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An excerpt from Ransomed and Rescued

Chapter One

June 15, 1876

Fort Pierre, Dakota Territory

"Valerie Gallagher! In all that's decent, just what do you think you're doing?"

At the sound of the rather whiny, annoyed voice, Valerie smoothed down her raised skirts and began to scramble back out from under the porch at the rear of her house. Hank Sommers would pick that moment for a surprise visit. No doubt, she'd now have to suffer through yet another long, boring lecture about her lack of propriety. Funny how he never seemed to mind her manners before she agreed to marry him. For the second or third hundredth time, she wondered what lunacy of the moon caused her to accept his proposal of marriage-and what insanity kept her from calling off the whole thing.

"I'll be just a second," she called, attempting to add a light and happy tone to her voice. Hank could wait at least long enough for her to see if Buddy was hiding under the porch.

Where was that darned cat? Valerie bundled her skirts around her knees and quickly glanced under the dusty, wooden steps. She didn't need this added aggravation in what was proving to be an already impossible day. First a missing, pregnant cat. Now, an irate fiancé. It just added to the list of things gone sour throughout the day.

She'd burned the breakfast biscuits. Her store clerk, Nancy Ann, had been two hours late arriving at work. A persistent notions traveling salesman occupied her so long she was late getting lunch on the table for her boarders. And now, her lazy, wanton cat had disappeared.

"Buddy...Buddy, are you under there?" Plenty of cobwebs. Lots of crawling things that Valerie purposely ignored, even though her skin still crawled at the thought of them. A few tumbleweeds. But, no cat.

"Damnation, Buddy Gallagher! You are vexing me to no end," Valerie hollered under the steps, trying to compete with the rising wind that beat hot and dry against her and threatened to lift her skirts over her head as she dropped them to crawl farther under the porch. "If you don't come out here at once, you can just stay out here and rot."

"Valerie, I must insist that you come out from under there immediately. Have you no shame?" Hank shouted. She heard the muffled sound of a heel stomp against the thick buffalo grass of her tiny backyard.

"I hope you're not searching for a boarder who's skipped out on you." A deep, bass voice, totally unlike Hank's tinny tenor, boomed imperiously above her. Valerie pulled her head back from under the porch, smartly rapping the back of her head. Unfortunately, the elegantly looped bun of hair wasn't thick enough to protect her from a good wallop. Sitting back on her heels while rubbing her head, she looked up at the stranger standing too near for comfort. And up. And up.

A hallucination-that had to be it. To Valerie, who'd never been farther from Fort Pierre than a steamboat ride down the Missouri River to Yankton, he looked as if he'd stepped off the page of one of her favorite fairy tales. Handsome enough to be an enchanted prince and tall enough to be a giant, the stranger towered above her-as he did above Hank, nervously fidgeting beside him. He smiled, a slightly crooked line across a broad face, as he smoothed down his dark green vest. Valerie felt her tongue swell as she swallowed deeply. A rush of heat hotter than the arid summer wind enveloped her.

Forcing her gaze away from his face, she decided it was easier to look at his attire than at his face. His vest, smoothed by long tapered fingers tipped by perfectly manicured nails, was shot with tiny, gold threads, matching the thick, gold watch fob suspended between one twinkling emerald button and a small pocket. Even the band on the stranger's squat black, western hat glinted pure gold.

Judging from the rich, thickness of his pin-stripe long coat and pants, this man oozed prosperity. No ordinary cowboy, this man, or an illusion. And it wasn't that he needed the fancy clothes or hat to appear handsome and stately. Thick waves of black hair curled around the starched collar encircling his thick, muscular neck. His hair matched the thick mustache bracketing a wide, smiling mouth. He raised one black eyebrow as she stared at him, his emerald eyes twinkling with gold comets as he squinted against the rising dust and the bright afternoon sun.

