Dutchman’s Creek, Colorado
The sooty cobweb stretched from the
chandelier to the high ceiling, a good four feet out of reach.
Lurking near its center was a spider—a monster with long, prickly legs
and a body as big as a copper penny.
Ruby Denby Rumford glared up at her
adversary. She’d always had a mortal dread of spiders, but she
couldn’t let this one get the best of her. If she wanted to attract
good tenants for her boarding house, the place would have to be
spotless from floor to ceiling. The spider had to go.
Circling warily, she plotted her attack.
She might be able to reach the web with the broom. But if she knocked
the spider loose, it could end up anywhere—in her hair, in her face,
down her blouse... Ruby shuddered as she weighed her options. The
only way to make sure the creature didn’t land on her would be to
capture it first.
A dusty Mason jar with a lid sat on the
kitchen counter. That would do for a trap. But she’d need something
to climb on. Ruby sighed as she surveyed the rickety cane chairs that
had come with the old boarding house. Maybe she should have paid
$4.50 for that stepladder at the hardware store. But buying the
property had taken almost all her money. Until the rents started
coming in, she would need to hoard every cent she had left.
Moving a chair to the center of the room,
she tried standing on the seat; but the spider was still out of
reach. She needed something more—that wooden crate in the corner
might do. Placed on the chair, it would raise her a good eighteen
With the crate in place, Ruby retrieved
the jar and prepared for battle. She could do this, she lectured
herself. A woman who’d fired three bullets into her raging,
two-hundred-pound husband at point blank range should have no trouble
facing down a creature the size of her thumb.
Hollis Rumford had deserved to die. Even
the jurors had agreed after they’d heard how Hollis had abused her and
threatened worse to their two young daughters. At the urging of the
best lawyer in the state, they’d acquitted Ruby on grounds of self
defense. But her wealthy friends—mostly Hollis’s friends—had been
less forgiving. The Springfield Missouri social set had cut her off
Exhausted and needing a change of scene,
she’d fled to Europe with her little girls. A few months later she’d
returned to discover that her late husband’s estate had been gobbled
up by creditors, leaving her with little more than a pittance.
There was nothing to do but pull up
stakes and make a new start.
Dutchman’s Creek had been a natural
choice. Ruby’s brother Jace, her only close kin, had settled on a
nearby ranch. He and his spirited young bride Clara were expecting
their first baby. They’d urged Ruby to come to Colorado so their
children could grow up together.
Ruby had welcomed the invitation. She’d
seen the town on an earlier visit and been captivated by its peaceful
mountain setting. She’d always been close to Jace, and Clara was like
a sister to her. But she had no intention of becoming a burden to
them. Whatever it took, she’d vowed, she would find a way to provide
for herself and her children.
The vacant boarding house at the south
end of Main Street had looked like an answer to her prayers. She and
her daughters could live on the main floor and rent the four upstairs
rooms for a steady income.
Only now was she beginning to realize how
much she’d taken on.
Clutching the jar in one hand, she
hitched up her narrow skirt and hoisted herself onto the edge of the
chair. Her brother had offered to come and help her get the place in
shape. Ruby had turned him down out of stubborn pride. Jace had
already done enough for her, risking his life and freedom to protect
her after Hollis’s death. It was time she learned to manage on her
That aside, she’d gladly accepted Clara’s
invitation to take the girls for the week. Mandy and Caro were having
the time of their lives on the ranch, riding horses, climbing trees,
bottle-feeding orphaned calves and gathering eggs in the chicken
Meanwhile, their mother had a spider to
Holding her breath, Ruby mounted the
crate. Her knees quivered as she steadied her balance on the wooden
slats. Seconds, that was all she’d need to do the job.
Close up, the spider looked bigger and
nastier than ever. Steeling herself, Ruby twisted the lid off the
Mason jar and positioned it below the creature. A little more stretch
and she could use the lid to maneuver it inside. Heart pounding, she
eased onto her tiptoes...
A wooden slat splintered beneath her
weight. Thrown off balance, Ruby lurched upward. The jar shattered
against the floor as she grabbed for the chain that suspended the
small chandelier. Miraculously, the chain held. But her thrashing
feet had toppled the crate and chair, leaving her to dangle above the
wreckage. The distance to the floor wasn’t all that far, but falling
could land her on a splintered board, a jutting chair leg or shards of
The web was empty now. The spider, she
realized, could be anywhere. Panic clenched Ruby’s stomach. Her grip
was getting weaker, and she had no safe place to fall. There was only
one thing she could do.
Scream bloody murder.
* * * * * * *
U.S. Deputy Marshal Ethan Beaudry had
been assigned to weed out bootleggers, not rescue females in
distress. But the shrieks coming from the old boarding house were too
urgent to ignore. Vaulting the picket fence, he charged up the steps
and burst through the front door.
His breath caught in his throat.
The woman had stopped screaming. She
hung by her arms, staring down at him from beneath a tumble of
red-gold hair. Her eyes were as blue as the heart of a mountain
She did make a fetching sight, dangling
like an acrobat from the chandelier chain, with her white blouse
pulled loose and her skirt hiked over her shapely calves. Ethan was
tempted to spend a few more seconds admiring the view. But then she
“What are you staring at, you fool? Stop
gawking and get me down from here!”
Her voice was low, with a taut, gravelly
edge that roused Ethan’s senses. “Do you trust me to catch you?” he
“Are you sure you’re strong enough?” she
retorted. “I’m not what you’d call a little woman.”
No, she certainly wasn’t, Ethan
observed. At five-foot eight or nine with a body that could grace the
bow of a frigate, she’d make an armful for any man.
He wouldn’t mind being that man.
Kicking aside the debris, Ethan stood
beneath her and held out his arms. “Come on,” he said.
She hesitated, her eyes taking the
measure of his broad shoulders and six-foot, two-inch height. One by
one, her fingers peeled away from the chain.
With a little yelp, she dropped straight
down, feet first. Ethan caught her awkwardly around the knees. From
there she slid down the front of him, delicious curves gliding
intimately down his face, over his chest, down his belly to—
Lord have mercy, he was in trouble now.
His erection had sprung up with coiled-spring efficiency, ready for
playtime. She would have felt it all the way down.
Feet touching the floor, she pushed away
from him. Her face was flushed, her full lips parted. Ethan fought
the temptation to fling caution to the wind, seize her in his arms and
kiss her till she burned. The lady would probably slap him hard
enough to dislocate his jaw. And she was a lady. Ethan made a
practice of reading people, and he was certain of that. Her clothes
were simple but expensively made. The Irish linen blouse, smudged
with dust and edged with the barest touch of lace, looked European, as
did the daintily pointed kidskin oxfords. And he would bet money that
the pearl studs in her earlobes were as genuine as her upper-class
So what was such a woman doing in this
run-down boarding house, a rumored delivery point for the bootlegging
trade? He couldn’t believe she was involved. But he’d known stranger
things to happen.
A flick of her tongue moistened her lower
lip. Her complexion was like a porcelain doll’s, but close up, Ethan
could see the careworn shadows beneath her eyes. He estimated her age
at about thirty, and something told him she’d had her share of
troubles. He’d noticed right off she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.
But she was far too stunning not to have married. A widow, Ethan
surmised. A luscious redheaded widow who’d been around the block and
knew every step of the way.
Intriguing. And damned tempting...