Past Promises

Past Promises

Jill Marie Landis

August 2017 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-775-5

Can a proper lady coax a rugged cowboy into surrendering his heart in this delightful historical romance?

 
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Prim and proper Jessica Stanbridge is a brilliant woman who hides her beauty behind a pair of thick, wire-framed spectacles. She travels to the Wild West in search of historical artifacts, but instead finds an ornery—but gorgeous—cowboy who agrees to serve as her guide.

Rory Burnett hides his passion in his secret poetry, but he can’t disguise his growing desire for the determined young beauty . . . or his fear that Jessica’s quest might lead her into deadly danger. As the spark of passion between them flares into an irresistible flame beneath the sizzling kiss of the desert sun, Rory and Jessica must decide if the promises of the past are going to lead them to destruction . . . or to a future in each other’s arms . . .

Jill Marie Landis is the New York Times bestselling author of Past Promises, Until Tomorrow, The Orchid Hunter, and Jade.

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Excerpt

Chapter One

Southwestern Colorado

1890

THEY WERE WATCHING her again.

Six Ute men. Four stood, two hunkered down into a squat. All of them kept their distance; none attempted to approach her after the one in a tall black hat asked in broken English and sign language what she was doing on the reservation. Clutching a well-worn copy of Captain William Philo Clark’s book on sign language, she tried to explain. After Tall Hat left, she had tried to hire some of the others to help, but they shook their heads and chose to watch in silence.

Now, miles from nowhere, Jessica Stanbridge sat on an upturned crate near a half-unloaded wagon and asked herself if making a name in the annals of paleontology was worth such dusty, sweaty, muscle-aching misery.

In frustration bordering on anger, she ignored the silent scrutiny of the Utes, took off her spectacles, and squinted against the sunlight. Finally Jessica shifted and shaded her eyes as she stared off across the mesa. The Spanish word was an apt name for this land that was as high and flat as a tabletop. She felt vulnerable and exposed sitting atop the world, gazing out over the endless expanse of browns and tans, taupes and reds of the deso­late land that shifted and came vibrantly alive whenever cloud shadows played across it.

It was an ancient land. A place that in its very silence spoke clearly of its past. The earth was parched and seemingly barren, studded by stone col­umns and high plateaus of sandstone and clay sculpted by water on its down­ward journey from high green mountains in the distance.

Pygmy forests of twisted juniper and piñon pine dotted a landscape spot­tily carpeted with tough grama grass and the sage that scented the breeze. The twisted, roughened plants survived not only summer sun, but winter drifts that sometimes mounted up to thirty feet. Wiping a trickle of sweat from her temple, Jessica wondered how long it would be until she, too, withered like the dry sage. The way she felt right now, she feared that might happen before she unpacked the rest of the supplies.

An eagle circled overhead then banked east. She tried to imagine what she might look like from its vantage point—a young woman seated forlornly on a crate not far from a wagonload of boxes and barrels. A lopsided tent on the verge of tumbling over was pitched a few feet away. Farther on, tied to a picket line, a horse and two mules munched on grama grass.

Jessica’s long blond hair, once neatly coiled in a bun, had worked itself free of its delicate hairpins. Most of it was still trapped beneath her veiled pith helmet, but one long tendril had escaped to drape itself over her shoul­der.

Halfheartedly she tried to wedge the curl beneath the helmet, then surren­dered and let the resistant skein slide back down her neck. Her once stiffly starched shirtwaist and panama skirt were crumpled and dusty, her face smeared with the grime that stuck to her sweat-soaked skin.

Without thinking, Jessica reached up and unbuttoned the high, prim col­lar of her blouse. A mule brayed. She glanced up at the sound and wished the Utes would leave, for she longed to slip three more buttons open and wave the neckline of her blouse to cool herself off. Instead she stood up and placed her hands against the small of her back and stretched in as unpro­voca­tive a manner as she could manage with six pairs of dark eyes mov­ing over her.