Valerie gulped again, inhaling more than her share of wind-driven grit. Nervously, she raised a hand to her hair, pushing back loosened tendrils. Had her Prince Charming finally arrived to carry her to faraway places, to cherish and adore her? Such a notion. Ridiculous. Just the thought drove spasms of guilt through her stomach, already churning faster than the blades on a windmill. She looked over at Hank. It was shameful to practically ogle this stranger when the man she planned to pledge herself to for life stood nearby. Of course, it would be shameful even if Hank weren't there. Wouldn't it?

"I beg your pardon, madam, but to quote what seems to be an oft repeated western colloquialism-'cat got your tongue'?" he asked in clipped, precise tones, as he lowered his hand to her. Delicately, she placed her hand in his and allowed him to help her rise.

"Cat? Yes, I'm looking for my cat." Valerie's hand tingled with excitement at his touch. She realized that she held it longer than proper, but hesitated removing her hand from his warmth. Finally, he dropped her hand and stepped back. Already, she mourned the loss of the contact.

"Valerie, I absolutely don't know what's come over you," Hank stated. She glanced over at him. Poor Hank. He tried so hard to appear the wealthy, man of the world. And, he almost succeeded...until a real man stood next to him. Hank wore his familiar dark brown, wool suit again-even though Valerie had suggested on more than one occasion that it was unhealthy to wear such heavy clothing in the heat which had gripped Fort Pierre for several weeks. He was perspiring profusely, sweat dripping down his ruddy, round cheeks and bulbous nose. He gripped his derby tightly within his stubby, fat fingers, but Valerie could see the ring it had permanently waved in his stringy, brown hair.

She smiled, if not lovingly at least affectionately, at the man she planned to marry. He may not resemble her "dream" man, but he was solid and dependable. He had pursued her with tenacity and determination, laced with a stubbornness much like her own, and had finally worn away all her hesitation and doubts. He had convinced her, finally, that it was foolish to dream that an errant knight would ride one day into Fort Pierre and sweep her away on his charger. As Hank repeatedly told her, she wasn't getting any younger, and if she truly wanted a house filled children, she needed to get started as soon as possible.Yet, Hank hadn't been able to sway her decision to wait until autumn to marry. Her wedding day would be the most special day of her life, with the exception, she imagined, of the birth of her children. She wanted to enjoy planning and preparing for it as much as she would plan for the children who'd fill her life with love.

No, she couldn't say she loved Hank, but she cared for him. And, if he put on airs and sometimes seemed a bit overbearing, Valerie believed that once they were married, she'd be able to soften his edges. After all, the duty of a good wife was to serve as a helpmate to her husband...and Hank seemed to need all the help she could give. Valerie sorely missed feeling needed, an emptiness created by her father's death. Soon, she would find her fulfillment once again-with a husband and children.

"I hate to disturb your search, but Mr. Sommers said that you let rooms. Do you have a room available?" The stranger smiled again. The sunlight glinted off perfect, white teeth. Her knees weakened at the sight, as she found herself grabbing the railing for support, amazed at the effect he seemed to have on her.

"Y-y-y-yes, I have...have a r-r-r-room," she managed to reply. Great. Not only would he believe her a fool, but a stuttering fool as well. She needed to get a grip on her foolish, feminine notions right now. After all, she was spoken for...by a man standing not five feet from her. "I mean, yes, I let rooms. It's not a very large room, but I'd be glad to show it to you."

"My needs are simple. A small room will suffice. I am hoping to conclude my business here as quickly as possible so I can return to Pittsburgh."

Valerie stood frozen, caught like a fly in the spider's web of his smile. Yet, she didn't feel in peril, except through her own foolish staring at this Adonis.

"Valerie, have you been out in the sun too long?" The voice-annoying and whining broke through her reverie. She looked over at Hank, the spell broken.

"Of course, if you're too busy, I have other tasks I must attend. Perhaps we can arrange a time more convenient..." The stranger paused, evidently waiting for her reply.

Busy? Had she been busy? Valerie turned her gaze back to him, trying to think of what she had been doing when he'd interrupted her. Buddy. She needed to find Buddy. She bit her lip and glanced around the small, fenced backyard. No sight of her little runaway.

