His Blessing in Disguise, by Ava Winters
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His Blessing in Disguise

When Layla, an escaped bride found shelter in a grieving Deputy’s house, an outlaw is seeking revenge!

Layla McCarthy for a long time thought that all she was, all she is and all that she will ever be, was the wife of an outlaw, Jacob. Until she decided to run away.

Deputy Peter Jones for a long time thought that the only woman he would ever love was gone forever. Until he saw Layla riding into Richstone as fiercely as she walked into his heart.

He couldn’t resist helping her when she needed it, offering her a home to stay and a job at his saloon. And she couldn’t help but fall for his kindness and strength.

But when her husband arrives in the small town with his whole crew, claiming to be doing business and wanting her back, their new-found happiness will be on the line – and eventually, Layla’s very own life.

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

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Chapter One

There was a feeling deep in Peter Jones’ bones. It was like something festering, something sticking him deep inside of himself. The feeling had been with him for days now, and he couldn’t shake it. The old folks liked to say they knew when the weather was changing by the ache in their bones, but with Peter, it was something deeper than that—and it wasn’t because of the weather.

Since childhood, he’d had a knack of knowing things—sometimes bad and sometimes good, but always significant to his life and, sometimes, the lives of others. His grandmother used to say it was a blessing. Peter wasn’t so sure whether that was true, but what he did know was that it was never wrong.

He stood with his hands on his hips, the sun shining from the west onto the star-shaped badge on his chest. His honey-brown eyes, hooded by his lids, scanned the horizon. Evening would soon fall and the caravan had yet to arrive.

“They’re late,” Peter called behind him without turning his head. Sheriff William Dawson’s stilted steps let Peter know the older man had joined him.

“They’ll be here. If I know Cooper, he’s racing like a bat outta hell to get here,” he said calmly. In all the years Peter had been his deputy, he had never seen the man worried. He had the gift of a calm spirit and an even temper. “What’s on your mind?”

“Nothing, Bill,” Peter replied as his eyes studied the horizon and the trail out of town. He scratched at the light beard that lined his jaw. He’d had his dark brown hair and beard cut recently, and his skin was still a bit sensitive from the shave. He’d opted for a new style, short sides with a part on the left. He was happy with it.

“Sure,” his counterpart replied, turning away. “And my grandmother’s a mule.”

Peter remained quiet. Bill knew him better than anyone did. He knew Peter was lying, and that was his tactful way of calling his deputy on it. Still, Peter wasn’t going to speak until he was sure what he was talking about. Then, he saw the dust rising on the horizon. He stepped closer, and the feeling inside him began to grow. Whatever was coming was less than a mile from Richstone’s borders.

“What’d I tell you?” Bill commented as he spotted the dust cloud.

“That man will never learn,” Peter responded gravely. “He’s gonna lose his place with the company if he turns over and kills one of those pretty mail-order brides he’s bringing over from Sutter’s Fort.”

“He’ll lose more than his place if one of their husbands finds out,” Bill answered.

Peter knew what he meant, but stating that Sam Cooper would find himself missing seemed a waste of breath. Women were a precious commodity in a small mining town like Richstone, California, where men left all the comforts of civilization behind them for an opportunity of wealth and significance. The West was a place where people settled things more quickly with a gun than a court, and Richstone was like any other developing town. There were good people, but there were equal amounts of the unsavory as well, and they came in all packages.

“Did we get word on Fanny Miller?” he asked Bill. His eyes remained focused on the horizon.

“This morning. Her hanging’s in two weeks,” the other man informed him. Fanny Miller was a twenty-six-year-old woman who’d been arrested for the murder of her parents, and burying them in the back garden under the cabbages. Her father had gone panning for gold and found himself a few nuggets of some value. She’d thought they would be more beneficial to her, as a younger woman, than to him, so she’d killed him for it. Then, she’d killed her mother when the older woman had walked in to find her daughter committing the crime. It was all a sad business over something that would have eventually become hers, if she had just waited.

