seem to derail Mrs. Bancroft. “Say hello to the nice sheriff, Charlotte.” Charlotte tilted her head and gave him a half smile he recognized as forced. From the look of her, trussed up like a doll with not a hair out of place and an expression of bored superiority resting on her pretty features, Hunter guessed she didn’t often deign to fraternize with someone as lowly as the town sheriff. Although he was certain if she knew he was set to inherit one of the largest ranches in the area she’d sing a different tune. Given the way Mrs. Bancroft continued her jabbering, she already knew which way the wind blew on that account. “And how are you this evening, Sheriff? Such a lovely evening. We thought we might all take a stroll before supper. Perhaps you would like to join us?” “Uh, thank you, but no.” He gave his most charming smile to soften the refusal. “I’m afraid I’m on duty tonight, ma’am.” “Oh, of course, of course.” She tapped his arm with her folded fan and tittered. “Such a horrible thing, this trial. Best to see the man pay for his crimes, I say, but I’ll leave that to the men to decide, of course I will.” Bancroft ignored his wife’s chatter, a habit Hunter suspected he used on a regular basis out of self-preservation, if nothing else. Instead, his gaze landed on Meredith. “Are you all right? Miss Connolly, is it?” “Yes, I’m fine. Thank you for your concern. Sheriff Donovan was, in fact, just leaving. Weren’t you, Sheriff?” It angered him how much he missed hearing her call him by his name. Sheriff Donovan made it sound like they were strangers, and they were far from that. He didn’t care how many years had passed. Burrowing past his anger, however, was the sudden realization that Bancroft had referred to her by name. Strange, given she had only just arrived. “Do you know each other?” Bancroft’s gaze hit him full force and a strange chill reverberated up his spine. The man was an imposing figure, Hunter would give him that, but this was something else. This was instinct telling him to pay attention, but to what? “I ran into Mr. Trent. He indicated Miss Connolly had recently returned to town.” The explanation was reasonable. He himself had watched Bertram Trent meet Meredith at the hotel and see her inside. And yet... “If you do not require assistance I will bid you good evening, Miss Connolly.” Bancroft touched the brim of his hat and strode down the hallway, his wife dithering after him, his daughter bringing up the rear, her pace much more sedate. He turned back to Meredith. She had started to close the door. He stopped the door with his hand this time, garnering another glare. “What now?” “I don’t believe we were done with our conversation.” “I’m quite certain we were.” She was probably right. There wasn’t much else to say. He’d asked his questions and she’d reluctantly answered. He was stalling, not ready to cut the fragile connection, one-sided as it was. “So you’re staying. Opening your own business.” “Yes.” “That’s it?” “Oh, well, there is one more thing on my agenda.” The way she said it, the corners of her mouth curling upward, made the hair on the back of his neck stand at attention. It made other parts of his body take notice too, but he was trying to ignore them. “And that is?” “I plan on proving my father’s innocence once and for all.” He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting exactly, but it hadn’t been that. His hand fell away from the door and he took a step back. Meredith didn’t hesitate. She took the opportunity to slam the solid oak door in his face, missing his nose by a mere inch. * * * Meredith slid down the door. The damask silk of her dress scraped against the smooth wood and bunched on the floor at her feet. Her fingers shook as she plucked at the buttons lining the front of her dress. When she’d freed enough of them she switched her attention to the hooks holding her corset together. She’d often bemoaned her slight frame, but for now she was thankful she didn’t have to cinch her corset within an inch of her life to create the illusion of a small waist. It allowed her the ability to pop the hooks without too much struggle. Bit by bit the constriction released, but her breath did not come any easier. Why had he insisted on coming over here? What had he hoped to accomplish? Hadn’t he caused her enough grief upon her exit from Salvation Falls? Was it truly necessary for him to heap more upon her now that she had returned? She knew she had to face him sooner or later, there was no way around it, but could he not have allowed her to arrange the meeting on her terms, in her own time. When she was ready. Would she ever have been ready? She closed her eyes, but the images that riddled the back of her lids did nothing to ease her state of anxiety. Tangled bodies, hungry mouths, searching hands. Her eyelids flew open and she popped a few more hooks for good measure. Her skin burned, scalded by his nearness, by the unexpected assault on her senses. It wasn’t fair. But perhaps expecting fairness from the likes of Sheriff Hunter Donovan had been overreaching. If fairness had been a part of his make-up, he would have married her proper. Instead, he’d turned his back on her and sent her to Boston, soiled and used, where no respectable gentleman would even think to offer for her. Not that she would have let them even if they had. Aunt Erma had it right. Better a woman learn to live under her own steam than to rely on something as silly and transitory as love. Love. She scoffed at the word now, but once upon a time she had believed in it with everything she had in her. Mama and Pa had set the example and she’d grown up in a house filled with love and affection. She’d had every intention of following in their footsteps, even thought she’d found the right man to do that with. She’d been wrong. Her parents had been the exception to the rule. The rule being that love was not something solid and strong. It was weak and fleeting and deserted you without hint or warning or reason. All it left in its wake were memories, and oh, how those could taunt. She drew up her knees and dropped her forehead to rest against them. She had made the right decision to forsake such a fair-weather friend. Besides, she was a businesswoman now. Independent. She didn’t have time for softer emotions or relying on others. It was better that way. Really. Oh, but the audacity of Hunter Donovan to show up on her doorstep and demand to know what she was doing here, stirring up everything old and stored away. The bravado! He had no right. No right at all. Anger sluiced through her veins and teased her jagged nerves. Seeing him had left her unbalanced. Throughout her trip back to Salvation Falls she had wondered if the years would have left him untouched. They hadn’t. Instead they had honed the young man he’d been into a sharper image, chiseled in the fine details, added layers. The lankiness of youth had been replaced with lean muscle and an air of almighty confidence that told him he had the right to show up at her door and demand answers to his questions. What had he seen when he looked at her? She dared glance at the full length mirror on the opposite wall. Her reflection was captured there, undone and pooled in wrinkled silk damask. Had she at least appeared poised when facing him? Or had he been able to see through the facade to how his sudden appearance had rattled her? Her fingers tangled into her dress to keep them from shaking, but her insides did not comply. They