romancing the west peacemakers: old west
Emily McBride is in a pickle.
The preacher’s daughter secretly writes scandalous romantic adventures. But someone’s uncovered her secret talent and threatens to expose her double life. Her small town friends and the man of her dreams will never speak to her again. Worse, she’s growing fond of her new friend, a literary poet, who would surely be horrified by her novels.
When the Peacemaker Alliance recruits lawman Seth Wright, he’s ready, willing, and able to kick ruthless desperado butt for the covert government agency. His enthusiasm wanes, however, when his first assignment takes him to California to propose marriage to Miss Emily McBride on behalf of his boss, and deliver her back to Arizona Territory. He’s a lawman, not a courier. Worse, the small town librarian mistakes him for a dandified poet! Before he sets her straight, she confesses she’s mixed up in something tawdry. With two unwanted suitors hounding her, the woman needs protection. So Seth assumes the fancy pants identity to room in her house without compromising her reputation.
Seth’s good intentions take a monumental twist when he develops genuine feelings for the passionate book lover. She’s not what she seems. More jolting, neither is he.
peacemakers – old west / book 1
bc ink, february 13, 2014 (reissue)
original release: 2007
2007 RT Reviewers’ Choice Award Nominee!
what people are saying
With the meeting behind him and free time ahead, Seth surveyed the wide street bordered with cottonwood trees and adobe buildings. In addition to a couple of respectable hotels, assorted general merchants, a schoolhouse, a library, and the newly erected National Bank, Phoenix boasted sixteen saloons, four dance halls, two monte banks, and one faro game. Just now, the colorful side of this booming oasis appealed to him most.
Specifically, Fletcher’s pleasure palace.
He sauntered up the boardwalk, aiming on celebrating his new job by riding a feisty dove. Best to see to his needs now. Calico Queens would be sparse in Heaven, California, a town whose citizens, according to Paris, had been raised on prunes and proverbs.
“Just the man I’m looking for.”
Seth stopped short as a freckle-faced, half-pint blew across the street and blocked his path. He touched the brim of his hat in greeting. “Be more pleased to hear those words if you weren’t my best friend’s lovely wife.”
Paris Grant waved off his innocent flirtation with a snort. “I’m not lovely. I’m fat.”
“You’re with child and you’re glowing.”
“You mean sweating.” She fanned her face with her hand. “It’s hot as the devil’s kitchen.”
Seth guided her into the shade. She looked flushed and anxious. Couldn’t be good for the babe. “It’s the middle of the afternoon, hon. You should be wearing a bonnet or—”
“—carrying a parasol. I know. I forgot. I was in a hurry.”
Impetuous as always. “Where’s Josh? Ain’t like him to let you walk around town alone.”
“He took Zach and Zoe for a buggy ride so I could take a nap. Only I couldn’t rest because I’m agitated.”
“I can see that.”
“I knew you’d arrived and I wanted to talk to you. You weren’t at the jailhouse so I figured I’d find you in one of the saloons.”
“Seeing that you often tread where you don’t belong, I’m relieved that you ran into me on the boardwalk.” Imagine if she’d stormed Fletchers? Although, if she caught him with his pants down, she’d probably declare them even. Several months back, he’d walked in on her and Josh. Don’t think about your friend’s woman in the all-together.
“I need to talk to you regarding an urgent matter.”
Damn. “Why don’t we go back to your brother’s house and—”
“Why don’t we slip in here?”
Before he could protest, Paris nudged him inside a merchant’s store. Café Poppy. A fancy bakery of sorts. He smelled something sweet. Cookies? Cake? Almost as delectable as the tasty morsel rounding the counter. She was new in town. New to the region, given her sophisticated appearance. Her bustled blue gown and fancy up-do were more suited to a cotillion than a café. She reeked of elegant grace and cake batter. Intrigued, Seth considered spending the afternoon here rather than Fletchers. Then he noticed the wedding band. Damn.
“Afternoon,” he said with a pleasant smile. Hard not to smile at a rare beauty, hitched or otherwise.
“Thank you for frequenting Café Poppy.” She bested his smile and escorted them to one of six tables. “I’m the proprietor, Mrs. Kaila Dillingham.”
Her accent—British?—caught him off guard, as did her enthusiastic greeting. He’d expected reserved, stuffy. Instead, she was friendly. Friendly and beautiful. “Pleasure, ma’am.”
He wondered about her husband. Were he the law in this town, he’d inquire outright. Keeping the peace meant knowing a piece about those in your jurisdiction. Given his new appointment, he supposed that included everyone west of the Mississip.