Lord, but her back ached. Unloading some of the heavy supplies yester­day had cost her more than she had bargained for. At this rate she would be too stiff to move a muscle when the time came to begin an actual excava­tion—provided there would be an excavation. A discovery of any size in southwest Colorado hinged on her instincts, and so far her instincts had proved to be useless. When she and her companion, Myra Thornton, had arrived at the Ute agency in Ignacio, no one had been willing to help them. On top of that, the inadequate geological maps she was depending on had proved to be highly incorrect. And along with everything else, there was still much to unpack before she could even begin her fieldwork. And now every muscle in her body was screaming for relief.

Unwilling to add any more doubt to her worries, Jessica called out to Myra Thornton, who was seated on a boulder not far away, sketching one of the ever-curious Utes. "May I speak to you for a moment, Myra?” Attempt­ing a smile, Jessica waited while the older woman closed her sketchbook and hurried over.

Stocky, buxom Myra was over sixty. Just how far over, Jessica had never deigned to ask, because age never hampered her companion. "Time is irrelevant,” the philosophical spinster often told her. "It’s merely a re­striction man puts upon himself. How can it really matter what year it is in the grand scheme of the universe?”

Jessica wanted to believe time didn’t matter at all, but unfortunately, for her it did. Two months ago she had vowed that before the end of summer she would make a paleontological discovery that would delight both Harvard Museum and its generous benefactor, Henry Beckworth, but it was al­ready mid-June and time was fast becoming her nemesis.

"What is it, my dear?” Myra asked. Her bright brown eyes peered at Jessica above lopsided spectacles looped over only one ear. Although she possessed at least four pairs, Myra Thornton’s spectacles were always miss­ing a stem, yet she never seemed to notice.

"As much as I hate to admit it, I’m afraid we are going to need some help,” Jess said, her words low enough not to be overheard by the Utes.

Myra peered up at Jessica, who stood a good four inches taller, and started to smile. "What kind of help?”

"Male help,” Jess mumbled.

"Did you say male?”

"All right, I’ll admit it. We do need a man around to help out.”

Myra rocked back on her heels, crossed her arms under the wide, ample shelf of her bosom, and nodded sagely. "I told you so.”

Jessica abruptly turned away and headed toward the wagon. "You don’t have to gloat, Myra. It isn’t at all becoming.”

"At my age I am free of the worry about what is becoming and what is not. Sometimes one must overcome one’s persuasions and let common sense prevail, Jessica. I told you as much when that pompous young assis­tant of yours took ill on the train and you all but forced him to go back to Cambridge. What was his name? I’ve forgotten it entirely.”

"Stoutenburg. Jerome Stoutenburg. And I didn’t choose him to be my as­sistant. The museum insisted he come along with me.” Jessica thought of the overeager third-year student who had suddenly become deathly ill with influenza on the train. Blessing fate, she finally convinced Stoutenburg that she could get along without him. Although terribly disappointed in having failed on his first real assignment, he had left them in St. Louis to return to Harvard.

Once she reached the wagon, she uncovered the water barrel, lifted the long iron ladle from its nail, and dipped it in. "I insisted then—and still con­tend—that I don’t need a trained assistant. What I do need is someone will­ing to do the heavy work, to act as a guide, to help set up and break camp. When I make a discovery, of course, I’ll need professional help with the excava­tion.” She took a long sip and offered a refilled ladle to Myra.

Water sloshed on the front of Myra’s shirtwaist blouse. She seemed not to notice. "You need a man.”

Jessica glowered and ignored Myra’s comment. "What I need is a por­ter. A guide. A servant.”

Myra smiled. "And just where do you propose to find one, my dear? We are, in case you haven’t noticed, in the middle of nowhere, and the only available male assistance”—she nodded toward the Utes—"doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘chivalry.’ I have read that in the society of the red man, women are expected to do all the heavy work. Such lifting, toting, and unpacking are deemed quite unmanly.” She glanced at the Utes again. They were all holding the reins of their mounts, patiently waiting for something interesting to happen. Myra finished, "I don’t think you’ll find any help in that quarter.”

