Teresa Bodwell, страница 1
“You’re not changin’ your mind about tomorrow, are you?”
He smiled then, his genuine smile, the one that always made her heart skip a beat.
“No fear of that, my dear.” Ben pulled her close. “I intend to stand beside you in front of the preacher tomorrow and make my intentions clear to anyone who will listen.”
Miranda pressed her lips to his, wove her fingers into his hair, and held him tight until they were both breathless.
She rested her head against his chest, feeling his heart pounding as hard and fast as her own. “I hope I can hold up my part of the bargain.”
“You have nothing to fear,” Ben said. “All you have to do is be a beautiful bride, and I have no doubt you will be that.”
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Table of Contents
About the Author
To my father, Leonard Bodwell, who passed away while I was writing this book. Dad was a true gentleman who taught me by example that loving means giving—time, an ear, a smile and a ready hug.
Of many memories that I hold dear, this one perhaps describes him best: In the ICU shortly after his heart surgery, while still on the respirator, he squeezed my hand and mouthed the words, “I love you.” He wouldn’t rest until he was certain I understood his message.
I know you love me, Dad. I love you too.
Denver, Colorado Territory, September 1868
“Three dollars?” Benjamin Lansing laughed. Not for three months’ work. Never. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I won’t take less than twenty-five.” He’d settle for ten, but he wasn’t desperate enough to accept three.
Mrs. Wick frowned. “I’d like to help you, Mr. Lansing.” She brushed her gloved hands over her gray woolen skirts and leaned forward to heave herself out of the chair.
Damn. He’d offended her. “Since we’ve been traveling companions, I’ll let you have the painting for twenty dollars.” Ben had been told his smile could be disarming and he tried for that effect now.
Mrs. Wick returned his smile and settled back into her chair. She studied the canvas he’d spread over the table. The last of his landscapes and a fair imitation of a bright autumn day. She twisted her lips as she contemplated. Before Ben could stop her, she folded the top canvas out of the way and scowled at one of his wartime works.
“That one is not for sale.” Ben pulled the two battle scenes off the table and smoothed the landscape back. “New England in the fall—have you ever been there? The colors are striking.”
“It is lovely.” Mrs. Wick sighed. “I should think this would brighten my parlor.”
“Most certainly.” Ben concentrated on breathing slowly, in and out, forcing himself to appear patient. Appearances were one thing that he could control.
He glanced around the busy hotel dining room. As he had found in much of the West, the room was overdecorated. On top of gaudy striped wallpaper hung several immense gilded mirrors and a half-dozen vivid paintings of women carrying baskets of food. His eyes settled on the pretty blonde at the next table. It seemed to him that she was overly intent on watching her spoon dip into her soup bowl. Ben suspected she’d been observing everything that transpired between the moody Mrs. Wick and him. Perhaps the young lady was a painter. Or a painter’s model.
She was dressed for riding and dusty from the trail, yet she was lovely. Petite and delicate as a porcelain doll. A ribbon tied at the base of her neck barely contained her wild curls. Her slight, feminine body made a perfect match to her dainty features. Ben’s left hand twitched with the wild desire to paint her image. He shoved the useless appendage into his pocket and traced his thumb over the stubs of missing fingers his gloves hid so well. His mangled hand made painting this vision impossible.
“I’ll give you fifteen dollars and not a penny more.” Mrs. Wick’s words called his attention back to her.
“You drive a hard bargain, ma’am.” Fifteen dollars was half what the painting was worth, but more than he needed to take him to Fort Victory.
Mrs. Wick gave him a triumphant smirk before digging into her bag for the coins to pay him. “Well, then.” She handed Ben the money and stood to leave. “I shall give you a word of advice, young man. Don’t imagine anyone would want to have”—she gestured toward his remaining paintings—“death spread across the wall of their parlor.” She stood and tilted her nose upward as though his painting had insulted her. “If you want to sell more pictures, I’d suggest you do some flowers. Something pretty that a lady would want hangin’ in her home.”
Benjamin ground his teeth to keep from shouting. “Thank you for your suggestions, Mrs. Wick.”
He stood and gave the white-haired lady a stiff nod as she gathered her things and stepped away. Shoving the hard-won coins into his pocket, he turned back to the table and spread his remaining paintings out over the smooth surface.
During the three days of their stagecoach trip Mrs. Wick had talked endlessly about her interest in “fine art.” Turned out the woman only wanted pretty colors to complement her furniture. Perhaps she should talk to the man who had purchased the dreadful pictures for this hotel. They obviously had similar taste.
War might not be suitable decoration for a family parlor, but he’d never come closer to creating art than he had with these two scenes from the war. He’d have plenty of money now if his damn foolish pride hadn’t kept him from selling the two battle scenes in Boston when he had the chance.