Mulling that over, he eased Paris into a padded chair. Calico cushions to match the calico tablecloths and curtains. Sure was a frilly place. “Name’s Seth Wright. This here is—”
“—a woman dying of thirst,” Paris finished. “Could I bother you for a cup of tea, Mrs. Dillingham? And maybe some of whatever smells so good? Seth will have coffee,” she said before he could order. God forbid he prolong the conversation. “Thank you,” she added, dismissing the woman with a polite smile.
Apparently, the urgent matter was for his ears only. The best he could do was hear her out and hope that this urgent matter concerned anything but Emily McBride.
“It’s about my friend Emily.”
Naturally. He settled back and listened as Paris relayed the same story Athens had shared minutes before. “I understand that you’re disappointed,” he interjected. “But, honey, things don’t always go according to plan. You’ll see Emily again. The timing’s just off.”
She shook her head. “It’s not that simple. She’s in trouble.”
The hitch in her voice summoned a pain in his neck. He massaged the telling ache with a frown. “What kind of trouble?”
“I can’t say precisely. It involves a secret and I made a promise. Promises are sacred.”
A belief that had gotten her in a passel of trouble in the past. “Why are you confiding in me and not Josh?”
“Josh wouldn’t do what has to be done because he won’t leave me when I’m in this condition. He’d send you. When I learned about this, you were still Sheriff and I didn’t want to impose so I sent Phineas Pinkerton.”
“The poet?” Seth had seen the pretty boy recite his flowery prose in various theaters, including the Desert Moon, the opera house owned by Josh and Paris. Didn’t care for the man’s delivery, though the poems were clever.
“In addition to a professional poet,” Paris informed him in a hushed voice, “he’s an intuitive detective.”
“Someone who solves crimes by reading or hearing a recounting of the case.”
“Does he have a background in law? Practical experience in enforcement?”
“He doesn’t need it. His deductive skills come naturally.” She frowned. “You look skeptical.”
“I am skeptical.” That was putting it mildly. “Paris, two of your brothers earn livings investigating and apprehending criminals. They’ve known Emily all their lives and when they’re not on the trail, they live in the same town as your friend. Why not alert them?” He thought back on Athens’s theory that Emily had made a bad investment. He’d mentioned her trusting nature and now Paris cited criminal types. Was it possible the preacher’s daughter fell prey to a flim flam man?
Paris shook her head so hard, her bun came loose. “Rome and Boston can’t know about this. None of my brothers can know.”
Naturally. “What about the local authorities—”
“Loose-lipped ninnies. Not an option.”
“Hence my problem. Yesterday, I received a telegram from Mr. Pinkerton. He’s been offered a lucrative northeast tour. Regrettably, he said, he cannot continue his journey to Heaven. He’s heading back to New York!”
Tears sprang to her big brown eyes as she spewed the rest of her hushed tale. “If I don’t send help, Emily will take action herself. She’s that desperate to keep her secret and what does she know about thwarting blackmailers? She’s resourceful, but still. I’m beside myself with worry, Seth. Emily’s had a powerful run of bad luck. If you don’t go, something awful is going to happen. I just know it!”
“Hold up.” He pressed a clean bandana into her hands, hoping she’d stem the tears before they flowed. Weepy woman gave him heartburn. “Someone’s blackmailing Emily?”
“Don’t ask me why. I can’t tell you. I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone and promises are—”
“—sacred. I know.” He should’ve begged off Josh’s birthday celebration and taken an overdue holiday. He should have known better than to get mixed up with the Garretts. A pain in his neck, all of them, including, no, especially, Paris. “How am I supposed to help Emily if I don’t know the problem?” How was he supposed to deliver a proposal to a woman mixed up in some sort of scandal? PMA was a government agency. Low profile. Athens expected to hook up with a preacher’s daughter, an angel. A respectable mother for his children.
“You understand women more than any man I’ve ever met, Seth. Use your imagination.”
He leaned forward, incredulous. “Are you suggesting that I seduce your friend into revealing her secret?”
“I’m suggesting you earn her confidence.” She blew her nose into his bandana. “Besides, you couldn’t woo Emily. She’s in love with Rome.”
He’d yet to meet a woman he couldn’t woo, but that was beside the point. “Maybe that’s just a girlish infatuation. Maybe she’s meant for someone else.”
Paris pursed her lips, studied him for a spell then smiled. “Maybe.”
He started to give her an earful then Mrs. Dillingham walked over with a loaded tray and stole away his breath. Gorgeous. Mr. Dillingham was one lucky son-of-a-bitch.