roiled and twisted around the memories she had buried deep, coaxing them back to the surface. She tried to stuff them back down, but their residue lingered, sweet and intoxicating, bitter and hateful. Tomorrow she would have to face him again. To do battle with her memories. Seeing him, standing close enough to touch him made every scar he’d laid across her unruly heart throb with pain and regret. How much could a body withstand before it suffered too much? Before the floodgates opened and dropped her to her knees. She had a sinking feeling she was on the verge of finding out. Chapter Three (#ulink_0e34cf06-ae03-5976-9787-99ac6a9b4e5d) Going to see Meredith last night had been a colossal mistake. He’d blindsided her and as a result she’d gotten her back up. Then Bancroft and his brood had descended poking into their business. Hunter loved this town, but just once he’d like to do something without everyone in Salvation Falls dipping their toe into his life like they had some right to it. He wondered if that was how Meredith had felt when he showed up at her door like a puffed-up buffoon and demanded to know what her intentions were. He groaned and dropped his forehead onto the smooth surface of his desk, banging his head lightly against the wood. He should have tried a softer approach but it had been so long since he’d tapped into anything remotely resembling a soft emotion he wasn’t even sure he’d remember how. His job as sheriff demanded he be strong, steady, often tough and forceful. Softness didn’t enter into it. Given their parting seven years ago and the circumstances surrounding it, he had to expect he’d be the last person she’d want to see. If only he’d cooled his heels long enough yesterday to remember that before he went barreling over there to pound on her door. Hindsight was a rather smug beast. He lifted his head and leaned back in his chair, swinging his feet up onto the corner of his desk. Her return had set him on edge, no doubt about it. If he’d thought he had locked away their past and put it to rest, her arrival had proved him wrong. On first sight of her, everything had come rushing back in a tidal wave of memories. The good. The bad. The incredibly ugly. To this day he still wasn’t sure which one outweighed the other. He couldn’t think of the good without the bad and ugly creeping in, and so he’d put them all away. Tucked them down deep where he didn’t have to look at them or face what he had done. It had been hard enough to do when she wasn’t here. He suspected it was going to be damned near impossible if she was front and center in his life day in and day out. He needed to convince her to return to Boston. This time, however, it was for his safety, not hers. It didn’t help matters that he’d spent the better part of the night tossing and turning trying to figure out how he was going to accomplish such a feat when it was obvious she wasn’t interested in one word that came out of his mouth. By the wee hours of the morning he was no closer to a solution. He’d dressed and come downstairs to his office to relieve Jenkins. With Bill Yucton’s penchant for escape, he wasn’t taking any chance of leaving the man unwatched. He pushed himself out of his chair and crossed over to the woodstove, stoking the fire to ward off the cold creeping down from the mountains. He poured another cup of coffee. He had hoped the first cup would awaken enough of his faculties to force the image of Meredith from his mind, but he was three mugs in now and her image still lingered. A strange mesh of the girl from his memories and the woman she had become. Time had left her skin smooth, untouched. The freckles he remembered were no longer in evidence. Her ivory skin did not appear to have met with the sun’s rays in some time. Maybe it didn’t shine much in Boston. And her eyes. Lord help him. The cornflower blue seemed even more brilliant against her flawless skin than he remembered. They’d stared at him in surprise when she first opened the door. He watched myriad emotions scuttle across them like fast-moving clouds when a storm was brewing. Her words drifted back to him as they had over and over again through the night. I plan on proving my father’s innocence once and for all. That could prove problematic. He took a sip from his mug and winced. The sludge tasted like a disgusting mixture of burnt tree bark and dirt. He should have let Jenkins make a pot before he took Yucton to the bathhouse. He’d enlisted Kincaid’s aid in transporting the prisoner. The bounty hunter had been none too pleased to be roused from his slumber, but since he’d taken to bunking in the empty cell to sleep off his latest bender, Hunter figured he wasn’t in a position to argue. Besides, he needed some time to think. The return of Bill Yucton and Meredith Connolly at the same time was a bit too coincidental for him to swallow. He’d never put much faith in happenstance. Then again, he hadn’t put much faith in anything of late. He stared at the narrow file cabinet wedged under the small window next to his desk. He kept meticulous files, a trait McLaren had not shared and not one Jenkins seemed inclined to pick up. He’d had to go into the bottom three drawers repeatedly to refile whatever he’d given to Jenkins. It was as if the boy had never been introduced to the alphabet. But the top drawer he’d left alone. It had been two years since he’d opened it and pulled out the worn leather notebook. Years earlier, he’d gone over its contents six ways from Sunday, reread every word he’d put into it in the vain hope they would reveal whatever it was he was missing. They hadn’t, and so he’d stuck it in the drawer and tried his best to wash his hands of it. Dig deeper...the trial...syndicate... The words had confused him at the time and haunted him ever since. Sheriff McLaren had been like a father figure to him, more so than his own father ever had. In the wake of his death, Hunter had done his best to look at Abbott Connolly’s trial from every direction. But in the end, it was what it was. A straightforward case of cattle rustling with one alleged accomplice saying he was there and another claiming he wasn’t. If they hadn’t found a few of the stolen cattle on Abbott’s small piece of property perhaps the trial would have had a different outcome, but they had found the cattle, and in the end, it was all the jury needed to convict. Hunter walked over to the cabinet and pulled at the top drawer. It stuck, as if telling him what he already knew. He was wasting his time. No amount of digging on his part had revealed any great secret or explained what Sheriff McLaren had meant by syndicate. His dying declaration remained a mystery and Hunter had been forced to accept the fact it meant nothing. Likely the fatal wound he’d suffered had left him confused in his last moments of life and he’d simply been rambling. Doc Whyte said that could happen. Still... The memory of that day continued to trouble him. He’d come upon the scene too late. McLaren had been coming back from a routine checkup on old Mrs. Dunlop when he was gunned down by two men in cold blood. Hunter had heard the shots and come running. The shooters had taken off, no reason or explanation given for the attack, and McLaren lay dying in the street. He gripped Hunter’s wrist when he reached him and his eyes, though filled with pain, were sharp and alert. The man knew he was dying. He’d gathered what was left of his strength and pushed out the words with