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Inheriting a Bride Lauri Robinson Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR TROUBLE WITH A CAPITAL T When Kit Becker travels to Nevadaville to find her new guardian she doesn’t count on train robbers stealing her grandfather’s will. Determined to track down the thief, Kit’s prepared to use any pretence necessary.Clay Hoffman knows a thing or two about money-grabbing females, so when he finds one posing as his new ward he’s determined to get beneath every delicious layer of her disguises.Discovering she’s telling the truth, Clay is torn – he should be protecting her, not thinking about making her his bride! All he knows for sure is that he’s inherited a whole heap of trouble! “I didn’t know that was Oscar’s Kit sitting with you. She sure is a cute little thing, ain’t she?” A tic tugged at Clay’s brow as he shook his head, causing him to press a finger to his temple. The eerie sensation had him saying, “Kit Becker?” Clay’s mind was spinning, as was his stomach. He took the stairs leading up to his office above the Land and Claims Office two at a time and threw open the door, his heart skipping several beats. Kit. Katie. Katherine. Kit. Damn. Katherine Ackerman was Kit Becker. “Aw, hell,” Clay muttered as he fell onto his desk chair. What was she up to, pretending to be someone else? A growl rumbled out of his throat. What was he up to? He’d kissed her. Kissed his ward. And furthermore, while holding her on the train, he’d thought about doing a whole lot more than kissing. About the Author LAURI ROBINSON’s chosen genre to write is Western historical. When asked why, she says, ‘Because I know I wasn’t the only girl who wanted to grow up and marry Little Joe Cartwright.’ With a degree in early childhood education, Lauri has spent decades working in the non-profit field and claims once-upon-a-time and happily-ever-after romance novels have always been a form of stress relief. When her husband suggested she write one she took the challenge, and has loved every minute of the journey. Lauri lives in rural Minnesota, where she and her husband spend every spare moment with their three grown sons and four grandchildren. She works part-time, volunteers for several organisations, and is a diehard Elvis and NASCAR fan. Her favourite getaway location is the woods of northern Minnesota, on the land homesteaded by her great-grandfather. Previous titles from Lauri Robinson: UNCLAIMED BRIDE HIS CHRISTMAS WISH (part of All a Cowboy Wants for Christmas) Also available in Mills & Boon® HistoricalUndone!eBooks: WEDDING NIGHT WITH THE RANGER HER MIDNIGHT COWBOY NIGHTS WITH THE OUTLAW DISOBEYING THE MARSHAL TESTING THE LAWMAN’S HONOUR THE SHERIFF’S LAST GAMBLE WHAT A COWBOY WANTS AUTHOR NOTE Behind every book is a story, and here’s the one behind INHERITING A BRIDE. What first came to me was the scene of Clay tossing Henry into the pond. Over the next few days I realised Henry wasn’t Henry, but Kit, and that intrigued me, had me wondering why Kit was pretending to be a boy. As the story started to unfold I came to the conclusion that I needed to know a lot more about gold-mining in the 1800s before I could put pen to paper, so I started researching. The internet is marvellous, but unless you know where you’re going it can be like throwing a dart. Lucky for me, one of my searches landed on the amazing website of a ‘hobby’ miner. It provided me with a vast amount of information, but I was still floundering. I needed specific questions answered in order to grasp an understanding of the process so I could import the needed bits and pieces into my story. Not because the book explains gold-mining in the 1800s, but because if I understood the process, and all that went along with it, I could then gain a deeper understanding of Clay and the issues he faced in becoming the guardian of his partner’s wayward grandchildren. I emailed Mr Ralph, the owner of the website, and asked if I could interview him. Bless his heart, he not only agreed, and spent a considerable amount of time on the phone answering my questions, he sent me several e-mails with links to amazing sites, including videos. I wrote Clay and Kit’s story, but Chris Ralph gave me the backbone—the information I needed to get to know my characters and really tell their story. Without him—a man I will probably never meet in person—I would have never been able to write INHERITING A BRIDE. Life is like that—it puts people into our lives just when we need them. Strangers or not. Remember that, believe it, and you’ll see it in your life, too. I sincerely hope you enjoy Kit and Clay’s story. Inheriting a Bride Lauri Robinson www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) To Chris Ralph, for so generously sharing all of his knowledge and insight on gold-mining. Chapter One Northern Colorado, 1885 A variety of passengers scurried across the wooden platform of the Black Hawk depot, but only one held Clay Hoffman’s attention, or better yet, his irritation. Women had a way of annoying him, and this one was in a tizzy, waving her hands, gesturing toward the train as she spouted off to Stan Thomas, the porter. Though he had no doubt the man could handle the situation, Clay moved to the depot door. Perhaps her luggage had been damaged or something. Loads had been known to shift during the ride up the mountain from Denver. That was why he was giving this woman, dressed in her canary-colored finery, the benefit of the doubt. His sister insisted he needed to do that once in a while. Therefore he was trying, but in reality, not getting too far. Old habits and all that. “Clay?” Stan motioned for him to approach. “This is Miss Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts.” Clay nodded, stepping closer and briefly assessing the woman, whose fancy bird-yellow outfit included a feathered hat with a lacy veil falling almost to her nose. Some might claim she deserved a second look, but he had no time for women, pretty or not, and turned his gaze to Stan, waiting to hear what the issue was. “I’m inquiring as to the whereabouts of one Samuel Edwards,” she said before Stan could speak. Clay’s insides froze as he narrowed his gaze on the little veil hiding most of Katherine Ackerman’s face. “Why?” She lifted her chin a bit higher. “That is between Mr. Edwards and me. Now if you’ll be so kind as to—” “No,” Clay said. The fact she’d called Sam “mister” told him all he needed to know. The kid was barely seventeen. Anyone who knew him knew that. “No?” she repeated. “No what?” Clay had a dozen questions about what a woman such as this—clearly from out East, by the sound of her nasally little voice—would want with Sam, but none of them mattered. She would never meet his ward. That, of course, should be Sam’s decision, but Sam liked his privacy and Clay knew women. This one even smelled like trouble—all sweet and flowery. He turned to the porter. “Was there something else she needed?” Stan, one of the finest railroad men in the territory, hesitated and then cleared his throat. “Miss Ackerman was a bit upset by the, uh … accommodations on the ride from Denver.” What a surprise. Train rides up a mountain were very different from train rides across the plains, and those out East, no doubt. Going down wasn’t any better. Judging by her appearance and attitude, this woman wouldn’t be happy about anything unless it was the very best, which made Clay’s spine tighten. He rerouted his thoughts. Sam had never been out of the mountains, but the kid’s father had, and a part of Clay always wondered if someone would show up, claiming to be a relative. With a single nod, Clay turned to the woman. “I apologize if your train ride was uncomfortable.” It wasn’t his usual policy, but she’d already wasted enough of his time. “Stan,” he said to the porter, “refund the passenger’s fare and give her a ticket back to Denver.” “Denver?” she all but sputtered. “I don’t want a refund,” she added snootily. “I want to know the whereabouts of Sam—” “I,” Clay informed her, nerves ticking, “am Sam’s representative. I’ll deliver a message to him for you.” “No,” she said. “I prefer to talk to him in person.” “That’s not possible,” Clay retorted, his voice just as clipped as hers. His hackles were rising by the second. Outside of a few miners, Sam didn’t interact with people much, and Clay respected that. “Why not?” “Are you a relative of his?” He might as well get to the bottom of it. She swallowed but didn’t answer, and the little veil made it impossible for him to see more than her chin and pert lips, which were drawn into a pucker. Just as he suspected. A woman after the kid’s money. “Sam’s not a social person,” he said. “If you want to give me a message—” “No,” she interrupted. “I—” “Fine,” he snapped. “Refund her money, Stan.” Clay spun around and started making his way toward the other end of town. That was the second person asking about Sam in less than twenty-four hours. A message from Big Ed over at the general store had arrived this morning, saying a trapper was asking questions about Clay’s ward, and now this woman turned up. The first incident wasn’t too much of a surprise; Sam’s father had been a trapper, and others probably wondered what had become of the boy. But a snooty woman from out East made no sense at all. The ride to Sam’s place next to the Wanda Lou was a long one, and Clay had a thousand other things to do. But Sam was his responsibility, and warning him about this woman couldn’t wait. Plus he had some business to follow up on, anyway—a miner causing a bit of trouble. Best to nip it in the bud. The kid didn’t like taking the train, preferred to borrow a mule from the mine to haul his furs to Black Hawk, and had left town only a few hours ago. Clay swallowed a sigh as he started up the street. Good thing he’d brought his horse with him on the train from Nevadaville this morning. The ones at the livery here were as barn sour as they came. If luck was with him, he could finish his business and still catch up to Sam before nightfall. Kit Becker stared at the man walking away, half in utter disbelief, half in relief. Encountering Clayton Hoffman this early in her adventure was not in her plan. She wanted to meet Sam first. Had to meet Sam first. The desire to lift her veil so she could see the man more clearly, even if it was just his back, was hard to curtail, but she kept her hands at her sides. The veil was part of the disguise she needed to maintain. “Right this way, Miss Ackerman.” It was a moment before Kit realized the porter was addressing her. She hadn’t gotten used to the name. She had used the alias so her grandfather’s solicitor, Mr. Watson, wouldn’t learn she had left Chicago. Purchasing her ticket under a different name guaranteed a bit of time in her search for Samuel Edwards. That was another name that made her want to shake her head. Why hadn’t Gramps told her about him? It just didn’t make sense. Both he and Grandma Katie knew how badly she’d always wished their family was larger, and this past year, since their deaths, her loneliness had grown overwhelming and she’d wished it even more. “Ma’am?” Turning to the man dressed in his bright blue suit with gold buttons, she sighed. “I don’t want a refund. I just wanted … oh, never mind.” The train ride that had left her wanting to kiss the ground was no longer a concern. Finding her only living relative was. She dug in the drawstring bag on her wrist, pulled out a coin to hand to the man. “I apologize, sir, for the fuss, but I’m fine now. Would you be so kind as to see my luggage is taken to the hotel?” “Yes, ma’am, but Mr. Hoffman said—” “I am not concerned about Mr. Hoffman, or his refund.” She spun around and stepped off the platform, wondering where to start her search. All she knew was that Gramps had traveled to Black Hawk. Her eyes, practically of their own accord, turned in the direction Clay Hoffman had taken. He most definitely knew where Samuel Edwards was. “Did I hear you say you want to see Sam Edwards?” Somewhat startled, and cautious, since the gruff voice had the hair on her arms standing up, Kit turned slowly. The man who’d stepped up beside her was huge