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Authors: Lacy Williams

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BOOK: Marrying Miss Marshal
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“Hmm.” Penny appeared to be lost in thought for a moment, leaning her head on one gloved hand while she gazed into the window. “Perhaps I'll wait to buy the bonnet.” Penny said, giving her parasol a twirl.

Merritt, who hadn't said a word to Danna yet, grasped her friend's elbow and leaned close to murmur something in Penny's ear.

“Miss Harding reminds me that we're committed to tea with my mother this morning. Mr. O'Grady, it was a pleasure to meet you. I hope we'll meet again. Marshal.”

The two women walked off arm in arm, Penny shooting a final saucy wink over her shoulder toward O'Grady.

Danna shook her head as she moved past her new deputy and opened the jail door.

“I knocked earlier but there was no answer. I wasn't sure if I should go in and wait for you… I wasn't trying to engage those young ladies in conversation.”

“You don't have to make excuses to me.” She moved behind her desk, noting the floor was particularly dusty this morning and could use a good sweeping.

“I wasn't. I don't— I'm not interested in female companionship.”

Danna shot a look at him and noted his face had
flushed so darkly that his freckles were entirely obscured. “What you do when you're off-duty is none of my concern.”

“I'm not interested,” his words emerged stiffly now. “I have a job to do, and that's all I care about.”

“Fine.” She shrugged and pulled open the top desk drawer. The items inside it clinked together and she drew out one of the tin stars. She flipped it onto the desk. “Yours.”

He picked it up, looking down at the silvery badge for a long moment. “Why did you become marshal, anyway?”

“Because I was asked.” She didn't mean to be short with him, but the events of the morning had worn her nerves thin.

O'Grady exhaled loudly. “I think we've gotten off on the wrong foot this morning. Shall we start over? Morning, Miss Marshal.”

She glanced up at him quickly, at his teasing reference to her title, but he didn't seem disrespectful. He extended one hand for her to shake.

She took it, and warmth ran all the way up her arm. She couldn't keep her gaze from meeting Chas's, and his blue eyes reflected the same awareness that was in hers.

There was something between them.

She dropped his hand and hurried to fill the coffeepot Fred had always kept going on the stove. The familiar motions soothed her, and when she finally sat down behind the desk, she was able to appear composed. She hoped. Chas took the chair near the door, clearing his throat.

She shuffled the stack of Wanted posters on the corner of the desk. The silence now stretching
between them was awkward, but she didn't know how to bridge it.

“Where'd the two yahoos from yesterday go?” Chas asked, jerking his thumb toward the two empty cells.

“I had to let them go once they sobered up.”

He nodded, drummed his fingers on his knee. “It seems like a hard job for a woman.”

She answered him in a softer tone than she'd used earlier. “My husband…used to be the marshal. I was one of his deputies.”

“How did he die?”

“He was murdered.”

He didn't ask if she'd caught Fred's killer yet, for which she was thankful. She didn't want to talk about Fred.

“And you were asked to be marshal? What about the other deputies?”

He didn't have to speak the words for her to hear
What about the male deputies.
She frowned. “I'm sure the town council considered all options, but when they came to me and offered me the job, I couldn't refuse.”

“Did none of the other men want to work with you?”

She gave him a speaking look. If they had, she wouldn't have needed him, would she?

“Did you…do something to them? Alienate them somehow?”

She threw her hands up, tone turning exasperated. “Other than being born a woman? I worked mostly with my husband, but I have worked with the other men on occasion. Either they think I'm not competent to be marshal without Fred's support, or they've been paid off.” She said the last part in jest. No one in Calvin would do that. Why would they?

She turned the tables on him. “Tell me about
yourself, Chas O'Grady. I should know something about my new employee, shouldn't I?”

He shrugged, but his gaze dropped to the leg he crossed over his knee. “I'm from Boston. Have been a detective the past five and a half years. My mother and father still live in the East.”

“No siblings?”

“One living. A younger sister. May we get down to business now? What would you have me do today?”

His choice of words was telling—he had another sibling who had died. As was the fact that he wanted to change the subject, but she allowed it.

