The daughter of a town marshal, Linda Lael Miller is the author of more than 100 historical and contemporary novels. Now living in Spokane, Washington, the “First Lady of the West” hit a career high when all three of her 2011 Creed Cowboy books debuted at #1 on the New York Times list. In 2007, the Romance Writers of America presented her their Lifetime Achievement Award. She personally funds her Linda Lael Miller Scholarships for Women. Visit her at LindaLaelMiller.com.
Whitneyville, Idaho Territory
April 15, 1878
The keening whine of the train whistle deepened Emma Chalmers' despair at the ending of Anna Karenina, and she sniffled as she slammed the book closed. She then hastily dried her eyes with a wadded handkerchief trimmed in blue tatting and smoothed the skirts of her prim brown sateen dress.
Grabbing up a new supply of posters she'd just had printed over at the newspaper office, Emma dashed for the door. The Whitneyville Lending Library was empty, and she didn't bother to lock up, since no one she knew would have stooped so low as to steal a book, and she'd collected only two cents in fines.
She saw a slim figure reflected back to her as she passed the spotless windows of the general store. Emma quickened her steps, as it had been her experience that some of the conductors and stagecoach drivers would evade her if given the opportunity.
As she passed the Yellow Belly Saloon, with its peeling paint and sagging porch, the smells of whiskey and sawdust and beer and sweat came out to wrap themselves around her like an insidious vine. Emma broke into a ladylike sprint, clutching her posters to her shapely bosom with one hand and keeping her skirts out of the dirt and tobacco juice on the sidewalk with the other. Her bright hair, pulled into a single thick plait, swung as she ran.
The railroad yard was crowded with arriving and departing passengers. Most were human, but there were some pigs and horses and an occasional crate of squawking chickens.
Emma picked her way through the throng as daintily as she could, and with a practiced eye sought out the conductor. A well-fed man with a ruddy complexion and thick white hair, he was half-hidden behind a shipment of canned meats bound for the general store.
After clearing her throat, a sound barely discernible in the din, Emma approached. "Good afternoon, Mr. Lathrop," she said politely.
"Miss Emma," Mr. Lathrop answered with a nod of his bushy head. His blue eyes revealed both kindness and apprehension. "I'm afraid there's no news today. It just seems like nobody in this whole part of the country knows anything about your sisters."
Even though she'd expected this answer -- after all, she'd gotten virtually the same one every week for nearly thirteen years -- Emma was stricken, for a moment, with the purest of sorrow. "If -- if you would just pass these bills out, as you go along -- "
Mr. Lathrop accepted the stack of crisply printed placards and held one up, with great ceremony, for his pensive perusal. It read:
REWARD! $500 CASH!
For any information leading
to the location of MISS CAROLINE CHALMERS,
dark of hair and eyes, or
MISS LILY CHALMERS, fair, and having brown eyes.
Please contact MISS EMMA CHALMERS
In care of the Whitneyville Lending Library
Whitneyville, Idaho Territory
"Perhaps I should have said 'thank you'," Emma fretted, bending around Mr. Lathrop's ample shoulder to read the bold print.
The conductor smiled gently. "I figure it's plain enough that you'd be grateful for any help, Miss Emma."
She sighed. "Sometimes it just seems hopeless. Sort of like the ending of Anna Karenina. Have you read that book, Mr. Lathrop?"
He looked bewildered. "Not so as I remember, Miss Emma. A man doesn't get much chance to read when he spends his days on the rails."
Emma nodded soberly as she handed over the rest of the posters. "I suppose not. The noise would be powerfully distracting, I should think."
It was Mr. Lathrop's solemn duty to see that pigs and people found their proper places aboard the train. Therefore, he left Emma, her posters in his arms, after favoring her with a little tip of his hat. Every Christmas, Emma remembered him with a pair of knitted socks and a box of walnut fudge, and she wondered now if that was proper recompense for a man who had tried so steadfastly to be helpful.
Pausing for just a moment, Emma scanned the arriving and departing passengers, for she'd never stopped hoping to find one of her sisters among them. Walking alongside the track, she nearly collided with a ramp extending from one of the boxcars.
Not to mention the man and horse coming down that ramp.
