Authors: Jillian Hart
By Jillian Hart
Copyright 2013 by Jillian Hart
Cover Design by Kim Killion, Hot Damn Designs
E-book Formatted by Jessica Lewis, Authors’ Life Saver
Editing by Jena O’Connor, Practical Proofing
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
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Annie— McPhee cousin
Aumaleigh— aunt to McPhee sisters
Beckett— engaged to Daisy
Blanche— Gemma's mother
Boots— Tyler's dog
Bradley— one of Verbena's admirers
Burton— wrangler at the Rocking M
Buttons— Aumaleigh's mare
Cal— stable boy at the Rocking M
Carl— owns the feed store
Chadwick— works for Tyler
Daisy— 2nd oldest McPhee sister
Dom—Zane's old buddy
Eben— their deceased uncle
Elise— friend to McPhee sisters and Tyler
Ely— their deceased father
Ernest— Verbena's former beau
Fairfax— Bear Hollow's sheriff
Gabriel— Aumaleigh's former love
Gemma— friend, works at mercantile.
George— Ernest's buddy
Gil— married to Maebry, works on ranch
Gus— owns the mercantile, Gemma's pa
Hartwell— town doc, also plays fiddle
Hailie— Beckett's daughter
Helen— Elise's mother
Iris— oldest McPhee sister
Jo Ellen— Annie's friend
John— cowboy at the Rocking M
Josslyn— cook at the Rocking M
Kellan— cowboy at the Rocking M
Lance— Tyler's father, town landowner
Laura— the sisters's deceased mother
Lawrence— a desperate bachelor
Liliana— Tyler's sister
Louisa— kitchen maid
Maebry— wife to Gil
Magnolia— 2nd youngest McPhee sister
Maureen — deceased grandmother, mother to Aumaleigh
Nora— Tyler's mother
O'Laughlin— Owner of Chicago boardinghouse
Orla— maid at the Rocking M
Pax— cowboy at the Rocking M
Penelope— new schoolteacher in town
Priscilla— silk dress girl
Reginald— Josslyn's deceased first husband
Rose— middle McPhee sister
Sadie— Milo's oldest daughter
Sally— Milo's youngest daughter
Sarah— former schoolteacher
Scout— Zane's horse
Seth— Josslyn's son, owns the livery
Shep— young cowboy at Rocking M
Stanley— Beckett and Hailie's dog
Tiernan— cowboy at the Rocking M, Tyler's brother
Travis— brother to Tyler and Tiernan
Tyler— engaged to Magnolia
Verbena— youngest McPhee Sister
Vivian— Gemma's grandmother
Wilhelmina— Hailie's elderly nanny
Wilson— deceased grandfather
Winchester— Zane's horse
Zane— bounty hunter
Bluebell, Montana Territory
Zane Reed pulled the horses to a stop at the top of the rise. The high Montana landscape spread out in every direction in shades of amber and brown. A low gray sky hung heavy with clouds spitting drizzly rain. He knuckled back his hat to take in the view of the town of Bluebell, just a faint smudge against the vast landscape of rolling plains, tree-topped hills and shrouded mountains.
He hadn't been back to this part of Montana in a long while. A lot of history here, and not the good kind. Once he'd lived in the uncharted mountains to the south with his pa. Gritting his teeth, he shut off the old memories like a lid on a barrel, locking away whatever was inside. He had a job to do here. He prided himself on being the best bounty hunter on this side of the Colorado. Over the last decade, he'd done time trailing outlaws from Texas to California to Canada, and he never failed. When he took a job, he completed it. At any cost.
Grim, he reached into his duster pocket and pulled out Sheriff Milo Gray's note.
Need your help tracking down an outlaw. He's threatening a family called McPhee in my town. He's kidnapped their women. He needs to be stopped. Come as soon as you can. I'm calling in my marker.
Zane sighed, resigned, folded the note and stared at the little smudge of a town. He didn't like little burgs, homespun places full of families. It was too personal, everyone was friendly, wanting to talk, getting in your business, asking personal questions. He clamped his jaw tight at the thought. No, if he had to be around people, give him a town busy enough that no one waved, no one wanted to get to know you, no one bothered to look up when you rode by.
But Milo Gray had done him a big favor once, when he'd truly needed it, way back in their Wyoming days. Looked like it was payback time. Zane grimaced, not quite able to put his thumb on what he didn't like about this job. Maybe it was the word
Something felt off--way off. He stuffed the note in his pocket. If it had been anyone other than Gray, he would listen to his instincts. But he owed Milo.
Determined to get to it, Zane took up the reins. With a quick snap, the team lunged forward, eager to get where they were going. He couldn’t blame them, the wind blew cold, the sky promised a lot more rain, and it had been a long drive up from handing over his latest capture to the Marshals in Bear Hollow. It would be nice to find shelter, dry out, get something hot to eat.
"Looks like we'll be here for a bit," he told the horses, determined. It wasn't smart to go against his gut feeling, but he wouldn't back out. He'd rather be hunting outlaws, but he'd take this domestic job and work with the father of this McPhee family. Sure, he felt sorry for the kidnapped women, he'd seen firsthand all the horror and evil that could entail--but he planned to keep his distance, do his job and be done with it. Women and him didn't mix. He was too rough, too tough, too uncivilized to make the fairer gender comfortable around him--even when his past did not precede him.
Well, that suited him just fine. He didn't feel comfortable around them either. He was here to help Milo, that's all that mattered. With his past, hunting men was all he was good for. Would ever be good for. Feeling as cold as the wind, he snapped the reins, urging the horses on faster, feeling an uneasiness he could not explain.
* * *
It wasn't the daylight she was afraid of, it was the night. Verbena McPhee set the skein of embroidery floss on the mercantile's front counter and cut her gaze through the front windows, glinting in the mild, late October day. Not that she was afraid exactly, it was more complicated than that. She studied the handful of armed cowboys standing in position on the boardwalk, hands within easy reach of their holstered .45s. They were tough, tall, invincible. Men determined to keep her safe.
Men whose safety she worried about. They'd sworn to protect her so she'd never have to worry about being kidnapped again, but honestly, she was more concerned about their safety. As she gripped her cane and moved a few steps, ignoring the pain in her sprained ankle, her mind went back to the night when she'd been kidnapped, trussed up and nearly raped by Ernest Craddock. Thank heavens the sheriff and his men had arrived when they did, or hers would have been a very different story.
Ernest, her former beau, had gone to extreme lengths to find her. He'd followed her from Chicago, he'd survived a fall off a mountain cliff in a battle with one of those cowboys and after escaping into a dangerous mountain blizzard, who knew what he'd do next? She hated wondering and waiting. It made her mad too.
"This is a lovely shade of blue." A woman's voice sounded faintly, as if from far, far away. "Uh, Verbena? Hello?"
"Oh, you're talking to me." Embarrassed, Verbena blinked, realizing the shopkeeper's spinster daughter was watching her with an arched brow. Well, welcome to my world, she thought, rolling her eyes. There she went again, getting caught up in her own thoughts. "Sorry, I probably looked like a dolt staring off into thin air like that. My poor brain was just wandering."