and covered from head to toe in animal skins. She swallowed. “I’m a friend of his,” the burly man said. “Saw him just a few hours ago.” Kit willed herself not to shiver. People just looked different here from how they did in Chicago, she told herself. At least this one did. “Could you tell me where I might find him?” she asked, flinching at how her voice cracked. “He headed back to Nevadaville.” She couldn’t help but glance at the train. Embarking on another ride up the side of that mountain was the last thing she wanted to do. She’d seen how easy it would have been for the entire locomotive to fall over the edge, tumble end over end down into the ravine. Gramps had never mentioned how treacherous the train rides were out here. The journey from Chicago had been fun, but not long after the locomotive had rolled past the fancy homes bordered by tall shade trees, and the rows of manufacturing buildings of Denver—the moment they’d started to chug uphill—the trip had become quite nightmarish, downright nerve-racking. Not right at first. To the west she’d seen Pike’s Peak, boldly crowning the mountain range with regal glory. The sight had left her breathless, but then the train had crossed a bridge. Not a bridge like they’d crossed before, but a bridge. With nothing but emptiness below it. She could still hear the echoing rumble that had bounced off the mountainsides and sent her scrambling away from the window. The way the train rocked and rolled on the narrow tracks, she’d half wondered if the metal wheels would bounce right off the rails and the whole thing, herself included, barrel down the mountain slopes that fell away on both sides. She’d tried to keep her gaze averted from the scenes outside, but something kept making her sneak peeks at the landscape, which varied from deep gulches to steep inclinations covered in pines and spruces and reaching thousands of feet into the air. Reading the bills advertising a list of shows available at Nevadaville’s newly built opera house—everything from single magicians to full performances of Hamlet—had been a pleasant diversion. A necessary diversion. For each quick glance out the window had left her insides rolling. “He didn’t take the train.” The man’s voice pulled her from the memory, and turning, she waited for him to elaborate. Anything would be better than climbing back in that rolling box on wheels. “He took the trail,” the man said. “He’s headed to the Wanda Lou.” Excitement zipped up her spine. That was Grandpa’s mine. Now hers and, according to the will, Sam’s. “The trail?” He nodded, but it was the gleam that appeared in his narrow eyes under those dark, bushy brows that made her stomach flip. “I could show you,” he said. Barely able to contain the shivers this time, she shook her head. “No, thank you, that won’t be necessary.” She’d find someone else to assist her, which had her mind going to Clayton Hoffman. Grandpa’s partner or not, there was no way she’d ask for his help. If he discovered who she was, he’d send her back to Chicago immediately. Kit gave the frightening-looking man a parting nod, and recognizing her luggage being toted across the street by two young boys, hurried to follow them to the hotel. The boys waited as she checked in, and then carried her bags to her room. By the time they left, with coins in hand, she’d come up with her next disguise. A boy traveling the trail to the mine wouldn’t fetch a second glance. That might have been the longest night of his life. It had left a kink in his back as hard as a boulder. Clay stretched, flinching slightly at the ache, and then blew into the swirl of steam rising from his battered cup. When the coffee entered his mouth, instead of familiar appreciation, sharp, clawlike tendrils of repulsion dug into his shoulders and his throat locked up. Shuddering, he issued a silent curse and spat. Twice. As another shiver raced over him, hitting every muscle and making him vibrate from head to toe, he tossed the rank coffee out, splattering dew-covered blades of spring grass. How was that even possible? Nothing, not even the sulfur-infused air of the gold smelters, stank this bad. Breathing through his mouth, he turned toward the other side of the fire pit, where the source of the eye-watering, nose-burning stench sat. Head down, with an ugly leather hat hanging almost to his shoulders, the kid sipped his own cup of coffee, quite unaffected by the way his odor had corrupted the brew. How he did so was unfathomable to Clay. He’d slept with his hat over his face just so he could breathe, and he’d been ten feet or more from the kid, on the other side of a smoldering fire. Regretting the waste, but unwilling to dare a second taste, Clay picked up the flame-darkened pot sitting beside the fire, dumped out the contents and carried both the cup and pot to the trickling creek forging its way across the rocky ground and around squat trees. Far enough away to breathe, Clay filled his lungs, and rinsed the utensils in the slow-moving water. Mountaintop-cold, the creek was only a foot wide and barely ten inches deep, but farther along the trail, where the water collected before rolling downhill again, there was a pond. One that would do quite efficiently. The thought floundered for a moment, but ultimately, there was no other option. Time was awasting, as his old partner used to say. After stuffing the gear in his saddlebag, Clay grabbed the pommel of his saddle and carried everything toward his horse. “Time to move out.” The kid—Henry, he called himself, though Clay knew when someone was lying—didn’t glance up. He did empty his cup into the dying embers, and then threw a couple handfuls of dirt over the coals before he pulled the hideous hat farther down on his head and stood. Tightening the saddle cinch, Clay tossed another glance over his shoulder, to where the skinny kid, shoulders drooped beneath a filthy black-and-red-plaid shirt that should have been turned into a rag months ago, stood staring at the snuffed-out fire. The ride wouldn’t be pleasant, but the pond wasn’t too far, and if Clay held his breath, he might just make it. Mornings, no matter what season, were chilly in the Rockies. Most months, apart from July and August, you could see your breath before the sun made her way over the snow-capped peaks to brighten and warm the hills and gulches. The pool would be cold, icy even, but there was no way he could tolerate that stench all the way to Black Hawk. Sticking a foot in the stirrup, Clay hoisted himself into the saddle and then held out a hand. “Come on, Henry, climb up.” Arms folded across his chest and head down, the boy gave a negative shake. “I’m thinking I’ll walk.” “Walk?” Henry nodded, at least the hat did. Actually, Clay had yet to see the kid’s face, other than a dirt-encrusted chin and neck. He’d found “Henry” last evening, crouched beneath a half-dead ponderosa pine. It had been obvious someone was following him yesterday, but figuring it was the trapper who’d been asking after Sam, Clay had continued on. Eventually, he had caught up with Sam, who’d informed him the trapper was an old family friend. Clay had told Sam he’d be out to the mine in a day or so, and had doubled back, expecting to come across the trapper and ask him a few questions. Instead he’d found Henry. Clay shook his head at his own luck lately. Now he had another task, taking the foul-smelling Henry to Clarice. He’d decided that last night, even before persuading the kid to share a pan of beans and the warmth of a fire. Henry appeared to be at that tough age—thirteen, fourteen maybe, but no older. His voice still had that squeaky pitch that didn’t go away until age fifteen or so. Younger kids, ten and below, were easy to convince how nice Clarice’s society house would be to live in, but older ones often disputed it. Orphans were a commodity mining towns produced, whether anyone wanted to admit it or not, and Clarice, with a heart bigger than Gregory Gulch, had set her mind to taking care of those ill-gotten children. Every last one of them. Clay looked around at the trees growing out of the mountainside, at the gleaming snow still clinging to the peaks as if warding off the changing season, at the pastel-blue sky dotted with white balls of fluff—anywhere but at the kid. He could let Henry be, and head back to Nevadaville, where an assortment of other duties waited. But he’d never forgive himself if he left a kid out here. A conscience was a hell of a thing sometimes. “Well,” he said offhandedly. “I guess that’s your choice.” The hat nodded. “You got any grub?” Clay knew the boy didn’t, but wanted him to admit it, let the knowledge solidify in his stubborn little head. “I—” The shrillness of the squeaky voice could have sent the birds out of the trees. It must have bothered Henry, too, because he cleared his throat and, with imitation gruffness, said, “I’ll get by.” Acting as if he was pondering the day, Clay glanced around again. “That horse I saw last evening, the one I figured was yours, probably didn’t get too far. I could help you catch it this morning. Then you’d at least have your bedroll and such.” “You—” Henry cleared his throat again. “You will?” “Sure. Come on, let’s take a gander.” Once more he held out his hand. The kid hesitated. Clay gave the boy a moment, letting him think about his options. For all his gruffness, he was scared. The way his shoulders twitched and his feet fidgeted belied his crustiness. “Suit yourself,” Clay said, when enough time had ticked by. “I don’t have all day.” The kid shuffled forward, and moments later, after he had stuck a foot in the stirrup, grabbed Clay’s hand and awkwardly swung himself behind the saddle, Clay wished he’d never made the offer. The brief reprieve of being upwind made the stench that much worse. Breathing into the crook of his arm, and holding his neck muscles tight, lest he start gagging, Clay kneed his mount, heading straight for the pool of water. The horse he’d seen yesterday was back in Black Hawk by now, that was certain, which was where they were headed. Riding double on the mountain trail all the way to Nevadaville would be too dangerous. Stinking to high heaven or not, by climbing on this horse, Henry had probably saved Clay’s life. If Clarice ever got wind of him coming across a child and not lending aid, she’d kill him. Clay grinned, knowing his sister would do no such thing. But, he acknowledged, she’d sure as heck never let him forget it. Women were like that, reminding men of blunders, making their lives miserable. He was dually glad he’d sworn off them. Kids, too. His old partner’s will had saddled him with enough youngster worries to last a lifetime, and Clay’s own past mistakes had taught him life’s greatest lesson concerning women. There wasn’t a one in the lot who wouldn’t lie to get what she wanted. The opera house he’d built in Nevadaville was a constant reminder of that. Even with such heavy thoughts, by the time the pool of sparkling blue came into view, Clay was damned near light-headed. The front of his coat was pulled up over his nose, had been for several miles, but it didn’t help. He could still smell the noxious odor, and his burning lungs desperately needed a breath of fresh air. “Why we stopping?” Henry asked in that mock rough voice. “Andrew needs a drink,” Clay answered without breathing. “Who?” Leaping to the ground, Clay moved to the front of his mount while sucking air deep into his lungs. “My horse.” Henry climbed down, in an almost delicate and sissy way. His toes searched for the ground, and he didn’t let go of the saddle until both feet were safely planted. Tugging on the hat brim, as if it wasn’t already as low as it could go, he asked, “Your horse’s name is Andrew?” “Yep, after Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States.” A man didn’t know how sweet air was until he missed it, and Clay couldn’t seem to get enough. He led the horse closer to the pool, glorying in every deep breath. “I kno—” Henry cleared his throat again. “I know who Andrew Jackson was.” “Do you?” “Y-yes.” Justification took to wallowing in Clay’s mind. The sun had crested the mountains and was heating the air, but not the water. Even