"Well, I suppose I can show you the room. There's not much to see anyway." Valerie grasped the front of her skirt and set a foot on the step before turning back to him. "There's a side entrance to the rooms upstairs I'll show you later. We'll just go through my rooms now."

"Perhaps I should go with you?" Hank offered, stepping between Valerie and the stranger." After all, this isn't one of your elderly retirees. I'm not sure it would be at all proper for you to escort this gentleman to a room unchaperoned."There was an edge to Hank's voice she'd never noted before. Valerie considered Hank for a moment before shaking her head.

"I'm sure you've more pressing business at the bank," she suggested. No doubt, she'd already revealed more of her amazement at this stranger than was comfortable for her fiancé. There was no need to subject him to more of her stuttering should she accidentally again exhibit a lack in decorum. Besides, she reminded herself, she was a businesswoman, a professional. It was time Hank learned that she was fully capable of conducting her own business, a subject of much discord between them already.

"I'll see you at dinner, Hank," she said, before turning back to the stranger." Now, if you'll follow me..."

Briskly, she climbed the five steps to the small porch and opened the screen door, preceding him into her kitchen. Through the kitchen and the small sitting room, she hurried her steps, noticing the stranger's long legs had no problem keeping up with her. She lightly grasped the newel at the foot of the steps, clutching her skirt in her other hand before skipping quickly up the long stairway.

"The room I have left is one on the front of the building," she said, walking briskly down the dark, narrow hallway. "It can be rather noisy during the day, but it's quiet at night."

When she reached the farthest of the four doors, she stopped. She didn't remember leaving the door open, but she had been in there earlier that morning dusting. She shrugged and swept her hand toward the door-beckoning the stranger to enter before her. He swept past her, stopping just inside the doorway.

"I believe I found your missing cat. Am I to expect sharing the accommodations with any other livestock? A pig, perhaps? Or a horse?"

"What?" Valerie exclaimed, roughly pushing past him, her worry about her cat overriding her manners. There on the middle of the big brass bed was Buddy-and a new litter of kittens, squirming and shoving each other in their pursuit of sustenance. "Oh, heavens. Buddy...you had to pick here?"

She flew to the bed and dropped to her knees. Buddy looked up at her, contentedly purring softly. Quickly, Valerie took count-six new kittens, all bearing the soft gray fur of their mother. "Well, Buddy, you picked a fine place to have your babies, but they're all beautiful."

She sensed his presence before she felt him kneel next to her by the bed. Tossing the hat he'd removed when he'd entered the house onto the bed, he reached out his hand, allowed Buddy to sniff for a moment, then gently scratched the cat between her ears. Delicately, he picked up one of the kittens. It squirmed, displeased at losing its place at lunch. Valerie watched as the tall man, ever so slowly brought the kitten close to his chest, rubbing its head in a slow, circular pattern.

Valerie felt her cheeks flush hot, imagining those fingers touching her in just a gentle manner. She plucked nervously at the jabot of lace at her neck, hoping to cool her rising temperature. Her mind flitted uneasily to her fiancé. Hank never induced such thrilling, albeit naughty, contemplations or reactions in her.

"Nice baby, there you go." His deep voice soothed the kitten. Tenderly, he picked up one of its paws. "You're going to be a big cat when you grow up judging from the size of those paws."

"Yes, they'll all be big, fine mousers when they're grown," Valerie said, finding her voice difficult to modulate. She gulped twice to try to gain her composure. "I was so afraid she'd gotten out of the yard. I do not want to lose her to the coyotes."

"Coyotes this close to town?" he asked, never raising his voice or his gaze from the kitten.

"Coyotes are bold creatures. I've chased them from the backyard several times on my way to the privy out back at night," she replied. Biting her lip, she cursed herself for her foolish tongue. Imagine, discussing nature's call with a stranger. Hank was right. She still needed to learn when to hold her tongue. Speaking before thinking only got her in trouble or made her look foolish.

"Well, we can't let these little darlings become a snack for a coyote, can we, Buddy?" He placed the kitten back at Buddy's side. He leaned an elbow on the bed, cradling his chin in his hand as he looked at Valerie. "Well, I presume you don't have a room to let after all. Can you suggest another establishment?"