Worrying her thumbnail with her teeth, Jessica shrugged in agreement. "Agent Carmichael was no help either,” she said, remembering the cold recep­tion they received at the government agency upon entering the Ute reservation at Ignacio. The sight of her numerous official documents and permits from Washington did little to ingratiate her to the man who guarded access to the land as if the reservation and people on it were his very own. He had been barely civil.

"We’ll just have to ride into Cortez and inquire at the trading post,” Jessica concluded out loud.

"Not me. I’m staying here,” Myra said stoically.

"Horsefeathers.”

"Try to budge me.”

"Myra, this is no time to be difficult.”

"I’m merely stating my choice.” Myra walked back to the boulder and opened her sketchpad.

Rubbing her temples, Jessica let go a heavy sigh. Myra Thornton had been an influence in her life since the very beginning. A close friend of her mother’s, Myra had been there to comfort and guide her ever since Elsa Stanbridge had succumbed to rheumatic fever. Jessica had been eight at the time, but she could still remember the years before her mother’s death when her father would spend his hours away from the museum teaching her paleontol­ogy while her mother and Myra sat at the dining table and debated philosophy.

One thing had become quite clear on the journey west. Myra Thornton was a woman accustomed to living alone. She did what she wanted, when she wanted. But this time Jessica was determined to have her way. She drew herself up and followed the older woman across the encampment, unwilling to raise her voice in front of their uninvited audience. She stopped directly in front of Myra, disrupting her view of the men colorfully garbed in plaid woolen shirts to which strips of fringe had been added, striped, hand-woven blankets over their shoulders, ill-fitting boots, and long braids that sported weasel tails, feathers, and beads.

"I won’t leave you here alone, Myra. I absolutely refuse.”

Myra sighed. "We’ve been here three nights. Our tent seems to be se­cure enough and unlikely to fall over again to awaken me from a sound sleep. I have an abundant supply of food and water and enough scenery to provide a lifetime of landscape subjects. I do not desire to be trundled off anywhere in the wagon, as the bruises I have sustained on my backside on the way from Durango are far from faded. You forget you are a good forty years younger than I. Besides, you will make better time if you take the horse, not the wagon, and go without me.”

"What if I’m not back by dark?”

"I will simply make myself a cold sandwich, light a lamp, and turn in early with Mrs. Corelli.”

Marie Corelli, the author of Myra’s favorite novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, was not with them, of course, but Myra was reading the book for the third time. "Mrs. Corelli’s work might be entertaining, Myra, but it offers scant protection.”

"Good heavens, Jessica. The last Indian uprising in Colorado was nearly ten years ago. If you mean to imply that our friends over there might cause us harm, wouldn’t they have done so by now?”

Jessica shook her head. "I don’t know. I guess so, but I’m out of my ele­ment here, Myra. Ask me about the Mesozoic era, ask me about leaf im­prints from the Cretaceous period, ask me to describe in detail the Jurassic and Triassic periods and I can answer you without hesitation. But don’t ask me if I think you’ll be safe all alone in the middle of the Ute reservation.”

Myra lowered her glasses and folded the one remaining stem. "Jessica, you know how completely I believe my fate is in the hands of the universe. I jumped at the chance to accompany you on this adventurous trek west, and now that the train trip and that horrible wagon ride are over, I am not about to budge, even for a few hours.” Myra straightened and the buttons down the front of her blouse strained against their holes. "In making my choice, I have made a silent commitment with the universe to put myself in its care.”

She pointed heavenward to make a grand pronouncement. "I am not afraid.”

Jessica knew by Myra’s set expression that it was time to admit defeat.

Myra glanced at the sun. "If you hurry, you can reach Cortez and be back before dark.”

Jess pulled off her helmet, wiped her brow with the back of her arm, and slammed her headgear on again. "I should do it, Myra. I should just leave you here.”

"I wish you would, dear. As Emerson so aptly put it, ‘It is easy to live for others... I call on you to live for yourself.’”

