Primrose Creek, Nevada
Dust billowed around the stagecoach as Megan McQuarry stepped down, grasping the skirts of her black-and-white striped silk dress in one hand. She'd been traveling for several endless, bone-jolting days, but she'd taken care with her appearance all along the way. She'd washed whenever the opportunity arose, which was seldom enough, and done her best to keep her auburn hair tidy and her hat firmly affixed, at just the proper angle. She was penniless, a miserable failure, with nothing but a trunk full of missed cues and frayed dreams to show for two years on her own, but she still had the formidable McQuarry pride.
She had returned to Primrose Creek in defeat, there was no denying that, but not without a certain bittersweet sense of homecoming. Coming back meant seeing her sister Christy again, after all, and her two cousins, Bridget and Skye. They'd had the good sense to stay put, Christy and the others, and now they had homes, husbands, children. Their lives were busy and full, bright with color and passion; she knew that from the letters Skye had written while she was away, always pleading with her to return to Primrose Creek.
She sighed and squared her aching shoulders, bracing herself for what lay ahead. Her kin would welcome her, she knew; they'd enfold her in laughter and love, include her in their doings, defend her fiercely against the inevitable snubs and gossip her return would arouse. But they would be angry, too, and confused, for she had left suddenly, leaving behind only a brief note of explanation.
She shaded her eyes as she looked up at the coach driver, who was unstrapping her secondhand trunk and getting ready to toss it down at her feet. She hoped he wouldn't expect any sort of recompense, because she'd used the last of her funds the day before, to purchase a bowl of stew at a way station. She hadn't eaten since.
"Be careful with that, please," she said, indicating the trunk. It's all I have. And it was. She'd long since sold her share of the prime timber- and grassland left to the four McQuarry women to some rancher, through a banker and a lawyer, and now she would be the poor relation, beholden for every bite of bread and bolt of calico she got until the day she went to her final rest. If only that were the worst of it, she thought.
"Yes, ma'am," the driver answered, and let the trunk fall with an unceremonious clunk onto the wooden sidewalk, raising grit from between the boards. Megan would have taken off some of the fellow's hide if she hadn't been so weary, so hungry, and so utterly disconsolate.
She was just reaching for the trunk's battered handle, meaning to drag the monstrosity across the road to her brother-in-law's office -- Zachary Shaw was the town marshal -- when a large leather-gloved hand eased her own aside. She looked up, expecting to see Zachary, or perhaps Trace Qualtrough, Bridget's husband, or Jake Vigil, who had married Skye around the time of Megan's flight. Instead, she found herself gazing into a stranger's face; a man with tanned skin, wheat-colored hair, and periwinkle-blue eyes grinned down at her. His teeth were sturdy and white as a new snowfall gleaming under morning sunlight.
He tugged at the brim of his weathered leather hat. "You planning to stay on here at Primrose Creek, ma'am? I do hope you aren't just passing through -- that would be a sore disappointment."
Megan was used to sweet-talking men, God knew, and good-looking ones, too, but there was something about this one that caused her breath to catch as surely as if she'd just tumbled headfirst into an ice-cold mountain stream. All her senses, dulled by trouble and the long trip from San Francisco, leaped instantly to life, and she knew by looking into the man's eyes that he'd taken note of her reactions to him, and been pleased.
She was furious, with him and with herself. If there was one thing she didn't need, it was a man, however intriguing and fair to look upon that man might happen to be. "Thank you," she said stiffly, "but I'm sure my brother-in-law will collect my baggage -- "
The stranger looked around pointedly. "I don't see anybody headed this way," he observed in a cheerful tone of voice. "I'm Webb Stratton, just in case you're worried that we haven't had a proper introduction."
The name slammed into Megan's middle like a barrel rolling downhill. She waited to regain her equilibrium, then put out a slightly tremulous hand. "Megan McQuarry," she said, by reflex. It was nearly too much to bear, that this man of all people should be the first person she encountered upon her homecoming. She had to admit there was a certain ironic justice in it, though.