“Her father was sixty-five, for crying out loud,” Peter said to himself.

“And with his health, he would’ve been dead in two years, max,” Bill added. “Such a waste.” He sighed deeply and bent to rub his leg.

Six months ago, they’d been pursuing some rustlers when Bill was shot. The outlaws had stolen forty head of cattle from the Carpenter ranch, just outside of town. Malcolm Carpenter was not a man to be trifled with—it had taken all of Peter’s convincing to stop him from hunting the perpetrators down himself. He was a man who only considered the first part of ‘dead or alive.’

Bill had taken the bullet straight to the thigh. It was buried deep in the bone and the surgeon said it was best to leave it where it was. Since then, Bill hadn’t gone a day without pain.

“I’m going to sit down,” he informed Peter as he passed by the deputy. Bill smirked. “I think I can trust you to greet our newcomers and give them the lay of the land.”

Peter smiled. “Sure thing.”

‘The lay of the land’ was their way of letting people know who the authority was in town, and what they could look forward to if they broke the law in any way. Bill was a fair man and he liked people to know what to expect the second they arrived—that way, they had no excuses.

Peter turned as Bill entered the sheriff’s office. Richstone would need a new man in charge soon. Bill, despite having the heart for the job, no longer had the physical ability to do it. His leg made it almost impossible for him to ride and, most days, it slowed him down in the most menial of tasks. He’d been asking Peter to take over, but Peter didn’t want the job. He was happy just being a deputy.

The coach pulled up at the station in such a rush that the dust cloud made Peter cough. “Cooper,” he said under his breath as he walked toward the man who had just jumped down from the reins.

“Hi, Boss, sorry we’re late. Had to stop. Some lady back there decided to have a baby on me,” he informed the deputy. No matter how many times Peter told Cooper to call him by his name, he always ended up calling him ‘Boss,’ instead. Peter knew better than to ask why.

His face slackened at the unexpected news. “A baby? I thought you were only bringing over mail-order brides?”

“I was,” Cooper answered. “Apparently, one of ’em had a surprise for her intended,” he mused. Cooper was tall and lanky at six foot three, four inches taller than Peter. He was thin, almost gangly, with a head of red curls that stood out for miles and a penchant for tobacco and single malt whiskey.

Peter tried to stifle a laugh. “I’d say so,” he answered as he walked around to the back of the wagon and looked in. Seven women were seated inside, each with a small bag in their lap. Except one, who held a newborn baby instead.

“Ladies, welcome to Richstone,” Peter greeted, bowing his head and dipping the front of his Stetson. He unchained the back of the wagon and held out a lightly tanned hand to help the first of the women down. “Mind your step.”

Three women had disembarked when Peter heard the sound of hooves headed in their direction. He kept his hand out as he turned toward the sound; a rider was approaching at a clip, but there was something strange about the man in the saddle.

Peter’s gaze remained fixed on the mysterious rider and his billowing garments until he came closer into view, and Peter realized it wasn’t a man at all—it was a woman.

“Cooper,” he called as he helped the next passenger down. She was a tiny thing, barely to his chest, with dark blonde hair and a round figure.

“Yes, Boss?” Cooper answered as he rounded the corner.

“Finish helping them down, will you?” Peter asked distractedly.

“But I was unloading the trunks,” Cooper protested.

Peter didn’t hear him; all of his senses were focused on the rider. Whoever she was, she was racing as if her life depended on it—and something told him that it just might. Women didn’t ride across the plains alone like that unless they had to. Whatever she was leaving behind had to be significant for her to brave the journey.

The minutes stretched on as Peter’s eyes stayed fixed on the mysterious woman. The large hat on her head clearly belonged to a man. She probably thought it helped disguise her, and from a distance, it had, but the closer she got the more apparent it became that she was no man.

The chestnut stallion reared as the reins were pulled and the woman cried out for the beast to steady. She had a pleasant tone, even in her firm command.

