Montana Territory, Early August 1888
NOBODY IN PLENTIFUL WOULD HAVE BLAMED MISS EMMELINE IF she’d put a bullet right between Gil Hartwell’s eyes, showing up out of nowhere the way he did, and after all that time had gone by. It only made matters worse that she’d defended him every day of those seven years, swearing up and down that Gil was dead, for he’d surely have come back to her otherwise. Most everybody else figured Gil had taken up with another woman, or gotten himself thrown into jail, though the compassionate ones kept their opinions to themselves.
Emmeline was teetering on top of a stool in the fragrant garden just off the screened veranda that fateful afternoon of his return, hanging the last of several dozen brightly colored paper lanterns from one of the lines she’d strung between the house and the sturdy oaks her grandmother had planted as a bride.
She froze at the sound of that dear and well-remembered voice, and the stool, precariously positioned in the soft, sweet grass, swayed wildly. She flung her arms out wide in a desperate bid for balance, and would have hurtled to the ground if two strong hands hadn’t closed around her waist just in the nick of time. Even that simple touch sent unseemly sensations ricocheting through Emmeline, and she put a trembling hand to her heart as she turned to face the man who had broken her heart.
Emmeline was not given to swooning. Though slender, she was tall for a woman, and strong, and she generally took a pragmatic view of things. For all of that, her head felt light enough to float away, like a soap bubble, and her heart was pounding so that she could barely catch her breath.
“Gil,” she whispered, amazed, stricken. He was solid and real, though thinner than she remembered. His dark hair was in want of barbering, and the fiercely blue eyes held a mixture of tenderness, humor, and some hard-won wisdom. He was wearing the plain, sensible suit he’d worn to their wedding.
“Sit down,” Gil said hoarsely, and took her elbow.
Emmeline allowed him to lead her to the wooden bench next to the rose arbor and seat her there. “Where have you been?” she asked, at last, in a raw whisper. Along with joyous disbelief, she was beginning to feel a cold, quiet fury.
Gil took a seat at the end of the bench, holding his battered hat by the brim, letting it dangle between his knees. He took in the carefully decorated garden with a sweep of his eyes and smiled, showing the fine white teeth she had always admired. “I didn’t stay away by choice, Emmeline,” he said quietly. “I want to tell you everything, and I plan to, if you’re inclined to listen, but it’s not a simple story, nor a short one. It needs telling in private, and from the looks of things, you’re planning some kind of celebration.”
Emmeline swallowed hard and willed herself not to break
down and sob. She’d loved this man with the whole of her being, and gone to his home and his bed in innocence, as a trusting and pliant bride. Gently and with infinite patience, he had taught her the intimate rites of marriage, and she had responded to his attentions with such primitive abandon that she blushed to recall it, even now.
Still, seven precious years had gone by, years during which Emmeline might have borne children and made a fine home. She had mourned Gil Hartwell without reservation, but she’d finally managed to set aside her grief and get on with her life.
Tears blurred her vision as she gazed at him. A shameless desire possessed her; she wanted to take him by the hand, lead him up the rear stairs to her bedroom, and close the door against the world while she lost herself in his caresses.
“This is my wedding day, Gil,” she said instead.
He stood up suddenly, but instead of looming over her, he turned, so that his back was to her. She watched as he set his shoulders, and pressed her hand to her bosom when he faced her again.
“You already have a husband,” Gil pointed out, in a quiet voice.
Emmeline dashed at her tears with the back of one hand. “Yes,” she said, reeling with joy and heartbreak, wild anger and the tenderest of affections, “it appears that I do. Not that I’d have known it by your behavior, Mr. Hartwell.”
Gil drew near and dropped to one knee before her, looking up into her wet eyes. “Do you love this other man?” he asked gruffly. “If you do, if you want him—”
She couldn’t help herself; she reached out then, and touched the beloved face, ever so lightly, with her fingertips, half expecting Gil to dissolve, like the visions she’d conjured so many times. “There won’t be a wedding today,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean you’re forgiven, Gil Hartwell.” She withdrew her hand. “How do I know, for one thing, that you
don’t already have a wife waiting somewhere else, with a whole houseful of children?”
“You’ll have to trust me, I reckon,” he answered, with a sad smile. Gil raised himself from his knee and took a seat on the bench again, but this time he didn’t keep his distance. He sat disturbingly close, and Emmeline was aware of him in every nerve ending. “Is that what the good people of Plentiful believed, Emmeline? That I left you for some other woman?”
