Excerpt: Whirlwind Baby
Book 4, The Whirlwind, Texas Series
Emma couldn’t find her corset. Even though she knew she’d taken everything from the clothesline, she looked over her shoulder anyway.
It wasn’t there. She was positive she’d washed it and hung it out to dry because she didn’t have it on beneath her gray work dress. And it was the only one she’d brought. Four days of hard riding to Baxter Springs to catch the train through Indian Territory into Texas had required that she travel light.
Getting a funny feeling in her stomach, Emma looked through the basket of laundry again, but still didn’t find it. She stood, walking the length of the clothesline. Maybe it had blown away? But if so, why hadn’t anything else? There were several things lighter than her stays and they had all managed to remain on the line.
“Emma, I’m taking in these peas,” Georgia called as she rose from the rocking chair. “Would you like me to get you anything?”
“No, thank you.” She thought about asking the older woman if she’d taken the corset, but why on earth would Georgia take it? Why would anyone? Besides, she and the other woman were nowhere close in size.
Emma was the one who’d been out here with the wash, yesterday and today. She was the one who should know whether or not she had everything. Last night, her employer had heard a noise. Could it have been a thief? A thief who’d stolen a corset? That was ridiculous. Emma couldn’t even fathom it.
She stepped off the porch, intent on searching every inch of ground. She circled the hen house, made a wide sweep through the prairie grass behind it, but found nothing.
Muttering under her breath, she spun toward the house and came to a complete stop. Jake Ross stood at the corner of the porch with his head tilted and a quizzical look on his face. His holster hung low on his hips. How long had he been there? Good lands, he was a quiet-moving man. Heat flamed her cheeks. “You startled me.”
“Sorry. My horse threw a shoe so I came back for another one. Thought I heard someone back here. Is everything all right, Miz York?”
“Yes, certainly.” She adjusted her glasses.
His black eyes narrowed slightly. “You sure? You seem bothered.”
It would bother her more if she had to tell him. She didn’t want to tell him. She didn’t have to, did she? Nothing of his had been taken.
“You lose something?”
“No.” That wasn’t a lie. She knew exactly where she’d put it. It just wasn’t there.
He took a few steps toward her, his cowboy hat shading his eyes. “Is something missing?”
Why did he have to be back anyway? she thought grumpily. Yesterday, he’d stayed gone until after dark.
He frowned. “Seeing as how I heard a noise out here last night, I’m starting to get concerned.”
And her not answering his questions was only making him more determined. “Did … did you take anything off the clothesline last night or this morning?”
“Did someone make off with the laundry? If any of my property’s gone, Miz York, you’d best tell me.”
She shifted from one foot to the other. If she had another corset, she wouldn’t say anything. But she didn’t have another one. And she felt half-naked right now standing here talking to him without it.
“Listen, lady.” He took a step toward her, his gaze leveling into hers. “We had some outlaws making merry around Whirlwind not a year ago. They were known to steal clothes off lines–“
“Something’s gone, yes, but it isn’t yours.”
“Then whose? Yours?”
Embarrassment seared every inch of her, but she nodded.
“What’s gone?” Before she could answer, a slow awareness lit his eyes and his gaze lowered to her breasts before returning to her face. His compelling features cautious, he cleared his throat, gesturing in her general direction. “Is it your … um, an undergarment?”
Before she could stop herself, her surprised gaze flew to his. Face burning, she started for the porch.
His long legs covered the distance between them in two steps and he blocked her way. She stopped abruptly, stiffening.
“Miz York, I know it vexes you to talk about this. It sure isn’t what I want to talk about, but you need to tell me.”
“I–I can’t.” She kept her gaze on his dusty boots.
For a moment, he didn’t speak, then he said in a gruff voice, “I sometimes serve as a deputy for the sheriff in Whirlwind.”
Emma’s stomach plummeted. A deputy? She thought she’d been so careful to avoid the law and now she was living with a sometime-lawman. What had she done?
“Over the last few months, there’s been a rash of thefts,” he said. “Farm equipment, jewelry, tools. And lately, some things have been stolen off clotheslines. Women’s … things. Corsets.”
The word sounded rough on his tongue and a shiver rippled up her spine. Could he tell she wasn’t wearing one? She couldn’t bear the thought.
“Several women have had their … those stolen. I don’t know if the thefts are being committed by the same person, but you need to tell the sheriff.”
“Oh, no!” Her gaze flew to his. “I couldn’t! I can’t.”
It wasn’t just the humiliation of telling another man that her corset had been stolen. It was also that she needed to stay as far from Whirlwind’s sheriff as possible.
Jake Ross studied the ground then glanced up. “I know it’s embarrassing for you, but we need to tell Davis Lee.” At her frown, he added, “Sheriff Holt.”
She could see he wasn’t going to let this go.
“He needs to know there’s been another theft.”
And now that Jake Ross knew, Emma would suffer anxiety every time she saw him. She couldn’t believe she was discussing undergarments with a man. A man she’d just met. To whom she’d been lying since setting foot on his doorstep.
“Davis Lee’s discreet. You won’t need to worry about anyone finding out.”
That was slightly reassuring. “Has this happened before?”
“Not out here!”
“Are you going to tell–“
“I won’t say anything,” he said quickly. “To anyone.”
She believed him. “Thank you.”
After a moment, he said, “We should probably go today.”
We? “I’m sure I can manage the trip. I rode out here alone, after all.”
His eyes flashed hotly. “You’re not going alone. I don’t know where that thief is or if he’ll do something besides steal a woman’s–” He shifted uncomfortably as if his boots were too small. “I’m not sure if he’d do something more dangerous than steal.”
“I’ll have the wagon ready after lunch.”
She nodded, knowing she couldn’t protest further. He’d certainly start to wonder why she was hesitant to face the sheriff.
© 2007 by Debra S. Cowan
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books, S.A.
Whirlwind Baby | Book in the Whirlwind, Texas Series | Western Historical Romance Author Debra Cowan