Peter stepped forward and took the reins to help the horse calm. “Easy, boy,” he said gently as he looked up at its rider.

She was young—very young, by the looks of it. She didn’t even look twenty. Her skin was fair, but covered by a layer of dust that told Peter she’d come a long way. Her coffee-colored hair was held in an untidy braid down her back and her hazel-green eyes were staring at him in wonder.

“Can I help you?” she asked sharply.

“I was about to ask you that,” Peter replied cooly. “You came into town like a runaway train. You in some kinda trouble?” He looked behind her. The horizon was clear. “Someone after you?”

Her gaze shifted to the badge on his chest before she answered. “So, sir,” she said evenly, but there was a hint of anxiety to her tone. “I was just in a hurry to get to town before it got dark.”

“What’s your name?” he asked, studying her carefully. It was an occupational hazard. Peter had a tendency to take in all the details he could about a person at the first meeting. He never knew when he might have to go looking for them in the future.

“Layla McCarthy,” she answered quickly.

“And where’re you coming from, Layla McCarthy?” he continued. He kept a firm grip on the horse, just in case it bolted or she attempted to escape. There was something about her—Peter couldn’t put his finger on it, but whatever it was had him uneasy.

“Silvertown,” she answered. “It’s a little place north of here,” she explained.

“I’ve heard of it,” Peter replied. “It’s near Cedar Gulch.”

She nodded.

“And why did you leave Silvertown? It’s a nice place. Not too many people.”

“That’s why I left. The town is going nowhere fast. I wanted a fresh start.”

Her answers were reasonable, but there was something inside of him that said she was lying. Still, he couldn’t keep her on a hunch. If he was right, and he usually was, then whatever she was running from would make itself known sooner or later.

You’re too suspicious, he told himself. Take it easy on her, she’s just a girl.

Peter sighed internally. Sometimes, he got too wound up about those feelings. There was nothing that said they had anything to do with the woman in front of him—it could just as well have been one of the other women, or someone else entirely.

“Welcome to Richstone, Miss McCarthy,” he said, pushing aside his misgivings for a more welcoming attitude.

She smiled shyly. “Thank you, Sheriff.”

“Deputy sheriff,” he corrected. “And the name’s Peter Jones.”

“Nice to meet you,” she answered.

“Let me help you,” Peter offered, holding up his hands to take her waist.

“That’s alright,” she answered as she swung a leg down and dismounted on her own. She grimaced momentarily, but soon turned to him with a smile. “I can do it,” she added as she untied the knot at the front of her skirt.

“I can see that,” Peter chuckled. “Is that all you have?” He gestured to a single small parcel tied to the side of the saddle.

“Yes,” she answered, and removed it from its place. It wasn’t much to carry with her, barely large enough to hold two or three dresses at best. It only made him wonder more about the background she was coming from.

“Come on over here,” he instructed. “I have to inform the new arrivals of the laws in the town, and I don’t mean to do this twice.”

“Yes, sir.”

As Peter walked away, he could hear the sound of her feet shuffling along behind him. He looked back to find her eyes turned to the path she’d just come from. The horizon was still clear, but she seemed to be expecting something or someone.

Peter gave his usual address informing the women before him of the simple facts about Richstone and what was and wasn’t permitted. They listened silently, giving small nods when appropriate, like most audiences every other time he’d made that speech.

“Right, you all can head over to the station. I’m sure your loved ones are waiting for you,” he said with a smile. “I’ll be seeing you.”

Everyone moved except Layla. She remained in place as if trying to decide what to do next. Peter stepped toward her.

“Where’re you staying in town?” he asked curiously.

“I haven’t figured that out yet,” Layla replied with a small laugh. “But I will. I’m sure you’ve got a boarding house or hotel I can stay in for a few days. Just until I find something more permanent.”

Peter’s brow knitted. “You came all this way alone with no idea on where you’d be staying?”