the last beats of his heart. It had to mean something! But what? And why? If Abbott knew, he wasn’t talking. No one was. He gave the drawer another yank, harder this time. It opened with reticence, the leather notebook exactly where he’d left it two years ago. He reached in and fingered the twine wrapped around it. He didn’t need to look inside. He’d long since memorized every note he’d written. It wasn’t much. Outside, the steady chink of chains and boots moving in tandem on the planked walkway heralded the prisoner’s return. Hunter slammed the drawer shut and turned toward the door as Yucton crossed the threshold, Jenkins close on his heels. Kincaid was nowhere to be seen. As if reading his mind, Jenkins hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Kincaid stopped on the way back for a drink. But we got the stink washed off ole Bill here and he’s clean as a whistle. Willie gave him a change of clothes jus’ while his own are gettin’ laundered.” Hunter ground his teeth together, his mood souring by the minute. He wanted to continue his conversation with Kincaid. The man knew more than he was saying. Hunter had sent Meredith away once before for her own safety. If there was any kind of a threat being resurrected by Yucton’s trial, he needed to know. He’d be damned if he let any harm come to her after what he’d given up to secure her safety in the first place. “Much obliged for the bath,” Yucton said, reaching up with both hands to tip the brim of his hat, but the chains prevented him from reaching. He inclined his head instead, as if they’d done him a favor. “Wasn’t doing it for you, Yucton. Quite frankly, I was getting tired of smelling you.” A low rumble emanated from Yucton’s chest as Jenkins opened the middle cell door and waited for him to walk inside before he reached through the bars to unlock the shackles. Despite his best efforts, Hunter had yet to get a rise out of his prisoner or to figure out why he’d willingly returned to Salvation Falls. Jenkins walked over to the hook next to the woodstove and hung the shackles on it. “Heard you paid Meredith a visit yesterday.” Hunter scowled. News in this town moved with the swiftness of a wildfire caught in the wind. “I did.” He didn’t bother mentioning it had been a disaster. He preferred to keep his private business just that—private. Jenkins, on the other hand, had no such compunction. “Heard it didn’t go so good?” “And where did you hear that?” “Mrs. Bancroft mentioned it to Eunice at the pie shop who told Saul over at the bakery and when I went past he told me. Said Mrs. Bancroft claimed she’d run into you in the hallway at the Klein and it looked like the two of you were exchanging words. Said you had your foot stuck in her doorway so she couldn’t close it.” Fantastic. That’s all he needed—people jawing about him and Meredith. It had created enough of a stir the first time around, given their family histories. “This town needs to mind its own business. Now go find Kincaid and make sure he isn’t so far into the whiskey he’s passed out by noon.” He barked the last order harsher than he needed to. “Sure thing, boss,” Jenkins said, his affable manner never showing any signs of the rebuke he’d just received. His deputy was so good-natured Hunter worried he’d never develop what it took to take over as Sheriff. Hunter was tough on him, maybe tougher than he needed to be, but he knew what this job required, what it could take out of you. Oftentimes, you had to make hard choices. Jenkins needed to be prepared for that. He wished he had been. “That Abbott Connolly’s girl you’re talkin’ about?” Hunter turned and stared into the middle cell. Yucton leaned forward, his arms resting against the crossbar. He’d pushed the hat back from his face revealing the plethora of lines beaten into it from a lifetime of hard living. “It might be.” He eyed Yucton with caution. “Real shame about what happened to that family.” His expression remained unchanged, but something in the prisoner’s tone had changed. Hardened. “Ain’t it, Sheriff?” The small hairs on the back of Hunter’s neck prickled. “You got something you want to say about it?” “Believe I just did.” Hunter gave Yucton a fierce glare but the man didn’t flinch. He was a cool customer. Hunter was both irritated and impressed. “Given you’re being tried for the same crime Connolly committed, I’d think you’d be a bit more concerned about yourself and not his kin. Especially given how things ended up for him.” “I’ll worry about myself. You just worry about Abbott’s girl.” The hairs on his neck now stood at full attention. “Why would I do that?” “You ever hear tell of a group called the Syndicate?” Hunter froze. “No. What does this Syndicate have to do with Meredith?” Yucton stared at him for a long, silent moment. “You just make sure you keep her safe. Believe you made promises in that regard. Am I right?” Hunter’s throat closed and his heart pounded deep inside his chest. “What do you know about it?” “Maybe Abbott trusted you, but I haven’t made up my mind about that. You’re still a Donovan, after all.” Hunter took a step closer to the cell. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Yucton didn’t answer him. He pushed away from the bars and returned to his bed. “You just keep her safe. That’s all you need to know.” But it wasn’t all he needed to know. Not now that another piece had been added to the puzzle of McLaren’s last words. When Hunter had made his promise to protect Meredith years before, it had been made blindly to a father desperate to protect his daughter. At the time, Hunter had thought Abbott had been worried about leaving her alone in the world, her reputation damaged by the verdict delivered upon him. Now he wasn’t so sure. But if Yucton had the answers, he kept them to himself as he lay down and pulled his hat over his face, cutting off any further conversation. In the silence, the outlaw’s words rang in Hunter’s ears and slithered like poison through his veins. You’re still a Donovan after all. He was nothing like his father. Everyone in town knew that. At least, he hoped they did. He’d spent most of his adult life trying to prove it, as if by doing good he could erase the horrible moment when he kept his promise to a convicted thief and broke the heart of the woman he loved. Not that it mattered now, he supposed. Meredith was back and it was clear her animosity toward him still boiled beneath the surface. And all the good he’d tried to do as sheriff, the life he’d built, such as it was, was coming to an end. The truth of it chafed hard against his soul. His future opened up before him like a yawning abyss. But one thing was for certain—before he turned in his badge and accepted his fate, he was going to get to the bottom of whatever was going on. Which meant another conversation with Meredith Connolly. * * * Meredith pulled the wool shawl tightly around her shoulders to ward off the chill of the late-autumn morning. She had almost forgotten the feel of Colorado in November. Not that it didn’t get cold in Boston, but it was a different cold, coming off the water in the harbor and giving the air a sense of salty dampness. Here the cold had a brittle quality to it, as if you could reach out and snap it in half. She took a deep breath and let its freshness fill her lungs in the hopes it would give her courage. Bertram had offered to escort her this morning, but she had declined. She wanted her first visit with her father to be on her own. She