months from now, at the height of summer, it would still be icy cold. It really couldn’t be helped, though. He couldn’t ride for hours without breathing. Walking wouldn’t be any better and would double their travel time. Long ago he’d learned that when something needed to be done, it was best to jump in and get it over with. He’d known Henry for only a short time, but he’d learned a lot about him. One, he stank, which said he didn’t like baths. Two, he prickled easily, which meant he’d argue. Three, he stank. Clay flinched, thinking about what was to come, but he couldn’t stand here pondering all day. Taking a deep breath, he walked to the back of Andrew, patting the horse’s rump affectionately and trying to look casual. Henry sidestepped, as if suspicious. Clay shot out an arm, catching the kid by the collar. “Hey! Let go!” “I will in about three steps,” Clay assured him, grabbing the waistband of his britches with his other hand. “Put me down!” As promised, three steps later Clay let go, pitching the boy into the pond. “You—” The resulting splash stifled Henry’s high-pitched protest. Folding his arms, Clay watched the water swell up to engulf the youngster, hat and all. Henry would be mad enough to spit bullets when he surfaced, but at least he’d smell better. Clay grimaced, feeling more than a little sorry for the boy. That water had to be bone-chillingly cold. Maybe he should have offered a deal—a bath for a ride to Black Hawk. Concern tugged at his conscience as the ripples slowly faded, but when the pond turned smooth and glassy, his heart slammed into his throat. “Aw, shit!” He didn’t bother to remove anything, just ran. When the water hit his thighs, he dived toward the exact spot where he’d pitched Henry. Pin prickles of cold stung his eyes as he searched the murky depth. Catching a flutter, he reached out. His fingers snagged material and he tugged. Heading upward, he towed the kid, adrenaline pounding through Clay’s veins with every stroke of his arm and kick of his feet. His head broke the surface and he tugged harder, thrusting the kid above the waterline. The first thing he heard was spitting and sputtering. Clay’s heart fluttered with thankfulness, and gasping for air himself, he shouted, “Why didn’t you tell me you couldn’t swim?” Holding Henry by the waist with one hand, he used the other arm to tread water, orientating himself by searching for the bank where Andrew stood. “Why’d you try to drown me?” Henry shouted between sputters. Clay kept one arm around the kid and used steady strokes with the other to pull them through the water. “I didn’t try to drown you.” They neared the shore and he lowered his legs. The slick soles of his boots slipped on the rocky bottom several times before he found solid footing. “I was giving you a bath.” “A bath!” The kid’s squeaky voice sounded downright self-righteous. Clay bent to pluck his hat out of the water, having lost it when he dived in. A thought occurred to him and he twisted, ready to get his first good look at Henry. Dumbfounded, he stared. The shabby hat, now black instead of dirt brown, with water dripping off the floppy brim, was still on the kid’s head. As if he knew what Clay was thinking, Henry grabbed the brim with both hands and held on tight. The kid spun, an action that made it appear he was about to shoot back beneath the water. Clay caught the tail of the well-worn shirt and started walking toward the grass-lined bank. Squirming and digging his heels into the creek bed, Henry fought him every step. Clay, shivering from the icy water and damn near steaming at the same time, gave a hard wrench to pull the kid out of the water. A rip sounded and the cloth went slack. “Aw, shit,” Clay mumbled. He hadn’t meant to tear the shirt off the boy’s back any more than he’d meant to drown him. His patience, though, was running thin. He spun and this time caught Henry around the waist. Hooking him next to his hip, Clay carried the kicking and squirming kid out of the water before they both ended up with pneumonia. Andrew snorted and, with haughty horse eyes, looked at Clay as if he’d lost his mind. At that moment, he could have agreed with the animal. One-handed—not trusting the kid to stay put—he untied his bedroll. “Here.” He lowered Henry so his feet touched the ground, and offered him a blanket at the same time. The kid took a step back, head down and arms folded across his chest. Clay flipped open the blanket, intending to drape it over the scrawny shoulders, but the boy took another step back and spun around. His shirt had ripped from hem to collar, straight up the back. The wet, frayed ends were stuck to wide strips of cloth wrapped around his torso. A chill that had nothing to do with the temperature or his dripping clothes shivered up Clay’s spine. Along with it came a horrendous bout of ire. “Henry,” he asked, barely able to keep a growl out of his voice, “who beat you?” “No one,” the kid answered gruffly. Clay shook his head, disgusted with himself. The poor kid probably stank like he had due to a salve or poultice on his injuries. Why hadn’t he asked, instead of tossing the boy into the pond? He took a step closer. “I see the bandages, Henry.” “Ban …” The kid’s arm twisted backward and his fingers searched the opening. “Those aren’t bandages,” he scoffed, flipping around. Drops of water dripped from his hat brim and plopped steadily onto his soaked, torn shirt. Though he wanted to wrap the blanket around the kid, who was now visibly shivering with the after-effects of his icy dip, Clay didn’t move closer. Injured children were no different than injured animals. The thing to do was tread carefully, but firmly. “I know bandages when I see them.” “They’re not bandages. Just give me the blanket.” An odd sensation tickled Clay’s spine. Henry’s tone no longer held that note of gruffness. Actually, the way he stood, with one hand stretched out, the other folded across his chest, was like a woman shielding herself. The shiver inching its way up Clay’s back turned into a fiery flash that all but snapped his spinal cord. “Tarnation,” he muttered, leaping forward to snatch away the floppy hat. Wet strands of long hair fell in every direction, and squinting eyes full of fire and ice glared at him. “It’s you!” he declared, as the fire reached his neck. “Yes, Mr. Hoffman, it’s me,” Katherine Ackerman assured him. She stepped forward and grabbed the blanket from his hand, wrapping it around herself with a quick flip of her wrists. “I’ll probably end up with pneumonia, thanks to you.” The woman before him looked nothing like the snooty canary he’d met at the station, and gazing at her now, sopping wet, in tattered boy’s clothes, with her mass of wet hair plastered to her head, Clay experienced a humorous rumble erupting. He pinched his lips to hold it in, but it burst from his chest with enough pressure that he had to toss his head back to let the entire bout of laughter out or else choke on it. “I don’t find anything funny, Mr. Hoffman,” she screeched above his hooting. “That’s because you’re not seeing what I’m seeing.” Caught up in laughing, Clay didn’t see her move until it was too late. Pain shot up his shin from where the toe of her boot struck him. He hopped on one foot and grabbed his other leg, applying pressure to stop the stinging. Knowing that only time would ease the ache, he let go, and turned around to discover her using his other blanket to sop the water from her hair. As she finger-combed the tresses and squeezed the ends with the blanket, he wondered how all that hair had fit under one floppy hat. Furthermore, how had he not noticed he was a she? “What are you doing out here, Miss Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts?” “You know.” She bent, flipping her hair forward. The tresses almost touched the ground as she wrung them out with her hands and then shook them. Moving away from the spray of droplets, he walked over to sit on a boulder and empty the water from his boots. “How would I know?” Her hair made a graceful arch as she flipped her head up and turned to cast him a look—one of those glares that women produced and expected everyone to understand. And if truth were told, hers was quite adorable. Clay frowned at the thought, and went back to dumping water from one boot and then the other. “You know I’m tracking Samuel Edwards.” Her smugness, mixed in with that nasally accent, was charming. Clay stiffened and tugged on a boot. There was nothing about her, including her accent, that was charming, pleasant or even likable. She was like every other female gracing this earth—a conniving little imposter. This one even went so far as to dress up as a boy just to get her way. Clay pulled on the other boot and stood. “Sam. His name’s Sam.” Walking across the grass, he didn’t stop until he stood right before her. “And you, Miss Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts, are not tracking him.” The way she sighed, the way she rolled her eyes, even the way she squared her shoulders irritated the pants off him, but her answer, “Yes, Mr. Hoffman, I am,” downright infuriated him. “No, you’re not. If there’s anything you want to talk to Sam about, it goes through me.” After an icy glare, she spun around. “What do you want with him, anyway?” She lifted her chin snootily and glanced over one shoulder. “That, Mr. Hoffman, is none of your business.” He didn’t know if he wanted to insult her by laughing or by paddling her bottom. She deserved both. Instead he went with logic. “Tell me, Miss Ackerman, how do you plan to track him? You’ve lost your horse, have no supplies and …” he pointed a finger from her toes to her nose, wondering how to describe her appearance “… look like a cat caught in a downpour.” “Thanks to you,” she spat. “I’ll accept—” he looked her up and down pointedly “—your wet clothes are my fault, but I didn’t have anything to do with your horse.” He leaned closer to whisper, “It was probably the stench that got to him, too.” “Oh,” she screeched, throwing the blanket off her shoulders. The humor tickling his insides at her reaction faded. A moment later he wondered if she was being attacked by a swarm of insects, but then assumed, by the way she peered down the front of her shirt, searched the ground and patted her neckline, that she was looking for something. “It’s gone.” “What’s gone?” he asked. “My pouch. It must have fallen off in the water.” She grabbed the blanket off the ground, furiously searching its folds. Still unaffected, he made a halfhearted effort of glancing around. “What pouch?” “It was a little bag, about this big.” She held up a thumb and forefinger. “And brown, with little beads on the string pulling it closed.” “What was in it?” Now, almost wondering if it held the Ackerman family fortune, given the way she searched, he scanned the earth more seriously. “It must be in the pond.” She spun, shooting past Andrew. The horse snorted and sidestepped, blocking Clay’s pursuit. He shoved his way around the animal and caught her arm. “You aren’t going to find it in there.” “I have to. It must have slipped off when I dived for my hat.” “When you dived for your hat?” “Yes, it was sinking almost faster than I could swim.” Clay clutched her arm a bit more firmly. “You dived after your hat?” Her gaze scoured the water, as if she could see into the depths below. “The pouch must have slipped off my neck then.” “I thought you were drowning.” Clay wanted to shake her. He twisted her instead, so he could glare straight into her face, upturned nose and all. “I jumped in an ice-cold pond to save you, and you were chasing a sinking hat?” “You jumped in to save me?” “Yes,” he all but growled. “Why?” “Because I thought you were drowning.” His voice rose with each word. “That was unnecessary. I’m a perfectly good swimmer,” she replied, as her gaze went back to the pond. The ire eating inside him was wasted on this woman, as was any more time. He let go of her arm and strode toward Andrew. “Where are you going?” Ignoring the urge to reply, he picked up his blankets. “Aren’t you going to get my pouch?” Acting calm wasn’t too hard, not when it so obviously irritated her. He folded the blankets in