“Yes,” she said, and she had to push the word out of her mouth, it was so hard to say. She had suffered greatly from the gossip that surrounded Gil’s disappearance, and she dreaded the idea of going through the singular agonies of it all over again.
“And what did you believe?”
“That you were dead,” Emmeline replied, as fury swelled within her again, fresh and bitter. “I even erected a fancy monument to your memory, over in the churchyard. Would you like to see it?”
Gil flinched slightly, in mock horror, and though there was humor in his eyes, it was tempered, as before, with some deep and very private pain. Before he could reply, a third voice spoke from behind them.
“I was told,” said Neal Montgomery, as both Gil and Emmeline turned to watch him descend the veranda steps, “that it was bad luck for the groom to see the bride the day of the wedding. I should have heeded the warning.”
Emmeline had no opportunity to offer a reply, for by the time she’d recovered, Gil was on his feet, facing his old antagonist. Gil’s small but well-chosen homestead, abandoned all this while, bordered Neal’s much larger ranch, and there had been bad blood between them from the first. Neal had never made a secret of the fact that he wanted to annex Gil’s hundred and sixty acres to his own one thousand.
“I might have known it would be you,” Gil said. “How long
was I gone, Montgomery, before you started courting my wife?”
Emmeline touched Gil’s arm in a feeble effort to silence him, but her gaze was fixed on Neal. Tall and broad-shouldered, with fair hair and golden-amber eyes, he was a handsome man, much sought after even in Plentiful, where women, respectable or otherwise, were scarce. She sighed.
“I am sorry, Neal,” she said, and if her voice was a bit tremulous, it still carried. “I certainly didn’t expect this to happen.”
Neal was not looking at her, but at Gil. Something intangible but innately violent passed between the two men, and even though the weather had been fair for a week, a chilly breeze came up all of a sudden, causing the Chinese lanterns to rustle and flutter overhead, like dry leaves. “No,” Mr. Montgomery replied. “Nor did I, my dear.”
“I’ll just bet you didn’t,” Gil answered. His eyes were slightly narrowed as he assessed Neal. “Tell me, Montgomery—did you sweet-talk Emmeline into selling you my land, or were you marrying her to get it?”
Emmeline stiffened in indignation, realized that Gil had taken a light grasp on her arm, and wrenched free of him. Since anything she’d have tried to say would have come out as an insensible sputter, she held her tongue.
Neal crossed the grass to stand a few feet away, and his fancy spurs, fashioned of pure Mexican silver, like the wide band gleaming on his hat, made faint, jingling music as he moved. His dark suit was expensive and flawlessly tailored, like his white linen shirt, and even though this was his wedding day, he wore a Colt .45 strapped low on one hip. His gaze was locked with Gil’s, and a tiny muscle leaped in his jaw before he deigned to answer the other man’s inflammatory question.
“I was marrying Miss Emmeline because I love her, and my
plans haven’t changed. Your presence is irksome, Hartwell, but probably temporary, and therefore of no real concern to me.”
Gil’s smile was anything but genial. He slid one arm around Emmeline’s waist, and this time she didn’t—couldn’t—pull away. “We’ve got things to settle between us, Emmeline and I, and maybe when all the dust settles, she’ll choose you for a husband. In the meantime, the lady is still my wife, and I’ll thank you to keep a proper distance.”
“A divorce should be a simple matter,” Neal observed easily, even cheerfully, as he tugged at one glove and flexed his fingers under leather so thin and pliant that it fitted like a layer of skin. “God knows you’ve given the woman ample grounds.”
Emmeline flushed. “I would like to participate in this discussion, if neither of you mind,” she announced, gathering the skirts of her practical serge dress and starting toward the veranda. “It will be continued inside, in the parlor.”
The two men followed her into the house in the end, but Emmeline had a few bad moments in the interim, wondering if they would engage in fisticuffs right there in the garden.
“Izannah!” she called, as soon as she’d crossed the threshold into the spacious room that had been her grandfather’s study until his death eighteen months before.
Her young cousin, resplendent in her pink organza dress, glided down the main staircase as Emmeline entered the foyer. The poor girl was going to be disappointed that the wedding was being called off; social events were thin on the ground in Plentiful.
Izannah, a pretty child with brown hair and eyes, blushed fetchingly at the sight of Neal, for she found him charming. Her mouth formed a perfect O when her gaze drifted past Mr. Montgomery to rest upon Gil.
“Great Zeus,” she murmured.