“I thought we could ride out to some of the smaller homesteads today and ask about missing cattle. If there really is rustling going on, I have a responsibility to find out.”

And it still irked her that the ranchers hadn't reported any missing cattle to her. She was the marshal. She was supposed to take care of those kinds of things.

Plus, by making the rounds of the ranches in the area, she would have a chance to watch for those funny-shaped tracks she'd seen at the site of Fred's murder.

“Fine.” He stood and pinned the tin star to his chest. “I'll need a horse.”

She'd already thought of that. “My husband's horse is stabled at the livery. You can borrow her until you leave town.”

It was best to remind herself that he'd be leaving soon. That way maybe she could keep her heart from getting too attached to her attractive new deputy.

Chapter Six

“P
erhaps this time we should try something different. That last man, Gill, knew something. I'm almost sure of it.” Chas tried to affect a tentative tone as he offered the suggestion, but he was afraid his irritation leaked out.

At the last two small farms they'd visited, Danna had insisted on accompanying him out to the barn to talk with the men—who hadn't wanted to give any information in her presence. They'd been polite, but hadn't offered one piece of information helpful to Chas or his case.

“What do you mean?” Danna's terse question echoed his own frustration.

“Keep in mind this is just a suggestion…but what if you remained inside and visited with the woman of the house?”

Danna's looked at him askance. “You want me to pay a social call?”

He lifted his shoulders. “Not exactly. Just talk for a bit. She might even offer some news that we could use.”

“But you've never even met Mr. Early.”

“That's all right. It might be easier to talk him round to the information we need without a woman present.”

“But I've never gone visiting in my life!” she burst out.

“Never?” How could that be? She was a woman, wasn't she? Wasn't that what women
did?
His sister loved to gossip with her friends and never missed a chance to pay social calls.

Watching Danna's trim figure out of the side of his vision, he still couldn't believe he'd first mistaken her for a man. Even in the men's trousers and shirt, there was no disguising her womanly form. She was just too shapely. She moved with the horse, her natural grace evident.

She flushed under his scrutiny. “I'm not like other women.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that that is true.”

She sucked in a breath, face creasing, and he realized how she might have taken his statement the wrong way.

“Wait— I didn't mean—” Chas stifled the urge to curse. “Let's not have another misunderstanding like the first night we met.”

She glared at him.

“Let me explain.”

Finally, she nodded.

He went on quickly, before she could change her mind. “Obviously, I've never met a woman who dressed…” he waved a hand to encompass her from head to toe “…like that. Or can break up a fight between two drunken men. And I'd be willing to wager you can outshoot me, as well.”

She gazed at him questioningly, as if she was half-afraid to see what he would say next.

“You
are
an original, Miss Marshal. I like that.”

He liked her, even though he didn't want to. He couldn't allow himself to get close to her.

“Have you ever…” He hesitated to ask, but he found he had to know. “Have you ever wanted to dress like the other women?”

She stared ahead for a long time. When she did say something, it wasn't to answer his question. She nodded ahead, and Chas saw a couple of buildings grow larger as they approached.

“Here's the Early place.”

Had he touched a sore spot? He hadn't meant to. It seemed he couldn't keep from saying the wrong thing around Danna Carpenter.

 

Danna stood behind one of the four kitchen chairs surrounding the small table in the Early kitchen, gripping its back with white-knuckled fingers.

“Thank you…um, for inviting us in. It was very kind.”

Mrs. Anna Early glanced at her with creased brows as she bustled to brew a fresh pot of coffee. “Is there sumpin' wrong?”

“No, no.” Danna placed one hand flat against her stomach. “I'm just nervous. I'm not— I don't make very many social calls.”

The woman turned and smacked one hand onto her ample waist. “I meant is there sumpin' wrong that you want to talk to my husband about. He ain't a thief or nuthin'.”

“Oh. Oh, of course not, Mrs. Early.”

“Anna. We don't stand too much on formality round here.”

“All right, Anna. No, I don't think your husband has
done anything wrong. Mr. O'Grady and I are investigating a possible case of cattle rustling in the area.” Danna released her death grip on the chair back. “Is there— Can I help with anything?”