Emma gave a startled gasp and leaped backwards, while the man smiled at her from the saddle and touched the brim of his battered hat. He looked like a seedy saddlebum, with no gentle qualities to recommend him, and yet Emma felt a not unpleasant tug in the pit of her stomach as she returned his regard.
"You ought to look where you're going," she said crisply.
Controlling his mount with barely perceptible movements of his gloved hands, the stranger urged the nervous horse into the dirt and cinders at the side of the tracks. Apparently, he found the fact that Emma had taken umbrage very amusing, because he was still grinning, his teeth wickedly white against a sun-browned, beard-stubbled face.
He gave a mocking bow from the waist. "My apologies, your ladyship," he said. Then he let out a low hoot of laughter and rode off.
Emma smoothed her hair, then sighed as she lifted her skirts and started back the way she'd come. It seemed to her that no one bothered to cultivate good manners any longer.
Because something about the man on the horse had disturbed her, Emma forcibly shifted her mind to the search for her sisters. Even if she came face to face with Lily or Caroline, she thought in despair, she might not recognize them. People could change so much in thirteen years. They would be grown women now.
Emma did not come out of her reverie until she was passing the First Territorial Bank. Through the window, she spotted Fulton Whitney, who made no secret of the fact that he aspired to be her husband. He was tall and blond and he looked very handsome in his gray pin-striped trousers, with a vest over his white linen shirt, and there was a gentlemanly garter on his sleeve.
He smiled distractedly at Emma's wave, and she went on walking, knowing Fulton would be displeased if she slipped inside the bank to speak to him. Business was business, he always said, and Emma belonged to another part of his life.
Emma frowned as she continued along the sidewalk. Sometimes Fulton made her feel like a straw hat stuck away on a wardrobe shelf for the winter, and it worried her that her pulse never quickened when she looked at him.
Lifting her skirts again, Emma looked both ways and then crossed the road, wishing to avoid further contact with the Yellow Belly Saloon. It was so much pleasanter to look at the shining blue waters of Crystal Lake, hardly more than a stone's throw from the main street of town.
Fulton firmly believed that Whitneyville would someday be a thriving resort city because of that enormous and beautiful lake, and he'd invested his money accordingly. Chloe had chosen the town for the same reason.
Cheery music flowed from the Stardust Saloon, and Emma marked the spritely beat with small movements of her head while she hurried on to the library. She found the place empty, as usual, and was just putting Anna Karenina back on the shelf when a thunderous explosion rocked the walls and rattled the windows in their frames.
Emma's heart did a startled double beat as she hurried to the front door to look out, fully expecting to see the Lord Himself riding on a cloud above, surrounded by His angels. The world had ended, and it only remained to be seen whether she would be taken to heaven or left behind to swim in a lake of fire.
But there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and there was certainly no sign of the Lord. Emma was quite relieved, for there were those who said she was as much a sinner as Chloe and there might not have been space for her in Glory.
People were running past her in the street, and shouts of excitement rose all around. The fire bell was clanging, and Emma caught the acrid scent of smoke.
She hadn't moved more than three or four steps when she realized that the Yellow Belly Saloon was nearly in ruins. Its front had completely disappeared, showing the men inside draped over tables like rag dolls forgotten in a playhouse. And there was a fire, picking up momentum with every passing second.
For all the clanging clamor of the bell, Emma could see no sign of the fire wagon, with its long hoses and special pump. She pressed closer to watch as townsmen dragged the injured out into the crowded street.
"Get back!" shouted Doc Waverly, who had never been known for his patient nature. "Get back, damn it, and give these poor bastards some air!"
Emma's cheeks heated at the doctor's language, but she remained where she was. It was as though she were helping somehow, just by being there.
Although she stood on tiptoe, she couldn't get a good look at any of the wounded men, but she did see Chloe and her girls flowing across the street from the Stardust Saloon in a river of brightly colored silks and satins.
"What the hell happened here, Doc?" Ethan Peters, the editor of the Whitneyville Orator, wanted to know.
"I've got no idea," answered the bristly old man who had been mending broken limbs and removing bullets and infected toenails in Whitneyville almost since the day of its founding, "and don't get in our way. When somebody knows the story, we'll damned well tell you about it!"