wasn’t certain she could maintain her composure and she didn’t want Bertram to see her break down. She couldn’t afford weakness. She needed to remain strong. Easier said than done. Her plan had already been put in jeopardy by Hunter’s surprise visit. Seeing him had left her shaken, the memories rushing back and assaulting her from all sides. She tried to avoid them, skirt around them, but they showed her no mercy. Further proof love was to be avoided at all cost. Even when it was over it refused to leave you in peace. She walked to the church and turned onto the narrow dirt road across the street from the white clapboard building, its spire cutting like a sword into the stark gray sky. Graves dotted the horizon, more than she remembered, each one punctuating the passage of time. Despite the added population and slight change to the landscape, Meredith needed no assistance in finding her way. She had walked the pathway a hundred times over in her memories. The crisp morning breeze ruffled her hair and nipped at her skin. She paid it little heed as she trudged on, following the winding path toward the thick oak tree in the distance. Beneath it, her mother had rested these past seven years. Her father, for only one month. She stopped at the top of the hill and walked to the outer edge of the tree’s reach. Gathering her skirts, she knelt between the two markers, one made of stone faded and already weathered by time, the other a wooden cross bearing Pa’s name and dates indicating the start of his life, and its end. She would have the stone mason carve a proper headstone to match Mama’s, but not yet. She wanted the words beneath his name to read an innocent man, and have everyone in town know the words as truth. “Good morning, Mama.” She touched the browning grass where it covered her mother’s final resting place. Someone had been keeping the grave up. It was free of weeds and a small bouquet of hardy autumn flowers tied with string had been placed in front, weighted down by a rock on their stems. Bertram likely, though he hadn’t mentioned it. Either way, she was touched by the gesture, by the idea that someone had watched over Mama when she had been unable to. She would make a point to thank him. Meredith reached out and touched the flowers, wilted and brittle now, their colors faded. Much like her memories. She would never forget her mother—that was impossible. But sometimes, when she tried to capture the full picture in her mind, so many facets were muted. The sound of her laughter had become distant, the way light danced in her eyes, the sharp, delicate bones of her face. She could see one at a time, but never all at once. A deep sadness invaded her bones and seeped into her heart. “I came home, Mama.” She knew that would please her mother. She’d always loved having her small family close. Thrived on it. She’d lost her own parents at an early age and had been forced to fend for herself. A dangerous proposition for a woman, but Mama had managed. She’d found work cleaning house for the Donovans. It put food in her belly and a roof over her head. For a while, her mama said, it had been enough. But then things changed. The elder Donovans passed away, and their son, Vernon, developed ideas she didn’t agree with. At the same time, she met Meredith’s father, and after that—she remembered her mother’s smile when she told this part of the story—her whole life changed. It had made Meredith believe in love, at least for a little while. But she’d long since shelved that belief. As much as love could lift you up it could just as easily throw you down. And the landing left you broken and battered beyond repair. Meredith wondered if her mother had any inclination then how much her rejection of Vernon Donovan would change the course of their lives. Meredith shifted her weight and faced her father’s grave. The newly tilled ground formed a gentle mound. He’d rested here only a month and the grass had not had time to take hold before the cold weather swooped down in earnest and impeded its growth. Her fingers ran over the dates burned into the wood. The last image she had of her father was sitting in the cell at the sheriff’s office before he was transported to prison in Laramie. He’d refused to let her come with him. He’d been adamant about it and enlisted Hunter’s help to keep her in Salvation Falls. But Hunter had had other ideas. The memories of that horrible time beat against her without remorse. A sob welled up in her throat. She tried to swallow it down as she always did but it refused to budge, demanded its freedom. Meredith fought it as best she could, but it was no use. Somewhere inside she had believed things would right themselves, but they never had “Oh, Pa...” The sob erupted from her, and behind it came all the others she had suppressed over the years. Tears obscured her view. She tried to fight them, but it was no use. Her strength gave out and she let her body fall across his grave. The need to hold Pa just one last time, to feel the safety of his arms, his gentle voice telling her everything would be fine, overwhelmed her. She cried unrestrained, all the pent-up emotion she’d held in for so long pouring out with her tears. She’d lost everyone she’d loved: Mama to illness, Pa to injustice, Hunter to betrayal. She consoled herself with the fact she would never need to know loss again, but it was cold comfort and it only made the tears come harder. * * * Hunter hesitated, not wanting to disturb such a private moment, but the shaking of Meredith’s shoulders and muffled sobs were enough to get his feet moving before his brain or common sense could catch up. He slowed as he reached her, thrown across her pa’s grave. She hadn’t heard him approach and he wasn’t sure how to let her know he was there. Given their last interaction, he doubted she would appreciate his intrusion. Still, he couldn’t just walk away when she was in distress. He crouched down. The hard ground and dry grass crunched beneath his weight. “Meredith?” Chapter Four (#ulink_a8276426-9e50-5f10-a328-6ded92575d46) Hunter placed a hand on Meredith’s back. The contact was exhilarating, which was almost as disconcerting as her tears. He wasn’t sure what to do about either. Seeing her so distraught cut into him, finding every last crack in the walls around his heart and seeping through until their foundations began to crumble. God help him. He thought he was stronger than this. Meredith whirled about, dislodging his hand. Her hair slipping free from its pins on one side creating a cascade of curls that bounced against her shoulder. A smudge of dirt bruised her cheekbone. The disarray reminded him of the girl he’d once known and a strong keening pierced his insides. “What are you doing here?” She wore another fancy dress today, this one a light copper with odd swirly designs on it in red and blue. The color somehow made her eyes even bluer. Or maybe that was the sheen of tears. “Uh...” He’d tried not to glance down at the bouquet of flowers in his hand. They seemed a bit pathetic, small and inconsequential, but when he attempted to move the flowers out of her line of sight, she caught the motion. Her gaze flitted from the flowers in his hand to the withered batch on her mother’s grave before returning it to him. She hiccupped then sniffed. “You?” Disbelief filled her voice. She blinked, her lashes spiky from the tears. He supposed it would be a bit ridiculous to deny it. He’d been caught red-handed, so to