“Don't know nuthin' about any missing cattle. Here.” Anna plopped a loaf of bread and a knife on the table.

Grateful for something to do with her hands, Danna did her best to carve slices of the bread without smashing it too badly. Judging from the slightly pinched look on Anna's face, she didn't succeed.

The other woman offered Danna a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. With a soft sigh, Danna sat, as well. “Neighbors have been in a ruckus lately, but I don't know no details. Mrs. Bailey and me don't get along so well.”

“Mam! Mam!” A small girl raced into the kitchen through the back door, followed closely by a boy only a little bigger. “There's a dep'ty talking to da!”

Anna turned in her chair and shushed the children. “Shh, you two. Cain't you see we've got comp'ny?”

The two children faced Danna with wide eyes and dirt-smudged faces.

“Hello,” Danna greeted them, holding out her hand to them.

Faces solemn, they slowly rounded the table and, one by one, shook her hand with their grubby ones.

“Are you goin' to arrest my da?” asked the little boy, who seemed unable to look away from the badge pinned to Danna's vest. His voice lowered even more. “He didn't shoot that no-account, thievin' Timmy Bailey, ya know. Even though he tried t'other night.”

“Joey!” Anna stood up from the table and clamped a hand on her son's shoulder. “He didn't mean—”

“It's okay.” Danna did her best to hide her smile.
“I'm not here to arrest anyone,” she reassured the boy. “Just to visit. Do you want to eat with us?”

For once, she'd said the right thing. Anna's shoulders released their tension and she allowed the children to sit at the table and have a slice of bread and glass of milk.

“Mmm,” Danna hummed as she bit into her slice of bread. “This is delicious. I wish I could bake bread like this.”

“Thank you.” Anna accepted the compliment with a flush. “My own mam taught me.” She sipped her coffee.

“I'm learning, too!” chimed in the little daughter.

“That's wonderful.”

“Did your ma teach you?” the girl asked.

“No,” Danna said slowly. “My ma died when I was littler than you. I never learned how to cook or sew or anything.”

Anna looked a little more sympathetic after hearing that. It gave Danna the courage to turn to her and ask, “So you're having problems with your neighbors?”

 

Frustrated that Mr. Early had been as silent as a church mouse, Chas waited near the horses for Danna to end her visit.

When she finally stepped out of the Early's small farmhouse, she squinted in the bright afternoon sunlight. Chas was graced with a view of her glorious dark head before she smashed her worn brown hat on.

He offered her a leg up to her horse. She accepted the boost into her saddle with a twinge of her fine black brows and a flash of curiosity in her coffee-colored eyes. She wore a small smile as they guided their
horses down the rutted lane toward the edge of the Early property.

“Did it go better than you thought?” he asked.

“You were right.” Her body fairly vibrated with energy. Her smile grew until he saw a flash of white teeth—the first real smile he'd earned during their brief acquaintance. He liked it more than he should. “The neighbors?”

She tugged on her hat brim and the smile faded. “The husband told you?”

“Not in so many words. He was remarkably close-lipped. What did you find out?”

“It seems the Baileys have been riding across the Early property, which wouldn't normally be a problem…”

“Do go on.”

“Apparently, they've been driving some cattle in the middle of the night. Some got loose and knocked down a lean-to. The Earlys lost some chickens.”

“Seems a little suspicious. Why would they do it at night?”

Her eyes shone at him. “That's what I thought, too. The husband didn't say anything at all?”

Chas drew in his horse to stop next to hers, where the next lane started. “Said he'd heard some rumors of missing cattle, but nothing important enough to remember. Said he wasn't missing any himself. But said he thought someone in the area had been moving animals.”

“The Baileys.”

Chas knew his admiration showed in his eyes. The marshal was perceptive and intelligent, two things he could appreciate. He nodded to the dilapidated house not far up the lane. “Let's go.”

A half hour later, they met up outside the empty corral.

“Barn's empty.”

“House, too. They must've left in a hurry, because the furniture and some of the clothes are still in there.”

Disappointment sliced through Chas. He'd been convinced they were on the right path to finding the missing cattle and rustlers, but there wasn't a man or beast on this place.