“Tea, coffee, and French macaroons,” she said, setting dainty cups, and a plate of cookies between them. “Freshly baked. Do enjoy.” She spun away and greeted Doc Gentry as he lumbered into the café mumbling something about crumpets and jam.
Seth watched her go.
Paris kicked him under the table. “About you and Emily . . .”
He focused back on the half-pint. “Swear to God, Paris, if this is some sort of elaborate matchmaking scheme—”
“Of all the . . . honestly! You’re the one who brought it up. I was just thinking that if you chased off the person who’s making her life miserable and she just happened to fall in love with you at the same time—and you with her—well, I was just thinking I’d be alright with that. Better you than Mr. Bellamont.”
Never mind that she’d just insulted him, again. “Who in the devil is Bellamont?”
“Claude Bellamont. He proposed two weeks after Preacher McBride’s funeral. Emily turned him down, thank goodness. But what with her financial difficulties . . . Let’s just say she’s not herself these days. I’d hate to see her marry someone for the wrong reasons.”
Seth’s head threatened to explode.
Paris reached across the table and grasped his hand. “It’s not like you have anything better to do. You’re in between jobs, right?”
“Right,” he was obliged to say. He tasted his coffee. Black and strong. Good, but just about now a quart bottle of whiskey would be even better.
“Besides, you owe me.”
That coaxed a smile out of him. “How do you figure?”
“You forced me to marry, Josh.”
No way, no how did he feel bad about initiating a shotgun wedding. Besides, he’d never known two people more in love. “Sweetheart, if I hadn’t hurried along the proceedings, your brothers would have. Josh compromised your reputation.”
“All he did was—”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“Then hear this. If you don’t go, I will.”
He wouldn’t put it past her. “I’ll go.” He was going anyway. Only now his mission was twofold.
She blinked back more tears. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Stop fretting. And stop doing fool things like disappearing on Josh.”
“Mercy! What time is it?” She wrapped the macaroons in a napkin and bolted to her feet, the tea untouched. “I need to get back to the house before he discovers I’m missing and calls out the Rangers.”
Seth left money on the table, sorry he hadn’t gotten to taste one of those cookies. Glanced over his shoulder at Mrs. Dillingham, sorry he wouldn’t be getting a taste of her. Damn. He really needed to visit Fletchers.
He led Paris out onto the boardwalk, groaning when she tugged him into the alley. “What now?”
“I have an idea.”
“God, help me.”
“I’m thinking you should pretend that you’re Phineas Pinkerton,” she whispered. “Emily’s already expecting him. Instead of staying at the local hotel, I suggested he rent a room in her house. She’s taking in boarders to earn extra money because of, well, you know. I’d feel better if you stuck close. That is until you dupe her tormentor, because who knows what he’s capable of? People won’t talk, because Mr. Pinkerton is, well, that is to say he favors . . .” She cleared her throat. “Let’s just say he’d be smitten with the likes of, well, you.”
“Forget it.” That Paris even knew about such things amazed him. Then again she was in the theater business. She’d probably seen it all. “Write to your friend and tell her there’s been a change of plans.”
“But . . . ”
“No.” Yes, he’d just told Athens he could take on another man’s identity, but it this case—thankfully—it wasn’t necessary.
She blew out a dramatic breath. “Fine. But you better take care and not compromise her reputation, Seth. She’s got enough to worry about. Oh, and remember, if Emily comes up in conversation tonight—”
“—I’m to say nothing of my impending . . . trip.” He tugged on his hat, frowned as she fiddled with her hair, twisting, untwisting. He stilled her nervous actions. “Emily’s secret, whatever it is, is safe with me.”
He looked into those doe-like eyes thinking she was slicker than a clay hill after a rainstorm. He did, however, respect her motivation and loyalty to her friend. “Sure.”
* * *
Twenty-minutes later, Josh stormed Fletcher’s. “I need a favor.” He didn’t care beans that Seth had one hand on a bottle of whisky and the other on a dove’s bodacious ass. The matter, he’d said, stopping his friend midway up the stairs, was urgent.
Five minutes after that, Seth had issued a third promise. To deliver Emily McBride to Arizona Territory by hook or crook and before his friend’s wife worried herself bed sick. He’d done so without revealing his previous conversations on the matter with Athens or Paris. He didn’t like withholding information from Josh, but a promise was a promise and the objective was the same.
He told himself that he hadn’t given his word to anyone in vain. First order of business: clean up whatever mess Emily had made. A preacher’s daughter. A librarian. A woman the Garretts described as a shy woman with a heart of gold. How bad could it be?
Clean up the mess then deliver Athens’s proposal and escort Emily to Arizona Territory. If he was going to tame the west, he could sure as hell save one tarnished angel.