His grin broadened in apparent recognition, and he pumped her hand, failing to notice, it would seem, that all the blood had drained from her face and she was unsteady on her feet. Mr. Stratton had bought her land, the land she should never, ever have sold. She cringed to think what Granddaddy would have said about such a betrayal.
"Well, now, Miss McQuarry," said Mr. Stratton, still at ease and still gripping her hand. Megan felt a grudging gratitude, for between her empty stomach and her many regrets, she wasn't entirely sure she could stand on her own. "I know your family. They're neighbors of mine."
A flush climbed Megan's cheeks. Skye, always her closest friend as well as her beloved cousin, was likely to be understanding where Megan's many mistakes were concerned, but Bridget and Christy would have an opinion or two when it came to the sale of the land. Especially when they found out how she'd been hoodwinked by a no-good man. She opened her mouth, closed it again.
"My wagon's right over there," Mr. Stratton said, nodding to indicate the end of the street. Only then did he release her hand, and she marveled that she hadn't pulled away long since. "I'd be happy to drive you and your baggage out to Primrose Creek."
She was not the sort of woman who accepted favors from men she had never met before, but Mr. Stratton wasn't exactly a stranger, and Primrose Creek certainly wasn't San Francisco. "Very well," she said. "Thank you."
She had time to consider the rashness of her decision while Mr. Stratton went to fetch the wagon. It was drawn by two well-bred paint geldings, Megan noted as she watched him approach; as did everyone else in her family, she appreciated fine horseflesh.
Stratton jumped easily to the ground, after setting the brake lever with a thrust of one leg, and Megan's attention shifted back to him, taking in his tall frame, broad shoulders, and cattleman's garb of denim trousers, chambray shirt, and buckskin vest. His hat was as worn as his boots, and, unlike most of the men Megan knew, he did not carry a gun.
Megan straightened her spine and studiously ignored the curious looks coming at her from all directions. She could almost hear the speculations -- Isn't that the McQuarry girl? The one who ran away to become an actress? She has her share of brass, doesn't she, coming back here, expecting to live among decent people, just as if nothing had happened...
The sound of her trunk landing in the rear of Mr. Stratton's wagon brought her back to the present moment with a snap. He tugged his hat brim in a cordial greeting to two plump matrons passing by on the sidewalk. "Last I heard," he remarked, "it was considered impolite to stare." Caught, the women puffed their bosoms like prairie hens and trundled away. She could almost see their feathers bristling.
Megan couldn't help smiling with amusement, as tired and discouraged as she was. Webb -- Webb? -- was grinning again as he handed her up into the wagon box. He rounded the buckboard, climbed up beside her, took the reins in his hands, and released the brake lever. The rig lurched forward.
"Seems you're the topic of some serious speculation," he observed dryly as they reached the end of the street and left the busy little town behind for the timbered countryside.
Megan heaved a soft sigh. Her smile had already slipped away, and her hands were knotted in her lap, fingers tangled in the strings of her empty handbag. "Surely you've realized, Mr. Stratton -- "
"Webb," he interrupted kindly.
"Webb," Megan conceded, with some impatience. She started again. "Surely you've realized that the land you bought last year was mine."
He regarded the road thoughtfully, though Megan suspected he could have made the journey over that track in a sound sleep. "Well," he allowed, after some time, "yes. I reckon I figured that out right away." He glanced at her, sidelong, and a sweet shiver went through her. "Does it matter?"
She sat up even straighter and raised her chin. "I did not like parting with my property," she said stiffly. "Circumstances demanded that I do so." That wasn't his fault, of course, but knowing it didn't change the way she felt. "Perhaps we could work out terms of some sort, and I could buy it back."
Again, he took the time to consider her words. It annoyed her; he was well aware that she was in suspense -- she could see that in his eyes -- but apparently he didn't mind letting her squirm awhile. "Couldn't do that," he said finally. "I built myself a house there. A good barn and corral, too."
Megan bit her upper lip and willed the hot tears stinging behind her eyes to recede. It was going to kill her to see someone else living on her share of Granddaddy's bequest, but she had no one to thank but herself. She'd been so gullible, believing Davy Trent's pretty promises the way she had, and she was more ashamed of her brief association with that thieving polecat than anything she'd ever done. She learned some valuable lessons, but they'd come at a high price.
