The Widows of Wildcat Ridge, Book 11
A devastating mine accident has claimed the life of Rosemary Brennan’s husband, Jack, along with nearly all the men of Wildcat Ridge. The mine owner, Mortimer Crane, has given the widows an ultimatum—find husbands or he will evict them from their homes and businesses. Desperate to keep the assay office that Jack had managed, Rosemary heads into the hills in search of an old Spanish mine called The Floriana in the hope she can lay claim to a bonanza of gold.
Ex-U.S. Deputy Marshal Miles McGinty arrives in Wildcat Ridge to pay his respects to Brennan’s widow. He and Jack had a history, and Miles is heartsick over the loss of the young man he had come to think of as a brother. When he learns of Rosemary’s problems with the piggish Crane, he will do anything to help her—even offering marriage. But when it becomes clear that Crane knew of Jack’s criminal past and was blackmailing him over it, Miles must decide whether to tell Rosemary the truth, because doing so may drive her away. And to his surprise, Miles has fallen in love with his new wife.
A sweet romance set in 1884 Utah Territory.
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Read the first three chapters
Wildcat Ridge, Utah Territory
August 23, 1884
Rosemary knelt on the ground near her house, digging for the carrots she had planted earlier in the summer. Gardening had offered a sliver of solace after the mining accident at the end of March that had taken the lives of so many men in Wildcat Ridge, including that of her husband, Jack.
She pulled a cluster of medium-sized carrots free and brushed the dirt away with her gloved hand. The raw vegetable smell of wet soil, signaling health and new life, triggered a longing in Rosemary to finally climb from the muck of grief that had consumed her these past months.
“What are you going to do?” Cora asked, blowing a strand of brown hair away from her face as she dug out potato after potato and set them in a basket.
There had been days when Cora Drummond’s cheery and irreverent attitude had been the only thing that had moved Rosemary to rise from bed and clothe herself. And just today Rosemary finally had shed the black garments of grieving, wearing a lemon shirtwaist and brown skirt that Jack had chided made her look like a housemaid. His teasing had both humored and irritated her, and how she missed it. She mentally pushed back at the bubble of despair welling up inside her chest.
“I don’t know.” Rosemary sat on her haunches and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. It was late afternoon, and the day had been warm. Cora had insisted the garden needed to be plucked, and with so little work for Rosemary at the Assay Office, it was good to feel useful. Cora’s husband, Charles, was currently in Salt Lake City trying to set up a new dental practice, so with much spare time, Cora kept many of the widows company, helping where she could.
“Even with the money that Buster gave each of us from the horse sale,” Rosemary continued, “and the kind donations from out-of-towners after the mine accident, and the boon from Eleanora’s scavenger hunt, I still don’t have enough to keep paying the lease on the Assay Office and my home. And Crane is demanding payment by September 1.”
“What if you tried to talk to him?” Cora asked. “What if you asked for an extension?”
Rosemary shook her head, trying to suppress her snort of disgust so as not to hurt Cora’s feelings. Her friend hadn’t been forced into the same desperate situation as the other widows in town—her husband was still alive and well, and she was but a few weeks from joining him in Salt Lake City.
“You are so fanciful, my friend,” Rosemary said gently.
Cora surprised Rosemary by laughing. “I suppose I am. I know you’re right. Mortimer Crane will bar the door of the Assay Office at midnight on August 31, and by the next day he’ll be tearing that building down. But maybe you should ask him anyway? You never know. He might have grown a sliver of compassion that we don’t know about.”
“Like a wart?” Rosemary smirked. “And you’re an eternal optimist. But I do have a plan.”
“Well, this is good news,” Cora responded, her voice filled with the kind of praise a parent reserved for a child who had done well on their homework. There were times when Cora seemed far older at twenty-five, despite Rosemary being only four years younger.
“Jack was always talking about the Old Spanish Mines that were supposedly in this area. He and I both loved geology, and he would often go traipsing around in the countryside. Sometimes I would accompany him, but often he would go alone. He did like his solitude.” Sadness bubbled to the surface.
Five months. Jack had been gone only five months. It felt like a lifetime.
Rosemary cleared her throat. She had been stuck in limbo all summer long, unable to decide about anything. But not anymore.