“When you say it that way, it doesn’t sound too smart, does it?” she answered with a small laugh.

“I would say not,” Peter said seriously. “And I’m guessin’ you haven’t got a job lined up yet either, little girl.”

“I’m not a little girl,” she retorted, looking him straight in the eyes. “I’m twenty-one.”

Peter was briefly thrown by her emphatic answer. “Well, Miss Lady, do you have a job lined up or not?”

She shook her head sheepishly as her eyes dropped from his face.

“I see,” he replied with a sigh. “Miss, if you don’t mind me saying, what were you thinking, leaving Silvertown with no one to come to, nowhere to stay and no way to make a living?” He couldn’t believe someone could be so foolhardy.

The look in her eyes was almost desperate as the answer slipped from her lips. “Freedom.”

Peter stood silently, staring into her eyes as he considered the feeling she’d expressed with that one word. Something was going on with the girl, that much was clear. Peter didn’t know what it was, but it stirred something inside him. Maybe trouble would follow her, but maybe not. Whichever it was, he knew that the woman in front of him needed help.

“Follow me,” he ordered gently, taking the parcel from her hands and leading the way

“Wait, where’re we going?” she asked as she followed quickly after.

“You’ll see.”

Chapter Two

There was only one thought in her mind as Layla snuck from the house in the wee hours of the morning: Get out.

Jacob was sleeping soundly and so were the rest of his boys, if you could call the gang of six that. They had lived side-by-side for the past three years, but now, it was time for her to leave. There was no regret in her heart as she tiptoed down the stairs to the sound of deep snores. She held her breath with every step; she couldn’t get caught.

A series of snorts made her freeze halfway down the stairs. Laya’s heart raced in her chest and she clutched her small bundle of clothes to her chest, as she waited for the sound of a voice. There was none, and after several tense seconds, she continued her escape.

She found the horses tied to a tree at the back of the house. The chestnut stallion whinnied softly, and Layla quickly hushed him to keep him quiet, smoothing her hand over his coat. She was almost safely away and couldn’t risk getting caught now. Layla tied a knot at the front of her skirt. The layers of long fabric would only prove cumbersome on the journey she was undertaking, and she could ill afford any holdups.

Layla loosened the reins and led the horse away. He was a good horse, one she’d ridden on more than one occasion when Jacob had allowed it. Her husband rarely permitted her to leave the house—it was her place, he said, and he wanted to keep her there always. Layla had other ideas.

More than a mile away from the house, she finally swung a leg up and pulled herself into the saddle. She looked behind her to see if anyone followed, but there was no sign or sound to indicate that there was. Turning to the sky ahead, Layla let out a cry she’d never given before, kicked her heels into the horse’s flanks, and took off.

She had no idea where she was going. No plan, just a desire for something more, something better. She was chasing that feeling and hoping, praying, for the best. Despite what people believed, you could correct mistakes. And Layla was determined to fix her own.

Silvertown slowly vanished behind her, and by the time the sun rose, she was already a town away—but she wasn’t stopping. She didn’t know where she would end up, but she was sure to know it when she got there.

The days were hot and long as Layla continued on her journey. She stopped in several towns to water the horse and buy food, but she did her best to stay out of sight. If Jacob cared, he’d follow her, but she hoped he wouldn’t. Her husband had never shown her an ounce of affection since the day they’d married. All he wanted was a cook and a washerwoman to tend to him and his boys, and for three years, she’d endured it. No more.

She saw the wagon train long before she got close to it, several of them in a line crossing the plain. It was like a blessing from God. She’d made it this far without running into trouble, but she had a lot more country to cross before she found a place for herself. A wagon train was the perfect way to find protection and anonymity. She raced toward it, holding her hat to her head as she went. It was an impromptu purchase before she’d left the last town. Unfortunately, Layla hadn’t thought to buy pins to keep it in place.

“Someone’s coming,” she heard a man’s voice announce as she approached. She could see the other men sit up in their saddles to look in her direction. Some turned their guns along with their heads. “Who goes there?” the man called to her.

