About the Author
The daughter of a town marshal, Linda Lael Miller is the author of more than a hundred 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. Visit her at LindaLaelMiller.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
June 9, 1883
The church was a weathered, unpainted structure surrounded by undulating summer grass. Organ music wheezed out into the bright June day.
Gideon Marshall kicked at the ground with the toe of one boot and groaned. The last thing he wanted to do was walk into that modest wooden building and interrupt a wedding, but as things stood, he didn’t have much choice.
Much choice? Thanks to his older brother, Zachary, thanks to his own youthful high spirits, he had no choice at all.
He squared his shoulders and approached the open doors of the sanctuary.
Might as well get the unpleasant duty out of the way.
Willow would be furious, of course. Who could blame her?
Grimly, Gideon climbed the sloping, rough-hewn steps and entered the church itself.
He paused in the shadows, letting his eyes adjust to the dimmer light—or so he told himself. The bride stood at the altar with her groom, and the sacred words were beginning.
“’Dearly beloved, we are gathered here . . .”
The pit of Gideon’s stomach quivered, and he cleared his throat, tasted something sour on the back of his tongue. Whether or not this farce was Zachary’s fault, he was the one who would have to make it right, have to take the ultimate responsibility.
Nothing new in that.
All their lives, Zachary had been the one to instigate trouble. He had a gift for making some wild enterprise sound like a good idea, Zachary did, and when he was younger, Gideon had often gone along with his brother’s suggestions.
After all, no one had ever died.
Or been arrested.
Well, okay, arrested. But never actually tried and sentenced.
Irritated regret rose in Gideon. Had it not been for his surroundings, he would have sworn roundly, and at volume. Of course, he couldn’t do such a thing, even though he was not a religious man. And he’d done enough swearing since finding out the true scope of the prank his brother and their mutual friends had played on him, two years before, in San Francisco.
There were a lot of people crowded into the narrow pews, and Gideon imagined how they would turn and stare at him, once his mission became clear. By nightfall, the story would be all over the territory—and if Willow didn’t kill him personally, her father probably would.
It seemed to Gideon that time had frozen. He stood at the back of the little church, wishing he could vanish, preferably in a puff of smoke like a stage magician.
Of course, that wasn’t going to happen.
It would be entirely too easy.
Once again, he centered his attention on the circuit preacher’s words and their portent.
“If anyone can show just cause,” boomed the clergyman, “why these two should not be joined in marriage, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.”
Oh, God, thought Gideon. And then he cleared his throat again and said, “I can show just cause,” in a clear voice that carried through the small sanctuary and brought an immediate halt to the proceedings.
Nobody breathed, as far as Gideon could tell. At least, he didn’t.
The bride turned first, her face—which Gideon remembered as heartstoppingly beautiful—hidden by the dense veil of fine lace. At her cue, the groom and all the guests turned, too.
“I beg your pardon?” demanded the preacher, arching one eyebrow as he glowered at the interloper.
Fully aware that he was as unwelcome in that place as the devil would have been in heaven, Gideon walked slowly up the aisle, wishing that the splintery floorboards would part, Red Sea style, and swallow him whole.
He paused between the first two rows of rough-hewn pews and cleared his throat loudly and, he hoped, with some authority. “Miss Gallagher cannot legally marry,” he said, in that same clear voice. “She is, as it happens, married to me.”
The bride’s bouquet of violets and summer wildflowers tumbled to the floor in a cascade of color, and a wave of excited chatter surged through the congregation, blending with the rustle of sateen skirts, the bumbling buzz of flies, and the speculative whisperings of the men.
The groom, Norville Pickering, a skinny young fellow with an unfortunate complexion, glared at Gideon.
Before he could speak, however, Gideon raised both hands in a diplomatic gesture. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I know this is an inexcusable interruption, but as I said before, the lady is married to me and I have the papers to prove it.”
Slowly, Willow Gallagher lifted the veil from her face—even more exquisite than he remembered—and her expression was unreadable. She simply watched Gideon with those wide, amber-colored eyes that had nearly undone him, back home in San Francisco, just two years before. Her lush, dark-gold hair was done up and threaded through with sprigs of baby’s breath, and there was a beguiling apricot tone to her flawless cheekbones.
“You,” she said, without inflection of any kind. And then her eyes rolled back and her knees gave out and she collapsed to the church floor in a faint.