“There was one mine in particular that fascinated him,” she continued. “It was called The Floriana. He’d been sure he was closing in on the location and had even done some preliminary testing. But then winter came, and travel became limited. And then …”
She paused again, blinking back tears.
“It won’t always be so hard.” Cora’s soft tone was filled with compassion.
Rosemary nodded, a bit too vigorously. “I suppose not.”
But as much as Rosemary adored Cora and cherished their friendship, her friend hadn’t lost a husband on that fateful March day. She couldn’t truly understand. But maybe that was why Rosemary had leaned on Cora more than ever during this difficult time. The other widows had been juggling equal amounts of grief, desperation, and relief. Not all marriages had been happy ones. But Rosemary had loved Jack, and although they’d been married only a short time, she was still reeling from the loss.
She took a steadying breath. “I’m going to find The Floriana Mine.”
Cora froze. “In the hills? Alone?”
“I don’t have a choice.”
“What if it’s just a rumor? A silly story to drive prospectors mad with gold fever?”
“But what if it’s true? Look at what Braxton Gamble found.” During the summer, before he had married Priscilla Heartsel, who had lost both a husband and a father in the mine explosion, Braxton had stumbled across an old and very promising Spanish mine in the hills south of town. He was currently in the process of getting it up and running.
Rosemary continued in a rush, as much to convince herself as Cora. “If I can locate something—anything—of merit out there, then I can test the ore samples myself. If they’re good, then I would contract an independent assay out of Salt Lake City. I have a tiny bit of money set aside for that. This might entice an investor to buy the claim. This is in turn could give me leverage with Crane to keep Jack’s business—my business—as well as my home. I really want to remain in Wildcat Ridge. And if I had enough money, I could repay the kindnesses that so many of the widows in town have extended to me.”
“Oh, Rosemary, you know that no one expects repayment. And I hate to be a curmudgeon, but Crane has insisted that your husband run your business. Even if you can continue paying the lease, what about that stipulation?”
Rosemary released a frustrated huff, a few foul words that she’d heard Jack utter on the tip of her tongue. Mortimer Crane was a cockroach. “First things first. If I can wave the promise of money under his nose, I’m hopeful that this ‘husband’ situation can be overruled.”
“You mean run the Assay Office yourself? Without a man?”
“I’ve been doing it all summer anyway. My father taught me to assay when I was young. I instructed Jack in the beginning before he got the hang of it. So why shouldn’t I run the business? I don’t need or want to marry, except for this financial issue that’s hanging over me like a black cloud. And besides, you know I loved Jack. I can’t imagine being with anyone else.”
Doubt shadowed Cora’s gaze. Rosemary couldn’t fault her. Convincing Crane to renew her lease without the promise of a man taking over was likely nigh to impossible. Still, she had to try. But first, she needed a windfall of credit to make it happen.
Cora chewed her lip. “I really don’t think you should go alone into the hills. With Mr. Gamble working his new mine, all sorts of questionable characters have been seen around town.” She wrinkled her nose. “They certainly don’t bathe often enough, and besides that, I fear many aren’t gentlemen. And haven’t some of them come to you for an assay?”
“Some. Most of them don’t like the fact that a woman is doing the testing. They’re all running to that fella in Cranesville. I think his name is Frankie Edwards. Jack was acquainted with him.”
Confused by Cora’s response, Rosemary frowned at her friend.
“I don’t think you should be running around the hills alone with these types of men loose,” Cora clarified.
“I traveled with Papa on his surveys all the time.” Rosemary stood and dusted the dirt from her skirt, just as she wished to flick away her guilt over the estrangement from her father. But how could she forgive him after the lies he had told her about her mother? She picked up the basket of carrots and carried them to the house porch, setting them on the stoop. “I’ll be fine.”
Cora deposited her bounty beside Rosemary’s. “I should go with you,” she said. “Can you wait a few days? Martha isn’t feeling well, and I promised Doc Spense that I’d help in his office, at least until the middle of the week.”
Rosemary flicked her blond braid from her shoulder. “I don’t want to wait any longer. I still have Jack’s six-shooter, and I know how to use it. I just need to borrow a horse and get some supplies.”