half and then began to roll them up to fit behind the saddle. “You can’t leave.” A smile tugged at his lips. “Yes, Miss Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts, I can.” He tucked the roll behind his saddle, securing it with the leather straps. “But—but I can’t stay here, not without my pouch.” The tremble in her voice had him turning around. Again he questioned, “What was in that pouch?” She shrugged. “Why is it so important?” “Because it’s an amulet.” She glanced around and then whispered, “Without it … well, I could be attacked by mountain lions or bears.” Laughing long and hard was in Clay’s near future, yet he held it in, considering the seriousness of her gaze. “Where’d you get it?” “An Indian chief in Black Hawk,” she answered. Running Bear, sitting on the front porch of Big Ed’s store, no doubt. The Indian would sell anything, including his medicine pouch, it appeared, to gain enough money to buy a few sticks of Adam’s Black Jack. The man, who was not a chief, was completely addicted to the licorice-flavored chewing gum. “Tell me, Katherine,” Clay started, a bit surprised at how easily her name rolled off his tongue. “How did he come about giving you the amulet?” “I was at the general store, buying supplies for my …” she paused to glance around nervously “… adventure pursuing Mr. Edwards, and the owner of the store refused to sell me a gun.” Clay held in the shudder rippling his shoulders. It appeared Big Ed wouldn’t go so far as to do just anything to make a sale. He’d have to remember to thank the man. A gun and Miss Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts, would be a precarious pair. Lethal even. “Oh,” Clay said, while waiting for her to continue. “Well, I was a touch miffed, you see.” “A touch?” “Well, a mite miffed.” He nodded in agreement. As if a mite was more than a touch. What came next? A pinch? A bit? A tad? “Yes, well,” she continued, “as I was leaving the building the chief was sitting on the porch. He, um, told me all about the lions and bears in this area. I asked him how his people have survived so long without being eaten by them.” Bows and arrows, guns, knives, tomahawks, but mainly brains, Clay thought, but asked, “Oh? And what did he say?” “He said they have secret ways. We talked a tad longer, and then he agreed to sell me an amulet that would repel bears and mountain lions.” “A tad.” Clay nodded, knowing it would come up. It was hard to say if she was acting, or truly this gullible. Still dripping wet, she didn’t look to be a whole lot older than Sam, and nothing like the snooty woman at the train depot yesterday morning. “Tell me, did you look inside that little pouch?” She cringed. “It didn’t smell very pleasant.” “You don’t say?” Clay pressed a hand to the center of his forehead, right where it had started to hurt. Running Bear had probably put a dead fish in there. It was a wonder she hadn’t attracted bears and cats instead of repelling them. Andrew let out a snort, and Clay turned to pat the animal’s neck. I know, boy. I know she’s loco. “Well, Katherine, Andrew and I have to get going. We’ll give you a ride back to Black Hawk, or you’re welcome to forge out on your own, chasing down Mr. Edwards, as you called him. It’s up to you.” Kit was so engrossed in the way he said “Katherine,” not to mention quite enthralled that Clay Hoffman’s eyes were the exact same shade of blue as the bearded irises she’d planted near Gramps and Grandma Katie’s memorial stone, it was a moment or more before she realized he was waiting for her response, and then she had to pull up her acting voice. “Well, of course I’m returning with you. I couldn’t possibly remain out here without the amulet.” The memory of the foul-smelling medicine bag was enough to make her shiver from head to toe. Yet she might need it again. The smell worked wonders in keeping others at bay, which was why she’d bought it. She should be miffed at Clay for throwing her in the water as he had, but truth be told, it was amazing he’d stood the stench as long as he had. Of course, he didn’t realize she’d taken the pouch off last night and laid it near his side of the fire pit. She’d thought it would keep him on his side of the fire—which it had. Her initial fears had been more centered on coming across the fur-covered man in the wild, but a pompous gold-miner that held her livelihood in the palm of his hand was just as bad. That’s what Clay Hoffman was. And miners were a breed of their own—that’s what Grandma always said. Therefore Kit disliked every last one of them. The man may have had Gramps duped, but his cocky grin and twinkling blue eyes couldn’t fool her. She’d have to deal with him, that was for sure, but first she had to learn exactly who Sam Edwards was, without Clay Hoffman learning she was Kit Becker and not Katherine Ackerman. If he discovered her identity, she might never learn the truth. She sighed. All in all, this was turning out to be far more complicated than she’d imagined. He’d hoisted himself into the saddle and held out a hand. Given her choices, she took it, shoved a foot in the stirrup he made ready and climbed on the big roan behind him, barely flinching at the sting the movement caused. Squirming, making a more comfortable seat out of his jumbled bedroll, she grabbed the back swells of the saddle. “Ready, Mr. Hoffman.” “Are you now?” he replied, sounding somewhat sarcastic. Kit let it slide, just as she had most of his other comments. Now wasn’t the time. Besides, his eyes had told her more than his words had, anyway. Laughter had twinkled in those blue eyes at some of her exaggerated comments, and that reinforced how good of an actress she was. Of course, she’d never acted previous to this trip into the wilds of Colorado. But she was well-read. Books were her life, had taught her many things, including the importance of gaining the upper hand. She wiggled a bit more. Her backside had taken to stinging again, and the bindings around her chest grew more and more uncomfortable. The strips of cotton were shrinking as they dried, no doubt, this being their first washing. He twisted, tossed a quick glance over his shoulder, and she flashed him a grin, a syrupy one. Clayton Hoffman was not what she had expected. He couldn’t be much older than her, seven or eight years maybe, making him twenty-eight or twenty-nine. Much too young to be her grandfather’s partner. She’d truly anticipated an old geezer with one foot in the grave. A cringe had her sending up a silent plea, No offense, Gramps. The smile that formed on her lips was real. She could hear his answer. None taken, Kitten. If Clayton Hoffman wasn’t sitting right in front of her, she might have talked to Grandpa Oscar a bit. Asked him how he and Grandma were getting along up there in heaven. But since now wasn’t the time or place, she was content just to smile, glad she still had this connection with the people who had raised her and loved her with great devotion. Grandpa Oscar’s trips to Colorado had been tough on Grandma Katie. She’d always fretted something terrible the entire time he was gone, and a piece of Kit was happy they were now together for eternity. “So, Miss Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts, how do you know Sam?” She bit her lips, holding in mirth at just how ridiculous the name sounded when he said it like that. Katherine Ackerman had been her birth name, but she’d never been to Boston. “I don’t know him,” she answered, pulling up her best actress voice. It had taken practice to acquire a Bostonian accent. A woman she’d met on the train from Chicago to Denver had been her inspiration, and pride welled at how she was able to sound just like the woman had. She’d mastered it as well as the rough voice she’d used for her Henry disguise. “I want to meet him.” Clay Hoffman repositioned his hat before he asked, “Why?” “Because I want to meet a miner.” This particular miner, to whom, for some unknown reason, Gramps willed one half of his estate. It was all so frustrating. Sam’s name had never been spoken in her presence, nor a second partner ever mentioned. Clay Hoffman was a different matter. Gramps had talked nonstop about him. “Sam’s not a miner,” he said. His back had stiffened, as if he was bracing himself for her argument, and though she did want to insist Sam was a miner, and she would meet him, Kit bit her tongue to keep from arguing. Once back in Black Hawk, she’d just rent another horse and search for him again. Of course, she’d have to come up with another disguise. “I read a playbill on the train, about the opera house in Nevadaville,” she said, aloud. “Does it really seat four hundred people?” Having read the advertisements on the train could prove beneficial. Gramps had never mentioned the opera house, but they must certainly have a wardrobe full of costumes, and Nevadaville was only five miles from Black Hawk, by train. “Yes, why?” he answered, sounding skeptical, almost angry. “Boston has several wonderful opera houses, and I’m curious what one in the wilds of Colorado would look like.” That sounded plausible, didn’t it? Surely Boston had an opera house. Chicago did, and she truly enjoyed watching the plays. If that silly horse she’d rented hadn’t run off, she wouldn’t be worrying whether Boston had opera houses or not. She’d be finding out exactly who Sam Edwards was. The best laid plans of mice and men, she quoted silently, pressing a hand to her temple. Once she knew the truth, she could decide what to do. The only thing that made sense was that Grandpa had another family. One not even Grandma knew about. It was unfathomable, yet why else would Gramps have included Sam in the will, and at the same amount as her? Clay Hoffman seemed as protective over Sam’s identity as Gramps’s solicitor, Mr. Watson. It appeared no one wanted Kit to know the truth. “So, Miss—” Interrupting Clay, not done contemplating her thoughts, she leaned forward and whispered, “You don’t think there’s a bear or mountain lion following us, do you?” Chapter Two His back stiffened again and Kit swore she saw his neck quiver slightly. “No, I don’t believe there are any bears or mountain lions following us. They are few and far between in this area.” Gramps had never mentioned the animals, so she figured they weren’t an issue, yet he hadn’t mentioned Sam, either. “I sure do wish we’d found my amulet,” she whispered. “I’m sure the chief will sell you another.” She puffed out her cheeks, really wishing for a moment of quiet. “Oh, do you think so?” She’d come up with bears and mountain lions off the top of her head. A woman from Boston would be afraid of such things and believe an amulet from a chief would save her—and it had proved useful. Once in Black Hawk she’d ask the old Indian if he had another one. It had cost only a package of chewing gum. He’d been the one to tell her if she put a dead fish in it no one would come close to her, and had even told her where to find the fish. “Yes,” Clay answered. Thankfully, he let the conversation slip then. The scenery was quite beautiful, all lush and green, just as Gramps had explained. Her fingernails dug into the thick leather at the back of the saddle and a shiver skirted up her spine. Kit held her breath, refusing to remember how frightful the train ride into Black Hawk had been. Clay glanced over his shoulder, and she tried, but knew the smile on her face wobbled. He stared harder and she averted her gaze, glancing at the surroundings. “You doing all right back there?” “Um, yes,” she mumbled. “You sure?” Those blue eyes were frowning, and he shifted as if trying to get a better look at her. His movements had her repositioning and glancing around. The mountains weren’t as intimidating while on horseback. Zigzagging around the Rockies in that train had instilled a fear inside her like she’d never known. Grandma Katie would have been appalled to hear her talk so, but Kit had to tell the train agent how offensive the ride had been. Then again, Grandma would be upset that she’d left the house empty and embarked on this journey at all. Maybe it was a family trait—fear of train rides—for it appeared Sam didn’t like trains, either, considering he’d taken the