McQuarry that she was, the land as much a part of her as her pulse and the marrow of her bones, she had nonetheless made the sale, handed over the profits so that she and Davy could buy a small ranch near Stockton and be married. Instead, he'd swindled her, left her alone and humiliated, with barely a penny to her name.
"They expecting you? Your people, I mean?" Webb's voice was gentle and quiet, and the teasing light that had been lurking in his eyes was gone.
She swallowed hard, shook her head. "It'll be a surprise, I think," she said. "My showing up now, I mean."
He took off his hat, replaced it again. The gesture reminded Megan of her granddaddy, Gideon McQuarry. He'd had the same habit; it was a sign that he was thinking. "They'll be glad to see you, you know," Webb ventured.
Megan bit her lip for a moment, in order to recover a little. "They'll take me in," she said, very softly. It didn't seem necessary to point out that taking somebody in was a world away from welcoming them. Forgiving them.
"You were an actress," he said, with no inflection at all.
She sat up a little straighter, shot him a fiery glance. "Yes."
"What sort of roles did you play?"
She was taken aback by the question. There was no mockery in his tone or manner, and nothing to indicate that he considered her loose by virtue of her profession, as many men did. "Shakespearean, mostly," she allowed. "Ophelia. Kate in The Taming of the Shrew."
He chuckled. "I don't see you as Ophelia. Just by looking at you, I'd say you weren't the type to lose your mind over a man. Any man. Now, the part of Kate, on the other hand -- I can imagine that right enough."
Megan was amazed, not so much by his statements -- frank to the point of being downright forward though they were -- as by his knowledge of the Bard's plays. In her experience, most cowboys found them incomprehensible, if they paid any notice at all. Somewhat haltingly, she told him how she'd favored the role of Ophelia, simply because of the challenge it represented, being so at variance with her own nature. She even admitted that she would miss the stage.
Webb listened and nodded once or twice, but he offered no further comment. Shortly thereafter, the rooftop of Christy and Zachary's house came into view. Once an abandoned Indian lodge, with leaky animal hides for a roof, it had been renovated into one of the finest places around, and it was a very happy place, according to Skye's newsy letters. Joseph, Megan's nephew, was two already, and his baby sister, Margaret, was approaching her first birthday.
Megan yearned to lay eyes on those children, to feel Christy's arms around her, to be a part of the clan once again. She wished she'd never left home in the first place, of course, but hindsight was always clear as creek water. Besides, she'd learned a great deal during her brief career, learned to project confidence even when she was terrified. And God knew, she'd learned something about men -- specifically Davy Trent.
Christy came out into the dooryard, hearing the noise of the wagon, shading her eyes from the late-morning sunshine. Caney -- dear Caney -- was soon beside her, gazing their way, but Megan could tell nothing of her mood from her countenance. Caney Blue, a black woman, had worked for Gideon and Rebecca McQuarry for many years. When the farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley was sold for taxes after the war, and Megan and Christy, fresh from England, had set out to claim their one-quarter shares of a twenty-five hundred-acre tract known as Primrose Creek, Caney had come along.
Christy's face kindled with joy as she recognized her sister. She clapped one hand over her mouth, caught up her skirts with the other, and ran toward the wagon, limber as a girl. "Megan!" she cried.
Megan was down from the wagon box and flinging herself into Christy's arms within the space of a heartbeat. They clung to each other, the pair of sisters, laughing and crying, while Caney stood back, smiling. Webb Stratton unloaded the trunk without a word and carried it into the house.
"Look at you!" Christy cried, beaming, as she gripped Megan's upper arms in both hands and held her away. "You're beautiful!"
Megan didn't feel beautiful, she felt broken and soiled, used and discarded, and her throat was clogged with emotion. She couldn't speak but merely hugged Christy again, hard.
Webb came out of the house again, climbed back into his buckboard.
"Thank you," Christy told him, as warmly as if he'd gone out and searched the world for Megan and then brought her back to Primrose Creek like a prodigal daughter. "Oh, thank you."