Cora planted her hands on her hips. “All right. I can see you’ve made up your mind. Buster might have a horse she could loan you. I think she’s got a few at the livery. Maybe you could ask her tomorrow at church. And I could gather some food for you. How long will you be gone?”
“I really think I could do this in two days. Maybe three.”
“What if you get lost?”
“Jack was very detailed in his descriptions, and he kept a notebook with his observations. I’ll use it as a reference. I know this is a longshot, but I have to try.”
“I suppose. But if you find nothing, then please return quickly. And it’s not the end of the world if you lose the Assay Office. If you lose this place—” she gave a nod toward the small house “—then you can come live with me. And you can even come to Salt Lake City when I join Charles. You don’t have to stay here.
“I know, but it’s my home.” And Jack is buried in the cemetery. He was one of the few to have a headstone and a proper resting place. Unfortunately, many of the remains had been impossible to identify.
But if Crane took her business, Rosemary knew that she wouldn’t be able to stay. She could certainly take up Cora’s offer, but she didn’t want to. Her only other option would be to contact her father, but that was the last thing she wanted to do. Although she hadn’t seen in him in over three years, she had heard from her Aunt Louisa that he hadn’t approved of Rosemary’s hasty marriage to Jack, or of Jack himself. And he had conveyed his displeasure that his only daughter would move to the middle of nowhere in the Utah Territory.
But Rosemary hadn’t just fallen in love with Jack; she had also found a connection to the people and locale of Wildcat Ridge. The wilderness was a balm to her soul, and despite the hardships that she and Jack, and many others, had endured to eke out a living here, she had found a place that called to something deep inside her. And even more so now. The tragic loss of so many men—including her own love—had prompted many townsfolk to leave. But with those who had stayed, Rosemary felt an especially close kinship.
They were surviving.
She wasn’t ready to give up yet.
“All right then,” Cora said, her tone decisive. “Let’s get you ready for your adventure.”
August 29, 1884
As soon as Miles McGinty entered the outskirts of Wildcat Ridge, people stared. And all were women.
He supposed the town was small enough that a stranger riding in would cause a stir of interest, and he did his best to smile and tip his hat as his horse trotted down Front Street, but after the thirtieth time he’d done it he began to wonder two things: Had his mama forgotten to tell him he was so homely as to draw unwarranted attention? Or was the opposite true, and had he suddenly become irresistible to those of the female persuasion?
He suppressed a grin at both thoughts. He was likely somewhere in the middle. These ladies must simply know the comings and goings of every man, woman, and child in town, so he was currently sticking out like a sore thumb.
As he rode and scanned the buildings, he did his best to ignore the scrutiny. When he came to a cross street, he turned to the right, guessing that the business he sought would be located near the abandoned mine in town. And it was. On the corner of the next street over was the Assay Office.
He dismounted, looped the reins of his horse, Pearl, on the hitching rail, and knocked his Stetson up a notch so that he could see better.
A CLOSED sign hung in the window.
He glanced around. A woman with brown hair and a curious gaze watched him from the bridge across the creek. He gave a nod and approached her.
“Pardon me, ma’am.” He removed his hat. “I was wondering if you’d know when the Assay Office would be open?”
She eyed him with wariness and a bit of curiosity. “I’m not sure. Do you have a sample that needs testing?”
“No. I’m looking for Rosemary Brennan.”
“Are you a friend?” She fiddled with the closed parasol in her hand.
“Of a sort. I knew her husband, Jack. I corresponded with Mrs. Brennan after the terrible accident and told her I’d be coming for a visit to pay my respects. And to meet her.”
The woman’s eyes softened as he spoke, so he also added, “I was very sad to hear that Jack had died.” His throat tightened, straining his voice. He hadn’t thought his arrival in town would get to him, but apparently, he was wrong. “Did you know him?”
The woman nodded. “I did.” She extended her hand. “I’m Mrs. Drummond. Cora Drummond.”
He shook it.
“Rosemary never said anything about your letter,” she continued, squinting at him.
“Is she here?”
The woman went silent, her gaze taking his measure. “Were you a good friend of Jack’s?”