"Oh, I'll move Buddy and her babies back downstairs, Mr...Mr...I'm sorry, I don't believe you offered your name."

"My apologies, miss. It was rude of me not to do that. It's Richards...Chamberlain Lane Richards...the third." He again offered her his hand. Valerie reluctantly accepted it, forcing a nervous smile and vowing not to cling to his warm hand again. The tingling in her fingers from his touch choreographed itself excitedly down her arm, settling briefly near her heart before dancing merrily to her womanhood. Shocked and surprised at her physical reaction to him, Valerie jumped and pulled her hand away.

"It's Valerie...Valerie Gallagher." Her voice broke unevenly. She laughed nervously. "Well, the room lets for ten dollars a week. More expensive than any of the saloons, but I'm told they charge for the extras."

Valerie pushed herself up from the floor and brushed her hands together. "I don't charge for the extras. Everything's included."

Lane looked at her quizzically. Surely she didn't mean what she was saying. She looked like a lady through and through-from the tight chignon on the back of her head to the tiny, boot toes protruding from beneath her full, brown skirt. Granted, a lady, but one of the wilderness-no doubt crude and rough in manners and speech. Were things so different here in Dakota Territory that such offers were part and parcel of letting a room?

Under different circumstances, he might enjoy a brief, mutually satisfying liaison, sampling the "extras' she seemed to be offering. She was a pretty woman-a bit on the scrawny side, but nicely figured. She was striking, but not in an obvious way. Her nose was a bit pert, her lips a tad full. Her wide, chestnut eyes curved up slightly at the corners above round, creamy peach cheeks. Her hair was a deep, golden brown and thick. It had a natural sort of wave to it, or so it seemed from the tendrils that had loosened themselves and fell softly about her face.

"Thank you, anyway, miss, but I'm not looking for any extras-just a bed and roof over my head while I'm here-as well as privacy. I don't suppose you offer board as well?" He picked his hat up from the bed.

The look on her face seemed almost quizzical, as if it were unusual not to partake of the "extras" she offered. Perhaps, she wasn't used to having her obvious charms rejected.

"Well, of course I do. Breakfast is at seven; dinner at eight. Lunch is at noon-usually though no more than just sandwiches. That's one of the extras you get-right along with once-a-week laundering and the right to use the bathing room downstairs. Though, I would appreciate it if you could carry your own hot water for that. I keep the boiler going and the water hot most days when it's not blazing hot outside."

"Those are the 'extras' you're offering?" Lane's gaze turned back toward her from his inspection of the neat and tidy room. Had he been away from Pittsburgh so long to misinterpret her words? Or had the coarseness of traveling the wilderness in search of his brother somehow tainted his thoughts? Or perhaps, he was attracted to this woman, for some unknown reason.

"Just what kind of extras did you think I was offering, Mr. Richards?" The peaches in her cheeks flamed into bright red apples as he glanced back at her. "Don't bother answering that. I'm sorry, Mr. Richards, if you're looking for that I suggest you do try one of the saloons that let rooms."

"My apologies, Miss Gallagher. Sincerely. It's just that when you...when you said 'saloon' and 'extras'-well, I just misunderstood," he replied softly, worrying the brim of his hat between his fingers. "Believe me, coming out here from Pittsburgh was like stepping into another world entirely. I just wasn't prepared for the difference. Really, I didn't leave my manners back home."

He watched her scrutiny of him for a long moment, observing the tension eventually ease from her face. She smiled-politely, but retained a look of distrust in her eyes. "How long do you plan on staying in Fort Pierre, Mr. Richards?"

"All goes well, not long. It may be a week...it may be a month. You do let rooms on a week-to-week basis, don't you?"

"Yes, I do. However, there are a couple of rules my tenants follow, Mr. Richards. The sitting room downstairs may be used to entertain guests, if you have them. But, no visitors upstairs. I insist upon that to maintain propriety and to allow my other tenants their privacy. Also, please use the stairs at the other end of the hall to come and go. I don't appreciate my privacy interrupted more than necessary nor do I wish to have my tenants come through the shop-unless they are there to purchase something."

