Fox is a woman as feisty as they come. Once the most sought-after scout west of the Rockies, she led folks through wild, unexplored terrain–until a gunshot wound ended her guiding career. She’s living a calmer life when a handsome stranger appears with an urgent request to take him to Denver immediately. The gold coins he offers catch Fox’s eye–and so do his sharp good looks. Fox can’t resist the chance to guide again, and can’t ignore the fire that burns in her body whenever she sees this oh-so tempting man.
Matthew Tanner has received a startling telegraph: His father is being held for ransom in Denver. With time running out, Matthew must find the best scout money can buy. When the best turns out to be a woman with gritty good looks and a wild mane of red hair, Matthew is both shocked and intrigued. Can Matthew and Fox’s mutual desire and growing love survive the perils of their journey, or will their secrets destroy each other?
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MAGGIE OSBORNE is the author of Shotgun Wedding; Prairie Moon; The Bride of Willow Creek; I Do, I Do, I Do; and Silver Lining; as well as more than forty contemporary and historical romance novels written as Maggie Osborne and Margaret St. George. She has won numerous awards from Romantic Times, Affaire de Coeur, BookraK, the Colorado Romance Writers, and Coeur du Bois, among others. In 1998 Osborne won the RITA for Long Historical from the Romance Writers of America.
Osborne lives in a resort town in the Colorado mountains with her husband, one mule, two horses, one cat, and one dog, all of whom are a lot of aggravation, but she loves them anyway.
The ice wasn’t good this year. Ordinarily the lake froze to a depth of eight or ten inches, but this winter had been unusually warm. Frustrated and worried, Fox sat on a rock, smoking and scowling at the fringe of thin ice circling the lakeshore. She had some decisions to make.
“We haven’t cut enough ice to fill half the shed and winter is almost over,” she said to Peaches. Peaches wore a thick flannel shirt beneath his overalls. This time last year they had both worn heavy coats, scarves, and hats with fur earflaps.
“We’ll get by.”
Sometimes Peaches’s relentless optimism was exactly what Fox needed. Other times optimism made her want to bash him over the head with a block of ice. This was one of the bashing times.
“Once summer comes, it’ll take us about three weeks to sell the ice.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder toward the ice shed. “And then what?”
“We ain’t the only cutters with no ice. Nobody going to have ice this year. That ice is going to fetch a pretty price.”
That was true. Fox smoked and watched the sun sparkling on the water in the center of a lake that should have been frozen solid. Raising the price on the ice they had already cut might see one person through the season, but not both of them.
She had a feeling that fate was gathering force, getting ready to kick her in the fanny. That the ice wouldn’t be profitable this year was a nudge.
“You could go back to doing what you’re good at doing. Me? I can always pick up work,” Peaches said.
Fox swiveled to study his brown face. Deep lines scored a grid on his cheeks. His hair was more white than dark. “How old are you? Seventy?”
“I don’t know how old I am,” he said with a shrug. “Doesn’t matter as long as I can work.”
He had a point there. And unless his rhumitiz was acting up, Peaches could work rings around anyone else Fox knew, including herself. But a seventy-year-old man shouldn’t be looking for work. A seventy-year-old man should be able to sit on the porch if he had a mind to, and do nothing at all.
“I’ve been thinking about a lot of things,” she said, fixing her gaze on a distant peak.
“I know it, and I don’t like it when you start thinking deep.” Standing, Peaches examined a line of clouds building to the north. “Looks like a storm coming in,” he said hopefully. “I swear it feels colder already.”
“I’m thinking how I just gave up on everything when DeBeck shot me and put me out of business. And I’m thinking about Hobbs Jennings and how he stole my whole life and I haven’t done a fricking thing about it. Mostly I’m thinking about revenge. DeBeck died before I could kill him and there’s a lesson in that. So I’m thinking about killing Jennings before he up and dies on his own.” Thinking was too mild a word. Brooding and obsessing were closer to the truth.
“You can’t change the past, Missy.” Peaches’s voice softened like it always did when he was worried about her. His big hand came down on her shoulder and squeezed. “You can only change the future.”
“I’m thinking about taking my half of the ice money, whatever it is, and going to Denver. Hobbs Jennings’s future is the one I want to change.” She had almost made up her mind. All she needed was a sign that she was thinking right.
Over supper, Peaches brought the subject around again. “We might as well talk about it. So, let’s say you go to Denver.”