Jessica opened her mouth to respond and abruptly closed it. It did no good to argue once Myra’s mind was set, especially when she began quoting Emerson. "If I’m going alone, I’ll have to leave right now. I’ll get my knap­sack and set the pistol right here beside you.”

"Perhaps you should take it. What if you come across something wild—a bobcat or a snake?”

"I’ll be on horseback, Myra. Hopefully I can outdistance any predator.”

"What if a wild animal leaps from a tree onto your horse? What if—”

Jessica crossed her arms. "What tree? There are not many trees over six feet out here. I insist that if you stay, it is with the gun or you don’t stay be­hind at all.”

"Can you really imagine me shooting anyone?” With a dismissive smile and an absentminded nod, Myra bent over her work once more. "Have a safe trip, my dear. And remember, everything will be fine.”

It took another half hour for Jessica to locate the saddle amid the crates in the wagon and saddle the horse she had rented at the stable where she obtained the mules and wagon. By the time she repinned her hair, donned and buttoned up her fitted jacket, and pulled on her chamois gloves, she had used up another quarter of an hour. She glanced up at the sun, slipped the leather strap of her knapsack over her shoulder, checked the time on the watch dangling from a ribbon molded in gold, and then mounted up.

Quite an accomplished rider for a young woman born and bred in Massachusetts, Jessica adjusted her skirts until the tops of her high, laced boots were covered, and with a last wave to Myra, she headed north.

A few yards from the camp, she paused to take stock of her friend still perched on the rock. The Ute men seated themselves in the dust not far from Myra, who was still intent on her sketches. Jess looked at the lonesome tent standing all too white against the high desert color and hoped she wasn’t making a very serious mistake.

I sing in the saddle

When days get too long.

I sing when I’m happy

And when things go wrong.

The cattle don’t mind it,

It settles ’em down.

I sing in the tub

When there’s no one around.

Rory Burnett recognized Cortez in the distance, kicked his horse into a gal­lop, and chuckled as he repeated the stanza again, well pleased with him­self. He didn’t fancy himself a true poet, not like Keats or Shelley anyway. Hell, he wasn’t more than a cowhand turned rancher, but he enjoyed rolling words that rhymed around on his tongue. Every so often, when they seemed to "take,” he wrote the words down.

As he watched the newly established trading post grow larger on the hori­zon, he hoped this unexpected trip would not keep him away from the Silver Sage Ranch for long.

With only six full-time hands he didn’t have a lot of time to waste galli­vant­ing around the countryside.

For the past week and a half he and his men had been trying to combat the blowflies that were infesting the cattle as they did every summer. It was a dirty job, but it had to be done. Branding and castration left the herd with open wounds that soon festered with the screw worms that hatched when the flies laid their eggs in the open flesh. Axle grease mixed with carbolic acid was the only way Rory knew of to kill off the worms, but the mixture had to be hand-daubed on every unwilling animal.

Before he left that morning, he set the men to the unpleasant task again, and if his errand had been anything else, he would have declined and been working alongside them. But Piah Jackson, a Ute subchief, had ap­pealed to him for help, and in Rory’s mind there was little he could do but answer the call.

Just after dawn Rory had been in the still-cool shadows that lingered in the corner of the barn holding a bridle with braided reins when Piah Jackson soundlessly entered the building.

Rory had set aside the bridle and given the Ute his full attention. The man’s eyes blazed with barely concealed anger, his usual forbidding counte­nance darkened by irritation. His braided black hair was intricately woven with lengths of colored ribbon. A government-issue shirt was covered by a jacket that had no doubt come from a box of clothing donated by some wealthy churchgoers in the East—the coat had obviously been fashioned for a heavyset man. His leggings were of woolen flannel, close-fitted and trimmed with fringe and beads. Fastened about his waist was a hand-tooled belt and his tall black hat sported a band of silver conchos, a Navajo trade item.

"I have come to ask you to keep the promise made by the man who called you son,” Piah said without salutation.

"I’ll do what I can,” Rory said. Miles of the Silver Sage Ranch bordered the Ute reservation. Now that Wilner Burnett had died and passed on the ranch and his name, Rory intended to continue to help his closest neighbors, be they red or white, whenever called upon.

