Authors: Blazing Embers
Books By Deborah Camp:
The Dangerous Hearts Series
Master of Moonspell
Right Behind the Rain
The Daring Hearts Series
My Wild Rose
The Love and Adventure Series
For Love or Money
In a Pirate’s Arms
Just Another Pretty Face
Vein of Gold
The Love and Laughter Series
A Newsworthy Affair
Hook, Line, and Sinker
The Butler Did It
The Love Everlasting Series
A Dream to Share
They Said it Wouldn’t Last
The Passionate Hearts Series
Taming the Wild Man
The Second Mr. Sullivan
Weathering the Storm
The Tender Hearts Series
Sweet Passion’s Song
This Tender Truce
To Have, To Hold
The Wild Hearts Series
A Tough Man’s Woman
Too Tough ToTame
Tough Talk, Tender Kisses
Copyright © Deborah Camp, 1987
All Rights Reserved
First published by Avon Books.
A little while she strove, and much repented, And whispering “I will ne’er consent”—consented.
Burying a body is grave business.
The thought came out of nowhere, slicing through her mind and making her jerk upward as if she’d been knifed in the back. She placed a hand against the curve of her spine as her morbidity dissolved into a grin. Then a giggle. Then a laugh. Then a sob.
Cassandra Mae Potter folded her hands on top of the shovel’s handle and rested her forehead on them. Her skin was slick with perspiration and the hair at her temples was damp and gathering into dark blond curls. She felt old. So very old. And alone.
Her gaze wandered over the crusty ground, where a few tufts of early spring grass struggled to survive, and came to rest on the sheet-wrapped body that held no resemblance to the bowlegged, bright-eyed, potbellied man who had been her father yesterday. She missed him already—not so much his company but the security he’d represented. Shorty Potter’s mind had been wandering the past few years, making him hard to talk to and impossible to control, but having a man on the property had kept away folks looking for trouble.
A few years back Shorty had been lucid and good company, Cassie recalled fondly. He’d raised her and had been her whole world. Cassie had been his best buddy, his partner, his treasure. She mourned those days gone by, those days before he’d found this land, bought it, and started working the abandoned mine.
The mine had replaced her in his life, and Cassie had
come to hate it. Recently, however, she’d begun to accept it as one would grudgingly accept an unwanted relative who’d come for a visit and decided to stay. Cassie had kept the home fires burning and had waited for Shorty to come back to her. She had finally given in and joined him in the mine, helping him work it and hoping against hope that he’d tire of its company and become her devoted companion again.
The futile hope had died when she’d found Shorty a few yards from the mine yesterday evening. Fear had set in the moment she realized he was dead. She’d never felt defenseless before, but she had when she touched her pa’s shoulder and realized that he would never stand between her and calamity again.
Cassie ran a hand down her damp face as worry burrowed deeper in her mind. Things had been simple yesterday but had become so blamed complicated today. Did somebody know that Shorty had found something in his precious mine? How could that be? Nobody knew about it except herself and Shorty. She’d taken a blood oath with Shorty just a couple of days ago and had sworn she wouldn’t tell anyone about his discovery. If it
a discovery. She still had her doubts, but she had to admit that she’d never seen her pa so excited as he had been when he stumbled out of the mine that day, his eyes glazed with greed.
“Found something, Cassie,” he’d whispered, tugging at her arm so hard it made her teeth clatter in her head. “
“Gold?” Cassie had asked, her voice rising with hope.
“Mebbe.” He’d placed a finger to his pursed, dried lips, and his eyes had gleamed with coveted secrets. “It’s something.” Then he’d done a little jig, looking for all the world like an overgrown leprechaun.
Now, staring at the stiff bundle of sheets that held all that was left of her pa, Cassie wondered as she had then if he had been having one of his “spells”—sometimes he had thought he saw demon faces in the mine, and sometimes he had thought he heard someone talking to him in there. The day he’d made his “find” in the mine, he wouldn’t
tell her what it was. She’d studied the rocky walls closely and hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary, but Pa had grinned like a cat who had swallowed a mouse.
He might have seen something, she thought with a long, tired sigh. But what? Had he broken his oath and talked to someone else about it? Is that why he’d been shot, or was it just that he’d been at the wrong place at the wrong time?
What had the sheriff said? Something about asking around about Shorty’s death.
Ask around! Cassie closed her eyes, shutting out the sight of the pristine sheets. Stupid, old Sheriff Barnes. Pa had called him Numb Nuts Barnes. A smile tipped up one corner of her mouth. Pa’s opinion of Barnes was right. Asking around about Shorty Potter’s death wouldn’t do any good. What kind of idiot would admit to shooting an old man in the back?