"That's agreeable with me, miss. I doubt I have any social visitors." He nodded his agreement, before reaching into his coat. He pulled out a long, thick wallet. Quickly, ruffling through the bills, he selected several and offered them to Valerie. "Here's enough for two weeks. Now, could you tell me if there's a newspaper hereabouts?"

"The Fort Pierre Gazette is just down the block and across the street, Mr. Richards." Without counting it, she carefully folded the wad of money and slid it into the side pocket of her skirt. "We aren't quite in the midst of nowhere here, though it may seem like that to someone from back East. The Gazette publishes twice a week. Just ask for Mr. Dalton-he owns the place. And, I'll have the bedding changed right away. Just as soon as I can move Buddy and her brood."

"No hurry, ma'am. I'll see you at dinner then." Lane nodded politely, then spun on his heel and walked briskly from the room. He'd like to kick himself in the pants for misinterpreting her offer of "extras" with the room, but somehow, he'd make it up to her. He didn't know why it was important that she think well of him, but it was. Lane knew well that he was better off just trusting his instincts rather than trying to fathom his feelings.

Valerie watched him leave the room. Good. A short-term guest. Far better that he only remain in Fort Pierre a short time than allow her time to develop some useless crush on him and complicate her life even more. Hank was far from her dream man, but he was solid and devoted. He'd proved that in the three long years it had taken him to convince her to marry him. So, Hank wasn't her Prince Charming. She'd agreed to marry him. Now, she was honor bound to follow through with it.

Still, Lane Richards embodied all the characteristics of her ideal man. Handsome. Obviously educated. Well-spoken. Mannerly-even though he did make the usual male assumption that he was going to get more than bed and board from her. That could be forgiven. There weren't many women who'd reached her age and remained unattached-and they all worked in one of the three saloons that marred the town. It was an assumption often reached by strangers.

Of course Lane Richards was charming and erudite, polished and charismatic. And, all that could just be the exterior. Inside, he could be the worst sort of lecher and fiend. Looks weren't everything. Appearances were often deceiving. But then, would a fiend or a lecher caress a baby kitten the way he had, with tenderness and care? It was better not to even consider Lane Richards. Better for her...and for Hank.

"Buddy, you surely picked a fine time and a great place to have those babies," she said, turning back to the bed. "Now, let's get you moved so I can change this bed. I've spent too much time away from the shop as it is."

Lane watched Horace Dalton peer through the spectacles perched on the end of his nose at the advertisement. He looked down at the paper to try to comprehend just what Dalton found so intriguing. The advertisement was written plainly enough for an idiot to understand.

"You sure you want this to run in the Gazette?" Horace asked, glancing over the top of his spectacles. "You're going to have every loony coming out of the woodpile answering this."

"I'm quite sure. It's absolutely imperative I find my brother as quickly as I can. I followed him from Pittsburgh all the way to Deadwood. Then, the trail backtracked here. He can't have been here more than a month or two-if he hasn't already moved on," Lane replied, leaning on his cane.

"Sure...but a thousand dollar reward? Once word of this gets out, you're going to have the miners out in the Hills coming here to try to strike it rich the easy way. You're offering somebody a fortune here," Horace shook his head.

"The reward has to be big enough to attract attention. And, you'll notice, it's only for information leading to my brother's discovery. They don't collect unless I see my brother."

"Wouldn't it be easier-and less expensive-just to ask around? Maybe ride out to some of the ranches around here?"

"I wasted valuable time in Deadwood just asking around. That's how my brother learned of my search for him and abandoned Deadwood. He doesn't want to be found...but I'm determined to find him. He doesn't realize how absolutely critical it is that I find him as quickly as possible."

"A thousand dollars..." Horace whistled softly. "Heck, for a thousand dollars I'd be tempted to close up the newspaper and go hunting myself."

"Feel free...but not until after that advertisement's run a few times." Lane chuckled. He'd received the same incredulous response from Hank Sommers when he'd made arrangements at the bank. Sommers laughed at him first. The laughter died when Lane dropped the pile of money on the banker's desk.