Piah visibly relaxed. "Strangers have come to the reservation. They have many papers that give them the right to search our land, to dig for bones and disturb the ancient ones buried on Ute soil.”

Rory took a moment to sort out what the man was trying to tell him. "Have you asked Carmichael for help?”

"We have asked. But they have papers. The agent says there is nothing he can do.”

Perplexed, Rory crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the scarred wooden rail of the nearest stall. Domino, his big Appaloosa, nuzzled his shoulder. He reached back to scratch the animal’s nose. "If they have government permits,” he said slowly, "I don’t see how I can help. What else do you know?”

"She said they are looking for bones. She wanted to give us money to help her dig them up.”

She? "A woman?”

Piah held up two fingers. "Two women. One old, one not so old. No man.”

Shoving away from the stall, Rory ran a hand over his eyes and said half to himself, "Two women are on the reservation to dig up bones.” It didn’t surprise him. Since two ranchers had stumbled on the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde two years before, the area had been crawling with treasure hunters, archaeologists, and curiosity seekers. His own opinion was that the discov­ery had turned the place into a circus. To Piah he said, "Did you tell these women that grave sites are sacred to your people?”

With a shrug, Piah turned and squinted out into the sunlight before he looked back at Rory. "They have papers. They didn’t understand the signs I made.”

"Then why didn’t you speak English?”

Piah smiled. "I spoke a little, but sometimes it is better not to let a stranger know all that one knows. They are camped on the high mesa close to your land.” Piah paused a moment before he added, "Near the cave.”

Rory suddenly knew all too well why Piah was so disturbed. The strangers were camped atop an extensive cavern in the sandstone wall of one of the many canyons carved into the mesa.

Situated on land that technically straddled the boundary between the Silver Sage and the reservation, the huge cave was a sacred site to the Indi­ans and had been for centuries. Years back, when Wilner Burnett was out rounding up stray cattle and had innocently stumbled across the place, he immediately approached the Ute elders, told them what he had found, and swore to keep the location a secret. No one, he promised, as long as he and his descendants owned the land, would ever disturb it. Because of his open sincerity and willingness to help, the Utes had believed him. To Wilner, a man’s word was sacred. He had always kept his word.

Now Wilner was gone and not only had Rory inherited the Silver Sage, but the promise to the Utes.

"Maybe Carmichael will listen to you and make the women go,” Piah sug­gested.

"Not after the run-in I had with him this past April,” Rory admitted as he tapped a hand against his thigh. "Our discussion over that rotten beef he tried to hand out to your people exploded into a shouting match.”

"You gave us cattle of your own so we would not go hungry. I ask for your help again.”

Rory knew Piah wouldn’t budge until he agreed to at least try to help. Giv­ing away a few head of cattle had been easy. Interfering in government-sanctioned work was more than he had bargained for, still, if he could find the women and explain to them just what their intrusion mean to the Utes, he thought it was worth a try. "What exactly do you want me to do?”

"Make them go.”

Reduced to three words, the task sounded simple. Rory shoved back his hat and shook his head. "Not very easy if they have government permis­sion.”

"If they stay, if they disturb the bones of our ancestors, they will raise evil spirits. It is not right to disturb the dead. We hide the graves of our peo­ple because the spirits that survive them must stay buried. Nothing good will come of these women digging on our land. Only disaster.”

Now, as Rory unwillingly approached the outskirts of Cortez, he frowned against the noonday sun. He hadn’t promised Piah he would suc­ceed, only that he would try to talk to the women and explain the sacredness of the Ute grave sites to them; he had to be careful how he went about it. If he told them about the cave outright, it might just send them running in that direction. More than anything, he wanted to reach the interlopers before they stumbled upon it themselves. If any "disaster” befell them, the Utes would take the blame and the surrounding countryside would be up in arms.