He merely nodded, touched Megan lightly with that wildflower-blue gaze of his, and set the team in motion again, the buckboard jostling along the high grassy bank overlooking the sparkling creek.
"Where on earth have you been?" Christy demanded good-naturedly, linking her arm with Megan's and steering her toward the house. In the doorway, a little boy with bright blond hair looked on, a tiny dark-haired girl at his side.
"I'd like to know that myself," Caney put in, keeping pace. Her beautiful dark brown eyes had narrowed slightly.
So Skye had kept her promise, Megan thought, and never divulged her whereabouts. Perhaps she hadn't even told the family she was receiving an occasional letter from the McQuarry-gone-astray.
"Just about everywhere," Megan admitted, longing for sleep and tea and a nice, hot bath. Tears of happiness slipped down her cheeks as she reached the children and knelt before them, heedless of her skirts. They studied her curiously, Joseph his father in miniature, Margaret a re-creation of Christy, with a chubby forefinger caught in her mouth. "I'm your Aunt Megan," she said.
Joseph put out his hand in solemn greeting, small as he was, and Megan shook it. Margaret clung to her brother's shirt and edged shyly backward, out of reach.
Megan smiled and got to her feet.
Christy slipped an arm around her waist, and they entered the cool, fragrant interior of the house. It was full of light, and the floors shone with wax. Curtains danced at the open windows, and framed watercolors, probably Christy's own work, graced the walls. Hard to believe it was the same place, Megan thought, where they'd made their meals in a fire pit and slept on bales of hay shoved together for beds, those first weeks after their arrival at Primrose Creek several years before.
"I see you've met Webb Stratton," Christy said, her tone a shade less genial as she went to the wood box next to the shining cookstove and began feeding the fire to heat water for tea. Suddenly, there was a snappish tension in the air, like the metallic charge that precedes a violent storm. Perhaps Skye hadn't betrayed Megan's confidences, but the family couldn't help knowing that she'd done the unthinkable and sold a portion of the land. They would hold that against her, as they would the worry she had caused them.
"Yes," Megan replied, with a half-hearted stab at dignity. She was unpinning her hat, removing it, setting it aside atop a sturdy pinewood table. No doubt Trace had built that piece of furniture, as he had many others, in his workshop across the creek. He and Bridget had made their home in a sprawling log house, and, at last report, they'd had four children, counting Noah, Bridget's son by her first marriage.
Joseph and Margaret were hovering at a safe distance, watching Megan as though they expected her to turn a back flip or sprout wings and fly around the room. She smiled at them before taking a chair at the round oak table where the family took their meals.
"Come along with Caney, now," Caney said, gathering the children and shooing them toward one of the bedrooms. "Last time I looked, you two had left your toys scattered from here to kingdom come." No fool, Caney. She'd probably sensed the shift in the emotional weather even before Christy and Megan had.
"We were surprised," Christy said, with a false brightness that was all too familiar to Megan, busying herself at the stove, "when you sold your share of the land to a complete stranger."
Megan twisted her fingers together. "I'm sorry," she said.
"Sorry," Christy echoed. She stood in profile, high color in her cheeks, her spine straight as a store-bought hoe handle. "You're sorry."
Megan sighed. She had expected just such a reception, but that didn't make the confrontation any easier. "Yes," she said wearily.
Christy slammed the tea kettle down hard on the gleaming surface of her huge iron and chrome cookstove. "You might have written."
Megan looked down at her hands, twisted together in her lap. "I did write," she said, very quietly. "To Skye. I asked her not to tell you where I was."
Christy paused, dabbed at her eyes with the hem of her blue-and-white checked apron. "Well, she certainly respected your wishes." She straightened again and drew a deep breath in a typical bid to regain control of her emotions. "That's something, I suppose." She turned, at last, and faced her sister. "Oh, Megan, how could you? How could you leave us to worry like that?"
Megan let out her breath; until then, she hadn't realized she was holding it. "I was ashamed," she said.
Christy looked stunned, as though she'd expected any answer in the world save that one. "Ashamed?" she echoed, her brow knitted prettily above her charcoal eyes. "I don't understand."
Megan forced herself to hold her sister's gaze, though she longed to look away. She could feel her face taking flame. "I was -- I made a stupid mistake."