Gil bowed, his eyes dancing. “I am gratified, Miss Izannah,” he said, “that you remember me.”
“Of course I remember you,” Izannah said, and though she’d come to a stop in the middle of the stairway earlier, she now descended with theatrical grace. “You were Emmeline’s husband.” Her complexion paled slightly as she realized the implications of this fact, and she sat heavily on the bottom step. “Good heavens,” she said.
“Collect yourself,” Emmeline said firmly. “You must find Ezra and ask him to spread the word around town that there isn’t going to be a wedding today.”
“This is quite scandalous,” Izannah commented, rising from the pool of organza like Venus coming out of the sea. “Can you imagine what people will say?”
“Only too well,” Emmeline muttered, swishing forward into the parlor with a grandeur that was wholly feigned. The situation might have been worse, she thought, rather frantically, as she waited for Neal and Gil to enter the inner sanctum, then calmly closed the sliding doors. It hardly bore considering, what would have happened if Gil had arrived even a day later. “Sit down, gentlemen,” she said.
That room, in the heart of the house, was Emmeline’s domain, and she usually felt strong there, and very much in charge of things. It would be within those walls, she decided, that she would hear Gil’s mysterious tale.
Neither man honored her request to take a chair, as it turned out. Neal took up a post at the window, and Gil stood beside the cold fireplace, one hand resting on the ornately carved mantelpiece.
Emmeline began to feel dizzy again—it was so completely unlike her—and put one hand to her throat. Her pulse raced beneath her fingertips.
“Neal,” she began, and because the name came out sounding like the squeak of a rusted hinge, she had to pause and clear her throat. “Mr. Montgomery,” she said. “I do apologize for the shock and inconvenience this development has undoubtedly caused you.” She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the fireplace, being very careful to avoid meeting Gil’s gaze, and saw that her dark red hair was tumbling messily from its pins. “You may be sure that I will offer you a full explanation, once I have received one myself.” She cleared her throat again. “If you would be so kind as to leave Mr. Hartwell and me alone to talk—”
Neal turned from the window and crossed the room with startling speed to stand before Emmeline, glowering down into her face. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Gil was watchful and his arms were folded. Although he seemed poised to spring, his body was still.
“Leave you alone?” Neal demanded, a slow flush climbing his neck to pulse in his aristocratic face. “With this . . . this drifter? Emmeline, must I remind you of the scandalous fashion in which he abandoned you?”
Emmeline’s throat constricted for a moment, aching, and she subdued a fresh flood of tears by sheer effort of will. In Plentiful, folks had raised personal censure to the level of an art form.
“No, Neal,” she said softly. “No one needs to remind me of that. Every pitying look I received, every whisper of gossip, has been pressed into my heart like flowers between the pages of a remembrance book. But Gil Hartwell was—is—my husband, and I will hear him out, for my own sake, if not for his.”
Neal brought his emotions under control with visible effort, cast one killing glance at Gil, and laid his hands gently on Emmeline’s shoulders. “If you need me . . .”
Emmeline swallowed hard. “I’ll send for you,” she promised.
He studied her face for a long moment, then released his hold and strode to the doors of the parlor. He lingered briefly, without speaking or turning around, before going out.
Emmeline turned slowly to her husband, who still stood next to the fireplace. He was examining a small likeness of Izannah, housed in an oval frame, a thoughtful expression on his face, and she realized that he had focused on the tintype in an effort to afford Emmeline a modicum of privacy. She could not bring herself to thank him.
“You didn’t answer my question,” he said, setting the frame back in its place on the mantel. “The one I asked earlier, in the garden.”
Emmeline’s skirts made a swishing sound as she turned away from him and with one hand gripped the back of the leather chair her grandfather had always favored. “You wanted to know if I love Neal Montgomery,” she recalled.
She bit her lip, feeling Gil’s gaze on her nape like a caress, then made herself face him. “I haven’t the faintest idea,” she said, in a rush of soft, defiant words. “I was bitterly lonely after you went away, and Mr. Montgomery is a fine-looking and genial man.”
Emmeline’s right hand tensed; for the first time since she’d known him, she wanted to slap Gil Hartwell—slap him so hard that he’d reel from the blow. “The judge left this house to Izannah and me in his will,” she said reasonably. “We had planned to turn it into a hotel, or take in boarders.”
Gil raised one dark eyebrow. “But you were saved from that fate by a proposal from Mr. Montgomery,” he speculated.