“All right, let’s say that.” Tilting her biscuit toward the lantern, she buttered the surface. She didn’t like a blob of butter in the middle like some people she could name. The butter should be neatly spread to the rim.
“And let’s say you find Mr. Jennings and you shoot the bastard and kill him. Then what?” He put a scoop of butter in the center of his biscuit just like she knew he would. “The law will arrest you and hang your butt. So what did you achieve?”
“Jennings would be dead. He would have paid for what he did.”
“But you’d be dead, too.”
“Now why can’t you butter your biscuit right? You end up with a couple of dry bites and one bite that’s pure grease!”
“If you want to talk manners, Missy, I done told you a hundred times that refined folks don’t hold the handle of their fork in their fist. Here’s how you’re supposed to hold it.”
“And I done told you a hundred times that me and refinement don’t fall within spitting distance.” It could have been different. That she wasn’t refined was the fault of Hobbs Jennings. And that thought circled her back to brooding about fulfilling her vow, to find Jennings and put a bullet in his thieving heart.
After they washed up the supper dishes, Fox stepped outside for a smoke. The cabin was small, and they had agreed not to stink it up with cigar smoke. While she waited for Peaches to set up the chessboard, she thought about walking away from the cabin, the lake, the ice business, and Peaches. Peaches was the sticking point.
Fox had known him since she was six or seven. They had run away from her mother’s cousin when Fox was twelve. There’d been some gaps, but by and large they’d been together for almost twenty years. Peaches had taught her pretty near everything she knew that was worth knowing. What he couldn’t teach her, like reading and woman things, he’d made sure she learned from someone else. And some things she’d learned herself.
Her biggest learning experience had come when she’d run off again when she was seventeen, leaving Peaches behind. At the time she hadn’t known that seventeen-year-olds, particularly women, didn’t set off alone to find the goldfields in the mountains west of what was now Denver. That had been some trip, all right. The memory curved her lips in a smile. She’d gotten half frozen, half broiled, half starved, and was hopelessly lost about a hundred times. She had talked her way in and then out of Indian camps, had shot a mountain man with rape on his mind, had killed two bears and enough deer and rabbits to keep her alive.
Newspapers all over the territories had printed articles about her journey, which had launched her into the scouting business. She’d found a livelihood that had worked just fine until DeBeck shot her in the leg. After that, she’d fetched up in Carson City, gimping around and waiting for her leg to heal.
“Remember that day we met up again?” She’d gone into Jack’s Bar and discovered Peaches sweeping the place. It was like coming home. “You were still mad that I’d run off in the middle of reading you one of Charlie Dickens’s novels.”
“I ain’t got over it yet,” he said, grinning as she came back to the table. “You’re black this time.”
It didn’t matter which color she played, he always beat her. “How long have we been sitting on the side of this mountain just drifting and waiting for something that never comes?”
“ ’Bout three years, I guess. That’s a long time to brood, Missy.”
“Is that what you think I’ve been doing?” It was as good an explanation as any.
“I know that’s changing. I know you’re going to go to Denver. Probably knew ’fore you did.” He studied the board. “You want some company on the ride east?”
“Could you stand to see me hanged?” She studied the board, too.
“Might not happen. Might be you’ll stop living in the past and start making yourself a future. Might happen before we get to Denver.”
It would be like old times, her and Peaches on the road. But she was smarter now, wiser to the ways of the world. If Peaches was with her when she shot Hobbs Jennings, even if she shot him in front of a dozen witnesses, everyone would swear the black man was the killer before they’d believe a white woman had pulled the trigger.
“You can’t be with me when I shoot Jennings. You have to agree to that or I’m leaving you here.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. I’m going.”
There was no point arguing now. They’d have about twelve hundred miles to work out details.
When Fox opened the door in the morning, snow swirled into the cabin on a blast of frigid wind. She and Peaches slapped hands, then carried their coffee out to the lake to watch the snowflakes melt into the water. The pine trees looked like they’d been dipped in vanilla frosting and smelled sharp and tangy the way Fox thought green ought to smell. “Now if it would just stay this cold for another two weeks!”
But it didn’t. The new ice was gone in three days.
Fox stood in her shirtsleeves, not needing a coat, and frowned at the stacks of ice blocks that filled about a third of the shed. The shed was protected from the sun by pines and aspen, and she had insulated the ice blocks with straw. There was no melt water on the floor of the shed, but if the weather got much warmer, there would be.
“Company’s coming,” Peaches called.
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