“He was like a brother to me.” Again, he could barely squeeze the words out. He rubbed a hand at the back of his neck to shake the stark loss of Jack. Except that Jack’s real name was Johnny Briggs. But Miles doubted anyone here knew that. Johnny had wanted a fresh start, and Miles had been quietly supportive. He’d had a chance to help a young man in a way he hadn’t been able to with his own brother, Billy.
“Where have you come from?” Mrs. Drummond asked.
“What profession are you in that allows you to leave for a period of time?”
She was sizing him up, wondering if he were trustworthy. In a way, it warmed his heart that Jack had found a place with friends such as this.
“Up until two years ago, I was a U.S. Deputy Marshal. But once that ended, I settled into carpentry. I guess I’ve got a bit of a wanderer’s soul in me, so I’d planned to visit Jack earlier this year but was waiting for the weather to break. And then, I heard of the accident. I debated whether to come—I don’t want to be a bother to his wife—but it would mean a lot to tell her how sorry I am that Jack is gone.”
Mrs. Drummond paused, then gave a cursory look around her before saying in a low voice, “I’m worried.”
“About Mrs. Brennan?”
The woman nodded. Speaking quickly, she said, “Rosemary has gone into the hills to look for gold. She needs money, you see. Mortimer Crane, who owns much of this town as well as the mine that exploded, is set to turn her out come August 31.”
“She’s looking for gold to pay her debt?”
“Yes. She was planning to head out on Sunday but then had to wait on a horse, so she departed town on Monday. She was supposed to return a few days later, but now it’s Friday.” She stopped and took a deep breath.
“You think something has happened?”
“I don’t know. She didn’t want me to say anything. There are a lot of prospectors around who would be quite happy to take anything she found. But I’m on the verge of going to our town marshal, Cordelia Wentz.”
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll see if I can find her. Can you give me some idea in which direction she went?”
She nodded. “I can tell you generally, but I really don’t know the exact location.” Her voice rose in distress.
“Don’t worry. I have skills in tracking. Would anyone know about the horse she took?”
“Yes, Buster loaned her one. Or rather, Mrs. Blessing King. You could go talk to her. She and her husband run the Rafter O Ranch just north of Wildcat Ridge.”
Miles began to think of the supplies he would need. “Is there a mercantile in town?”
“Yes.” She pointed behind her. “Tweedie’s is right there.”
“Good. I’ll grab a few supplies. Then can you take me to see this Mrs. King?”
She gave a nod.
“And may I ask you something?”
“Why was everyone staring at me when I rode into town?”
For the first time, Mrs. Drummond’s face lost its worried expression. “Oh, that. Are you married?”
A brief smile flashed across her face. “Would you like to be?”
August 30, 1884
Rosemary peered through a large bush at the two unkempt men sitting just beyond. Shivering from the late afternoon chill, she pulled her duster more tightly around her and glanced up at the foreboding clouds gathering, blue sky quickly losing ground to gray thunderclouds.
Her time in the hills had produced a few promising clues as to the whereabouts of The Floriana Mine, along with a handful of samples she wanted to test. This had buoyed her flagging spirits, because she had quickly become overwhelmed by the wild and vast backcountry. She had relied on Jack during their time spent in the wilderness, and it was clear now how much she had leaned on him.
To worsen matters, yesterday she’d lost Madge, the horse that Buster had loaned her. Her run of bad luck had started when she’d fed the animal a carefully measured portion of oats, and when more wasn’t quickly forthcoming—supplies needing to be rationed—the contrary beast had bitten Rosemary on the neck just below the ear. The ensuing melee between woman and horse had caused Madge to bolt.
Rosemary grimaced from the discomfort of the wound, although thankfully there had been little blood. It was more the guilt she felt that pained her. Heartbroken over losing the animal, Rosemary had frantically searched for her. Not only had she not located the horse, but she had become so disoriented that she was now well and truly lost.
She hoped Madge, despite being a mite temperamental, would be all right, and Rosemary added a silent prayer that she still might locate her. Rosemary’s heart squeezed, not just for the horse but for having to tell Buster that she’d been so stupid as to lose the critter, not to mention that her samples were in the saddlebags. On the horse.
She had been overly confident in her abilities, that was certain. Her father had taught her surveying, and Jack had taught her how to read the land, but she had not been out on her own. All night, she had ruminated over where she might have gone wrong, but the truth was that it had been shockingly easy to lose her focus in her frantic bid to find Madge. Only too late Rosemary had realized her error.
