Authors: Heather Blanton
McIntyre all but snatched
the messages from Emilio’s hand and read them quickly. He held one in each
hand, contemplating the answers. One told him the circuit preacher was over in
Mineral Point. Reverend Potter would be more than happy to perform the wedding
anytime in the next three weeks. After that, he was headed to Pagosa Springs
and wouldn’t be back this way for another six weeks.
The other confirmed his
worst fears. After Emilio reported seeing One-Who-Cries in the vicinity,
McIntyre had sent a telegram to his old friend, Chief Ouray, to determine the
state of affairs at the White River Reservation. But Ouray knew that McIntyre
was really asking about the state of mind of the renegade. The chief’s response
burned like a volcano in McIntyre’s blood:
Seven braves have left
reservation. Now ride with One-Who-Cries. More death coming.
McIntyre lifted his gaze to
the valley around them, struck by the different paths each telegram
represented. One foretold of a peaceful life full of the things most men
desire—a good wife, beautiful children, a fine home. The other drew him back to
a hard life, one rife with violence and justice meted out without mercy.
The hate that he held for
One-Who-Cries boiled close to the surface, and this disturbed him. But the
screams still echoed in his head. The loss still lingered in his heart. He
wanted justice from the renegade, to see the life drain out of him. Even more,
he wanted to be the one to pull the trigger. He shouldn’t want those things, he
knew, not as a man of faith who left vengeance and justice to God.
But maybe some things, a man
had to handle himself.
Hannah sniffed the yarrow Emilio held out to her. The flower had a
sweet, spicy scent. “Mmm. It smells nice.”
He took the plant and laid
it on the kitchen table in front of them. A week after their unfinished hunt,
he had gone on his own and returned with several bunches of the aromatic herb.
He said he hadn’t seen any further sign of the Indian. Not that Hannah was
worried, but she was glad to hear it, just the same.
“There are different ways to
prepare it.” He grabbed a plant and started tearing the fern-like leaves from
the stem. “Depends on the time of year.”
His hands worked with skill.
After watching him for a moment, Hannah reached out and grabbed a flower of her
own to strip. He flashed a fleeting smile but concentrated hard on the flower.
They worked in silence for a bit, but Hannah’s mind whirled. She was enjoying
sitting in the quiet kitchen alone with Emilio, but something had definitely
shifted in their friendship. Usually, they could chat up a storm. Now, though,
she thought there were volumes of things being said without either one of them
uttering a word. She found it maddening.
“Did you enjoy your ride out
to the meadow?”
Emilio nodded. “
the weather was very nice.”
Again, more silence.
“Emilio, how old are you?”
she asked, wondering how much more small talk she could manage.
He shrugged as he took a
knife and cut the blossom off the stem he had just stripped. “I don’t know,
seventeen, maybe eighteen.”
With his unstable home life,
if one could use such a gentle term, she wasn’t surprised that he didn’t know
his exact age. A lot of people out West had lost track of such things. “Do you
know when your birthday is?”
Emilio paused and stared off
into space. “No, not really.” But then he smiled broadly, remembering a clue.
“It is in the spring, though. I know that much.”
“Well, we’ll just have to
pick a date and throw a party.” She laid her hand over his as excitement
bubbled up in her like a fountain. The idea had just leapt to mind, and she was
glad of it. “We’re way overdue for a party. What about the end of the month,
before the Flowers take the stage out?”
He glanced at her hand and
then back to her face. He was so close she could smell the scent of leather and
pine on him, mixed with the tangy yarrow. She put her hand over her heart,
afraid Emilio could hear it racing.
Confused by her own
reaction, she quickly grabbed another piece of the herb. “We could put up
lanterns out back,” she said, wishing the nervous wiggle in her voice would subside.
“We could ask Shorty Johnson to come and play his banjo. It would be a
wonderful party, with dancing and food.”
Emilio didn’t say anything,
but she could sense him still watching her as she plucked the tiny leaves.
Finally, he said, “Hannah, how is it that … I mean—” He broke off, hesitated,
and started over. “I mean, you seem so nice. You’re not like the girls at the
Iron Horse. So how did you …?”
. She figured out what he was trying to ask and decided to help
him along. “So how did I wind up with a baby and no husband?” She turned to
him, and he flinched a little at her brusque tone.
It was her turn to shrug.
“Billy Page was the most handsome boy in town. He was wealthy, and all the
girls in town were after him.” She twirled the flower in her hands, ashamed of
Was I really that empty-headed?
All those reasons for caring
about someone seemed so ridiculously trite now after everything she’d been
through in the last year. “But he picked me. He lavished me with attention,
made me feel so special.” She shook her head, embarrassed she’d ever been so
gullible. But she was at least grateful for Little Billy. “I bought it all,
hook-line-and-sinker. I thought he was so in love with me and that we had
Perhaps Emilio heard the
shame and regret. This time, he covered her hand with his, and regarded her
with an expression full of tenderness. “
are special. Very special.
