Excerpt: The Marshal and Miss Merritt
The Cahill Cowboys Series, Book 2
Central Texas, early 1880s
Bowie Cahill had figured he would return to Cahill Crossing someday, but not for the reason he had. A reason he flat didn’t like.
He stepped inside the Morning Glory Boarding House, his shadow cutting off the June sunshine as the screened door clattered shut behind him.
He palmed off his hat and ran a hand over his sweat-dampened hair. Once he had turned in his county sheriff’s badge at White Tail, he’d ridden straight out, west across the hilly countryside. His older brother’s telegram had lit a fire under him.
The last time he had ignored a request from home, his folks had wound up dead. Now Quin had come into some information that led him to believe their parents had been murdered and not the victims of a wagon accident, as the four siblings had believed since Earl’s and Ruby’s shocking and sudden deaths two years ago.
Bowie glanced around the entry of the boarding house. The two-story pine structure still looked fairly new. The golden wood floor was warmed by a colorful rug and against the wall stood a dark wood coat tree. A parlor to his right had a cozy arrangement of chairs in front of the fireplace.
Cahill Crossing had changed drastically since his last visit. Mostly for the good, some bad. Like the red light shanties that sat north of the railroad tracks. The town now boasted lawyers, a bank, a newspaper. And right next to this white frame home, there was even an opera house, for cryin’ out loud!
The swish of skirts had him turning to his left toward the dining area. Across the room, a petite woman with dark hair came through a connecting door, wiping her hands on the apron tied around her tiny waist.
A white shirtwaist and yellow gingham skirt skimmed her sleek figure like a glove. Rounding a long dining table, she stopped a few feet away. “I’m Merritt Dixon. May I help you?”
She was a small, but curvy package. A spot of flour dusted one cheek and her pert nose. Sable-dark hair was pulled back in a braid, her face flushed. Wisps of hair curled around her oval face and drew his attention to her clear green eyes. Spring-grass green. They were the prettiest eyes he’d ever seen, but it was her warm open smile that sent a sudden and unexpected kick of desire through him. She watched him expectantly.
Irked at his reaction, he gave her a polite smile. “I was wondering if you had any rooms to let.”
“For how many people?”
Was the sudden wariness that clouded her eyes due to him being a single man? Or a stranger? Either way, Bowie volunteered, “Quin Cahill will vouch for me.”
At mention of his brother, the woman’s lips curved. “Very well. I have a couple of rooms available. All of the rented rooms are upstairs.”
She walked in front of him to the bottom of a pine staircase and he couldn’t help a smile at the flour still on her face.
“How many rooms do you rent?”
“Four.” Putting a foot on the first step, she glanced back to see if he was following.
Still holding his hat, he did, unable to keep his gaze from sliding down her trim back to the gentle flare of her hips. She was small, but every bit a woman. With that satiny curtain of dark hair, her rose-and-cream skin and her regal bearing, she was a fancy piece.
Well, he’d learned his lesson about fancy women. At the top of the stairs, she turned right. He shifted his attention to his surroundings, noting the three closed doors they passed on the way to a room at the end of the hall. Bowie wanted to know who would be living so close to him.
“Are the other rooms occupied?”
“Only one. Hank Wilson is a widower and often helps me around here.”
Bowie nodded, intending to meet the man for himself.
She stopped in front a closed door with a porcelain knob, just like the others. “Here’s your room.”
She opened the door and Bowie stepped up to look inside. When his arm brushed her shoulder, she eased away. Drawing in her fresh light scent, he moved into the room, noting the cleanliness of the floor, bed frame and window. A red and white quilt lay folded at the foot of a bed that looked as if it might accommodate his six foot three frame.
He walked to the window that looked west over the opera house and city marshal’s office and the thickly treed hills beyond. “This will do just fine.”
“How do you know Quin?”
It wasn’t a secret, but Bowie didn’t like giving out information about himself. He glanced over his shoulder. “He’s my brother.”
Recognition flared in her pretty eyes. “I knew Earl and Ruby had four children. You must be Bowie.”
He turned to face her, biting back a smile at the flour still on her face. “Why do you say that?”
“I’ve met Leanna and Chance.” Though her tone was still polite, he thought there was an edge to it. “You’re the lawman.”
“Not currently.” He’d given up his badge to answer his brother’s call home.