Taking a steadying breath, she willed her frantic thoughts into submission.
It’s only been one day since I became lost. Madge must be around here somewhere. And while Rosemary was cold and hungry, she just needed a little help. And stumbling across these two men was a possible answer to her silent pleas to the Good Lord upstairs.
And yet, she held back from approaching them. They were clearly prospectors. She had met such men while assisting Jack in the Assay Office, and while most weren’t the bad sort, some niggle of doubt kept her from leaving the safety of her shrub.
I fear many aren’t gentlemen.
Cora’s words echoed in her ears. But Rosemary had no choice. No one would come looking for her. Even if Cora went to Marshal Wentz for help, she really had no idea where Rosemary had gone.
It had been foolish to come out here. But what choice had she had?
Before she could talk herself out of it, she left her hiding place. Cognizant of not having the six-shooter—that, too, was with the horse—she walked slowly forward, ready to run if need be.
One of the men caught sight of her. “What the …”
He pushed to his feet, and then his friend did the same. Although both appeared to have been living in the wilderness for quite some time, upon closer inspection they were both younger than Rosemary had assumed. More alarm bells went off in her head, but she forged ahead with her intention of asking for help.
“Good afternoon,” she said. “I wondered if I might trouble you gentlemen for some aid. I’ve lost my horse and have become disoriented myself. I need to return to Wildcat Ridge. Would you know how far away that is? And in which direction?”
The first prospector frowned, his eyes squinting in suspicion. “Who are you?” he asked, his bedraggled beard bobbing as he spoke.
She hesitated, wanting to share as little information as possible, but couldn’t think of a suitable fabrication. “Rosemary Brennan.”
When the prospector’s eyes widened with recognition, she halted her forward movement.
I should have lied.
But it was too late.
“Your husband ran the Assay Office,” the man said, pointing a finger smeared with dirt in her direction. “Jeremiah. No, that’s not it. Jacob?” He turned to his friend. “What was his name?”
His friend, wearing a hat splotched with dirt and sweat, eyed her with a calculating scan. “Jack.”
“That’s it. That no-good, rotten scoundrel doctored reports.”
Rosemary gasped. “He did not. How dare you accuse him?”
The other prospector threw a surprised glance at his partner. “Is that so?”
“Didn’t I tell you?” the bearded one asked. He huffed. “Well, it’s true. ’Course it’s true.” He returned his attention to Rosemary. “Why are you out here?” A dawning realization ignited his eyes. “Are you scouting claims? Is he letting his wife run around stealing plats?”
Rosemary squared her shoulders, outrage filling her with a resolve she’d not experienced since losing Jack. “If you must know, my husband is deceased. And he was no thief, and neither am I.”
“Did he die in that godawful mining accident? We’d heard the Assay Office was still open, but there was no way in hell I was stepping foot in there again.” The prospector’s voice rose with every angry word he spit out. “Had three good samples I took him, and they all came up empty.”
“Sometimes you just have a bad sample,” she said. “It could very well have been that you had a good claim.”
“Well, I never filed based on those reports, and now that land is gone.”
“Who claimed it?” she asked.
Why would Crane stake a claim when Jack’s assays had showed the land to be worthless?
Conflicted about her husband possibly contributing to the underhanded deeds of the loathsome Mortimer Crane, while at the same time needing help from these prospectors who possibly were just as underhanded, she blurted, “I could run new samples for you at no charge. In exchange, all I ask is that you help me.”
“We don’t want nothin’ to do with you.” Bedraggled beard shifted a bulge in his cheek and spit brown tobacco juice onto the ground.
For a moment, Rosemary stood rooted in place. It was clear these men wouldn’t help her, and frankly, she didn’t want them to. But she couldn’t keep wandering the countryside. With a storm threatening, the ensuing cold spell could put her in more dire circumstances soon if these men abandoned her.
“Please, I need help. I can’t find my way back to town.”
“You shoulda thought of that before you came out here,” the bearded one replied. “This is no life for a woman.”
“Hey, Alvin,” filthy hat said, eyeing her up and down.
The back of Rosemary’s neck tingled. Run. Just run.