He just wasn’t smart enough to realize it.”
Emilio leaned toward her and
she closed her eyes, waiting for a kiss that seemed as natural as breathing.
But the movement took him to his feet instead. She blinked, surprised that she
was both embarrassed and disappointed.
“I—I have to go run errands
for Mr. McIntyre,” he said, practically tripping over his chair. “I’ll be back
to finish this up.”
Hannah opened her mouth to
speak, but no words escaped.
It didn’t matter. Emilio was
McIntyre tapped the engagement ring on his desk.
The sound ricocheted like a rifle shot in the silence of the Iron
Horse. The ring with a modest emerald once belonged to his mother and had made
its way to him in a box of her things, shortly after her death. He wished she
could have met Naomi, seen the direction his life was headed now. Part of him
suspected that his mother had always known. Her faith had been rock solid.
She would have approved of
McIntyre had known the
moment he’d heard about the party that this was the night to ask her. The question
he wrangled with now was
. Should he make it a quiet, private
request? Or should he do the bended knee in front of everyone? Showmanship
wasn’t part of his personality, but asking her that way struck him as noble and
honorable. It would hold him publicly accountable to be a decent man and good
The snort of derision from
his condemning past was almost audible. It sat in the room with him like a
lurking shadow. After all, his audacity was astounding. Who was he to think he
could make Naomi happy? What if he wound up bored by the sedate, responsible
lifestyle? What if he decided he wasn’t really meant for monogamy? What if his
past was too much for her?
Frustrated by these
questions, he nearly flung the ring across the room. But something stopped him.
He waited and after a moment, heard, or rather felt the words:
any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away, behold,
all things are become new.
Naomi had urged him repeatedly in the past few
weeks to hold on to that Scripture. And he would try, because in that direction
He didn’t relish the
McIntyre stood on the back stoop for a moment, enjoying the sight
of his prospective bride laughing with her sisters, and Ian and Emilio. He was
pleased to see that Naomi had again passed on her usual braid and left her hair
free and flowing. Captivated by the joy shining in her eyes, not to mention the
perfect fit of her pink paisley dress, he watched her with a hunger far more
than physical. He’d never be able to make her understand how much he loved her.
How could he? He didn’t understand it himself.
Grudgingly, he dropped his
perusal of her and admired the decorations. A string of glowing paper lanterns
ran from the stoop over to one corner of the chicken coop, to a makeshift log
support, and back, framing the backyard in a large, glowing square. Fried
chicken, venison, mouth-watering fixings, and a birthday cake covered the
kitchen table now sitting at the edge of the party. Shorty and Bud, staged in
the back of a wagon with their fiddle and banjo, filled the air with a
sprightly version of “Dixie.” A small bonfire burned at the center of the
activities for light and warmth. McIntyre’s former Flowers—Lily, Iris, Jasmine,
and Daisy—stood near the musicians, smiling and tapping their toes.
He eyed the younger, paler
Flower and corrected himself.
went by her real name now.
was no longer a Flower blooming in his brothel. Instead, she lived here at the
hotel, blossoming in her new-found faith. His other girls, retired by him, had
been spending hours here with Mollie and the sisters getting new clothes made
to hide their past. Tonight, they wore simple cotton dresses with high
necklines. They could now pass for any respectable women, with no telltale
signs of their former vocation visible.
While he was pleased the
girls were getting out of the business, he hated the part he’d played getting
them into it. He hoped when they took the stage out of here, they’d leave
Defiance and everything it had done to them in the dust. Maybe someday he could
That reminded him, the stage
was a good four hours late. Not unusual for the first one of the season. The
roads, in places, were still covered in deep, melting slush. He hated dreading
the arrival of each and every stagecoach. He truly hoped Naomi was up to facing
the inevitable passengers.
Shaking off the thought, he
reminded himself that this was a party. McIntyre descended the steps and strode
over to the group. He appreciated the warm greetings from Ian and the sisters,
but it was that glow in Naomi’s eyes that made him hope he
a better man. Bowing, he took her hand. “May I have this dance, your ladyship?”
Naomi clutched his fingers
without hesitation. McIntyre led her around to the other side of the fire,
closer to the musicians, and winked at Shorty. “I need a slow waltz, boys. And
make it last a few minutes.”
The musicians started a
haunting rendition of “Annie Laurie,” as McIntyre tilted his hat back. Smiling
at Naomi with his best roguish grin, he pulled her close and watched the color
rush to her cheeks. He couldn’t help but remember the first time he’d ever seen
her. Dirty and weary from the trail, that long braid tumbling down her back
like Rapunzel’s, she was still spirited enough even after months of travel to
be offended by a nude painting.