“A friend,” Layla answered breathlessly.

“It’s a woman!” someone exclaimed. Layla looked, but she couldn’t pinpoint the speaker.

“Yes,” she answered the first speaker. “I wanted to join you.”

“Where’re yah headed?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied honestly. “I’m just goin’.”

He looked her over carefully. “We’re goin’ to Pilcher. Some of the party is leavin’ at Richstone,” he informed her.

There was promise in the town’s name. Perhaps that was the reason it called to her the moment the man uttered it. Something come alive inside her as she thought about starting over there.

“Richstone it is,” Layla confirmed. “Thank you.”

“You best get in the middle,” the man instructed. “The name’s Rupert Lachlan.”

“Layla McCarthy,” she answered with a nod, then guided her horse to the center of the caravans. Several female faces looked out at her from the cover of the wagons. “What kind of wagon train is this?” she asked.

Rupert chuckled. “Mail-order brides. You should fit right in.”

Layla laughed. Luck was with her.

“Yer real fortunate,” he continued. “We were due to pass this way days ago, but one of the ladies had a baby and we had to stop for a while.”

Her smile brightened. Luck was not sufficient to describe her fortune—’a blessing’ was much better.

The days passed, and Layla became more familiar with her company. There were women from across the ocean amongst them. Bernadette was a pretty redhead from Ireland, who had come to marry a man named Nathaniel who lived in Richstone. Cooper was the man driving them to the town to meet her intended.

“By letter? Really?” Layla questioned, incredulous. “I didn’t think you could fall in love without meetin’.”

Bernadette smiled. “’Course yah can.”

“All of us did,” another bride agreed. Layla had never met a group of women like them. They each came from a different background, even though some came from the same town, but each had the same dream. It was a dream Layla shared.

The group left the main train for Richstone two days later. The town was three days away, and the feeling of anticipation was palpable.

She was saddle-sore by the last day and had to dismount to ease her discomfort.

“Layla, what’re yah doin’?” Cooper asked, concerned, when one of the women told him she’d stopped.

“I just need a few minutes,” she assured him, raising a hand in acknowledgment.

“Do yah want us to wait fer yah?”

She shook her head. “There’s no need. Go on, I’ll be right behind.”

It took longer than she’d expected for the pain to ease. By the time it did, the wagon was miles ahead, and the sun was already dipping toward the horizon. She needed to catch up.

Layla forced herself back into the saddle and kicked at the horse’s sides to spur him on. She was almost there. Her freedom was at hand.

She was so excited that she hardly recognized the pace. It wasn’t long before she’d crossed the town’s borders and was only a few feet from her companions. She pulled hard on the reins to bring the horse to a stop, calling out as she did so.

Layla had noticed the man who approached her long before she’d made it to town. He’d been watching her, and she wondered why. It was soon clear as he began questioning her.

Where was he taking her? The deputy had already interrogated her extensively and rebuked her reckless behavior. Was he taking her to continue his cross-examination? As they approached the sheriff’s office, Layla’s heart began to beat harder with every step. Then, to her surprise, they kept going. She looked back in confusion but said nothing.

They passed through the maze of streets that spiraled outward from the center of town in three rings. Richstone was built in a coil out from the centre of town. There were several side alleys that could be traversed, and as Layla tried to follow the twists and turns, she soon became a little confused. The buildings and turns all looked similar and, as she looked back, she couldn’t recall if she had made one turn or two. It was a lot different to her one-road town and the small, isolated house she was used to.

She moved slowly; the saddle sores made walking uncomfortable, but she did her best to hide it from the deputy. There would be time later to learn the layout of the town—for now, Layla’s mind was preoccupied with where she was going.

The house was small, even compared to the others they passed. Smoke billowed from the single chimney, and Layla wondered who lived there. The windows were black with dirt, preventing anyone from seeing in or out.