 

Danna's frustration knew no bounds as she and Chas mounted up again, halfway between the vacant house and barn. “We should ride down their back pasture toward the Early property and see what we can see,” she said quietly, trying to rein in the anger that wouldn't help her solve this mystery any faster.

The afternoon sunlight would last another couple of hours. The breeze tickling the curls that escaped her braid was chilly, but not unpleasant. Sky was clear. They should have plenty of time to scout the Bailey property and get back to town before sundown.

As they neared the creek that the Earlys claimed as their property line, the grass changed from dry and brown to just tufts and then dirt, pockmarked by many hooves.

“This looks familiar,” Chas commented, riding up beside her.

“Umm-hmm. Like in the canyon? Not quite so bad. I think this was fewer animals. See how the tracks don't spread very wide?”

“I see it.”

“In the canyon, the hoofmarks were spread across the whole canyon floor.”

“Is it possible it was the same number of animals, just driven in a narrow bunch?”

She considered it for a few seconds. “Doesn't seem likely. You'd need more cowboys than a small outfit like the Baileys could afford.”

But what were they doing moving cattle this time of year? And where had the family gone?

Chas followed Danna across the creek, but she reined in her mount before she reached the bank.

“Look,” she cried, pointing to the impression visible in the mud. “It's a crescent.” She hopped down from her horse, boots splashing in the shallow water, and squatted next to the single track, peering closely to be sure. She started to shake.

It was the same. She knew it was.

“What is it?” Chas rode past her, up the bank, before he stopped his horse and dismounted. Probably didn't want to get his boots wet.

Danna waded through the creek to her horse and dug in one of the saddlebags, finally locating the small leather-bound book. She flipped pages to the middle, to the sketch she'd made. She turned the book so Chas could see the drawing. “This was found near—” She choked on the words, had to swallow hard before she could say it. “Near my husband's body.”

His gaze went from the book to her face and she drew a deep breath, struggling to maintain control of her emotions. She wanted him to know she could do her job, didn't get distracted by feminine emotions.

When she thought she could speak again, Danna worked to make her voice even. “I'm going to track them. You can go back to town if you like.”

“I won't let you go alone.”

No, she hadn't really thought he would.

 

It was after nightfall when Chas and Danna rode up to the livery and dismounted. Chas watched Danna's slow movements, her disappointment evident in the droop of her shoulders.

The tracks she'd wanted to follow had vanished not long after they'd picked up the trail. She had not been happy.

They'd ridden home in silence, Chas allowing her the time to get her emotions under control. He was impressed that she had held back her tears earlier. And he knew what it was to be disappointed a lead hadn't panned out.

Now she reached out a hand for his reins. “The stableboy will have gone home for his dinner. I'll rub these two down and make a patrol of the saloons. Come by the jail in the morning.”

Chas flipped the reins into her hand, but didn't let go. He tugged against her hold until she looked up at him, her eyes dark and unreadable. “You take care of the horses, and
I'll
make a round of the saloons.”

“I'm the boss,” she argued.

“Yes, I haven't forgotten.” There was something in the air between them, though the only physical connection was the reins they both held between them. “Let me help you.”

“Why?” she whispered.

To keep her out of danger. It was one reason, but another he couldn't voice was that he liked the look she was giving him—a look that said he was offering her a kindness no one else ever had.

She nodded gravely and he made a quick escape before she could ensnare him even more.

 

The town was quiet, except for the piano music and raucous laughter coming from the four saloons. Chas stuck his head into each of the first three to make sure things were relatively calm.

It was at the fourth saloon that things changed. Chas stepped inside and stood with his back to the wall next to the door, perusing the main room to make sure things were calm. He was about to turn and leave when he caught sight of the man with long hair and a blond mustache sitting at the bar.

The suspicious man from the café.

Chas glanced around, but didn't see Big Tim or Earl. Pale Eyes seemed to be talking to a man with a scruffy goatee and dark hair. Chas waited to get a good look at the man's face, and when he did, everything seemed to stop around him.

BOOK: Marrying Miss Marshal
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