Sweat tickled down her spine, and Cassie straightened from her slouched weariness. She tucked a lock of hair under the brim of her hat and propped one boot on the top of the shovel. The earth was hard and cracked and it took all her might to bury the shovel in it. She wrestled loose a patch of it and tossed it aside. It’ll take all damn day to dig this grave, she thought with a puff of breath. She’d be lucky to get Pa into his final resting place by sundown.
A blessed breeze wafted from the mountains and fluttered her long skirt. The next puff of breeze teased up the skirt’s hem and caressed the skin above her boot tops. Cassie paused in her task to lift the skirt up to her knees and let the next breeze swirl around her legs. The air was fragrant with green things and … and something else. She sniffed, tipping up her nose. Dropping the shovel, she knelt and pressed an ear to the hard earth. The ground trembled with the pounding of hooves. One horse and rider.
She moved quickly to the cabin and across the planked floor to the cupboard by the wood-burner stove. She took the pistol down from the shelf and tucked it into her waistband. As she strode toward the door, she paused to snatch up a length of coiled rawhide. She could hear the approaching horse. It wasn’t coming from the direction of Eureka Springs, so it couldn’t be Numb Nuts Barnes, Must be
trouble, Cassie thought as her fingers curled around the whip. Bad news traveled fast. Maybe some snake had already heard tell she was out here by herself.
Cassie spotted the horse and rider in the distance where the mountains waited and sheltered all kinds of varmints. She bent over and picked up the shovel again, draping one arm across the top of the handle as she waited for the horse to veer off or come right toward her. It came, hell-bent for leather. Dust and bits of green stuff scurried behind the chestnut. The rider was leaning over the animal’s neck, but he sat up a little when he saw her. He began to rein in the horse.
“Damn,” Cassie whispered between teeth that had begun to chatter. She let the whip out and the tip of it flicked at the edge of the shallow hole she’d dug. “Ride on, bastard,” she murmured, but he reined his horse to a trot. Cassie summoned her courage and, remembering how Shorty handled strangers like this one, set her face in an unrelenting scowl.
The chestnut slowed to a walk, then stopped altogether when Cassie flicked the whip and it recoiled with a pop.
“That’s far enough,” Cassie said, making her voice low and menacing.
“Howdy.” The rider touched the brim of his dusty black hat. He looked from her to the sheet-draped figure as he rubbed his whiskered jaw reflectively. “Hot day for digging a grave.” His gaze swung back to her. “Your man, ma’am?”
“None of your business. Keep on riding.”
Rook Colton took a good look at her, staring into blue eyes that were too old for such a young face. He shifted his weight and his numb backside tingled. Trying to sit up straight in the saddle, he cursed the weakness that made the task impossible. The girl was glaring at him, her full mouth set in a disparaging frown.
“I’d be glad to help you dig that grave, ma’am, if you’d spare a little water for me and my horse. We’re parched.”
“Don’t need no help. Ride on.” She moved her wrist, making the strip of rawhide slither in the dirt.
“You here alone?”
The whip popped again, and the chestnut stumbled backward.
“Get!” Her voice broke on the word.
“Looky here,” Rook said, trying to settle the nervous horse. “I’m not looking for trouble. I’m just thirsty and tired.”
“And I’m busy. Get!”
She moved so fast that Rook didn’t know what she was doing until he found himself staring into a gun barrel. The pistol wavered in her small hand as she held it up and squinted one eye to take aim at his belly.
“Holy Christ, woman!” he shouted as his heart kicked against his ribs. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m trying to get your attention,” she said in a stern, low voice. “Now that I’ve got it, I want you to get the hell off my land before I blow you clear to St. Louis.”
“I’m getting,” Rook growled, digging his heels into the chestnut’s sides. “Lower that thing! I’m getting!”
Goddamn his rotten luck, Rook thought as he cast a hard glare at the girl. Why couldn’t he have ridden up on some kindhearted woman looking for some poor, friendless soul to take in and raise? Oh, no. He had to come up on a hellcat just itching to scratch his eyes out and boil them for dinner. He delivered a scathing glance at the belligerent girl and urged the horse toward Eureka Springs. It trotted past the girl, and the rocking motion sent another spasm of pain through Rook. He slouched forward as a wave of dizziness passed over him. He saw black, then white, then black again.
Cassie whirled around when she heard him hit the ground. She pointed the gun at him, trying to keep it from twitching back and forth in her trembling hand.
“Get up! Hear me? I know how to use this thing, and I will! I’ll splatter your innards all over the—” She clamped her teeth together when he didn’t even stir.
It’s a trick, she thought, holding the gun in one hand and the whip in the other as she approached him with careful, slow steps. If he blinked an eyelash, she’d shoot him, she vowed to herself. Shoot him dead. Just like someone shot Pa.