He wondered what in the hell possessed two idiot women to venture onto the reservation alone. True, there had been no major problems with the Utes since the uprising at White River back in ’79. Agent Nathan Meeker had been murdered along with eight of his men, and his wife and daughter taken captive. Still, no one in Colorado had forgotten about the incident. In order to prevent trouble, the very least he could do was ask around, see if he could find the two women, and then try to set them straight. He hoped it wouldn’t take more than a day or two.

As he reined in before the general store and trading post and dis­mounted, Rory wondered if it was too much to hope that everything would be settled by nightfall.

The rowels of his spurs delivered a metallic whisper as he crossed the lop­sided pine sidewalk that bordered the front of the store. He ducked through the low door frame, took off his hat out of habit, and spun it around on his finger as he walked toward the counter. The entrance area of the elongated room was well lit by the front windows, but near the back, only hanging oil lamps dispelled the shadows.

Rows of canned and dry goods lined the shelves behind the counter. Bar­rels of flour, sugar, salt, and cornmeal with scoops and sacks beside them stood like infantrymen along one wall. Grain, seed, and feed were stored in the back corner, while household goods, ribbon, and fabric, along with pots and pans were up front where they would catch a housewife’s hungry eye.

As Rory approached the counter Willie Henson, the proprietor, straight­ened his apron strings and stepped forward expectantly. "What can I do for you, Rory? Come in to collect your mail?”

Rory leaned one elbow on the cash register and continued to twirl his dusty black Stetson. "Well, that, and I’m hopin’ you can answer a question, Willie. You had any women through here, travelin’ alone, maybe buyin’ sup­plies?” Henson shook his head as he reached for the box of mail he kept under the counter. "Nope. An’ I’da remembered any unattached females, that’s for certain.” He began to sort through the envelopes.

"Thought maybe you would,” Rory said.

Willie lay two letters on the countertop. "What’s up?”

"Oh, just curious. Heard there’s a couple of them up the reservation dig­ging around.”

"You in the market for a wife?” Henson asked.

The Stetson stopped twirling. Rory straightened. "Nope. The Silver Sage is about all I can handle right now.”

"How you been doin’ since ol’ Wilner died?”

"Not bad.” If you consider working from sunup to sundown and al­ways coining up short of money good, he thought. "But I miss the old coot more’n I like to let on.”

Willie smiled. "Nobody could ride down a steer like Wilner Burnett. Least­wise that’s what they say.”

"What they say’s the truth.” Rory shoved the letters in his back pocket. Since Willie had not seen the women, he was at a dead end. There’d be noth­ing to do now but ride all the way down to the mesa that bordered the reservation on the south end of his land and search for them.

"With Wilner not long dead you still plannin’ on holdin’ the barbecue on the Fourth?” Willie wanted to know.

"Sure am,” Rory assured him. Wilner had been dead six months, but the annual Fourth of July barbecue and rodeo for all the ranchers and neigh­bors was a tradition Rory intended to keep. "You be sure to come on out and bring your ma.”

"I’ll sure do ’er.”

Before he left, Rory remembered to ask, "You get that new feed mix in?”

"It’s in the back corner. Open up a sack if you want to see it,” Willie of­fered.

Rory heard the sound of hooves out front as he sauntered over to the dark­ened back corner of the store. Just as he bent over a burlap sack of grain, he heard the distinct sound of a woman’s heels tapping across the floor­boards followed by Willie clearing his throat Curious, Rory paused to peer around the end of a row of shelves and there she was, a woman the likes of which he’d never seen. He knew immediately she was one of the two he was looking for.

Willie glanced his way. Rory quickly shook his head and held a finger to his lips, aiming to study the woman before he approached her. The clerk turned his attention back to the woman at the counter. She was of medium height, slender, but not bony. From what Rory could see, she neatly filled out her fitted brown jacket. The trouble was, she had the damn thing but­toned nearly to her eyebrows. That was an exaggeration, he knew, but de­spite the warm June weather, the woman had the jacket closed all the way to her chin. A hint of cream-colored lace edged all that was visible of the collar. It brushed against the underside of her jaw.