“It wasn’t like that,” Emmeline said. Her chin was trembling, and she hoped Gil couldn’t see. “You know better than that. I wouldn’t have married you if I’d wanted money, now would I?”
He smiled, then crossed the room to stand before her. “I’m sorry, Emmeline,” he said. “I have no right to question any decision you might have made during these past seven years.”
Tacitly, they agreed to sit down, and took seats on the horsehair settee facing the fireplace. Gil brushed the back of Emmeline’s hand with his fingertips, and then enclosed it in a tentative grasp.
A silence settled between them, and they simply sat together for a little while. Emmeline spent those moments trying to moderate her heartbeat and her breathing, and to get used to the fact that the man she’d long believed to be dead was very much alive.
Finally, Gil thrust one hand through his unruly hair—in a gesture so dearly familiar that Emmeline felt a tug in her soul at the sight of it—and began to talk. To his credit, he met her gaze and did not look away.
“I guess you didn’t get any of my letters,” he said.
Emmeline bristled. For the first year after Gil’s disappearance, hoping for word from her missing husband, she’d met every stagecoach and waited in the general store while old Mr. Dillard sorted through the mail. “I told you,” she said stiffly, “I thought you were dead.”
Gil sighed heavily. “Yes,” he said, and sighed again. “Well, there were times when I wished I was, but it isn’t my intention to burden you with my personal trials and tribulations.” He raised her hand, seemingly unaware of the motion, and brushed his lips lightly across her knuckles. “I went to San Francisco to meet with a banker about a loan to buy more cattle, just like you and I agreed,” he began. “Everything went well, and I was ready to catch a stagecoach back here, but the
next one wasn’t leaving for two days, so I decided to explore the city a little. I met up with some friends and told them all about you, and the ranch, and the steers we were about to add to the herd. We went to a saloon, the night before I was going to leave, for a farewell drink.”
Emmeline straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin slightly, but offered no comment. Gil had been a reasonably temperate man during their marriage, but he had taken a drink now and again, and she had no call to think he was putting a varnish on the truth. Yet.
Gil sat back on the settee, still holding Emmeline’s hand, but instead of looking into her eyes, like before, he stared off into the middle distance, as though watching a scene unfold in the ether. “I’ve wished I’d stayed in my room a thousand times since then,” he continued presently, his voice low and rough as gravel. “But there’s no sense in wanting to change the past, of course. I’d bought a brooch that day, to bring home to you, and my spirits were so high I just had to celebrate. I recall that I threw back a couple of shots of whiskey and watched the dancing girls for a while.” He paused again, and lowered his head. A tremor went through him, barely perceptible, and then he faced Emmeline again. “My friends wanted to stay, so I left the saloon by myself and started back to the rooming house, by way of an alley. The last thing I recall is something striking the base of my skull. When I woke up, I was in the hold of a ship out in the harbor.”
Emmeline’s mouth fell open. Gil’s story seemed a bit overdramatic, and she wasn’t at all sure she believed it. “You were shanghaied?” she breathed. She’d thought of a thousand and one yarns he might tell just since he’d appeared in the side garden like some latter-day Lazarus, but this particular scenario hadn’t occurred to her.
Gil used his free hand to rub the back of his neck, as though
some shadow of pain still lingered in the bones and muscles there, and sighed again. “I spent the next six and a half years hauling lines and raising and lowering sails. Every time we made port, I tried to escape, but I never even got to the end of the wharf before I was caught and brought back.”
“But finally, somehow, you got away,” Emmeline whispered, marveling. She was caught up in the story, whether it was true or not.
Gil nodded, but there was no triumph in his face, only a grim, haunted expression. “We were at anchor in Sydney Harbor one quiet night, scheduled to set sail with the morning tide. The water was smooth as glass, and so clear that the moonlight reached right to the bottom.”
“What happened?” Emmeline dared to inquire, barely breathing by that point.
For a moment, she thought he would fling her hand away and bolt from the room, there was such tension in him, coiled tight and ready to spring. But then Gil relaxed—by conscious choice, she could tell—and even managed a faltering smile.
“Perhaps one day I’ll tell you the details, my love. For the moment, it’s enough I was lucky, and got safely to shore.”
Emmeline’s stout heart was fluttering again, and the images were vivid in her mind. If Gil was lying, she said to herself, he’d missed his calling, choosing to scratch out a living on a small ranch; he could have made a fortune writing dime novels. “My word,” she remarked, too shaken, for the moment, to say more.