* * *
Willow opened her eyes and stared up into her father’s face, amazed and shaken. The little room reserved for the pastor’s use seemed close and musty, even though a window was open to the summer breeze.
“Was Gideon speaking the truth?” Devlin Gallagher demanded, though his blue eyes were kind. “Are you his wife?”
Willow had never expected to see Gideon Marshall in the flesh again, especially not today, of all days. With great effort, she had put the humiliation and the pain of the joke he and his brother had played on her out of her thoughts, for the most part, anyway. It was rather hard to forget him completely, reprehensible as he was.
“No,” she said, with resolution, sitting up and drawing a deep, sustaining breath. “I most certainly am not Gideon Marshall’s wife!”
At that moment, the door of the small room opened and Gideon himself walked in, looking strained and very determined. His clothes were good but not formal, and the fabric looked rumpled, as though he’d been traveling in earnest and in haste. His hair was darker than she remembered, the color of tarnished brass.
And he was still so damnably good-looking that Willow had no trouble recalling why she’d fallen for the cruel joke he and Zachary and a few of their friends had played on her.
She’d wanted so much to believe that he loved her, even though they’d barely met. Spent only one romantic—and wholly innocent—night together, exploring the city in a hired carriage.
Willow had been seventeen at the time, fresh from the wilds of the Montana Territory, and very naive.
Gideon, a full decade older, with a college education and a trust fund, had been, by contrast, sophisticated. Even worldly.
“Hello, Judge Gallagher,” he said easily. The nod he spared Willow had to serve as a greeting.
Judge Gallagher squared his massive shoulders and clasped his hands together, probably to keep from closing them around Gideon’s throat and strangling him on the spot. “Were you not my wife’s son, Mr. Marshall,” he said evenly, “I would snap your spine like a chicken bone. What in God’s name is the meaning of this?”
Gideon’s jaw tightened and his green-gray gaze skirted Willow’s. “Believe me, sir,” he told her father, “I didn’t want to do this. I had to, however, for your daughter’s sake as well as my own.”
Willow lowered her eyes, unable to look at Gideon. Dear God, what a fool he’d made of her that long-ago night, and how keen the pain was, reawakened after all this time.
Gideon cleared his throat and went on. “Several years ago, Judge, when your daughter came to San Francisco with our mother, my brother and I decided to play a joke on her. I had just gotten home from Europe and—well, the unflattering truth is, we were drunk.
“In any case, I met Willow at a party soon after I got back, and—” He paused, cleared his throat, and finally went on. “I was very taken with her. We meant to persuade one of our friends to pose as a minister and . . .” Gideon paused as embarrassed color surged into Willow’s face, aching there. “For a reason I will probably never understand, Miss Gallagher agreed to marry me.”
Willow felt her father’s questioning gaze touch her and shivered. God, if only a person could will herself to die. She would certainly have done it then.
The judge’s voice was remarkably calm, considering the circumstances. “Did you defile my daughter, Gideon?” he asked forthrightly.
“No,” Gideon replied. “I did take her to a hotel and . . .” He stopped and cleared his throat again. “And I realized what I was doing. I couldn’t go through with it, of course.”
“Of course,” agreed the judge, with raspy disdain. “I could hang you, you realize; no father on the face of the earth would blame me for it.”
“Yes, sir,” answered Gideon, with dignity. “I guess you could.”
An uncomfortable and protracted silence ensued, which the judge eventually broke. “If the marriage was a farce, what are you doing here now?”
At last, Willow was able to look up, to search the handsome face that she had loved for years and years—ever since her first sight of the portrait that hung in Evadne Marshall Gallagher’s fussy sitting room, right there in Virginia City.
She waited, every bit as interested in his answer as her father was.
Gideon met her eyes squarely, then sighed. A muscle jumped in his strong jaw, settled down again. “I became engaged to a woman in San Francisco recently—her name is Daphne Roberts—and she and I have been pledged to each other practically since we were christened. When the official announcement was made, my brother was prompted to intercede. The joke was on me, it seems, as well as Willow. The minister was a justice of the peace, and the ceremony was legal.”
“My God,” breathed the judge.
Willow was torn between launching into a screaming rage and clasping her hands together and offering a prayer of gratitude.
She had had no choice but to accept Norville Pickering’s proposal of marriage, but now she would have a respite. For a few weeks, maybe even for a few months, until an annulment could be secured, anyway, she could keep Norville at arm’s length.