Emma bit her lip briefly as she watched some of the men carrying the wounded, under Doc Waverly's supervision, into the Stardust Saloon. She got as close as she could, but even now, at the age of twenty, Emma didn't dare defy Chloe's standing order that she never set foot inside the place.
She waited on the sidewalk until all the excitement had died down, until the smoldering remains of the Yellow Belly Saloon were drenched in water pumped from the lake, and then she went slowly back to the library.
Emma stayed there until closing time, cataloging books and consuming a page or two of Little Women whenever she got the chance. People came in and out all afternoon, but none of them seemed to know any more about the calamity at the Yellow Belly Saloon than Emma did.
At five o'clock sharp she closed the library door, locked it with a long brass key, and set out for home. If there was one person in the whole town, besides Doc, who would know the complete story, it was Chloe.
A fine film of sweat lay over Steven Fairfax's body when he came to. He saw a papered wall with blue flowers on it, and a pair of lace curtains that seemed to be trying to blend into each other. He started to sit up, but the pain stopped him, squeezing his ribcage like a giant fist.
He fell back onto the pillows with a muttered curse and felt at his hip for the Colt .45 he was never without. It was gone, holster and all.
His first instinct was to bellow a protest, but he stopped himself. After all, he didn't know exactly where he was, or what had happened to him. There was a damn good chance that his half brother, Macon, had finally caught up with him.
Breathing hard, he tried to think. To remember. Slowly, the events of the day began to come back to him.
He'd come into town on the train, left his horse in a livery stable, and looked for a place to have a drink and wash the soot from his throat. He'd wandered into a hole called the Yellow Belly, partly because its name had made him smile, and partly because he was too damned dirty for the Stardust, which looked like it might offer gentler comforts.
He'd ordered a whiskey and sat down alone at a table in the rear, following his rule of always keeping his back to the wall so no one could sneak up behind him. He'd learned that lesson in the war, and it had stood him in good stead ever since.
Steven hadn't taken more than a few sips of his whiskey -- he remembered a slight chagrin at the realization that a glass of cold lemonade would have tasted better -- when the drunk weaved in through a back entrance, singing at the top of his lungs. Nobody had paid much attention, including Steven.
It was only when the man climbed up onto a table and started singing a birthday song that Steven began to take notice. The old codger was holding a stick of dynamite in one hand. "This here's my birthday," he announced to the quiet revelers. Then, incredibly, he struck a match to the sole of his boot and lit the short fuse of the dynamite. When the men around him lunged for him, he was alternately singing to himself and puffing ineffectually at the flaming fuse, as though it were a candle on a cake.
One of the men managed to get hold of the dynamite stick and fling it away, but Steven couldn't remember much beyond that, except for an earsplitting noise, pain, and then blinding darkness.
He had to know where he was now.
He lifted his head from the soft pillow, which smelled pleasantly of starch and fresh air. "Hello? Somebody? Anybody!"
No one answered his call. Maybe this was a hotel room, instead of a house. Steven tried to roll onto his side to get a better look, but the pain was too strong. It pressed him onto his back again.
He was fighting to keep from losing consciousness when the door opened and a stranger walked in. Steven would have drawn on him if he'd had his .45, instead, his hand slapped uselessly against his thigh.
"Relax, son," said the old man, and Steven finally noticed that he was carrying a battered doctor's bag. "I'm here to help you."
"Where's my forty-five?" Steven rasped.
The doctor shrugged. "Wherever Chloe puts guns, I suppose," he answered. He was a paunchy middle-aged man with a balding pate, and he wore gold-rimmed spectacles on the end of his nose. "You won't need any firearms here. What's your name, boy?"
Steven tried to think of an alias and found that he couldn't. His brain was like frozen horseshit. "Steven Fairfax," he admitted. "And I'm not a boy, damn it. I fought in the war, same as you probably did."
His bristly response brought a smile from the doctor, who was setting his bag on a table beside Steven's bed.
"Name's Dr. Waverly," he said, "but you can call me Doc. Are you in a lot of pain?"
Steven glared up at him. "Hell, no, you damned Yankee -- I never felt better in my life!"