Gil reached into the inside pocket of his frayed and musty coat, and when he opened his hand, a small porcelain brooch rested on his calloused palm. “This belongs to you,” he said.
Nearly overcome, Emmeline gnawed at her lower lip and concentrated all her considerable energies on maintaining her composure. Then, with unsteady fingers, utterly unable to resist, she reached out and claimed the trinket. It was not an
expensive piece, just a simple porcelain oval with a sheaf of golden wheat painted on in the most fragile of brushstrokes.
The thought of Gil carrying the small treasure with him, through all sorts of privations and ordeals, touched her heart in a way the prettiest and most poetic words in the language could not have done.
Her eyes were awash with fresh tears when she looked at him, holding the brooch in a tight fist and pressing that fist to her bosom. “So help me, Gil Hartwell, if I ever find out you made that up, that you bought this from some peddler in Missoula or Butte, I’ll never forgive you.”
“I’m telling the truth, Miss Emmeline,” he said. He hesitated, obviously weighing his next words. “You’ve got to get used to the idea of my being back in Plentiful, I know, and that’s sure to take a little time. I’ll stay clear of you if that’s what you want—God knows, there’s plenty to do at the ranch while you’re thinking things through. But when I was working on those ships, darlin’, there was only one thing that kept me going, and that was the belief that I could find my way back to you some fine day.”
A tear spilled down Emmeline’s cheek, and she made no move to wipe it away. She just sat there, listening, waiting, wondering if all the love in the world was enough to mend the damage that had been done by an unkind fate.
“I often imagined kissing you, Emmeline, the way I used to do. That’s all that kept me from throwing myself overboard and breathing water until I went under. And that’s all I’m asking of you now. One kiss.”
Emmeline didn’t speak. She just nodded, and leaned forward slightly, closing her eyes.
He curved a finger under her chin, like in the old days, and tilted her head back. She felt him close to her, and his breath on her mouth set her flesh to tingling, first just on her lips, then all over her body. She let out a soft moan of relief and
regret when he claimed her, tenderly at first, tentatively, and then with a slow-building power, fueled by passion.
Emmeline was lost; Gil’s touch had always affected her that way. She would have given herself to him, right there in the broad light of day, on her grandmother’s horsehair settee, if he’d chosen to take her.
But he didn’t. He drew back, one corner of his mouth kicking up in a semblance of a grin as she opened her eyes, lashes fluttering, to gaze at him in consternation.
“I do apologize, Miss Emmeline,” Gil said, “for any inconvenience or embarrassment I might have caused you by coming back when I did.” He touched her lips, still swollen and sensitive from the most thorough and compelling of kisses, with the tip of an index finger. “Mind, I didn’t say I was sorry for spoiling your wedding.”
Emmeline blinked, still too confused to speak. She loved Gil Hartwell as much as she ever had, but she was going to let him walk away, let him return to his homestead without her, because he was right about one thing: She needed time to ponder, to work out whether she believed him or not.
If Gil was lying to her, she’d know it, somehow, and no amount of love would make her set up housekeeping with a man who had betrayed her. Emmeline was a proud woman, and she’d been taught to put a high value on herself. She could not reconcile her hopes to anything less than complete loyalty.
Gil stood, his hand cupped beneath her chin, and their fingers, interlocked until then, loosened, separated, fell away.
“I love you, Emmeline,” he said. And with that he turned and walked out of the parlor without looking back.
Emmeline sat rigid until she heard the front door close smartly, then covered her face with both hands and let out a wail fit to break a banshee’s heart.
Izannah, who had been hovering outside the parlor for some time, burst into the room and hurried over to sit beside Emmeline and put an arm around her. Mrs. Dunlap, their nearest neighbor, was close on Izannah’s heels, clucking and wringing her hands and muttering “Lord have mercy” over and over again.
“What did that rascal say to you?” Izannah demanded.
Emmeline snuffled inelegantly. “He said he loved me,” she confessed, and promptly began to sob again. Even now, after all the humiliation she’d suffered, all the tears she’d shed and all the prayers she’d prayed, she wanted to chase after Gil Hartwell and ask him to take her home with him.
“The brute,” Izannah said, furiously sympathetic.
“Lord have mercy,” said Mrs. Dunlap.
Emmeline drew a great, shuddering breath. “Did you—send Ezra—around town with the news?” she managed between watery gasps. “About the wedding being called off, I mean?” She couldn’t have borne it if guests had begun to arrive, full of merriment and the expectation of a ceremony.