If circumstances forced him to sell them here on the frontier, he’d never get a decent price. No point in worrying about that. If he had any luck at all in Fort Victory, selling these paintings would prove unnecessary.
A pair of small, fair hands rested on the table next to the painting. “May I look?”
Benjamin shrugged and the woman drew closer, touching one corner of the painting. Even without looking at her face, he knew the light voice and graceful fingers belonged to the petite blonde. She leaned in front of him—so close he could smell an intriguing blend of sweet lavender and musky horse. He kept his head down, his gaze fixed on the paintings. He did not need to have another pretty face distract him. His mission was clear, and it didn’t include time for dalliances along the way.
“That Mrs. Wick don’t know art. This is fine—alive almost.” The young woman lifted the top canvas and peered at the painting below. “I think they’re both wonderful.”
He lifted his head, meaning only to glance, but her eyes captured his. It was the color of the large, round orbs that drew him first—an astonishing cornflower blue. The rich color made a stunning contrast to her skin—pink and cream with freckles sprinkled over her nose and across her cheeks. She was smiling, showing a set of flawless white teeth framed by generous rosy lips. Perfect.
“Your paintings, I mean.” She drew her lower lip into
He forced his eyes from her lips and saw it—a thick scar traced a jagged path from her right ear nearly to her chin. He dropped his gaze back to her hands for fear he’d show some expression of pity in his eyes. It had to be difficult for a beautiful woman to live with that imperfection, and he wouldn’t make it worse for her.
“Thank you.” Ben had seen enough truly great art in Europe to know that his work wasn’t brilliant. Although, he had to admit, it was significantly better than the pictures on the walls around them. “I can’t . . . I’m not planning to sell these.” Ben spread the canvases over a large leather sheet and made an awkward roll with the leather on the outside to protect the canvases. He pulled a sturdy bit of ribbon around either end of the roll and fumbled as he attempted to tie a knot with what remained of his left hand.
“Damnation,” he mumbled. The ribbon slipped from his gloved fingers and he bit back another curse as he picked the ribbon up again. His right boot tapped out an agitated beat while he stared at the loose ends of the ribbons.
The young lady clicked her tongue and mumbled something about careless men as she pushed in front of him to reach for the package. She spread it open, then deftly rerolled and tied the bundle, leaving a tight, compact roll sitting on the table.
“Thank you for your assistance,” he said. “I could have tied it myself.” He hated the bitterness in his voice.
“You might try taking your gloves off next time.” She grinned at him, the bright twinkle in her eyes showing more than her words that she thought him silly for wearing leather gloves in a warm dining room.
He bit his tongue. The gloves served their purpose and he wasn’t about to explain it to this girl. Instead, his eyes wandered back to her hands caressing the leather bundle. She traced the length of the roll with one straight, perfect index finger. “I meant what I said. I ain’t seen nothin’ like your pictures.”
“Me?” She smiled up at him for the briefest moment, then dropped her eyes back to the table. “I draw . . . a little. But I don’t have your talent.”
“It isn’t a matter of talent so much . . . art takes a good deal of work.”
She raised her chin. “I know how to work!”
“I only meant that it’s not a simple matter of picking up a brush and . . .”
“You don’t have to explain, Mister . . .” She glanced over her shoulder toward the door. “I should be goin’.”
“It’s Lansing. Benjamin Lansing.” He made a small bow.
“Lansing?” Ridges formed over her forehead as she studied him.
“And your name . . . ?”
“Miranda Chase.” She seemed ready to offer him a hand, then hesitated. Looping her thumb over her gun belt, she cleared her throat.
Ben searched for something else to say to keep her talking for a few more minutes. Why the hell he wanted to waste time discussing art with a frontier woman, he couldn’t explain. Merely because she had better taste than old Mrs. Wick didn’t mean she understood the first thing about painting. Her tongue swiped over her lips.
A pink glow settled on her cheeks, and she turned her head so that the scar faced away from him. “I just wanted you to know I think these pictures are special.”
He laughed at the girl’s earnest efforts to convince him of the value of his work.
“No need to laugh at me, Mr. Lansing.” She placed her hands on her hips. Though she brushed past the revolver that hung at her side, he could see she meant no threat to him. “I don’t have much schoolin’, but anyone lookin’ at these pictures can see they’re special. Even old Mrs. Wick should have noticed. The horses are so close to being alive I thought I could hear them blowin’ and snortin’. They’re terrified; you can feel it. I reckon that’s what makes the difference between real art and a pretty picture.”
“You flatter me, Miss.” Ben took a step closer and she stepped back away from him like a skittish colt avoiding the bridle. All sense of caution left him. “If you’re staying here, perhaps you would join me for supper later and we could continue our discussion.” Ben took half a step toward her.