trail to Nevadaville. That was a nice thought, knowing she and Sam already had something in common. “You sure?” Clay Hoffman repeated. “Yes,” she answered. “I’m fine. Just fine.” “The mountains make you nervous?” he asked, looking straight ahead, but nonetheless drawing her full attention. Kit squared her shoulders. “No.” “You aren’t a very good liar, Miss Ackerman.” She drew in a determined breath. Agreeing with Clayton Hoffman was not something she’d do, no matter how accurate he might be. Kit let silence speak for her. It was a damnable situation, as Gramps would say—this one she found herself in. Yet she’d have to put up with Clay in order to get back to Black Hawk. Wiggling, she repositioned her bottom on the bedroll. Her clothes were drying quickly and not overly uncomfortable, but the dampness irritated the spot on her backside that had grown tender yesterday while she’d been riding the rented horse. The animal, white with liver-colored spots, had been gentle enough, but slipping about in the saddle while the horse picked its way over the rough trail had been quite tedious, and the thick wool of the britches Kit had bought from the Chinese washwoman at the hotel had chafed her bottom from the constant motion. There was one spot in particular where she wondered if there was any skin left. It was a while later when Clay glanced over his shoulder again. “You sure you’re doing all right?” “Yes, I’m fine, thank you,” she lied, flinching at another sliver of pain commencing in her bottom. Tightening her leg muscles, she held her breath, hoping that would help. His gaze roamed over her face in such a way Kit felt as if she were a newspaper being read. “Are you hungry?” he finally asked. “We didn’t have any breakfast. I have some jerky and bread.” Would she be able to get back on the horse if she got down? The tenderness had grown stronger, now throbbed as painfully as it had yesterday when she’d climbed off her rented horse. That’s when the animal had run off, while she’d been nursing her injury, much too sore to chase after it. Kit eased her weight onto the opposite hip and held in a groan. “How much farther is it?” “To Black Hawk?” “Yes.” “It’s only about five miles as the crow flies, but ten or more for us.” A heavy dread settled on her shoulders. “That far?” “Yes. Have you forgotten how far you traveled yesterday?” No, she almost blurted, though her backside was a constant reminder. “It didn’t seem that far,” she admitted from between clenched teeth. He might as well have said a hundred miles. The way her bottom throbbed she’d be lucky to make it one, let alone ten. The horse’s gait, though smooth and even, made riding on one hip impossible. She placed a hand on the animal’s glossy-haired rump, which rose and fell with each step, and braced herself against the movement. “Maybe we could get down and rest for a while. I’m sure Andrew would appreciate that.” “We’ll stop at that next plateau.” Clay pointed a short distance up the hill. “There’s a set of trees that’ll give some shade. The higher the sun gets, the stronger the rays become.” Kit nodded, knowing full well he couldn’t see her actions. But short of groaning, it was the best she could do. Setting her gaze on the terrain, she tried to focus on something besides the pain, knowing the more she thought about the stinging, the worse it became. It was like that with most things—the harder you thought or fretted, the larger they became. Gramps said that all the time. It was true about his will, too. And Clayton Hoffman. A year ago, when she’d first learned of the terms of Grandpa Oscar’s will, she’d accepted everything readily enough, too filled with grief to really care. But now that she’d been on her own for a year, and the pain of her grandparents’ passing was easier to deal with, she’d discovered she needed to know the truth. Others didn’t understand the driving need inside her. How could they? They had families. She had no one. Not a single person on earth related to her. The gaping hole that left inside her was indescribable, and it seemed to be sucking the very life out of her. An old ticket stub to Black Hawk she’d found in one of Grandpa’s books had seemed like a sign, and no matter what she discovered, it would be better than not knowing. Mr. Watson, Grandpa’s solicitor, certainly didn’t understand. Not only did he refuse to give her any details, he said she couldn’t go to Colorado, leastwise not without Clay Hoffman’s permission—a man she’d never met, only heard about from Gramps. It appeared that he—Clay Hoffman—was not only her financial guardian, he was in charge of everything: her finances until she was twenty-one, and several other aspects of her life until she turned twenty-five. If she waited until then she’d die of loneliness. Impulsive, that’s what Grandma Katie had always called her. Kit hadn’t minded then, and she didn’t mind now. If a few hastily laid plans would reveal the truth, it would be well worth it. The spontaneous trip across the country had become an adventure for her, one that instilled a sense of excitement and freedom she’d never known. Other than the sting in her backside, which at this very moment was letting itself be known with renewed force, the trip had been painless—terrifying at times, but painless. “Here we are.” Clay drew the horse to a stop. A sigh of relief built in her chest, but she couldn’t let it out. Thinking of climbing off the horse instantly doubled her anxiety. The now constant ache said movement would hurt. Severely. The way Clay swung his knee over the saddle horn and bounded to the ground as effortlessly as a cat jumped off a branch had every muscle tightening from her head to her toes. Kit chewed on a fingertip, both to redirect the pain and to contemplate how she could manage without— “Oh!” Hands had wrapped around her waist, lifted her and planted her feet on the ground all in one swift movement. Regaining fortitude while clouds literally swirled before her eyes seemed impossible, and her breath caught inside her lungs at the smarting sting shooting down her legs. Eventually, she managed to squeak, “Thank you.” “You’re welcome,” he said, already leading the horse to a patch of grass. “I noticed dismounting isn’t a strong suit for you.” His back was to her, but the humor in his voice couldn’t be ignored. “Dismounting?” she asked, as indignation sprouted out of that fiery sting. “I’ll have you know I’m a quite accomplished rider.” “Oh?” He was looking at her over one broad shoulder. His grin, which was way too appealing for a man of any age or rank, brightened his entire face, and those blue eyes twinkled as if someone had dropped stardust in them. “You ride around Boston, do you?” Firelight, the little pony she’d had while growing up, came to her mind. The Shetland had been as white as snow, and the two of them had worn out the grass in the back paddock. “I assumed you’d travel about in gold carriages, complete with velvet seats and little tassels hanging off the hood,” he continued, while digging in his saddlebags. The fact he’d described the buggy—white, not gold—that was parked in her carriage house back in Chicago should irritate her. In reality, it made her smile. “Jealous, are you?” “No.” His cheekbones were slightly tinged red. That, too, excited her in a unique and secretive way. “I think you are.” “You think wrong, Miss Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts.” He held up a canvas bag and nodded toward the grove of trees. “Hungry?” She turned to follow, which was a mistake. The first step had her gulping. Walking was worse than riding. Picking a slow trail, pretending to scrutinize the lay of the land, she made her way after him. “A little sore?” That irritating grin of his was back. “No,” she lied. “That why you offered to walk earlier?” She cast him her best “you’re annoying me” gaze. He grinned and sat down, digging into the bag. By the time she arrived at his side, he’d laid out several pieces of jerky, a crusty loaf of bread, broken in half, and two apples on a blue-and-white-plaid napkin. But it was the ground, which looked as hard as the leather-covered train seats had been, that held her attention. If she sat, she might never get up, yet her stomach growled as her eyes darted toward the food. He stood. “I have to get the canteen.” She nodded absently, still wondering how painful sitting would prove to be. Perhaps she could stand while eating. If he’d hand her the food, she wouldn’t even need to bend over. Still contemplating options, she glanced his way when he returned. Along with the canteen, he had the two blankets that made up his bedroll. Quite honorably, he folded one and then the other, and stacked them on the ground. “Try that,” he said, patting the blankets. Kit pressed her tongue against the inside of her cheek and met his gaze. “It’s obvious, Miss Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts, that you’re sore from being in the saddle too long.” “Obvious?” He was a large man, with broad shoulders and bulky arms covered in a tan flannel shirt and leather vest. But the kindness simmering in his blue eyes made him look like a proper gentleman who might come calling on a Saturday night. That thought did something to her insides, had things stirring around in a very peculiar way. “Happens to everyone now and again.” He held out a hand, inviting her to take the seat he’d prepared. The stirring inside her grew warmer, something Kit thought she should question, but instead, another unusual instinct had her accepting his offer by placing her hand in his. He flinched sympathetically as she lowered herself, and his compassion somehow eased the sting as she settled onto the blanket. “Thank you, Mr. Hoffman.” Feeling a need to justify something—whether her abilities or the odd things going on inside her—she added, “I have ridden before.” His brows arched enigmatically. “I’ve no doubt you have, Katherine.” Clay handed her a long strip of jerky and forcibly bit the end off another piece. He chewed slowly, sitting there beside her and gazing across the hillside. She wondered why he’d emphasized her name so. The way he said it made her heart skip a beat. Kind of like when she’d thought of him calling on Saturday nights. No one had ever called upon her any night of the week, so where on earth had that thought come from? Pondering, she let her gaze wander along the same skyline as his. It was a picturesque sight, the mountainside decorated with newly leafed trees and patches of bold green grass, along with pines and spruces, unfathomably dense, that grew in the most unexpected places. Even during the train ride, which had had her stomach flipping and her temples pounding, she’d been in awe at the beauty of the Rockies. Gramps had told her about it, but up close, the wild and raw grandeur was astounding. Romantic, even. “So,” Clay said, interrupting her ponderings, “why the getup?” She swallowed and licked the salt from the jerky off her lips. “The getup?” His eyes roamed from the hole in the tip of one boot to the plaid shirt hanging loosely about her shoulders. “I figured a boy riding in the hills wouldn’t gain much more than a second glance,” she said. They were silent for a while, other than the crunch of teeth sinking into the apples, which were surprisingly sweet and crisp considering they must have been bouncing around in his saddlebags. When he’d pitched his apple core toward Andrew, and the horse had snatched it up quickly, Clay asked, “And the bandages?” Kit felt the heat rise on her cheeks, but didn’t bow her head or look away. “I told you, they aren’t bandages.” “Then what are they?” The sting of embarrassment grew. “If you must know …” He waited patiently as she finished her apple and tossed the leftovers to the expectant-looking Andrew. Feeling more than a touch flustered, but knowing he wouldn’t let up until she answered, she said, “I couldn’t wear my …” she lowered her voice “… normal garments beneath the disguise, so I wrapped myself.” She’d read about that in a book, and it had worked remarkably well. “Wrapped yourself?” She nodded. “Why?” If it wouldn’t be excruciating, she’d have bounded to her feet. Instead she tried to explain