Doc laughed at that. "Spare me the Rebel yells, Johnny. The war's been over for a long time." He was filling a syringe, holding it up to the light from the window with the lace curtains. "What brings you to Whitneyville?"
"I'm just passing through," Steven answered grudgingly. "And you keep that needle away from me."
The doctor smiled again. "Sorry, Reb. It just so happens that I'm giving the orders around here. Luckily for you, I'm on your side."
Steven's shirt was in rags on his chest, and the doctor had an easy time finding a place on his upper arm to swab with cool alcohol. The pain wouldn't allow him to struggle, so he endured the puncture of the needle.
"Just a little morphine," Doc Waverly said. "We've got to move you and wrap those ribs of yours, not to mention taking a few stitches here and there. Believe me, you'll be happier asleep."
Steven was already being pushed into a dark corner of his mind. Resisting the stuff was no good; it had him, dead to rights.
He felt himself drifting, though, and for a while he was aware of momentary stabs of pain. Then, suddenly, he was back at Fairhaven, his father's house outside of New Orleans, and he was a boy again.
He and Maman were sitting in a carriage on the road, admiring the palatial white house in the distance. It had brick walks and sprawling green lawns, and he could see a fountain rising from the garden, spewing diamonds against a bright blue sky.
"Someday you'll live here, where you belong," Maman said sadly, in her musical French accent. "Oui, you too will be a Fairfax -- no longer will you call yourself Dupris."
Seated there beside his mother, Steven knew the first true hunger of his life. And it wasn't the sort that could be satisfied with good Cajun cooking. It was a spiritual craving, like looking upon heaven from the borders of hell.
Steven's drugged mind spun forward from that point, carrying him to the afternoon of his father's funeral, He stood beyond the high wrought-iron gates, watching as Beau Fairfax's casket was carried into a stone mausoleum. The man had never acknowledged him, but old Cyrus, patriarch of the dwindling Fairfax family, saw him there and approached, looking dignified in his black suit, despite the summer heat.
"You're Monique's boy?" he asked.
By that time Steven was sixteen years old and he'd been at St. Matthew's School for Boys for four terms. "Yes, sir," he answered his grandfather.
"I was sorry to hear that Monique passed away of the fever."
Steven hardened his spirit against the memory. New Orleans was occupied by Union troops, his mother was gone, and nothing was as it had been before. "Thank you, sir," he said.
"I'd like you to came back to Fairhaven with me. There's mention of you in your daddy's will."
Steven shook his head. "I don't want anything from him."
"You plannin' on slippin' past enemy lines and joinin' up with General Lee, boy?"
The question had caught Steven off-guard, perhaps because it was precisely what he meant to do. He hesitated between a lie and the truth, and in that moment Cyrus Fairfax discerned what he needed to know.
"Don't be a fool, Steven. Leave this fight to them that are suited to it."
Steven was not overly tall at five foot eleven, but he was solidly built and an expert at fencing. He'd been the champion for two years running at St. Matthew's. He shoved a hand through his longish brown hair, and his hazel eyes snapped with the French fire spawned in him by his mother's blood. "I could beat any Yankee," he boasted.
Despite the somberness of the occasion, Cyrus had actually chuckled at that. "I reckon you think so, anyway. Tell me, since those blue-bellies have overstayed their welcome here in New Orleans, how is it that you haven't gotten rid of them before now?"
Steven felt his face fill with color. "I would if Father O'Shay didn't lock up the rapiers after fencing class every day."
At this the old man had laughed outright. "Come, to Fairhaven," he repeated when he'd composed himself. "You'll have all the fighting you need there. Your half-brother Macon will probably bloody your nose a time or two, but I reckon you'll be able to hold your own once you've developed a strategy." He leaned a little closer to the high fence that separated them. "Macon's the sneaky type, you know. Got to watch your back around him."
Steven was intrigued, in spite of himself, and the next day when a carriage came to St. Matthew's to fetch him, he went without protest. Although he had himself convinced this was only a ploy to avoid his Latin lesson, he'd become more and more curious about the man he'd scarcely known.