speak. Still, how did he explain it to her? He’d been doing it regularly since she’d left Salvation Falls and seven years later he still couldn’t explain it to himself. Guilt could make a man do crazy things. “Yeah, me.” He looked away, embarrassed, but his gaze soon swung back, hungry for a glimpse of her, no matter the upheaval it caused the rest of him. Her expression softened, a heady mix of uncertainty and something else that drew him in. Without thinking, he lifted a hand and gently brushed his thumb across the moist dirt clinging to her cheek. Her eyelids fluttered, thick lashes spiked with the remnants of tears creating crescent shadows across the tops of her cheekbones. Her skin was as soft as he remembered and he itched to touch her again, but she’d moved away from his reach and he didn’t dare make a second attempt. She reminded him of a deer caught unaware in the woods, spooked by an unexpected noise. He cleared his throat, needing to break the strange tension between them. She’d always had the power to do that. Entrance him until everything else but the two of them faded away. “I’m sorry about what happened to your pa.” He’d wanted to write. Composed the letter a dozen times over in his head. He knew Bertram would get it to her, but everything he came up with sounded trite and lacking. In the end, he’d left it alone, knowing she didn’t want to hear from him either way. “When they brought your father home I made sure they did right by him. Buried him next to your ma like he’d asked.” She nodded, the only hint she’d heard. She didn’t look at him. Her small fist clenched and unclenched in the folds of her skirt. The wool shawl had slipped from her shoulders and pooled around her hips. She shivered. “It’s cold out here, Meredith. Why don’t you come back to the office? I’ll put a pot of coffee on. It’ll warm you up.” She sniffled and glanced up, her gaze hitting somewhere over his shoulder. When she spoke, her voice was thin and reedy, her throat stripped raw from crying. “I’ve tasted your coffee.” “My abilities have improved.” One golden eyebrow arched upward. “Slightly,” he amended. Her gaze dropped to the flowers in his hand. “Why did you bring those?” He lifted the small bundle and searched for the right words to make her understand, make her hate him a little less. “I knew you’d want to see her grave taken proper care of. And I figured if you were here, you’d put the flowers on yourself.” She reached up and tucked her hair back into place. He wished she hadn’t. He loved seeing it down. His fingers itched to run through it. He swallowed. No, up was definitely better. Safer. “So you’re my proxy.” The idea sat with discomfort on her furrowed brow. “Guess so.” She was silent a moment, then her chin tilted upward. The formality returned to her voice and he could feel the distance between them grow. “Thank you for that.” “No need.” He figured he owed her that much. Given how he’d failed her on so many levels, this small gesture was almost laughable but he didn’t want her gratitude. He didn’t deserve it. He bent and replaced the old flowers with the new. When he was done, he took a chance and issued his earlier invitation once again. “How about that coffee? You can tell me if my skills have improved.” She pushed herself up in one swift movement, the crumpled, crying mess he’d come upon already a thing of the past. In her place, stood the determined, confident woman he’d come face-to-face with yesterday. He barely had time to get to his feet and no time at all to hold out a hand to aid her. By the time he found his own footing, she was busy dusting off bits of grass and dirt that clung to her skirts. “As it turns out, that was my next stop. I mean to speak to Bill Yucton.” “Meredith...” Anger spiked the color in her cheeks and her hands twitched where she’d pulled her shawl tight against her chest. “Don’t you Meredith me, Hunter Donovan. What I do is no longer your concern. You lost that right a long time ago.” Exasperation filled him. “I’m not trying to tell you what to do,” he said, but she wasn’t interested in listening. She’d gathered her skirts in one hand and brushed past him, following the path back to town. “Dammit.” He tossed the old bouquet to the ground and stalked after her. “Don’t try and stop me,” she warned, keeping her gaze fixed straight ahead. “I’m not trying to stop you. I’m trying to warn you!” Lord help him, had she always been this stubborn? She stopped suddenly and he had to practically dance a jig to keep from barreling into her. “Warn me about what?” He danced around the idea of telling her what Yucton had said to him. Could she have a piece of the puzzle without even realizing it? Maybe, but he was still reluctant to involve her. And he definitely didn’t want to tell her the whole truth. That he hadn’t wanted to send her away. That he’d regretted his decision the moment the stagecoach had pulled away from the station. She had enough to contend with right now and what would it matter anyway? What was done couldn’t be undone. Still, if she knew something... “Have you ever heard of the Syndicate?” Her nose crinkled in confusion and for a fleeting second the girl he used to know surfaced from beneath the finery once again. “The what?” He had his answer. Guile and deception had never been a part of Meredith’s makeup and though she now wore fancy dresses and had the lofty manners to match, he’d bet his last dollar her insides remained the same, even if her heart had changed. She didn’t know the first thing about this mysterious Syndicate both McLaren and Yucton had mentioned and he wasn’t about to inform her. Not that he had much to tell her. Either way, the less she was involved the better. Abbott might be dead but the promise Hunter had made him still stood. Whether he liked it or not. He waved a hand. “Nothing. Never mind. C’mon, I’ll walk you back to the office.” She ignored his proffered arm and marched ahead of him. He stood in place a moment and watched her walk away. Her straight spine and rigid shoulders made the gentle sway of her hips all the more enticing. Regret crept in with a sad finality as he realized he couldn’t breathe life back into the embers of a fire that had gone out long ago. Especially when he had been the one to douse those embers in the first place. * * * Meredith ignored the gazes she and Hunter collected as they made their way back to the jailhouse. She knew how the town worked. News of her homecoming had likely rippled through its underbelly and by sunrise this morning everyone living in close proximity of the town’s core would be apprised of her return. By evening everyone on the outskirts would be aware, as well. And they would also know she had returned a woman of means. She tried not to think of the dent the ruse put in her small nest egg. She only needed to keep it up long enough to get people’s attention and enlist their help. A jury of men from this town had found her father guilty. Now she needed them to admit they were wrong. That the full scope of evidence hadn’t been presented. That he had been framed. She would need the town on her side to do this. If there was one thing experience had taught her, it was that the more money you had, the more respect you were given, the more influence you could wield. She needed all of that now. But first she had to feel the pulse of the town. Figure out who was best placed to help her. She thought of her old friend Rachel Beckett and wondered if she dared a visit. She