her reason vaguely. “The disguise would not have worked as well if I hadn’t.” The humor glittering in his eyes made a new bout of something akin to anger sweep up her spine. “I suspect it wouldn’t have,” he said, stopping his knowing gaze on her torso. The way her breasts tingled had her shooting to her feet. Flinching and catching her breath at the sharp pains and dull throbs that resulted, she couldn’t stop from grasping her backside with one hand. Gritting her teeth, she prayed for the burning sensation to ease. “Here.” Not realizing she’d closed her eyes, Kit was surprised to see him standing beside her, holding out a small tin. “What’s that?” “Salve.” “For what?” He glanced around as if assuring their privacy, and then leaned closer to whisper, “For the saddle sore on your rump.” “My r—” She swallowed the rest of the word, aghast. “Yes, your rump.” Though he looked as if he was about to burst out laughing, he didn’t. “Saddle sores are a common ailment, and nothing to be embarrassed about.” His expression turned serious. “They’re also nothing to mess with. Especially once the boil forms.” The intense heat of mortification covered her face. “I do not have a boil,” she insisted. “Maybe not yet, but you will by the time we get to Black Hawk if you don’t take care of it.” He took her hand and laid the tin in her palm. “Go behind the trees and rub some on.” Right now, she was willing to try most anything. The pain had become unbearable. “Will it hurt?” she asked. “Yes.” She snapped her head up. The laughter was gone from his eyes. Sincerity and honesty shone there instead. A large lump formed in her throat. “Yes?” He nodded. “At first it’s going to sting like h—really sting, but within a few minutes it’ll ease up and soon the spot will be numb. You won’t feel a thing the rest of the way to town. At which point you’ll want to have Doc look at it. He may need to lance it.” Her insides shook. “Lance it?” Again there was nothing but truthfulness in Clay’s gaze. That and compassion. “Go on,” he insisted, turning her about by grasping her shoulders. “Andrew and I will wait here.” Kit wished she had an alternative. Well, she did, but the thought of a boil wasn’t much of a choice, and she honestly didn’t think she could climb back on Andrew the way her backside stung—as if she’d backed up against a cook-stove. “You won’t peek?” Clay fought the urge to laugh. It wasn’t funny. Her backside had to be stinging as if she’d sat on a hornets’ nest. He doubted there was a person alive who hadn’t ended up with a saddle sore at one point in his or her life. Including him. But she looked so darn cute. “No,” he assured her. “Neither Andrew nor I will peek.” The flicker of annoyance dancing in her coffee-colored eyes had a grin tickling the edges of his lips. He winked. “Yell if you need help, though.” The chuckle that her glare ensued died as Clay watched her gingerly pick a path behind the trees. She was in serious pain. He walked to Andrew, keeping his eyes focused on the scrap of snow clinging to the farthest mountain peak. “The balm will help,” he told the horse, fighting the urge to turn about and see if anything was visible between the aspens behind which Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts, had taken refuge. Clay tossed his head with a touch of frustration. He really had to stop calling her that. She gave him one of her little looks every time it rolled off his tongue. Maybe that’s why he did it. He certainly didn’t like her. She was as annoying as bedbugs. A tiny screech had him spinning about. “Are you all right?” he called. “Yes,” she answered, sounding somewhat winded with pain. “Give it a minute,” he shouted. “It’ll ease.” “It’d better!” Smiling, he reached down to tighten the saddle cinch strap he’d loosened when they stopped to eat. She had grit, he had to give her that. All in all, she was quite remarkable. Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts. Once again, he chided himself. “Katherine” just didn’t fit her. It seemed too formal for someone so youthful and charming. Maybe she went by Kathy. Leading Andrew to the blankets, he proceeded to fold them into a neat pad for Kathy to sit on. Nope. Kathy didn’t fit her, either. He turned toward the woods, where she was tenderly stepping from between the trees. Now dry, her hair had turned straw colored and hung in spirals around her shoulders, while the ends bounced near her elbows. It was all he could do to stop staring. Spinning around, he laid the bedroll behind the saddle. As soon as he got Miss Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts, back to Black Hawk, he’d see she got on the next train heading east, and he’d never think about her again. “Thank you.” She handed him the tin. “You were right. It stung like the dickens at first, but now I can’t feel a thing.” Her eyes twinkled as brightly as specks of gold in a creek bed as she leaned a bit closer and whispered, “I can’t thank you enough for that.” His throat thickened, and for a moment Clay thought about something he hadn’t contemplated in years: kissing. Her lips seemed to have been made just for that purpose. He managed to mumble, “You’re welcome,” as he took the tin and stuck it back in the saddlebag. Once he’d climbed into the saddle, he held one stirrup on top of his boot for her to use as he took her hand. After she’d settled onto the blankets, he asked, “You set?” She grasped the saddle with both hands near his hips before answering, “Yes, thank you.” He clicked his tongue, setting Andrew moving, and held his breath at the way his skin near her hands tingled. He’d have been better off riding all the way back to Black Hawk smelling the foul kid Henry. “What was in that pouch, anyway?” The tinkle of her soft giggle tickled his neck. “A dead fish.” “Really?” “Well, parts of one, anyway. I’d stuck it in there.” “Why?” “In case someone caught me tailing Mr. Edwards. I figured the smell would keep them at bay.” Clay had almost forgotten that part—that she was looking for Sam. “All this just to meet a miner?” “I’ve always wanted to meet a miner.” I’m a miner, Clay had an unusual urge to say, but of course didn’t. He’d asked Sam yesterday if he knew a young woman from Boston, but the boy had had no idea what he was talking about. So Clay had decided there was no reason for the two of them to meet, and all the more reason for him to send her back to Boston as soon as possible. He glanced heavenward, as if Oscar could see him. Why me? he asked. Why didn’t you leave someone else in charge of your will and your wayward grandson? Chapter Three Clay was still asking the same question the next evening when he sat across the fire pit from Sam outside a small cave not far from the Wanda Lou, the gold mine owned by the two of them and Oscar’s other grandchild, a young girl named Kit who lived in Chicago. It had started out simple enough. Nine years ago, he and Oscar had agreed to continue the partnership his father, Walt, and Oscar had formed years before. That joint venture had been for the Wanda Lou when she was little more than a hole in the side of Clear Creek Mountain—named for the creek that split to flow both eastward and westward off the mountaintop, and carried specks of gold all the way down on both sides. Staring into the light of the fire, watching the flames spout sparks into the air, Clay was more than a touch reflective, given all that had happened lately. And there was a wall of frustration in his head due to the fact he couldn’t get a set of big brown eyes out of his mind. She was in more places than his mind. That woman had gotten right under his skin. “So,” he asked, “you’ve never heard of Katherine Ackerman?” Sam let out a sigh. “I already told you, no. And I ain’t got no relatives in Boston. My pa didn’t have any family.” “And you were just in Black Hawk to sell your furs?” “Yep, got a good price for them, too.” Sam removed his hat to scratch his head, which was covered with an unruly mop of red hair. “Why would a woman from Boston want to talk to me?” Clay wished he knew. His gut said it was because of Sam’s inheritance. All in all, that came down to the only explanation. “You haven’t sent any wires? Discussed the will with anyone?” He’d already asked, and for the most part believed Sam when he said that he hadn’t. “No, why would I do that?” There was no reason, Clay knew. But he also knew Sam was relatively unknown, even in the mountains he’d lived in all seventeen years of his life. That was the way of most trappers, and Sam was especially shy around people. “Maybe she’s here to see your opera house,” Sam said. “Folks come from all over for that.” The unexpected tightening in his jaw had Clay shifting. The opera house was a part of Nevadaville and brought in a good income, so he’d buried the memories associated with it—and Miranda. Yet ever since Katherine had mentioned the playhouse, his past had started to haunt him again. Picked at his nerves like buzzards on a carcass. Maybe she’d met Miranda at one of the playhouses in Boston. Clay had no idea where the acting troupe was performing now. Perhaps Katherine had heard he was an easy target. She’d find out differently. He’d spent money on a woman once, and wouldn’t do it again. He’d grown up with next to nothing, and now that his mines were successful, he enjoyed sharing the wealth, investing in things that helped others prosper, but he wasn’t a fool. Once was enough. He’d learned a hard lesson. Clay’s insides recoiled. What was he thinking? Katherine wasn’t after him, she was after Sam. Just because Clay couldn’t get her off his mind didn’t mean the opposite was true. Furthermore, he’d bought her a ticket east, and told Reggie Green she had to use it. She was probably in Denver by now. Sam, poking a stick into the flames and sending sparks flying, glanced up with a deep frown. “Did you meet One Ear Bob?” “That trapper who was looking for you?” “Yeah.” The youngster kept stirring up the fire. “Pa knew him.” Clay sensed there was more behind Sam’s words, but knew he’d have a hell of a time getting anything more out. Sam had a shell as hard as an acorn’s. Clay let out a long breath. “No, I didn’t. Why, did he give you any trouble?” “No. He just wanted to know where I was living now.” Sam shook his head and then glanced up. “You thought any more about signing over the deed to this piece of land?” A gut reaction said there was more to One Ear Bob than that, and Clay made a mental note to poke around when he got back to town. “I told you, it’s not mine to give you,” he answered. “Yes, it is. This chunk of land is in the will, and you have control of it.” Sam tossed another log into the flames. “It’s all I want. You can keep everything else.” Clay squeezed his temples. “It doesn’t work like that, Sam. I can’t give it to you until you’re twenty-one.” The terms of the will had shocked him. As if he didn’t have enough to do, Oscar had saddled him with two underage wards. Thank goodness the other one, Kit, was back in Chicago, being looked after by Oscar’s lawyer, Theodore Watson. The lawyer had traveled to Colorado a year ago to tell Clay the terms of the will. Everything Oscar Becker owned was divided in half, between Sam and Kit, and until the two grandkids turned twenty-one, Clay was in charge of investing the earnings. Once the youngsters were old enough, he could either buy them out or take them on as partners. The whole thing was a mess he hadn’t expected. Then again, Oscar’s untimely death—a carriage accident in a rainstorm—had been a shock, too. Life was like that, throwing in things a person didn’t expect. Like Katherine Ackerman. “You could give it to me now,” Sam said. “If you really wanted to.” Clay pulled his mind back around. “I can’t. The will’s ironclad. If either you or Kit attempt to claim your share early, it’s to be sold to P. J. Nelson for a dollar.” “P.J.?” Clay didn’t comment. He should have stopped talking before saying the man’s name. That part of the will had surprised him, too, for if it happened, it would jeopardize everything Clay owned. Oscar would have known that, and, Clay fumed, had used it to make sure he kept close tabs on Sam. “P.J. ain’t nothing but a