Book Excerpt

"The Widowed Bride"

by Elizabeth Lane

Excerpt from "The Widowed Bride"

Dutchman’s Creek, Colorado
May, 1920

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 inches.

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 cold.

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 own.

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 coop.

Meanwhile, their mother had a spider to dispose of.

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 broken glass.

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 columbine.

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 spoke.

“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 teased.

“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 Midwestern accent.

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...

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