Izannah was patting her hand—the same hand that bore an invisible tattoo of Gil’s. “Yes, dear, of course I did. Don’t worry. By now, everyone in town knows that Gil Hartwell has come back. It’s very romantic, don’t you think? Even though he should be shot—Gil, I mean.”
“Do stop prattling,” Emmeline pleaded. She’d developed a headache, and her wretched sobs had turned to hiccups. “Brandy,” she cried. “Get me some of Grandfather’s brandy, please, and quickly!”
Izannah hastened to comply, for she was fond of drama, being young and quite sheltered, and probably reasoned that brandy could only make the situation more interesting.
Mrs. Dunlap offered a few lame protests, and actually winced when Emmeline downed one dose of liquor in a
decidedly unladylike gulp, then held out the snifter for another.
• • •
Gil had arrived in Plentiful aboard the afternoon stagecoach and gone straight to Emmeline’s grandfather’s house, having learned from one of his fellow passengers that she’d taken up residence there several years before. Now, with the first confrontation behind him, he bought a horse at the livery stable and rode right through the center of town. His aim was to let folks know he was back, and that he wouldn’t be taking to the back roads like a man with some cause for shame.
His cabin and the hundred and sixty acres he’d proved up on before marrying Emmeline lay two miles south of town, and it took him half an hour to make the ride. If his wife were there, waiting for him, the way he’d dreamed she would be, he’d have had good reason to hurry. As it was, he could take his time.
Gil’s heart, already bruised, sank to his boots when he saw the state his property had fallen into while he was gone. The roof of the cabin had caved in, probably under heavy winter snows, and part of the corral fence was down. The doors of the barn gaped open, and the hay inside had long since rotted. His horses and cattle had been sold, driven off, or stolen, and the outbuildings he’d sweated to put up—the well house and the privy, the chicken coop and the storage sheds—were nothing but piles of fallen timber, dappled with bird scat.
None of which would have mattered, Gil thought, swinging down from his horse, if Emmeline had been beside him.
He swept off his hat and ran his forearm across his eyes. At least he’d gotten back to Plentiful before she’d married Montgomery. Christ in heaven, he thought, he’d stood a lot in his time, but he wasn’t sure he could have borne that. Just the idea of Emmeline sharing that sidewinder’s bed was enough to make a man’s belly clench.
Gil slapped his hat against his thigh, startling the skittish livery-stable horse, threw back his head, and let out a yell. He was home, by God, and Emmeline was well, and still his wife. For the time being, it was enough.
He calmed the gelding, whistling softly through his teeth, and then led it to the stream and the mantle of deep, sweet grass that grew beside the water. After removing the saddle and bridle, Gil tethered the animal to a birch tree by a long rope and left it to its supper.
There was fishing line inside the cabin, along with a few hooks, and it wasn’t long until Gil had caught a meal of his own farther down the creek bank. He had a feast of trout sizzling in a pan, over an open fire, when Montgomery rode in.
Gil had been expecting the visit, and though he didn’t hold with gunplay, he had laid down his hunting rifle within reach, against the trunk of the apple tree Emmeline had planted to shade the house. It was tall now, that tree, and weighted with hard green fruit.
“I see you’ve changed out of your wedding clothes,” Gil said as Montgomery leaned forward in the saddle, his face shadowed by the brim of his hat. His mount was a big sorrel, deep-chested with sturdy legs. “I guess the least I can do is offer you dinner.”
Neal swung one leg over the pommel of his saddle and slid deftly off the horse. “I ought to shoot you right here and now,” he said, and though Gil could see that the other man was smiling, there wasn’t so much as a hint of humor in his voice.
“That might be a hard thing to explain, even for you. How I managed to get myself shot on the very day I came back and ruined your plans to marry my wife, I mean.” Gil’s stance was easy and loose-limbed, and his hands rested on his hips, but he could see that hunting rifle out of the corner of his eye,
and reach it in a blink. He sighed and shook his head. “No, sir, no jury in the world would see that as a coincidence. I guess you’d better just leave me be, and go find yourself another woman.”
Montgomery took off his hat, and his fair hair glinted in the last blinding dazzle of a summer sun. “I’ve found the woman I want,” he replied, “and I’ll have her.”
Gil dropped to his haunches beside the fire and turned the trout in the pan. He remembered the way Emmeline had responded to his kiss, there on that fussy settee in her parlor, and smiled to himself.
He was home. Emmeline still cared for him, whatever her misgivings, and Neal Montgomery hated him as much as ever.
Life was good.