"What makes you think your brother might still be around here? I've sure never met anyone by the name of Branson Richards," Horace asked, rolling the garters up higher on his sleeves. "And I make it a point to try to meet everyone who settles around here. Good for business-and I'm usually in the need of copy for the paper. Never can tell who has a good story to tell."

"It's doubtful that he's using his birth name. I believe he's probably using an alias to try to cover his tracks. And, Branson always used to dream of living in the West. Said the best place to hide was in a wide-open space. Well, you've got plenty of wide-open spaces around here."

"That we do. That we do," Horace chuckled before a frown formed on his long, lined face. He ran an ink-stained hand across his balding head. "You know though, that if a man wants to stay lost, he'll find one way or another to do it. You might never find him."

"Branson is young and impulsive. He'll make a mistake. I'm just hoping that it's sooner than later. Our father needs him-needs him badly, and I won't stop looking...at least not until it's too late to look anymore," Lane sighed, wearily rubbing the bridge of his nose between his thumb and finger. "In case anyone stops here, I've taken rooms over at Miss Gallagher's establishment. You can direct them there or to Mr. Sommers at the bank."

"Staying at Valerie's place, huh? That ought to start the tongues a wagging." Horace shook his head.

"Why? Isn't it a good place to stay? I was impressed by Miss Gallagher. Hank Sommers recommended the place."

"Surprised that Hank Sommers would want any male under the age of sixty staying there. He's rather protective of just who he lets within arms length of Valerie...especially since he finally got her to agree to marry him. Though there's still much speculation in town about just how he managed to close that deal." Horace squinted over his glasses at Lane. "'Course Valerie is pushing the age where people began calling her spinster. Maybe that had something to do with it."

"Spinster? Her? She's hardly old enough to be considered a spinster," Lane disagreed, feeling more than a bit uncomfortable discussing a lady so freely. Still, she aroused a certain curiosity within him.

"Oh, she's staring at the bad side of twenty-five. I know that for a fact," Horace replied, motioning for his copy boy to collect Lane's advertisement. "Lost her mama when she wasn't hardly old enough to see over the counter at her shop. Then, just when she got near marryin' age, her daddy got real sick. Laid in bed for years, with Valerie taking care of him and the business."

"How sad for her," Lane sighed, shaking his head.

"Don't worry about Valerie. She's probably one of the richest women in these parts. Got plenty put away for her old age. Don't need a man to provide for her. She's done real good with her shop. And I imagine she inherited plenty from her father. Though, I'm sure Hank Sommers isn't going to mind at all getting his grubby paws on it," Horace replied, handing the advertisement to the copy boy. "Now, is there anything else I can do for you? Hate to rush you, but I've got a deadline to meet."

"No. Thanks for the assistance. Just keep running that advertisement until I tell you otherwise." Lane tipped his hat and walked out of the smelly, cramped newspaper office. He'd been tempted to ask the newspaperman about Sommers, especially when Dalton seemed to unknowingly agree with him about the banker's greed. Instinctively, when Lane met Sommers, he'd felt an instant distrust. It was a distrust Lane honed from years of dealing with both scrupulous and unscrupulous contractors at his father's ironworks corporation. He surely hoped that Miss Gallagher would somehow protect her assets before she married Sommers. Perhaps, he could advise her of certain ways to protect what was hers.

No, he shook his head. He was only here temporarily. It was better for him to concentrate on his mission and get Branson home with all haste than to meddle into the affairs of people he'd never see again.

Lane strolled down the sidewalk to the stage depot, noticing again the broad front of Valerie's shop. Gallagher Dry Goods and Millinery. Two wide windows bracketed the glass door. The building-unlike several others on Main Street-was freshly painted, whitewashed with barn red trim. Two old coal hods stood on either side of the doorway, overflowing with bright red geraniums. The windows beneath the broad, green-striped canvas awnings boasted the business' name in gold letters shadowed with black paint. They were filled with what Lane supposed was the latest in ladies' headgear-though it seemed an odd collection of plain bonnets combined with feathered, frilly chapeaux arranged on the spreading bolts of fabric. The other window was filled with a display of tinned goods, sugar and flour sacks and sewing notions spread around a sewing machine.