She took a step back, and then another.
“What if we keep her?” the other one said.
“Why in God’s name would we do that, Hector?”
“We could ransom her to Crane.”
Alvin stared at the other man. “Are you out of yer ever-lovin’ mind? We could go to jail for that. And why would Crane even want her?”
“Because she’s falsifying reports for him too, just like her dead husband.”
Rosemary didn’t bother to defend herself, knowing her refutations would be useless. Instead, she continued moving backwards, one tiny step at a time.
Hector spied her retreat and walked quickly toward her.
She turned and took off running.
Fear gave her a burst of energy, briefly staving off her weakened state. Lifting her skirt, she moved downhill and through a copse of pines, but her petticoats caught on a fallen log and she tripped, flying face forward and hitting the ground hard.
Stunned, she struggled to breathe. A glance back showed Hector in swift pursuit.
Shocked by his speed, she pushed upright and resumed her scramble to escape. As she came around a thicket, she nearly slammed into her horse.
“Oh, Madge! Thank the Maker!”
The horse nickered and danced in nervousness. Rosemary ran a hand along her neck, reassured that the animal appeared unhurt. She quickly retrieved her six-shooter and readied it.
She heard a loud thump and a scuffle.
With the weapon raised, she backtracked her escape path.
Two men rolled in the dirt, locked together like battling bull elk. Another horse stood vigil, minus its rider, who must be the man currently fighting Hector on her behalf. For a split second, she thought it might have been Priscilla’s husband, Braxton, but the man grunting and, unfortunately, losing ground to the likes of Hector, was a stranger to her.
Friend or foe, she couldn’t let Hector win.
“Freeze or I’ll shoot,” she said loudly.
Both men stopped and looked at her.
“Who are you?” she demanded of the stranger.
“McGinty,” he wheezed past the chokehold Hector had on him.
McGinty? That sounded familiar.
“Let him go, Hector,” she demanded, “before I drag you to the marshal and have you locked up.”
A wicked grin spread across Hector’s face. “How you gonna do that? You’re as lost as a whore in church.”
Rosemary inhaled sharply. “You’re a despicable human being, and if you don’t release Mr. McGinty right now, I’ll shoot your foot off.”
Hector chuckled and gripped his arm tighter around McGinty’s neck. The stranger’s face was starting to turn purple.
Rosemary cocked the gun and closed her right eye to line up the sight with her left the way she had practiced with Jack. Without hesitation she fired, the kick from the weapon knocking her backwards with a scream. As she scrambled to her feet, Hector was howling, but Mr. McGinty had managed to free himself.
Alvin ran toward them with a lopsided gait, huffing and sweating. He might be young, but he acted like an old man.
Mr. McGinty grabbed a shotgun from his horse and aimed the firearm at the two prospectors.
“She shot me!” Hector wailed.
Rosemary remained where she was, a terrible trembling overcoming her. Good Lord, I did shoot him.
Alvin bent down to examine his friend’s leg, wheezing as he spoke. “Now, Hector, she barely grazed you.”
“She shot my foot off!”
Alvin shook his head, his mouth buried in the mop of whiskers that hung from his chin. “Nope. The bullet’s in the ground, not yer foot. She made a hole in your trousers, that’s all. I see a tiny speck of blood, but I’m not sure since you’re a mite filthy.”
“Grab her!” Hector insisted. “We’ll take her to Wildcat Ridge and have her arrested.”
“I don’t think so,” Mr. McGinty finally chimed in. “You were chasing her. What did you plan to do when you caught her?”
Hector’s expression turned incredulous. “Who the blazes are you? And how do you know she’s not my wife? Or somethin’?”
Mr. McGinty looked at her and the full brunt of his attention stilled her breath. Before she turned purple herself, she gulped air into her lungs. He was tall and strong and … how on earth did the likes of Hector best this man?
“Are you his wife?” he asked. “Or somethin’?”
She didn’t miss the flash of amusement in his eyes before he flicked his gaze back to the two prospectors.
“I most certainly am not his wife,” she answered, her voice shaky. She placed the gun in her coat pocket, and then wrung her hands together. She’d never shot a man before, and she didn’t much care for it.