had been Rachel Sutter when Meredith had left town, but had since remarried a man by the name of Caleb Beckett according to Bertram. She and Rachel had lost touch during her father’s trial and perhaps her old friend no longer wished an acquaintance. She wouldn’t have been the first friend Meredith lost after her father’s arrest, but she had been the one she missed the most. Not that it had been Rachel’s fault. Rachel had had her own problems to deal with, and Meredith hadn’t wanted to burden her with hers. Besides, she’d had Hunter to lean on. Or so she had thought. She turned to ask Hunter about Rachel, but when she glanced over at his profile, carved against the stark landscape, the words wouldn’t come. She didn’t want to engage with him as if they were old friends. They weren’t. He had broken her heart and while seven years may have passed since then, the hurt had not healed. She’d thought it had, but returning to Salvation Falls and seeing him in the flesh had torn the wound open once again. She didn’t want to ask him about Rachel. What she really wanted to do was beat on his chest in anger and ask him why. Why had he done it? Pride stayed her tongue. By the time they reached his office, the silence had stretched to an uncomfortable tension. He walked up the steps in front of her and rested his hand on the door handle. He stopped and faced her, his body barring her way. “I wish you’d reconsider.” “Reconsider?” “About staying. Settling here. Trying to change the past. Your pa is gone, Meredith, and I’m right sorry about that. I know how much you loved him. But digging all of this up again? It’s just going to cause you more pain. Maybe you should think about going back to Boston.” The wound opened a little wider. It hurt her heart to think of how broken things had become. Once they had shared something beautiful, something that filled every part of her. She had believed it would last forever, was certain he shared the same feelings. She’d been wrong. All these years later and he still didn’t want the reminder of her. Of the mistake he’d made. “Boston is not my home. It never was. There’s nothing left for me there.” “There’s nothing left for you here either.” His stern voice burned across her skin. Aunt Erma had promised her broken hearts healed, but what she hadn’t told her was that when the pieces were stitched back together they would no longer fit properly. She hadn’t realized it at the time, but seeing Hunter now she understood it to be true. With each beat of her heart, the hurt pulsed deep and unforgiving, reminding her of everything she’d lost. If she’d ever really had it in the first place. “This is my home.” She fought to keep her voice steady. “And my father deserves to rest easy in his grave knowing his name has been cleared of any wrong-doing. Wouldn’t you do the same if it was your father?” He didn’t answer, but his expression tightened. “Then you’re determined to stay?” She walked up the stairs and stopped in front of him. Being this close was dangerous. The heat in her body rose to the surface and she could feel her skin tingle. A deep longing coaxed her to move closer, to give in to her body’s craving to have him hold her. Would he? She shook the question off, irritated with her thoughts, the way they kept circling back to him. He was her past, and while she may need to deal with him in her present, he had no place in her future. He’d made his feelings on that matter perfectly clear. “I am staying and I’m proving my father’s innocence. Now, I would appreciate it if you would step aside and let me pass.” He ignored her request. “I don’t see the point in what you’re doing. Your pa is gone. It isn’t going to matter to him what people think.” “It matters to me. I don’t expect you to understand.” His family had wealth, privilege and a good name. What had he ever struggled for? Hunter hung his head and let out a slow breath. When he looked back up, myriad emotions warred in his dark eyes. She’d lost herself in those eyes once and the pull of them had not lessened over time. “It isn’t that I don’t understand.” His voice softened and only increased the potency. She struggled against it, against the small voice that longed for what he said to be true, the sense that she wasn’t alone in this. “I know you loved your pa. I know you want to clear his name. I just don’t want to see you get hurt—” His words broke the spell his voice wound around her. What did he know of hurt? He had used her and tossed her aside, cutting her so deep the gash refused to heal. “You weren’t concerned with hurting me when you told me I wasn’t good enough to be a Donovan.” The harsh words he’d said had carved themselves into her heart, imprinted on her soul. They had shared one passionate night together. She spent one glorious week dreaming of the life they would have together as man and wife, a much-needed respite of happiness as she struggled to come to terms with her father’s sentence. It had given her something to hang on to when everything else had turned dark. But it had all been a lie. What she had given him meant nothing. She had meant nothing. No. Worse—she was nothing. Not to him. The last image she had of Salvation Falls was seeing him walk away from her before the stagecoach had even pulled away from the livery station. He hadn’t said goodbye, hadn’t wished her well. Hadn’t changed his mind and told her it was all a cruel joke. “Meredith, I never meant—” “No.” She sliced her hand through the air and cut off the rest of his words. She couldn’t bear to hear them. And what could he say? That he’d never meant to say he loved her in the first place? That he shouldn’t have led her on and made promises he had no intentions of keeping? “It doesn’t matter anymore.” Except that it did. And she hated that fact more than all the others. She pulled her shoulders back and took a deep breath. “I have no desire to relive the past or stand here discussing it with you. If you never planned on marrying me, you should have never taken things as far as you did. Now we both have to live with the consequences. I’m sorry we have to deal with each other now, but there’s little to be done about it. You can rest assured, however, once I prove my father’s innocence we need not bother with each other ever again save for a polite nod if we pass on the street. Now please, step aside.” The idea saddened her. Despite everything, the hurt, the anger, the betrayal. Maybe that had something to do with the wrongness of the way her heart had pieced itself back together. She didn’t know. But she couldn’t worry about it now. Now she had to focus on what she’d come here to do. Hunter looked as if he wanted to say something else, but whatever it was hovered unspoken in the silence left between them and in the end, he did as she asked and opened the door, stepping to one side to let her pass. Chapter Five (#ulink_be3e8576-0d38-523c-9638-af6d760b41ba) Hunter kept silent as she passed, wishing he could tell her the truth, but what good would it do them now? So much water had passed under their bridge it was a wonder they hadn’t drowned in the overflow. Would she care that the reason he had walked away from the stage before she even pulled out of the station was because he couldn’t stand the thought of watching her leave? Knowing it was happening had been bad enough, witnessing it was something else entirely. He knew without a doubt if he’d had to stand there and watch her leave, he would have hauled her off