Sure enough, Macon had proved to be a son-of-a-bitch and a coward, never uttering a word of protest when the Yankees took over Fairhaven's ballroom as one of their command posts. Steven had stayed only two months after that, and then he'd taken the horse Cyrus had given him, along with a Yankee uniform snatched from the clothes line, and he'd ridden out.
The moment he was beyond the reach of the occupation army, he tore that uniform off as though it burned his skin and changed back into his own clothes. A week after that he became a private in General Lee's army...
"Say, Mister? Mister!"
Steven came back to himself, opened his eyes, and saw an aging painted face suspended above his. It was surrounded by elaborately coiffed hair of an unlikely shade of red, but it was friendly.
"Lord knows, you'd probably like a bath better than anything," the woman said companionably, "but the doc said some food would help more, so I brought you a bowl of Daisy's chicken and dumplings."
Steven looked somewhat wildly at the tray in her hands, and at the walls visible on either side of her slim, satin-clad body. The wallpaper was different here, and the bed faced in another direction. "Where the devil am I?" he demanded, easing himself upward a little way on the pillows. Although the motion was difficult, it was no longer impossible.
"My house," the woman said. "My name's Chloe Reese, and Doc says you're Steven Fairfax, so you don't need to introduce yourself."
"What a relief," Steven remarked, with only mild sarcasm. His stomach was rumbling; he wanted the food she offered.
Chloe smiled. "No need to be nasty, now. After all, if it weren't for me and my girls, you might be lying in the back of the feed store, instead of in this comfortable bed."
He accepted the tray and began to eat, and it was only then that he noticed the wrapping around his ribs and the bandages swathing his stomach and both arms. "Hell," he grumbled, wondering how long it would be before he could leave this town. Macon might already have tracked him here.
"Where's my gun?" he demanded, talking with his mouth full.
"You surely don't have the manners one would expect of a southern boy," Chloe remarked, examining her glossy fingernails. "It's locked away downstairs. I don't allow firearms in my place."
Steven was careful to finish chewing and swallow. He couldn't say he was in danger because Chloe might figure out that he was wanted, and if anybody started going through the posters down at the marshal's office, he could end up wearing a rope. Unfortunately he'd already given his name to the doctor, while his defenses were down. "Well, ma'am," he said, "the truth is, I'm a lawman, and I've got to keep that pistol handy."
"If you're a lawman," Chloe countered, "where's your badge?"
Steven thought fast. For a Fairfax, he wasn't a very good liar. "I must have lost it in the blast," he said.
Chloe didn't look convinced. "I'm still not going to let you lie in here with a gun in your hand, Mr. Fairfax. This is a respectable house."
Steven had finished his supper, and Chloe, who had been seated beside his bed in a ladderback chair, stood to take his tray. "What time is it?" he wanted to know. The darkness at the windows could have been that of twilight or of early dawn.
"Six-thirty in the evening," Chloe answered shortly. She nodded toward another chair, where what remained of Steven's long canvas coat was draped. "What we found on and around you we put in the pocket of that coat. And there wasn't any badge."
With that, she crossed the room and walked out, closing the door behind her.
Steven lay back in the flickering light of the kerosene lantern burning on his bedside table and wondered how close Macon was to catching him alone in a room with pansies on the walls, unable to defend himself.
Fulton laid a heavy hand on Emma's knee, there in the larger of Chloe's two parlors, and Emma quickly set it away.
"God's eyeballs, Emma," Fulton complained in a sort of whiny whisper, "we're practically engaged!"
"It's not proper to talk about God's anatomy," Emma said stiffly, squinting at the needlework in the stand in front of her before plunging the needle in. "And if you don't keep your hands to yourself, you'll just have to go home."
Fulton gave an exaggerated sigh. "You'd think a girl would learn something, living in the same house with Chloe Reese."
Emma's dark blue eyes were wide with annoyance when she turned them on Fulton. "I beg your pardon?"
"Well, I only meant -- "
"I know what you meant, Fulton."
f0 "A man has a right to a kiss now and then, when he's willing to promise the rest of his life to a woman!"
Emma narrowed her eyes, planning to point out that he wasn't the only one with a lifetime on the line, but before she could speak, Fulton grabbed her and pressed his dry mouth to hers.
She squirmed, wondering why on earth those romantic English novels spoke of kissing as though it were something wonderful, and when she couldn't get free, she poked Fulton in the hand with her embroidery needle.