Lane walked past the general store, the hardware store, two tack shops smelling of raw leather and the livery before entering the small, squat stage depot. His trunk was where he'd left it near the counter. After making arrangements with the station manager to have it delivered to his room, Lane walked across the street to the Broken Spur Saloon. Who knew what news of his brother he might find there?

Valerie measured out the six yards of bleached muslin before carefully picking up her shears. Glancing out the window, she watched Lane cross the street in long strides, dodging the two small Henderson boys and their dog as he made his way over the ruts. Well, it certainly didn't take him long to seek out some "extra" attention. The only businesses where he was headed were saloons.

So much for his being a gentleman after all, she thought as she laid the shears to the fabric, lining them up to make a clean, concise cut. He was a man-plain and simple. He was no wondrous hero from one of her books stepping off the page and into her life. Again, she reaffirmed to herself that it was a good thing he didn't plan on remaining there for long. It would just complicate things.

Her primary complication chose that moment to walk through the front door. Hank nodded to the ladies in the store before hustling back to the counter.

"I've had second thoughts, Valerie," he whispered, sidling close to her side. "I believe it wouldn't do at all for that man to let one of your rooms. It just wouldn't be proper."

"You should have thought of that before you brought him over here, Hank. I've already accepted his rent." She felt his hand slip around the back of her waist. She tried hard to summon feelings of longing and desire at his touch, but all she felt was his hand against her. There was no spark, no vitality. She couldn't resist the impulse to move away from him.

"Well, I think I'll just have to keep my presence felt here. I wouldn't want some Eastern slicker making time with my woman," Hank whispered, his garlicky breath hot on her neck. Valerie turned her head from him.

"You act as if you don't trust me, Hank. That offends me greatly. Surely you know I would not accept advances from any man now that I've committed myself to you."

"I know what I saw, Valerie. A blind man would have noticed how you reacted to his obviousness. Bold...bold as sin that man is. Just don't let a pretty face turn you away from where you belong. While I can understand your attraction, it wouldn't do for you to allow it to guide you into a lapse in judgment...or morals."

"Hank, I believe the heat has taken your senses. I hardly noticed the man. Now please, can't you see I'm busy here? Aren't you needed at the bank?" Valerie inserted the scissors into the fabric.

"I still believe I'm more needed here. Just remember, you are mine now. I'll let no man-no matter how rich or powerful stand between me and what I possess," Hank whispered hoarsely, while sliding his hand down to her buttock and pinching it hard. Valerie jumped. The shears hacked into the fabric. Her face reddened as she looked down at her work, cursing softly at the ragged edges she'd left in cutting the fabric. Now, she'd have to measure out another length for Mrs. Bridges. Thankfully, Mrs. Bridges was too busy quietly gossiping with Mrs. Henderson to notice Valerie's gasp or embarrassment.

"You do not possess me yet, Hank Sommers," Valerie hissed softly, wielding the shears at him. She watched him take a step back. "And, I find it totally improper for you to come and assault my person-especially in full view of the biggest gossips in Fort Pierre. Betrothed or not, I will not tolerate it."

She watched Hank throw his hands submissively in the air before him and back away. "Just remember, my love. Once we are wed, I'll touch whatever I want, whenever I want. That's a husband's rights. I'll see you tonight."

Valerie watched him nod to her customers smoothly as he left the shop. She folded the ruined muslin and set it under the counter.

It was her fault, she decided, as she began to again measure out the fabric. Hank had never acted so boldly before. Her reaction to Lane Richards must have prompted Hank to act against his true personality. Guilt tore at her, shredding away her anger at Hank's inappropriate behavior. She must fight her attraction to this stranger and resolve herself to her plans for a future with Hank...a future that suddenly didn't seem quite as bright and hopeful as it had before the man from Pittsburgh stepped out of her dreams and into her life, even if but for a moment.

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