“The day you walked into my
saloon, you blushed,” smirking, he added, “over the painting of Eve.”
Naomi shook her head and
donned a stern expression as they danced near the fire. “Yes, I remember that
lewd thing. I’m glad she’s gone.”
“Oh, but Eve was the perfect
One of Naomi’s brows rose,
expressing her doubt.
“She wasn’t any trouble,” he
teased. “She never sassed me, never acted as if she were better than me—”
“Never took a shot at you.”
He flinched dramatically to
keep the mood light. “Well, there is that.” The fresh bullet scar on his
shoulder twinged with the memory. “I don’t miss Eve
Rose. But you,
well …” He stared over her head, pretending utter consternation. “I just don’t
understand it. What would possess me to settle on the most stubborn, prideful
woman God ever made?”
Naomi frowned and stepped on
a polished boot tip, lingering long enough to let him know it was an
intentional misstep. “Oh, I am so sorry,” she deadpanned. “I suppose I’m out of
His roguish grin
reappearing, he lowered his lips to her cheek. In no hurry, he slowly traced
her jaw back to her ear, enjoying with great satisfaction the instant hitch in
her breath and the way she yielded to his touch. “I told you I can remedy that,
princess,” he whispered huskily, nuzzling her ear, “with eagerness.”
For an instant, she felt
almost limp in his arms, as if she were melting. Surprising him, though, she
abruptly pushed him away as far as her arms would reach, creating a space
between them wide enough for a plow horse to step through. “Why, I think we
should start lessons right now, Mr. McIntyre.” She followed his steps, but kept
her arms stiff and straight as they danced, fighting a smile all the while. Ian
and Rebecca joined the dance and waltzed pass them with quizzical expressions.
“I assume this means, Your
Worship, you plan to keep me at arm’s length?” He obligingly respected the
space between them as he took two steps back and spun her.
Naomi raised her chin
haughtily and peered off into the darkness. “Until you learn to appreciate me.”
He thought that over for a
second, then snatched her up and held her close with a grip so firm a gasp
escaped her. He studied her face intently, determined to memorize every line.
“I don’t believe I am interested, Mrs. Miller, in ever letting anything come between
us. Not now, not ever.”
The starch evaporated from
her, and she relaxed in his arms. “I’m going to hold you to that.”
“I expect you will.”
And with that, he knew the
moment was right. He had rehearsed the words, run the scene through his head,
and imagined her speechless, euphoric nod. He had two weeks to get the Reverend
here. Sooner, if Naomi was agreeable. And they would be wed.
The fiddle began fading as
the song neared its end, and McIntyre swatted down unexpected butterflies,
irritated that they’d taken flight at all. He stopped dancing, released one of
Naomi’s hands, and motioned to Shorty to hold off on the next song. He touched
the pocket of his green silk vest to make sure the ring was still there.
Necessities in place, he dipped his chin at Ian. Reading the signal, his friend
pulled Rebecca to a stop and motioned toward McIntyre and Naomi. The former
Flowers, Hannah, and Emilio all turned to them as well, sensing something.
interrupted only by the crackling fire. McIntyre squeezed Naomi’s hand and
stepped back. A deep
formed in her brow as an amused, but perplexed,
smile played on her lips. As his muscles flexed to take him to one knee,
beginning to lower him, Naomi’s gaze unexpectedly shot past him to something
over his shoulder. The color drained from her face.
McIntyre froze. Before he
could react to her shock, a huge grin returned the glow to her cheeks. She
clapped her hands excitedly and bounced past him, squealing, “Matthew!”
Matthew Miller stood in the shadows watching the party
Anger squeezed his big hands
into fists. He’d gone to so much trouble to get things ready, building a house,
hiring a maid, leaving a questionable man in charge of his mill. The trip here
hadn’t exactly been a cake walk, either. He’d breathed coal smoke for days on
the train, then high-tailed it like a mad dog to catch the first stagecoach
in—a stagecoach he’d been obliged to help dig out of a snowdrift. Through it
all, he’d scrambled to Defiance like a man on fire, and here they were having a
Jealousy coiled around
Matthew’s heart as he watched Naomi dancing with some fancy-dressed tinhorn.
There was no mistaking the fire in his eyes. Or hers. So what now?
As he pondered the
situation, the man holding Naomi motioned for the fiddle player to stop. He
then waved to the older gentleman dancing with Rebecca and they stopped as
well. Sensing something, the other guests halted their conversations.
Matthew realized the
possibility unfolding before him and panic shocked his nerves.
He hadn’t come all this way just to get here in time to kiss the
. He forced himself to calm his breathing, to settle his
mind. Whoever this dude was, Matthew still had one ace up his sleeve that no
man on the earth could compete with, at least not anymore. He straightened up
to his full six-foot-six-inch stature, rolled his head once to loosen his neck
muscles, and eased out of the shadows.