that stage without a moment’s hesitation, her safety and the promises he’d made be damned. So he’d walked away before it came to that. He couldn’t put his own wants and needs first. He may not have fully understood what was going on, but instinct told him if Abbott was adamant she be kept safe, he needed to do it. He didn’t have a choice. Hunter followed Meredith into the office and stopped abruptly. Near Yucton’s cell, a tall lanky stranger stood with his back to them. He reacted instantly and grabbed Meredith by the arm, shoving her behind him as the stranger turned around. “What do you think you’re do—” Hunter held on to her arm to keep her in place, then raised his voice to drown her out. “Who are you? Jenkins!” “Out here choppin’ some wood, Sheriff,” Jenkins called out, his voice filtering from around the back of the jailhouse, through the window he kept open a crack to keep the air from getting stale. “There’s a man here to see Bill but I told him he should talk to you first!” Hunter shook his head. What his deputy had in brawn he lacked in judgment. It did not bode well for the future of the town once Hunter stepped down. He gave the stranger a hard stare. “What’s your business here?” Beneath the stranger’s thin moustache, a painted-on smile plastered itself across his bland face. As it did so, Hunter noticed Yucton sitting on the edge of the bed partially hidden by shadow. The outlaw made a small, swift motion with his hand and, much to Hunter’s surprise, Meredith stopped struggling. “Good day. You must be Sheriff Donovan.” The man stepped forward, his hand extended. Hunter didn’t bother taking it. No point makin’ friendly until he knew what the man was about. Though whatever that was, he was already forming the opinion he didn’t like him. Trussed up in a fancy suit, he reminded Hunter of someone you’d see peddling an elixir on the thoroughfare claiming it would cure all your ills. Men like that usually wanted something, and after his setdown from Meredith, he wasn’t in a giving mood. “You didn’t answer my question.” The stranger’s hand dropped and his smile grew more forced. “Of course, how ill-mannered of me. My name is Wallace Platt.” Hunter noted the Southern lilt to the man’s speech. An outsider. “Not familiar. What are you doing in my jail?” Yucton’s lazy drawl drifted out from the middle cell. “Says he’s my lawyer.” “That’s what he says, huh?” Yucton had been taking up space in the middle jail cell for over two weeks now and not once during that time had he made any kind of move to employ legal counsel. Nor had he bothered curing Hunter’s curiosity as to why that was. It was as if the man was biding his time—but for what? “Didn’t know you’d hired one.” “I didn’t.” Hunter turned his attention back to Platt. “Care to shed some light?” The smile on Platt’s face became pinched and a red stain tinted his pale skin. It didn’t look like the man spent much time out of doors. City type, no doubt. Hunter didn’t necessarily have a stringent dislike for city folk, he just didn’t trust them was all. Especially not the namby-pamby type standing in front of him now. “I’m not in the habit of explaining myself, Sheriff.” “You could always leave,” Hunter suggested, nodding toward the open door. “I’m afraid I can’t. I need to speak to my client.” “Your client doesn’t appear to return those feelings. You want to speak to this man, Yucton?” “Can’t say that I do, Sheriff.” Hunter shrugged. “See.” “Think I might represent myself.” Platt spun on his well-shod heel to face the cell again. “Mr. Yucton, it is a commonly held belief that a man who represents himself—” “Ain’t interested in your beliefs,” Yucton said, cutting him off. Frustration colored Platt’s tone. “I didn’t say it was my belief, Mr. Yucton. I said it was—” “Then you won’t mind if I ignore it.” Hunter’s estimation of his prisoner raised a notch. “I get the sense Yucton here isn’t the one who hired you. Which leads me to the question—who did?” Hunter didn’t like this. Yucton was allegedly one of the rustlers who had stolen his father’s cattle all those years ago. Why would anyone care enough about it, or Yucton, to pay for some fancy lawyer from who knows where to represent him? It didn’t sit right. There was a lot of things not sitting right lately. If this kept up, he’d find himself running out of chairs real soon. “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to comment on that. You see, my benefactor—and yours, Mr. Yucton—wishes to remain anonymous. Suffice to say, he is interested in ensuring Mr. Yucton receives a vigorous and skillful defense against the pending charges.” Yucton snorted. “And they sent you?” Hunter pursed his lips together to keep his smirk in check. Behind him, however, Meredith’s muffled laugh rippled up to tease him. He wished he could turn around and see it. He hadn’t heard her laugh in longer than he could remember, but he hadn’t forgotten the way her eyes danced when she did. Dammit. Focus, Donovan. Platt cleared his throat and glanced over his shoulder at Hunter. Irritation flashed in his eyes and the smarmy smile disappeared. “I can assure you, Mr. Yucton, I have much experience in these matters and I am certain I can be of great service to you.” “Not interested.” Platt ignored the rejection. “I will give you the day to think on it and return on the morrow.” Yucton grunted in response. “Return on whatever morrow you want. Won’t be changing my mind.” Platt turned away from the occupied cell and fixed his snake oil salesman smile back in place. “I expect I will be allowed to see my client tomorrow, Sheriff.” Hunter shrugged. “The man isn’t going anywhere.” He wasn’t thrilled about Platt and his pompous attitude gracing his office again, but there was something fishy about the man, and better he keep him in his sights until he figured out what was going on and who this so-called mysterious benefactor was. Dig deeper. Platt headed toward the door but stopped when he reached Hunter. He looked past him to where Meredith peeked around his shoulder. “My apologies, madam. I did not see you standing there or I would have introduced myself to you directly. Mr. Wallace Platt, at your service.” Platt executed a courtly bow. When he straightened, he glanced at Hunter expectantly. Hunter ignored him. He couldn’t conjure any good reason to introduce Meredith to the likes of this dandified Southerner. Meredith, unfortunately, did not feel the same. She elbowed past his protective barrier and held out her hand. He watched in disgust as Platt bowed over it. Lucky for him, he didn’t raise it to his lips. If he had, Hunter was more than prepared to plant him into next week. He wasn’t sure what irritated him more—the fact that she didn’t appreciate he was only trying to protect her, or this ridiculous sense of proprietorship he felt toward her. She didn’t belong to him. A fact his head had accepted but failed to relay to his heart. Or other parts of him for that matter. “You’ll have to excuse the sheriff, Mr. Platt. Manners were never his strong suit. I suppose those of us who have come from away can appreciate their usefulness a bit more. Miss Meredith Connolly.” She gifted the lawyer with a smile so sweet Hunter’s teeth ached. “It is indeed my honor to make your acquaintance, ma’am. And where might away be for you, Miss Connolly, if it is not too impertinent of me to ask?” He had yet to let go of her hand. Hunter gritted his teeth against the surge of possessiveness that erupted within