She shook her head but didn’t back away from him this time. “I . . . have to go.” She spun on her heels and pranced away, her split skirt swishing over her boots. Benjamin stared at the empty door frame for a few moments, until a dusty cowboy filled it.
“What you grinning at, Mister?” the cowboy growled.
“Not a thing.” Ben matched the stranger’s tone. Surely the fellow was mistaken. Ben was not one to smile without reason.
He hadn’t meant to laugh at the girl. Miranda. A beautiful name for a young, spirited beauty. She had a good instinct for art, too. A fascinating trait in this wild country. It would be a pleasure to talk to her at length and discover where she had acquired her education.
He scowled. Only a fool lies to himself. It was not the girl’s interest in art that had caught his attention, it was the life he saw in those eyes. And the way she’d stood up for herself against him.
Ben puffed out a breath of exasperation. He had business to attend to, and that girl likely had some cows to chase. He gathered his belongings. If he could reach Fort Victory and find the money his brother owed him, he wouldn’t have to sell his paintings.
His first order of business was to find a stagecoach headed to Fort Victory. Once there, he’d collect the money his brother owed him. He’d also have an opportunity to meet his nephew’s guardians and assure himself that they were taking proper care of the boy.
No need for him to delay the journey. Denver seemed to hold nothing but trouble for him, including pretty, blue-eyed distractions. He caught his image in the mirror—grinning. Hell! Ben’s plans did not include innocent blondes. Young women like her wanted husbands and families. His future was in a tropical paradise with long, sunny days spent forgetting everything he’d lost. When the need arose, he’d find willing island women, preferably several of them.
He would never allow himself to depend on the love of one woman.
Miranda Chase eased her horse, Princess, to a slow walk. She glanced over her shoulder knowing he wasn’t behind her. She’d traveled sixty miles since leaving Denver the day before yesterday—the last five alone except for the shadow of Lansing behind her. She knew he was only there in her mind. Why she couldn’t forget the pompous city slicker was beyond her.
The last thing she needed was another Lansing in her life. Though surely the man was no relation to Arthur Lansing. A chill shot down her spine at the thought of her former neighbor—the man who had tried to kill her sister a year ago.
The two men could not be related. This Lansing had brown hair, touched with gold, and warm brown eyes. Arthur’s eyes had been cold steel gray, and his hair black. She shifted in her saddle, knowing her thinking was flawed. Hell, her own sister was tall with perfectly straight hair and generous curves. Miranda was small, lean, and fair. Her hair was beyond the ability of any earthly being to control. It had a mind of its own and wouldn’t surrender to a brush no matter what she tried. You couldn’t always judge a family relationship by looking.
Still, it had to be a coincidence. Other than his young son, Arthur had no relations in Colorado Territory. Lansing’s family was all back in Boston, so the chances of running into one of them in Denver had to be nil. Though, come to think of it, the man she’d spoken to clearly was not from Denver. Likely he was from somewhere in the East. She should have asked him if he had relatives in Fort Victory. If the man hadn’t been so vexing, she might have thought to ask him instead of spending the past two days worrying about it. Men!
She rolled her shoulders, trying to relax her stiff back. What she really needed was a nice, hot bath. Once she saw for herself how Mercy was faring, she’d take time for a bath and a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow, she’d get to work helping Pa and Mercy and get her mind off Mr. Benjamin Lansing.
It wasn’t really th
If it was a devotion to style, it was a strange one. In all the time she’d been in the city, she hadn’t seen a fashionable gentleman with such long hair, nearly down to his shoulders. His face was clean-shaven, except for a thick line of whiskers coming down in front of each ear and tapering to a fine point that seemed to emphasize his strong, masculine jaw. Whether in Denver, Abilene or Philadelphia, Lansing would stand out in a crowd.
She was sixty miles away from him and his appearance was still on her mind. The truth was, it was his paintings that made her curious, but it was his face that had drawn her to him.
And that was the foolish part. A handsome face meant wandering eyes and sure heartbreak, or worse. After what she’d been through, Miranda should have sense enough to run the other way when she spied a fine-looking man.
That arrogant gentleman was no temptation. His image pushed its way back into her mind—tall with a jacket tailored to emphasize his broad shoulders and trim waist, an angular face, and eyes as warm as good, strong coffee. She laughed at herself. Hell, that man could entice her, no doubt. At least she knew it was a temptation that would never find her in Fort Victory.
She stared up at the mountains, a grander and safer sight than the one she’d been contemplating. Nearly home.
Her throat tightened. It wasn’t right to think of Fort Victory as home any longer. She didn’t belong here. She’d refused to come running home when she needed help, instead choosing to make her life elsewhere. And she would have stayed away, too, if her sister hadn’t written. She patted the pocket of her leather split skirt, feeling her sister’s letter folded inside. Mercy had never admitted to needing Miranda’s help before. This was Miranda’s chance to prove herself to her older sister and Pa too.