Christy crossed the room, the tea-making paraphernalia forgotten in the kitchen, and sank into a chair facing Megan. Her eyes glimmered with tears. "Oh, Megan, surely you didn't think anything you could have done -- "
Megan swallowed hard. "There was a man," she said, and just uttering the words was like coughing with sharp stones caught in her throat. "I met him not -- not long after I joined that first theater troupe, in Virginia City."
Christy reached across the tabletop and took one of Megan's hands in both her own. In that instant, Megan knew she could have confided in her elder sister and found understanding, but the awareness had come too late. The damage was already done. "Go on," she said, very softly.
"His name was -- is -- Davy Trent. He -- well, I thought he was entirely another sort of man -- like Zachary, or Trace, or Skye's Jake -- but I was wrong."
Christy simply waited, though her grasp tightened slightly.
Megan sniffled, raised her chin. She had come this far. She would see this through. Make a fresh start, right here among these people who loved her even when she disappointed them. "I was such a fool." Megan raised her free hand to her mouth for a long moment, then forced herself to go on. Christy was silent, pale. "He -- he said we were going to be married. There was a ranch for sale -- we were supposed to buy it, live there -- "
"But?" Christy prompted.
"He cheated me. I sold the property here at Primrose Creek, and instead of making the down payment, like we'd planned, and going through with the wedding, Davy took the proceeds and lit out." In her head, she paraphrased an old saying of her granddaddy's. A fool and her money are soon parted.
Christy slid forward to the edge of her chair and gathered Megan into her arms, held her. "How terrible."
"I wanted to come home then, but I was too embarrassed, and I didn't have stage fare," Megan went on when the brief embrace had ended. "I waited tables and scrubbed floors until I'd saved enough to leave."
Christy sighed. "You should have wired us that you were in trouble," she said. "Zachary and I would have come for you ourselves."
Megan shook her head. Her eyes felt hot and dry; it would have been a relief to weep, but she couldn't. "I'm here now," she said.
"And you can make a brand-new start," Christy said gently. She smoothed a stray tendril of hair back from Megan's temple. "Everything will be all right, Megan."
Megan's throat felt thick, and she dared not attempt to say any more before she'd had time to compose herself. She simply nodded again.
Water from the tea kettle began to spill, sizzling, onto the stovetop, and both women ignored it. "Are you sure he's gone for good?" Christy pressed. "This scoundrel who fleeced you, I mean? Maybe Zachary could find him, get back your money, at least -- "
Megan gave a bitter chuckle, shook her head. "He's long gone," she said.
"No doubt that's for the best," Christy said, and got up briskly to finish brewing the tea.
"Tell me about Webb Stratton," Megan heard herself say.
Christy was bustling busily about the kitchen. A pretty frown creased her forehead. "I don't know much about him," she said, with plain regret. "He's from somewhere up north, Montana, I think, though he told Zachary he'd been drifting awhile before he settled here. And Trace says he knows more about ranching than most anybody else in the high country." A sudden smile lit her face. "He's unmarried, you know. Webb, I mean. He lives in that big house all by himself."
Megan knew exactly what Christy was thinking and gave her a narrow look. "I'm not interested," she said.
Christy was undaunted. In fact, she acted as if Megan hadn't spoken at all. "I guess if we had to part with any portion of Granddaddy's land, it could have gone to somebody a lot worse than Webb Stratton."
Megan felt a slight but dizzying flip in the pit of her stomach every time she heard the man's name. She stiffened a little, in an effort to brace herself against her own susceptibilities. "I asked him to sell the tract back to me," she said. "He refused."
"I'm not surprised," Christy acknowledged. "He's got a good two-story house and a fine barn built. Fences, too, and a well. He owns another thousand acres besides. Both Trace and Zachary agree that they wouldn't sell out, either, if they were in his shoes."
"They tried to buy the place?"
"No," Christy allowed, bringing a tray to the table, "but they discussed the matter at some length, and on more than one occasion." There were cookies and dried apricots on a china plate Megan remembered from their mother's table, and the familiar flowered teapot steamed with the fragrance of orange pekoe. Megan went lightheaded for a moment, and her hand shook visibly as she reached for a piece of fruit.