drunk.” “Maybe, but he was Oscar’s first partner, and Oscar said if there ever came a time when he no longer wanted the claim, he’d give P.J. first chance to buy it back. Guess he figured if you or Kit tried to mess with the will, it meant you don’t want it.” Clay didn’t mention he’d written to Theodore Watson six weeks ago, asking if there were any alternative options. Four more years of arguing with Sam over a small chunk of land was useless. Made no difference in the long run, and if he had his way, he’d put Sam’s name on the deed. Up until two years ago, Sam had lived in a shack in the mountains, never coming to town. His old man, little more than a hermit, had downright despised people of any kind ever since his wife, Amelia, who was Oscar’s daughter, had died. Leastwise that’s what Clay had heard. He hadn’t known anything about any of them until Sam had shown up at the Wanda Lou, claiming to be Oscar’s grandson. Clay had wired Oscar, who’d made the trip west immediately, and spent half of the next year trying to convince Sam to move to Chicago and live with him. “Sam,” Clay started, trying not to sound repetitive. “Why don’t you come to work at the mine, or the stamp mill, or even the railroad?” “Because I don’t want to work at any of those places,” Sam said, puffing out his narrow chest. “I’m a trapper.” Clay’s temples were now pounding. This was the same conversation he’d had with Sam for a year, and it was tiresome. Almost as wearing as Katherine had become the past two days. Kit pushed the ticket back under the little half-moon shape in the wire cage of the train depot ticket booth. “I will say this one more time. I don’t want this ticket, I want one to Nevadaville.” Smiling as if he couldn’t make another facial expression, the little bald-headed man, whose shiny black string tie rubbed on his Adam’s apple, pushed the ticket back toward her. “That’s the ticket that was purchased for you, ma’am. And the one I was instructed you’re to use.” “I don’t care about that, Mr….” She paused, waiting for his response. “Green. Reginald Green, at your service, ma’am.” His grin widened, exposing a plethora of oddly angled teeth. Kit shivered at the experience, but pushed the ticket back under the wire. “Mr. Green … Reginald,” she started sweetly. “I understand Mr. Hoffman purchased that ticket for me, but you see, he didn’t inquire about my plans prior to his purchase.” She pressed a hand to her chest. “I must see the opera house in Nevadaville before I head back East.” Stopping Mr. Green from sliding the ticket back in her direction with her fingertips, she pulled up a smile that hurt her cheeks. “I will accept this ticket after that. Until then, I need one to take me to Nevadaville.” Mr. Green had been shaking his head the entire time she’d been speaking. “I can’t sell you a ticket to Nevadaville, ma’am.” Keeping the smile plastered on her lips became increasingly difficult. “Why not?” “Because Cl—Mr. Hoffman said so. He said you might want to go to Nevadaville and I wasn’t supposed to sell you a ticket to there. I was to give this one to you and see you got on the train.” “Really?” The evening before last, when he’d dropped her off at the hotel, she’d almost grown to like Clay Hoffman. Actually, for a few hours she’d pondered all the wonderful things Gramps had said about him, and confirmed they were true. However, right now she loathed him more than before she’d met him—sky-blue eyes and all. She took a moment to get her anger under control and ignore the flutters that happened inside her at the memory of those eyes. The simple thought of that man did odd things to her. In some ways it reminded her of the giddiness she experienced when opening a new book. “Tell me, Mr. Green, is Mr. Hoffman your boss? Does he own the railroad?” she asked, ready to declare the man had no right— Mr. Green’s “Yes” stalled her thoughts. “Yes to what?” “Yes, he’s my boss, and yes, he owns the railroad.” Startled to the point that her breathing stopped, she asked, “H-he does?” Mr. Green was still smiling brightly, teeth and all. “Yes, he does.” “He owns the Colorado Central Railroad?” she asked for clarification. “Yes, ma’am.” With a bout of fury, she picked up the ticket and ripped it in half. Twice. “Fine.” Laying the pieces back on the counter, she lifted her chin. “I’m sure there’s another way for me to get to Nevadaville.” Mr. Green’s smile faded. “Not really, ma’am.” She cast a severe gaze his way. Gulping until his Adam’s apple sat on top of his tie, Mr. Green said, “Well, there’s the wagon road, but there are places they gotta tie ropes around trees and stumps to keep the wagons from tumbling over the edge, and of course, the horses gotta wear blinders, especially while crossing the bridges.” It was Kit’s turn to gulp. “I wouldn’t recommend traveling that way. Besides, the only wagons that traverse the road are Cl—Mr. Hoffman’s, and he most likely wouldn’t want you traveling on them.” She spun, huffing as she took a few steps, but then stopped and stomped back to the ticket booth. “Tell me, Mr. Green, what else does Mr. Hoffman own?” “Here or in Nevadaville?” Hiding the surprise rippling her spine, she crossed her arms. As if the thought just came to him, Mr. Green pointed a shaky finger. “He doesn’t own any of the saloons.” “How honorable,” she spat, spinning on her heels. “He doesn’t own Miss Clarice’s society house, either. She does. But he built it for her.” Kit closed her eyes, regaining her composure. Black Hawk was more than a small town, and she could only imagine Nevadaville was similar in size. It wasn’t a city like Chicago or Denver, but it had several businesses, and the streets were made of cobblestones to keep the mud and dust down. She cast her gaze up and down, glancing at buildings of all sizes and shapes built on the hillside, while she waited for the traffic to clear so she could cross the road from the train station to the boardwalk that led to the two-story hotel she’d been staying at. How could one man own all this? Reginald Green must not know what he was talking about. Her grandfather had been a wealthy man, but not even he owned an entire town. A slow-moving thought had her scanning the town again. Or did he? She’d read the will, several times, but all it said was all Gramps’s holdings were to be divided equally between her and Sam. That could include a town and a railroad. Clay Hoffman was Gramps’s partner. Had been for years. Swallowing a sudden attack of sadness, wishing Grandpa was here so she could ask him, Kit squared her shoulders. Both he and Grandma had been tight-lipped about Colorado. She’d only recognized the name Black Hawk because Grandma Katie had let it slip one time. Was that because they didn’t want anyone to know how wealthy they were? How wealthy Kit now was? Grandma always said it was best for women not to know their worth, for it often drew uncouth and undesirable men. Actually, in Grandma’s eyes everything drew men, therefore Kit had never been allowed to do anything. Her gaze landed on the old Indian sitting on the front porch of the mercantile. The man waved, and she fluttered a hand his way and then stepped back so a wagon hid her from other onlookers. Running Bear had confirmed that Clay lived in Nevadaville, and Sam as well. Naturally, it had cost her another package of chewing gum. The traffic continued to flow by without the slightest break for her to cross the street. Another thought made her frown. Who was Miss Clarice and what was a society house? Kit’s heart skipped a few beats. Could it be a house of ill repute? Certainly Grandpa hadn’t owned one of those. He could have visited one, though, and that could be how Sam came to be. It was a disquieting thought, but over the past several months she’d thought of that possibility more than once—for ultimately, there were few other answers. Sam had to be Grandpa’s son. Her uncle. And she wasn’t leaving here until she met him, scandal be damned. The curse had her sending up a silent plea for forgiveness—but if she had family, she had a right to know. More than that, she needed to know. She hated the feeling of being totally alone in the world. The train whistle sounded, indicating that the locomotive pulling a passenger car, two freight cars and a small green caboose would soon leave the station and head for Nevadaville without her. Kit turned, eyed the cars closely, thoughtfully, and then scanned the area for Mr. Green. The little booth was empty. Convinced her sudden idea was a good one, she hitched up her skirt and hurried past the passenger car, as well as the wooden freight cars. Steam shot out from under the wheels, forming a cloud around her as the whistle sounded again. It made her jump, but she kept her nerve. The freight conductor, the one who sat in the little square pilothouse on top of the last car, was already there, looking over the tops of the cars and paying no attention to the ground below. Kit hurried forward, grabbing the metal sidebar and pulling herself onto the small platform at the very back of the train as the wheels creaked and shuddered. She tucked her skirt between her legs to climb over the rail, and then dashed through the doorway. Heart pounding, she glanced out the window as she closed the door, to assure no one had witnessed her unfashionable boarding. Success made her smile, but moments later, when the little caboose shook as the wheels started to rumble, memories of her last train ride flashed in her mind. Her grin faded and a bubble formed in her throat. Pressing both hands over her eyes, she moaned, “Oh, no.” Clay caught the rail of the caboose at a run and pulled himself onto the little platform. He paused, peering through the window, as his fingers grasped the door. She was sitting on the bench, but had her head hanging between her knees. He’d been watching, had seen her arguing with Reggie Green, and wasn’t surprised when she’d sneaked on board, nor was he surprised that she stayed down, not wanting anyone to notice. Katherine Ackerman was one determined woman. His hand went to his front pocket, where the medicine bag he’d bought from Running Bear was tucked. This morning, after leaving Sam’s cave, Clay had taken the early train to Black Hawk, claiming he needed to oversee the delivery of the new boiler, whereas in reality, though he barely admitted it to himself, he wanted to see if she had left. And again, not something he was overly willing to divulge, he was glad she hadn’t. Though he still wouldn’t let her get near Sam. The train picked up speed, chugging and clanging, and the clatter disguised the sound of the door opening. Once inside, Clay closed the door, half wondering what to do next. Anger at how she’d scampered aboard was nonexistent. A hint of admiration was playing about inside him instead. Small as it was, the caboose hosted only a tiny wood stove near the back wall and two long benches along the sides. The entire car swung left and right, rattling and shaking as the train picked up momentum. Katherine let out a little yelp and one hand moved to the bench beside her knee, grasping tightly. He sat on the seat opposite her, their knees almost touching across the tiny aisle. Clay found himself wishing he could see more than the top of the little blue-and-white hat covering those glorious golden waves that had fluttered around her face and shoulders back on the mountainside. It was only four miles to Central City, and then another three to Nevadaville, but the train had to wind around the mountain to get there, making the ride a bit longer. The way she quivered said her nerves were already getting the best of her. Perplexing, considering the trail she’d traversed on horseback. Maybe it was for show. Maybe she knew he was sitting across from her, and this was just another part of her act. A clatter and clang had her jolting, and then the great clunking and banging of the wheels making a sharp turn had her snapping her head up. Clay held in a flinch at her paleness. No one was that good an actress, and his heart thudded in response. She was a beauty, no man could deny that—even with a tint of seasick-green covering her cheeks. As if not sure what they saw, the big