“Did you come back to help Quin and Addie?”
Addie. The new wife Quin had mentioned in his wire. Bowie wondered what kind of woman his brother had married. His gaze skimmed the room, noting the sparkling white basin and pitcher atop a sturdy pine dresser. “Help with what?”
“The fires and cattle rustling, the horse thefts.”
He looked at her sharply. This was the first he’d heard of any trouble like that.
“It’s been going on for a couple of months. A lot of people call it the Cahill Curse.”
Was his brother being framed for murder recently part of that curse? He tapped his hat against his thigh. “Is that what you think? That’s there’s a curse?”
“I don’t hold with that nonsense.” She pushed back a wisp of dark hair, still wearing the flour.
Barely stopping himself from reaching out to brush it away, he couldn’t stop a grin.
Irritation flickered in her eyes. “I think someone wants to cause your family problems although I don’t know why. Your parents were fine folks, as are your brothers and sister.”
“You knew my parents?”
She nodded, her green eyes darkening. “I’m very sorry for your loss. I admired them both a great deal.”
He wondered if she knew of Quin’s suspicions. If anyone did.
“Are you sure you still want the room?”
“Yes.” He frowned. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“I thought you might stay at the 4C.”
He studied her for a moment, wondering if she was fishing for something else, like information about the rift between him and his siblings. Was she a gossip? The steadiness of her gaze had him deciding he was too suspicious by far, a by-product of being a lawman.
His gaze lit again on her flour-dusted face. Before he could bring it to her attention, she gave him a barely disguised look of exasperation.
“May I ask why you keep smiling at me like that?”
“You have flour on your cheek.” He barely brushed his finger against her satiny skin, but it was enough to send a jolt of electricity shooting up his arm. He pulled back. “And your nose.”
She colored slightly, lifting the hem of the apron to wipe her face. “Is it gone?”
She let the apron fall and gave her cheek one last swipe. “I guess it makes sense you’d want to stay here.”
“I hadn’t taken into consideration your brother being a newlywed. I imagine you’d want to give them some privacy.”
Bowie saw no reason to set her straight. As charmed as he was by the delicate pink in her cheeks, it was none of her business why he was here or why he wasn’t staying at the ranch.
The fact was Bowie didn’t know if he wanted to stay at the 4C. Or if he was even welcome. A room here would do until he decided if he was staying in Cahill Crossing. That would depend on whether there was anything to Quin’s claim that Ma and Pa had been murdered.
“What’s the first week’s rent?”
She named a fair price and he handed over the money.
“You’d probably like to wash up. I’ll bring some water.”
“Don’t bother.” The idea held appeal, but he still had to ride to the ranch. He was ready to get his meeting with Quin over and done. “I have some things I need to do. I’ll take you up on that later, though.”
She nodded, sweeping past him into the hall. He quickly caught up and they started down the stairs. He let her walk ahead, watching the sun play in the dark strands of her hair. His gaze was drawn to the creaminess of her skin and the delicate curve of her neck where it met her shoulder.
He wondered what her story was. He saw no ring on her delicate hand. She hadn’t mentioned a husband or any other family. Was she alone?
He hadn’t been so curious about a woman since Clea and look how that had turned out. He didn’t need to know Merritt Dixon’s story. He had only returned to Cahill Crossing because of Quin’s wire. He wasn’t interested in anything else. He wouldn’t let himself be.
“Breakfast is at six every morning, lunch at noon and supper at six in the evening.”
They reached the first floor and she turned, her subtle scent wafting to him. “There’s a key for your room, if you’d like.”
“I would. Thanks. I’ll get it when I return.”
“All right. I’ll see you then.” She moved through the dining room toward the kitchen. Bowie settled his hat on his head and reached for the front door knob.
“Bo,” he said automatically, glancing over. “Or Bowie.”
“Bowie.” She gave him a warm smile. “Welcome home.”
The sentiment struck him hard. Home.
He stood unmoving for a moment, until he realized she was giving him a puzzled look. “Thank you.”
The hell of it was he did feel welcome. He hadn’t expected that. Neither had he expected to have such a strong reaction to Merritt Dixon. Any reaction for that matter. He didn’t like it one damn bit.
Even so, Bowie would rather deal with her than his brother and the reason he’d come home.
© 2011 by Debra S. Cowan
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books, S.A.