Christy noticed immediately and poured tea for her sister. Then, while Megan was still grappling with the weakness her hunger had brought on, Christy returned to the pantry and fetched cheese, bread, and fresh butter. Mercifully, she left Megan to eat in peace, laying a hand lightly on her shoulder as she passed, and went to prepare a bath and a bed.
Megan ate as much as she dared and allowed herself to be led into the spare bedroom, where Caney and Christy gently divested her of her clothes and helped her into a copper tub filled with warm water. She was silent while Caney washed her hair and Christy laid out towels, scented powder, and a clean nightgown.
After the bath, Megan dried herself, used a generous amount of talcum, pulled on the gown, and crawled between blissfully clean linen sheets. For the first time in almost two years, she slept soundly, and without fear.
All the McQuarry women were beautiful, Webb reminded himself that afternoon while he worked, sweating under a shirt, buckskin breeches, and a heavy leather apron, at the forge behind his barn. To his way of thinking, it shouldn't have surprised him to find out that Megan, with her coppery hair and clover-green eyes, surpassed them all.
He threw more wood onto the fire and worked the bellows with hard pumping motions of both arms. Shoeing horses, herding and branding cattle, riding fence lines, pitching hay -- all of it was hard work, and Webb reveled in it. At night, when he stretched out on that narrow bed of his and closed his eyes, he sank to a place in his mind where neither dreams nor nightmares could reach, and as soon as he woke up, the whole cycle began all over again.
He frowned as he thrust a hard metal shoe into the fire with pinchers and held it steady while it softened enough to yield to hammer blows on the anvil. Megan McQuarry had staked out a place in his thoughts and commenced to homesteading there, it seemed, for he couldn't seem to stop imagining the scent of her skin, the spirited light in her eyes, the inviting slender shape of her body. Until that morning, in town, she'd been a name on a deed to him and nothing more, but now that he'd met her, seen how proud she was, heard her talk about the plays she'd been in and the places she'd traveled, he'd gotten a real sense of her intelligence, her dignity, and the innate strength he suspected she didn't even know she had. He'd sat there beside her, on the seat of his buckboard, just listening, his thigh touching hers, and, well, something had changed.
He wrenched the shoe from the fire, laid it on the anvil, and began to strike it hard, metal ringing against metal. On and on he worked, firing and refiring, hammering and rehammering, until the shape suited. Occasionally, he thrust the shoe into a vat of water and blinked in the hissing cloud of steam that arose around him like a veil.
He was holding the pinto mare's right rear hoof in one hand and nailing a shoe into place with the other when Trace Qualtrough rode up on his newest acquisition, a dapple-gray stallion he'd bought off a horse trader down south someplace, and swung down from the saddle.
"Stratton," he said, by way of a greeting, tugging at the brim of his beat-up leather hat. A man as prosperous as Trace could have afforded any kind of hat he happened to fancy, but he seemed partial to that one -- in all the time he'd known him, Webb had never seen his neighbor wear another.
Webb nodded. "Afternoon," he said. He knew what the visit was about -- he and Trace were good friends, but they were also busy men, not much given to chin-wagging sessions in the middle of the day -- so there was no need to ask. Now that Megan was home from her travels, the McQuarry women and their assorted husbands would be wanting to buy back the land.
He finished driving in the last short nail, squatted to make sure the shoe wouldn't throw off the mare's balance, then straightened to his full height. He gave the pinto a swat on the flank, and she nickered and trotted off to find herself a patch of good grass.
"We'll give you a fair price," Trace said. He wasn't one to make a short story long, and that was one of the things Webb liked about him.
He shook his head. "I mean to stay right here," he said.
Trace took in the sturdy log house, the grass and timber, the cattle and horses grazing nearby. "I don't reckon I can blame you," he replied with a sigh of resignation. "Had to try, though."
Webb nodded. He knew all about trying, even when the odds were bad. Most westerners did.
"Bridget wants you to come to supper tomorrow night," Trace went on. "It's a celebration, 'cause Megan's home."