him. Planting Platt into next week was beginning to look like a stellar idea. He curled his hand into a tight fist. “Boston, Mr. Platt. And you? I assume from your accent you do not hail from these parts?” “Alas, no. From the fine state of Virginia originally. San Francisco most recently.” “How lovely.” “It’s positively wonderful,” Hunter drawled out, unable to keep his growing irritation from lacing its way through each word. “Now if you’ll excuse us, Platt. I have things to do and seein’ as how your supposed client isn’t interested in having you as his lawyer, I don’t see much reason for you to hang around.” Platt didn’t bother looking at him. He was too busy making cow eyes at Meredith. “Perhaps we’ll meet again, Miss Connolly. I always feel it is nice to make as many friends as possible when one is a stranger in a new place. It would be my pleasure to count a lovely lady like yourself among them.” “I appreciate the sentiment, Mr. Platt. And I agree— one cannot have too many friends. I look forward to furthering our acquaintance.” Hunter waited until Platt closed the door behind him upon his exit, then turned on Meredith. “What the hell was that all about?” The words were out before he could stop them. She blinked at him, her eyes pools of innocent blue. She dropped her gaze to her gloves and slowly pulled them off, one finger at a time. “I have no idea what you’re talking about? I was merely being polite to a stranger.” He glared down at her. His agitation grew with her feigned innocence. For crying out loud, she’d all but swooned at Platt’s pretty words. “Well you might want to learn more about the damn stranger before you start cozying up to him like he was your new best friend.” She pulled off her second glove then smiled up at him. “I hardly think one has to take a man’s measure before they decide whether or not to be polite. Perhaps you should try it. Your manners could use a little brushing up. They’re hardly up to the Donovan standard, now are they? Oh no, wait,” her brow furrowed, “of course they are. You Donovans always had a habit of assuming money meant you didn’t need manners, if I recall?” The barb hit its intended mark. “My manners are just fine, thank you.” She offered him a dubious look then brushed past him and walked to Yucton’s cell her hips tormenting him with their gentle sway. Her dismissal and low opinion left a gaping emptiness inside of him. Is this how she’d felt when he’d jilted her? No wonder she disliked him with such intensity. * * * “Good morning, Bill. It is lovely to see you again.” Yucton stood and held his hands out through the bars that separated them. She grasped them like an old friend. “Still able to charm any gentleman that crosses your path, I see.” Meredith laughed and took the older man’s hands in her own. They were warm and rough, a lifetime of hard living worn into them. “I may have learned a thing or two while navigating Boston’s high society.” Granted, it was as their seamstress, but Hunter didn’t need to know that. Let him think she was now on a social par with him, even if it was nothing more than a ruse. It would serve him right. “That a fact? And have you given any thought to returning to Boston? Sounds like you had a nice life going for yourself there? Sure be a shame to give something like that up.” Meredith scowled at Bill. “Why is everyone trying to pack me off and send me back to Boston? I appreciate Aunt Erma taking me in, but that didn’t make it home. My heart always longed for the fresh mountain air and wide-open spaces. What brought you back, Bill?” She was thankful he let the matter drop. She didn’t want to argue with him. “Figured you’d come home when you learned about your pa’s passing. Thought I’d head back this way. Make sure you was all right. Your pa died an innocent man. He didn’t deserve what happened to him.” She squeezed Bill’s hands and pulled strength from them. Pa was gone for good. Seeing his grave marker had driven the reality of it home. She fought back the tears from earlier. There was no time for such things now. “I’m afraid you and I are in the minority on that belief.” “It’s no belief. It’s a plain and simple fact.” Bill smiled and his eyes creased deeply at the corners. She noted his hair was grayer than she remembered and the lines of his face had burrowed a little deeper. “He was so proud of you. Told me so himself.” Meredith’s throat tightened. She took a deep breath and swallowed past it. “I wish you hadn’t made the trip back. Now look at you.” Guilt swept through her. Bill had always been a close friend of her father’s. Steady and reliable, though he drifted in and out of their lives from time to time. She understood as she got older it was because of his penchant for living on the outskirts of the law. She always wished he’d chosen a different path, but it hadn’t diminished her affection for one of the few men to be a true friend to her father. “Don’t worry too much on that. Ain’t been a jail that could hold me yet.” “This one will.” The conviction in Hunter’s words cut through the small office. He’d moved and now sat behind his desk. Meredith couldn’t help but notice he filled the space with a sense of authority. He’d been so uncertain when Sheriff McLaren had died. Unsure if he was up to the task, if he could do the job justice. Part of her had wondered if he might relinquish the role the town had bestowed upon him and instead take up the reins of running the Diamond D Ranch as his father insisted. He hadn’t, though. Fortunate for the town, she supposed, though she didn’t much care for the constant contact with him while she tried to clear her father’s name. She glared over her shoulder at Hunter who leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up onto his desk, actively listening to their conversation. She walked over to his desk and picked up the straight-back chair in front of it. “Do you mind?” she said to Hunter. “Not so much. You?” She carried the chair back to Bill’s cell and set it down with a bang. “Yes! I would appreciate some privacy.” The sharp tone in her voice made her cringe. She wanted to maintain a distance from him emotionally if not physically, but somehow he managed to pluck every last nerve she owned. “This place isn’t exactly built for private conversations,” he informed her, waving a hand in the air at the small open space. “Perhaps you could plug your ears.” “Can’t. I’m on duty. Never know when someone might call for help.” He grinned. Damnation if that didn’t pick at her nerves all over again but in a completely different way. Lord help her, dealing with him was going to turn her upside down and inside out before it was over and done. The man was infuriating. Though no more so than her body’s response to him. “You don’t have to be so smug about it.” She scuttled her chair closer to the bars and lowered her voice in the hopes of putting an end to Hunter’s eavesdropping. “I plan to clear Pa’s name, Bill. I’m hoping you can help me with that.” Bill’s eyebrows raised a notch until they disappeared beneath the rim of his hat. “Can’t imagine what kind of assistance I could be to you in that regard. I already told ’em your pa didn’t take part in the rustling. No one cared about my opinion then. Can’t imagine much has changed in that regard.” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/kelly-boyce/salvation-in-the-sheriff-s-kiss/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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