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“Five more miles to Little Creede,” the driver called out, causing Evelyn’s dread to increase.

Should I have come?

What if Richard turned her away? She could not travel back to Baltimore on her own. That fear had stayed with her the entire trip to this unfamiliar territory. She was out of funds, not to mention too weak to manage such a trip.

Not again . . .

Her traveling companion smiled gently. “It’ll be all right, honey. I’m sure your man will be waiting for you when you arrive.”

He offered her his water canteen, and she took another small sip, even though she hated feeling like she was accepting charity. She was in no position to refuse his generous offer.

“Thank you, Mister Prescott.” She returned his canteen. “You have been so very kind.”

“Now, you just call me Tommy. We don’t stand on ceremony in Little Creede, and I expect we’ll bump into each other now and then.”

The elder gentleman had been most attentive to her since they’d left the stagecoach station in Georgetown. Seemingly concerned over her weak state of health, he’d taken it upon himself to be sure she had food and water during the journey to Little Creede. Sharing with her what little he had on him had afforded her the energy to remain somewhat alert.

“I wish I could repay you somehow, but I’m afraid I used the last of my coin in Georgetown for my final coach ticket,” she said.

He patted her hand. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head. Why, you’re about the same age as my granddaughter. I hope if she ever found herself in the same situation someone would help her.” He studied her critically. “You should try to rest. I’m sure your husband will be there to meet you upon arrival.”

Not bothering to correct his assumption, Evelyn closed her eyes, pretending to sleep as the stagecoach ate up the last few miles to Little Creede.

Yet her mind continued to whirl. Her stomach roiling with both nerves and hunger pangs, she prepared herself to come face to face with the man she’d spurned back home, but whose help she needed more than anything on God’s green earth.

***

Relaxing on the front porch of the jailhouse, Richard tipped his chair back against the rough-hewn log exterior. Townsfolk scurried about, tidying up the street and hanging welcome banners for the Menagerie Museum which was expected to travel through town, sometime soon.

Since returning to Little Creede, he’d spent more time here than at his deputy post in Rocky Gulch. He’d also traveled to Silver Cache for his nephew Duncan’s birth, staying a couple extra weeks to lend a helping hand to the new family.

Tucker Phelps, hired on as replacement deputy once Richard took over as the Gulch’s new sheriff, was perfectly capable of handling things over there, easing some of his guilt. Helping Granny settle in had been a higher priority, even if she still held a chip on her shoulder the size of the Rio Grande. Maybe she’d find it in her heart soon to forgive her family for neglecting her all these years.

As much as Richard regretted it, what was done was done. Now he’d do all he could to ensure her remaining years were happy, surrounded by her loved ones.

If she’d let them.

Joshua Lang ambled through the open door and plopped down on the other chair, a single encompassing glance taking in the bustling activities of his town. A satisfied smile curved the sheriff’s lips as he propped his dusty boots on the railing. “Nice to see everyone having fun in anticipation of the menagerie coming through. It’s been a while since Little Creede had a large event.”

“I have to admit, I’m looking forward to it too.”

Joshua squinted into the sun, thumbing his Stetson off his perspiring forehead. “Gonna be hot the entire time they’re set up here. I’m right glad I’ll be getting out of town for a bit.”

“You still planning on fishing over at Upper Bonney? There’s some good trouting in that creek.”

“Yep, taking Davey with me. That fool man works too damned hard.”

Davey Bentley had been the Gulch Mine foreman for years, barely taking off any time to spend with his family. If anyone deserved to relax on a creek bed and drop a pole in the water, Richard reckoned Bentley did.

“You’ll miss the first few days of the Menagerie,” he commented idly.

“True. I expect the family’ll forgive me.” Joshua shot him a sly look. “You escorting a special lady? If not, I know Vivian has a few friends who’d be interested in stepping out with you. Take your pick.”

Richard snorted. This wasn’t the first time Joshua had tried to interest him in a woman. “I don’t know, Lang, seems like marriage is turning you into a matchmaker.”

He shrugged, appearing unbothered at the accusation. “I respect you, Blackwood, and consider you a friend. I’d like to see you as happy as I am. And there’s nothing better than a good woman to bring sunshine into a man’s life.”

Richard started to form a snappy retort when an approaching stagecoach at the outskirts of town caught his attention. He watched as it slowed, taking the turn toward the station, wheels and hooves kicking up dust. The coach came to an abrupt stop amidst neighs from the team, Purdy’s by the look of it. The grizzled driver ran travelers back and forth from Georgetown and Canon City in the warmer months when he needed extra gambling money.

Keeping a lawman’s eye on the stage gave Richard a reason to ignore Lang’s suggestion. Besides, his emotions had yet to recover from his last dalliance with a female, and it wasn’t something he was anxious to repeat.

Women were fickle.

Spoiled.

Leading a man on with softness and warmth.

Stomping his pride into the ground under a dainty foot.

Richard’s focus remained on the arriving travelers. Purdy threw on the brake and hopped down, hurrying around the side to unlock the coach door.

His thoughts strayed to Evelyn Calhoun, the flawless beauty who’d spurned him in Baltimore. When the stagecoach door popped open, Purdy held out his hand to assist a lady who looked a hell of a lot like her.

Must be my imagination.

He blinked in confusion, because never would the woman he remembered stoop to travel West to a dirty mining town. She’d made that very clear last time he’d seen her.

His eyes narrowed, straining to make out her features. Evelyn came from money and wore only the finest clothing, her appearance always immaculate. The way she carried herself spoke of a refined upbringing.

This bedraggled woman wore a traveling gown that hung on a frame thinner than the deliciously feminine curves he recalled, curves he’d loved exploring in minute detail during their time together.

Joshua pushed back the brim of his Stetson. “You know her?”

Richard began to shake his head in denial, when she descended the rickety coach steps. Her hat slipped off, hanging around her neck by its ribbons, exposing a tangle of familiar sun-yellow curls.

Recognition hitting him like a kick to the gut, he leapt to his feet.

What the hell is she doing here?

“Looks like she’s sick,” Joshua commented, when Evelyn staggered.

Richard took off in a run as the woman he’d spent hours making love to in Baltimore, for a while believing they might have a future together, swayed forward. Tommy Prescott’s anxious face appeared in the doorway behind her.

Only Purdy’s quick thinking saved her from hitting the ground when the driver caught her around the waist.

Richard reached them seconds later. A knot of unease tightened his shoulders. Joshua was correct, she looked sickly.

“I’ll take her.” Richard held out his arms.

“She yours?” Purdy asked suspiciously, handing her over. “She puked a lot on the trip.”

Richard’s gaze fell to Evelyn’s belly, protruding from her otherwise gaunt frame.

With child. The swell he spotted beneath her travel-wrinkled gown changed everything. There was no doubt in his mind whose babe she carried.

He gulped, nodding as Joshua came to stand next to him. “Yes. Yes, she’s mine.

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