Hector stood, clearly none the worse for wear, except he looked irritated that he could stand on both of his legs. “Well, I’m pressing charges against you.” He pointed at Mr. McGinty.
McGinty’s brows raised in surprise. “For what?”
Rosemary caught herself staring at the stranger’s rugged profile. He’d lost his hat in the scuffle. His dark hair was short and mussed, and his chin was sporting a dark stubble.
“You were chasing a defenseless woman,” McGinty continued. “I could have you arrested.”
Alvin puffed his chest and held a hand up to McGinty. “All right, all right. This was all just a huge misunderstandin’. How’s about we call it even and go about our business?”
“It’s up to her.” McGinty angled his head in her direction.
Still trying to get her nerves under control, Rosemary wanted nothing more than to be rid of Alvin and the especially vile Hector. But her only option was this stranger. Was she trading one bad situation for another?
“I’m needing help in returning to Wildcat Ridge,” she said to her rescuer. “Might I prevail on you to help me? I’d just as soon never see these two lowlifes again.”
McGinty gave a nod, then waved his shotgun at the two men. “Get lost.”
The two men loped away. When they were out of view, McGinty lowered his firearm and approached her.
“Are you Rosemary Brennan?”
She nodded, noticing that his brown eyes held a hint of amber as he came closer.
He held out a hand. “I’m Miles McGinty, Jack’s friend.”
“Oh.” She clasped his palm, warmth spreading from her fingers into her belly. She had exchanged a letter with him after Jack’s death. “How did you find me?”
He released her. “A Mrs. Drummond was concerned and told me how to find you.”
His hard features softened. “Not really. She gave me a general direction, but it took some serious tracking to find you. You’re far from town. Did you know that?”
Her shoulders sagged. “Yes. I’m lost. Thank you for your help with those … men.”
He ran his fingers through his hair, and having retrieved his hat, settled it into place. “I think I have to thank you. Where did you learn to shoot?”
He nodded. “My thanks for not shooting me.” A slight smile tugged at his lips.
Comprehension washed through her. “Oh my ….” Her hand came to her chest. “I’m so terribly sorry. I could have hurt you. I don’t know what I was thinking. Jack taught me to shoot bottles, not people.” Her throat tightened and tears rushed to her eyes.
“Easy.” McGinty rested his hands on her shoulders. “Hector was scrappier than I’d anticipated. You did the right thing.”
She cleared her throat. “Well, yes, I did wonder how he was able to get a hold of you. You’re so”—her gaze skimmed his shoulders—“wide.”
He removed his hands. “Maybe we can keep the Hector incident between us.”
She flashed him a look of confusion.
“I didn’t mean we should let him get away with trying to hurt you. If you want to press charges, I’ll be the first to back you up. It was a jest. I’ll even confess to the fact that you saved me.”
That made her laugh, which honestly felt good. The past day had been a trial. “I hardly think you needed saving, but you’re welcome. I remember your letter. I’m so sorry that I didn’t realize that you’d be coming to visit Jack’s grave.”
“I apologize for dropping in unannounced, but I was able to get here sooner than expected.”
“Well, I’ll be forever grateful that you did.”
“We won’t be able to make it back to town before nightfall, but if we get started, we can cover a bit of ground before it’s too dark. We should be back by tomorrow, late morning.”
She nodded, then glanced around for her horse. “Madge got away from me yesterday, so the poor thing has been saddled all night.”
McGinty walked with her to retrieve both his horse and Madge, then he helped her feed the animal. They removed the saddle and brushed her, and he led both horses to a stream to drink.
“I think she’ll be fine to ride,” he said. “We’ll give her a good rest tonight when we stop.”
Rosemary would be sleeping under the stars with a strange man and no chaperone. She should be shocked and mortified, but she wasn’t. She was a widow. She was no naïve maiden. And she’d barely avoided whatever may have occurred at the hands of Hector. The thought sent a shiver through her.
If townsfolk gossiped about her and McGinty, then let them. He had helped her. He was Jack’s friend, and truthfully, it would be nice to catch up with him, to be with someone who had known her husband, someone who might feel a sliver of the grief she felt from losing Jack Brennan.
McGinty saddled Madge again and helped Rosemary onto the animal, and then he began leading her home.
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