He gave a shout and jerked back, slapping at his hand as though a bug had lighted there. "Damn it all to perdition!" he barked.
Emma calmly rethreaded her needle and went back to embroidering her nosegay. It was a lovely thing of pink, lavender, and white flowers, frothed in baby's breath. It was never good to let a man get too familiar. "Good night, Fulton," she said.
Stiffly, Fulton stood. "Won't you even do me the courtesy of walking me to the gate?" he grumbled.
Thinking of the respectability that would be hers if she were to marry Fulton someday, Emma suppressed a sigh, secured her needle in the tightly drawn cloth, and rose to her feet. Her arm linked with his, she walked him to the gate.
The night was speckled with stars and scented with the fragrance of the nearby lake, and Emma had a romantic turn of heart. She stood on tiptoe and kissed Fulton's cheek.
He looked very pleased.
She touched his wounded hand in apology. "I'm sorry I stuck you with my needle," she said.
Fulton caught her hand in his and lifted it to his mouth. He kissed her knuckles lightly, and the tickling sensation made her shiver, though she felt none of the delicious things novels promised. His words were anything but poetic. "A man has certain needs, Emma," he said, after clearing his throat loudly. "I do hope you won't turn out to be so reserved in our marriage chamber."
Emma favored him with a sweet smile, but her voice was firm when she said again, "Good night." She saw no need to remind him that a formal agreement had yet to be made.
Reluctantly, Fulton left, opening the gate and disappearing down the street. Emma hurried back into the house, searching for Chloe.
She found her adoptive mother in the small parlor, listening to the delicate strains of a music box, a dreamy expression on her artfully embellished face.
When Chloe saw Emma, she closed the inlaid ivory lid of the music box and smiled. "Hello, darling. Did Fulton leave?"
"Yes," Emma answered, smoothing her skirts before she sat in the chair opposite Chloe's.
"Good. I can't think what you see in that lumbering baboon."
Emma was used to Chloe's blunt opinions, and she was unruffled. Indeed, there were times when she herself thought Fulton rather awkward. "He's a gentleman," she said, overlooking the fact that she'd had to spear the man with an embroidery needle to make him remove his hands from her person. "Tell me about the saloon explosion. I've been waiting all afternoon to hear what happened."
Chloe sighed wearily. "Old Freddy Fiddengate was celebrating his birthday. He made a wish and blew on a dynamite fuse, but, the flame didn't go out."
Emma's eyes were wide, and one hand was pressed to her mouth. "Was anyone killed?"
"No, but we've got a fellow upstairs that's hurt pretty bad. Doc says he has cracked ribs, and he was cut up by broken glass."
Emma shuddered, imagining some poor derelict lying upstairs in one of Chloe's guest rooms, suffering.
Chloe went on with her account. "Charlie Simmons has a broken leg -- he was standing at the bar, as usual, swilling that rotgut whiskey they sell over there -- and Philo DeAngelo lost two toes. Everybody else just got the wind knocked out of them."
Touching Chloe's hand, Emma spoke softly. "You're exhausted. Why don't you go to bed, and I'll make you some hot milk."
Chloe made a face. "You know I can't stand that stuff. And besides, I've got to go back over to the Stardust and make sure things are all right. I have my girls to think about, you know."
Emma knew from long experience that there would be no talking Chloe into staying home if she wanted to go out. "Very well, then, go ahead,"' she said. "I'll drink the hot milk myself."
Rising from her chair, Chloe shook her head as though in amazement. "You're dull as a toothless old woman, Emma," she said. "You should be out there in the moonlight, letting some handsome young man kiss you and hold your hand. And I'm not talking about that stuffy banker, either."
"I have no desire to be kissed," Emma pointed out primly, already on her way to the staircase.
"That's part of the problem," Chloe fussed. "Personally, I think you're just trying to show the world you aren't like me."
Emma paused midway up the stairs. Despite the fact that she managed a thriving brothel, there probably wasn't a kinder soul than Chloe in the whole of the territory. "I don't care what people think," she replied, but she knew that was a lie and so did Chloe.
Copyright © 1991 by Linda Leal Miller