Webb knew he should refuse -- common sense told him he ought to keep his distance from the redheaded Miss McQuarry, at least until he could get his impulses under control -- but a neighbor's hospitality was something to be respected, and, anyway, he relished the prospect of woman-cooked food and some polite company. "I'd be pleased to pay a visit," he said.
Trace nodded. "She'll be setting the table about the time the evening chores are done, I reckon," he replied. Then he got back on his horse and, one hand raised briefly in farewell, rode away.
Webb watched him out of sight, then went down to the creek to wash. He'd get the stock fed early the next night and head into town for a real, hot-water bath upstairs at Diamond Lil's. Might even get his hair barbered and put on his Sunday suit, he reflected, and grinned to himself. The McQuarrys weren't the sort to give up easily, and if they couldn't get the land back one way, they'd try another. He wouldn't have put it past Bridget, Christy, and Skye to throw him and Megan together at every opportunity, hoping there would be a marriage.
Kneeling on the rocky bank of Primrose Creek, he splashed his face with icy water, then the back of his neck, and while the effort washed away some of the sweat and soot, it did nothing to cool the swift heat that had risen like a tide in his blood. He sure as hell wasn't going to marry into that outfit -- he liked his women a little less opinionated -- but the idea of sharing a bed with Megan McQuarry possessed him like a demon fever.
He took off his apron and shirt, drenched his chest, back, and arms with more water. Maybe he shouldn't have been so quick to accept Trace's invite to supper, he reflected, but since the deed was done, he couldn't see dwelling on regrets. He stood, snatched up his discarded clothing, and turned to head for the house.
The place was big but sparsely furnished, and entering the kitchen by way of the side door, Webb was struck yet again by the emptiness of the place. He hoped to marry one day and fill the rooms with kids, but for the moment he had to be content with his own company and that of his big yellow dog, Augustus. He still thought of his brother's wife, Eleanor, more often than he'd like, and of the children she might have given him, but she was up in Montana on the Stratton family ranch, the Southern Star, and she was likely to stay there.
He poured himself a cup of lukewarm coffee, stewing on the back of the stove since breakfast, took a sip, and winced. He wondered what kind of cook Megan McQuarry was, and then chuckled. Somehow, he couldn't picture her brewing coffee, let alone frying up a chicken or stirring a pot of oatmeal. Something had taken the starch right out of her -- that was plain from her countenance and the bruised expression in her eyes -- but like as not, she wouldn't stay at Primrose Creek for long, once she got her wind back. She wasn't the sort to settle down in one place; as soon as a troupe of show people passed within fifty miles, she'd take to the trail.
Webb's good spirits faded a little. He tossed the coffee into the cast-iron sink with a grimace of disgust and headed for the inside stairway.
His room, one of three sizable chambers, had a fireplace for cold nights, but the bed was nothing more than a cot, like the ones out in the bunkhouse, dragged up close to the hearth and covered with rumpled sheets and an old quilt. Just looking at it deepened his loneliness; he'd have to put in five or six more hours of work if he expected to sleep that night. There was always whiskey, of course, not to mention the friendly women who worked at Lil's, but he was in no mood for either, damn the luck.
He changed his clothes, went back out to the barn, and began the process of mucking out stalls with a pitchfork. By the time he finished, the sun had set. He entered the house again, dished up some of the beans he'd been working on for several days, and made himself eat. Then, figuring the grub had run its course, he carried the kettle outside and scraped the contents into a blue enamel dishpan with rusted edges.
Augustus meandered over to lap up his supper, and Webb smiled, patting the animal's hairy head. Bad planning on his part, he thought.
Copyright © 2000 by Linda Lael Miller
Webb can see this lovely lady is in need of refuge, and he could certainly use her help around his ranch. He offers her a position as his housekeeper -- and soon, Megan and Webb find themselves falling head over heels in love. But Webb is haunted by a tragic incident from the past...and when he leaves to confront his own family betrayals, Megan now faces her heart's greatest challenge: trusting that Webb's devotion is truly a promise for a lifetime.
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Author Photo (jpg): Linda Lael Miller
Photo Credit: Sigrid Estrada(0.1 MB)
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