He couldn’t see her hair because she had it shoved up under a stiff-look­ing hat, but he guessed it was probably brown, or a watered-down deriva­tive of it, just like everything else she wore. The hat itself reminded him of a picture he’d once seen, a seed-calendar painting of a hunter on African safari. She had on chamois gloves and sturdy, lace-up boots—again of brown. On the bridge of her perfectly tapered and slightly tilted nose rode a pair of thick, wire-frame spectacles.

The woman silently studied Willie Henson, who was smoothing down his-parted, well-oiled hair with both hands as he stared back wide-eyed at his surprise customer.

Finally she spoke. "I’m Jessica Stanbridge and I’m here in Colorado to con­duct a scientific search, Mister... ?”

Willie looked startled as she paused, then quickly supplied his last name. "Henson. Willie Henson, ma’am.”

"Yes, well, Mr. Henson, I’m here on behalf of the Harvard Museum. You’ve heard of it, haven’t you?”

"No, ma’am. I’m sorry I ain’t. I mean, haven’t never.”

"I see. Well, at any rate. I’m a staff assistant paleontologist, and I’ve come to comb the area for signs of huge reptiles that inhabited the earth millions of years ago.”

"They move back to Colorado?” Sudden concern marred Willie’s usu­ally bland expression.

Rory swallowed a laugh and noticed the woman missed the levity of the moment. She merely looked perturbed.

Miss Stanbridge shook her head. "On the contrary, Mr. Henson. I’m searching for the fossilized remains of saurians that have been dead for cen­tu­ries.”

"I see,” said Willie, who obviously didn’t see at all.

"I wonder if you can be so kind as to suggest someone hereabout that I might hire as a guide?”

She asked so softly that Rory could barely hear her. He leaned closer.

Willie swallowed and acted as if he’d never heard the English language spo­ken before. "Guide?”

She nodded. "Yes. Guide. Scout. Whatever you like to call it. I need a male. Preferably strong. Someone who knows the area well, especially the mesas on the Ute reservation.”

Behind a full shelf of tins of cookies and soda crackers, Rory shifted. The woman fanned herself with her hand, blew at a stray wisp of hair that was hanging over her glasses, and then went on to explain, "I’ve tried to get some of the men at the reservation to help, but they seem unwilling to do so, even for pay.”

"They tend to be a stubborn bunch,” Willie editorialized.

"So it seems. I came to see if you have any suggestions. Perhaps some­one who lives nearby. By the way, I saw your sign out front and will have my mail forwarded to your store. I would appreciate it if you could hold any letters that might arrive in the next few weeks, as I don’t know how often I’ll get into Cortez.”

"Be happy to take care of your mail, ma’am, but as to gettin’ somebody to guide you, I just don’t—”

Rory suddenly saw his chance yawning as wide as the very mouth of the cave he hoped to steer Miss Jessica Stanbridge clear of. Signing on as her guide would give him a perfect opportunity to lead her away from the cave and off the Ute reservation. Once he had her on his land, he could keep her busy searching the high plateau for bones while he checked in at the ranch house. By getting to know her better, he could gauge whether or not she might be sympathetic to the Ute concerns.

He quickly stepped around the end of the shelves and over to the coun­ter. When she swung her gaze toward him, he saw that she was startled to discover someone else was in the store. He was almost as startled as she, for he hadn’t expected her eyes to be so blue, so wide, or so beguiling. Nor had he expected the mysterious bone hunter to be so very beautiful. In spite of the dirt that streaked her face and the owlish look the round spectacles gave her, her loveliness was still apparent. For a fleeting moment he couldn’t for the life of him remember what he was going to say.

Then it hit him. "You say you’re looking for a guide, ma’am?”

"I am.”

"Then I’m your man.”




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The Orchid Hunter

Jill Marie Landis

August 2017   $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-777-9

Can an English lady raised as a "wild orchid” ever be truly tamed?

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Until Tomorrow

Jill Marie Landis

August 2017 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-778-6

Can two yearning hearts learn to beat as one?



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Magnolia Creek

Jill Marie Landis

September 2017 $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-833-2



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