brown eyes staring at him closed for a moment and then opened again. “Miss Ackerman,” he said in greeting. Her groan was accompanied with a slow and distraught headshake as she pressed a hand to her forehead. “I’d forgotten,” she whispered. Plenty of people grew sick riding the train up the mountain. The motion and altitude took some getting used to. Her head once again lowered to hang over her knees. Clay leaned across the small space, drawing back a hand moments before it could touch her knee. “Forgotten what?” “How treacherous these train rides are.” Coupling the fear of heights he’d sensed back on the trail with the train ride, he felt compassion opening up inside him. With little thought, he moved across the aisle and sat down next to her. Resting a hand in the middle of her back, he assured her, “You’re safe.” She shook her head. “If one of these cars came loose we’d plunge to the bottom of the mountain and never be found.” Clay glanced over his shoulder, out the window to where the houses, commercial buildings, even people moving about in Black Hawk looked like a miniature world. Others had made the same statement she just had, and he’d laughed it off, but the shakiness of her voice indicated real fear. Protectiveness sprang up inside him. “That won’t happen,” he answered. “You have my word on it.” “How could you stop it?” She had yet to lift her head, and beneath his fingers her body trembled. There was something about this woman that got to him, and not just her unease right now. From the moment they’d met he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her, almost as if she’d had the key and opened that deeply guarded compartment inside him he’d long ago secured away. Exposing the things long hidden there was not something he was prepared to do, so he blocked the thought from his mind and dug in one pocket. “I have something for you,” he said. “I know. A ticket to Boston.” Her groan made him chuckle. “No, Mr. Green still has that.” Opening one eye, she cast a wary gaze toward Clay, head still down, face still white. He dangled the medicine bag by the leather strap. A faint, wobbly smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Inching upward, she trapped his hand on her back between her and the wall. “My amulet,” she whispered. “How’d you—” “It’s not the same one you lost. But it’s similar.” He leaned closer and whispered, “This one doesn’t stink.” As she let out an adorable half gasp, half giggle, he eased the leather strap over her head, careful of the little hat and the pins holding her thick curls in place. “There, now you’re safe. I apologize for making you lose the other one.” A hint of color appeared on her cheeks as she fingered the bag gently. “Thank you.” The train rounded the hill, and the sound of the whistle announcing the upcoming depot prevented him from responding. Which was all right, since he had no idea what to say. The sincerity in her voice had sucker punched his heart. Biting her bottom lip, she closed her eyes again as the train slowed to a crawl near the big drum of water towering over the tracks, marking Central City. He didn’t have a moment to speak then, either, because the door in the center of the roof opened and brown boots caught the first rung of the ladder. Beneath Clay’s fingers, Katherine’s trembling increased, and he rubbed her back in a wide circle. “What—” Looking dumbfounded, Ty Reins, dressed in his gray-and-white-striped bib overalls and matching hat, glanced around the small area. “Clay, I didn’t know you were riding in here.” “It’s not as crowded as the passenger car,” he answered. The way Katherine’s eyes snapped open, and the shock on her face, said she knew he’d just covered up the fact she’d sneaked on board, and the bashful fall of her lashes had his blood moving a bit faster. Clay, about to introduce the two, bit his tongue as she asked the man, “What do you do up there?” “Keep a lookout for falling rocks and other things that could derail the train,” Ty responded. Clay groaned inwardly. It was what the man did, but the way Ty had said it was sure to increase her fears. “Which rarely happens,” Clay said, rubbing her back again. The touch of velvet beneath his fingers, not to mention the heat of her body, was rather addictive. Ty chuckled. “That’s right. It rarely happens. Nothing to worry about, miss.” She nodded, but Clay sensed it was out of obligation, not belief. “We’ll only be here a few minutes,” he assured her. The conductor pointed toward the little overhead door. “You want to ride in the pilothouse? You can see forever up there.” Clay wanted to shake the man. “No. No, thank you,” Katherine said nervously. “The caboose is just fine.” She tugged at the high, ruffled neckline of her white silk blouse. “D-down here. Down here is just fine.” “All right,” Ty said, shrugging his massive shoulders and giving Clay a nod that said he’d tried. “We’ll be heading out in another minute or two. Just had to drop off the mail here in Central.” “Thanks, Ty,” Clay said, nodding toward the pilothouse door. Right on cue the screeching whistle blew, and the man swung around to grasp the ladder again. “How long will it take us to get to Nevadaville?” Katherine asked in a shaky whisper. “It’s only a couple of miles,” Clay answered, as an overwhelming urge to grasp her waist and pull her closer to his side had his fingers moving over the blue velvet of her dress again. “Course, we gotta go all the way around before we stop,” Ty added, with one foot on the bottom rung of the ladder. “Around?” she asked. “Yeah. Nevadaville is the end of the line. The track makes a loop at the top of the mountain so we’re headed back in the right direction.” “Thanks, Ty,” Clay repeated, slipping his hand down to the small of her back as her shivers returned. He nodded toward the trapdoor again, half wondering how the conductor couldn’t sense how deeply afraid she was. Smiling brightly, the man said, “Some folks get scared on account of all the bridges. They’re loud but they’re safe. Built real solid. Ask Clay, there. He’ll tell you.” “Bridges?” Her voice was a mere squeak. “Yeah,” Ty answered. “We gotta cross Clear Creek a few times and—” “It’s time you got back in the pilothouse, Ty,” Clay said sternly. With a dip of his hat, the man climbed the ladder and closed the door. Clay scooted a bit closer, inching his arm all the way around her until his palm cupped the swell of her hip. “There isn’t anything to worry ab out.” The whistle sounded once more, and with a bout of hissing steam floating past the windows, the train, clanging and banging, pulled away from the station. Clay waited until the chugging grew smooth again before asking, “You haven’t ridden on many trains, have you?” She shook her head. “This is my first trip anywhere.” There was more than a hint of loneliness in her tone, and that made the desire to hold her close grow stronger. Clay was a caring man; he understood that. Had to be, with Oscar’s demands and Clarice’s overflowing heart. Yet the immediate attraction and level of desire he felt for this woman was uncanny. His past had left him with very little trust for any woman. A frown formed as she continued to gaze up at him. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “I thought you were in Nevadaville.” “I’m having a new boiler delivered. I came down on the morning train to look it over.” The tale flowed out easy enough, after all the times he’d repeated it to himself. A thunderous, echoing rumble signaled the start of one of the bridge crossings, and with a nervous screech Katherine burrowed into his side. “Shh,” he whispered, liking the feel of her next to him probably more than he should. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” “That’s what I’m afraid of,” she answered timidly. “The nothingness below us.” He grinned and, holding her close, set a knuckle under her chin, intending to pull her face up and assure her the train wasn’t going to derail. Yet when those big brown eyes peered up at him, a completely different thought overtook him. Kit’s heart landed in the back of her throat and the air in her lungs sat right there, unable to move, just like the rest of her body. She knew they were still on the train—the rumble beneath her said that. But Clay’s hands softly holding her, and his eyes looking at her in a mesmerizing way, seemed to transport her into some kind of dreamland where thinking coherently grew impossible. He moved then, slightly forward, and his lips brushed over her forehead, as soft as a feather. Yet they sent a hum through her body. A clump of air left her lungs and rattled in the back of her throat as his lips dropped lower, touched her eyelid, which had somehow closed. His lips brushed her nose next, then her cheeks, and by then her entire body was humming. Instinct told her to move, and she did. She tilted her head up and pressed her lips to his. The connection was unique, and tantalizing. It happened several times, their lips meeting. Each touch was gentle, unhurried and so tender it drew her full attention. There was excitement in those kisses, too, and they set off a spark inside her, yet even that was soothing in a fascinating way she couldn’t describe. She nestled closer, not wanting the kisses to end, and gladly immersed herself in an absorbing journey that took her to a fantasyland not even books had told her about. When he lifted his head and tucked hers beneath his chin, she was still floating in that once-upon-a-time place, and unwilling to leave, she snuggled against his broad chest, swaying with the gentle rocking beneath them. Never before could she remember feeling so content and safe, almost as if this was the one place she’d always been searching for. It wasn’t until the train rolled to a stop that Kit lifted her head, still half-dizzy or dazed in the stardust world she’d entered. Add that to the smile on the handsome face peering down at her and it was almost impossible to remember where she was. Who she was. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked. “No, it wasn’t bad at all,” she answered, not quite sure what he was referring to. With a thud, Mr. Reins seemed to drop down from the ceiling, grinning broadly. “There, now, lass,” he said kindly. “I told you not to worry. The bridges are strong.” The narrow wooden bridges she’d traversed on the way to Black Hawk, crossing never-ending ravines that seemed too deep to host bridge supports, came to mind. She hadn’t noticed one on this trip. Her gaze went to Clay and her mind took to wondering if they had kissed, or if it was some kind of fantasy her fear had conjured up so she wouldn’t have to face the terrifying experience of crossing the bridges again. “Come on,” Clay said, taking her hand and helping her to her feet. He led her to the door and gently guided her down a set of metal steps she hadn’t noticed before. Once her feet hit solid ground, her composure returned—somewhat—as did her awareness of her state of affairs. “I left my luggage in Black Hawk.” She flinched, wondering why that had leaped to the front of her mind. “Ty,” Clay said, “collect the lady’s luggage, would you? It’s at the hotel.” Mr. Reins nodded. “Sure thing, boss. I’ll bring it over on the six-thirteen.” “Thanks,” Clay said, before leading her off the platform. “This way. Let’s get you settled in The Gold Mine. It’s the best hotel on the entire mountain. Mimmie Mae will have some tea she can brew up for you. How’s that sound?” A cup of hot, fortifying tea sounded downright heavenly, especially considering all the confusing thoughts popping in her head like a sinkful of soap bubbles. While many disappeared as quickly as they formed, a couple stayed, causing her to turn abruptly. “Mr. Reins,” she called, stopping the man from climbing into one of the cargo cars. “Yes, ma’am?” She swept her gaze to the little lookout on top of the caboose. “You be careful riding up there.” Thinking about the railroad man gave her mind something to do while thoughts of Clay and how he still held her arm continued to rattle and crash into one another. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926674&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.