Convince him, somehow, that she’d been looking forward to their honeymoon and lengthy marriage—till death did them part, for heaven’s sake—and was bitterly disappointed that their plans had been thwarted.
If she chose every word carefully, Norville would believe her.
And Steven, the brother she adored, would not be in danger.
“You could have sent a wire or something!” growled the judge furiously, lowering his bristly eyebrows as he glared at Gideon. “Good God, man, what if you hadn’t gotten here in time? What if . . .?”
He reddened and fell silent.
“I did get here in time,” Gideon said reasonably. Now, he seemed more amused by the situation than apologetic. Of course, he’d had time to get used to the idea, which was more than anyone could say for the rest of them. “From my mother’s letter,” he went on smoothly, “I thought the wedding was slated for July. Since I was coming to the Territory on railroad business anyway, I believed I had plenty of time. In any case, something this—delicate—should be dealt with in person, don’t you think, instead of over a telegraph wire?”
Willow, sitting up now but still a little dizzy, sighed and looked down at her hands, which were clasped in her lap. A tear she hadn’t known she’d shed glistened on the curve of one thumb.
Her father patted her shoulder tenderly. “I’ll go out and explain—or try to,” he said. And then the door opened and closed, and he was gone.
Gideon came to Willow; he crouched before her as he had once before, in a faraway hotel room, when she had been willing, so embarrassingly willing, to share his bed. He caught her hands in his and squeezed them gently, just as he had done then. “I’m so sorry, Willow,” he said, and that, too, was an echo from the past.
There was a great stir in the sanctuary beyond as the news was delivered, and Willow could hear Norville shouting in outrage. She prayed that he would not confront her now, that he would not be angry enough to go back on their bargain.
Willow forced herself to meet Gideon’s eyes. Suddenly, inexplicably, she longed to touch Gideon’s butternut hair, learn the texture of it, trace the firm lines of his cleanshaven jaw. She kept her hands together in her lap. What did one say in a circumstance such as this? Should she thank him for the unwitting rescue? Could Gideon Marshall see it in her face, the foolish love she still felt for him, after all this time and in spite of so many things?
At that moment, the door crashed open, causing Willow to start violently, and Norville Pickering filled the chasm, his face taut and red with fury.
Gideon rose slowly from his crouching position before Willow. He turned to face Norville.
“Are you truly married to this scoundrel?” the thwarted groom demanded. He spoke with such force that spittle flew from his mouth.
Willow lowered her head again, lest he see the contradictory emotions in her face. “It would seem so,” she said softly.
Norville’s rage seemed to pulse in the small room. “I will have satisfaction for this, my good man,” he said to Gideon.
Gideon’s aristocratic mouth twitched slightly and then he spread his hands out wide. He was willing to accept Norville’s challenge, obviously, though Willow, watching him from out of the corner of one eye, had to concede that he was trying very hard to be gracious. “There is nothing I can say in my defense,” he confessed.
Norville’s manner, indeed his entire countenance, was petulance at its most essential. He threw back his thin shoulders and tugged hard at the cuffs of his suit coat. “I will not overlook this,” he vowed, and then he raised his fists like a prizefighter prepared for battle. “I will have satisfaction, sir, and I suggest you prepare to defend yourself.”
Willow stood up now, her head held high. “Don’t be an idiot, Norville. Fighting won’t solve anything, and this is God’s house, after all.”
Norville’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, but he lowered his fists to his sides. Turning to Willow and looking as though he might actually burst into tears, he protested, “This is intolerable—good Lord, Willow, how could you deceive me this way?”
Willow swallowed all the things she might have said. After all, Norville Pickering still had the power to destroy her brother. She could not endanger Steven’s freedom, perhaps even his life, by speaking her mind. “I-I truly didn’t mean to deceive you, Norville,” she said gently. “Surely you realize that this cruel trick was more devastating for me than anyone. Imagine how I felt, Norville, why just imagine! I was young, I really believed that Mr. Marshall cared for me and had only the most honorable of intentions . . .”
Gideon thrust out an eloquent breath and rolled his eyes heavenward.
Willow flashed him one scathing look and insisted, “I did!” before turning her attention back to soothing the badly ruffled Norville. “Please”—disgust gathered into a lump in the back of her throat—“darling. You must believe that I was an innocent victim of this-this vicious and unconscionable deception.”
Norville lifted his receding chin. “And I will avenge your shame, my dear,” ...
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