Deputy Jones knocked on the door. Several seconds passed before there was an answer. The woman who stepped out smiled immediately at the sight of him.

“Annabelle,” Deputy Jones greeted. “How’ve you been?”

“Doin’ as best I can,” she answered pleasantly. “My hands are aching somethin’ fierce these days.”

“Doc Ryan told me,” he replied. “I was hoping it’d ease.”

She smiled again. “At my age, you expect these kinds of things.”

“What? You’re still sixteen,” he mused. The woman smiled with him.

“No, I’m not, but this young lady sure is close.” Annabelle turned to Layla, who took the opportunity to get a better look at the woman.

Annabelle had strands of black amidst the silver in her hair, but age clouded her brown eyes. Deep wrinkles marked her brow and cheeks, giving her permanent smile lines. Still, there was a sweetness in her appearance that made Layla feel instantly at ease.

“Mrs. Annabelle Baker, may I present Miss Layla McCarthy. Miss McCarthy, Annabelle Baker,” Deputy Jones introduced.

“Hello, Mrs. Baker,” Layla said, extending her hand in greeting. Annabelle looked at her hand but didn’t take it.

“I’m sorry, dear, I don’t have the strength,” she explained.

“I’m sorry,” Layla apologized, briskly pulling her hand back.

“Don’t be, it’s not your fault,” Annabelle said with a smile.

“Annabelle,” Deputy Jones interjected. “Miss McCarthy is looking for a place to stay. Knowing about your hands and the difficulty you’ve been having, I thought if you two got along, she might be able to stay here and help you around the house. It could be her way of paying room and board.”

Incredulously, Layla looked at the deputy, then shifted her gaze to Annabelle. The older woman seemed to be considering the proposal. “If she doesn’t mind living with an old woman,” she said finally, with a grin in Layla’s direction.

“Do you?” the deputy questioned.

“No, sir. I most certainly do not,” Layla answered quickly.

He smiled. “Well, I guess that settles where you’re gonna stay.”

Layla’s mouth dropped open at how easily he’d found her a place to live, and free of cost. She looked at Annabelle. “Thank you, Mrs. Baker.”

“Call me Annabelle, and the pleasure’s mine. It’ll be nice to have someone around to talk to.”

Deputy Jones nodded. “Now, you still need a job.”

“I can do anything,” Layla said in a rush. “Cooking, cleaning, sewing—you just name it, and I can do it.”

“Is that so?” he asked curiously. “What about tending bar?”

“I’ve never done it before, but I’m sure I could. I would need someone to show me what to do,” Layla answered hesitantly. “Whose bar?”

“Mine,” Deputy Jones replied. “I have to warn you that the patrons can get a bit rowdy at times, but I keep a tight rein on ’em. Wages are two dollars and thirty cents a week.”

Shock shook deep within her as she looked at the man beside her. After all his questioning, Layla was sure he had intended to take her to the hoosegow, but instead, he’d brought her to Annabelle. Now, he was offering her a way to earn a living—something she hadn’t done in three years.

Emotion trembled her lips and filled her eyes with tears. It had been a long time since anyone had been this kind to her. She didn’t know what to say or do in response.

“I…” she started, but words failed her.

“Go on, dear,” Annabelle urged kindly. “Cat got yer tongue?”

Layla nodded wordlessly. What could she say besides thank you?

“You don’t even know me,” she managed, finally. “Why would you help me? Either of you?”

Annabelle chuckled. “Where have you been that this is such a surprise, child? Aren’t people kind where yer from?”

Layla didn’t correct Annabelle’s comment. It was kindly meant.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Deputy Jones added. “We help each other in this town. You’ll learn that the longer yer here.”

His words sent another wave of emotion through her. Richstone was the right choice, Layla could see it already. It was the perfect place to start her life over.

“I can’t thank you enough,” she said, her voice cracking. “I—”

“Oh, sweetheart, you’re all speechless,” Annable interrupted. “If you didn’t know kindness where you came from, you’ll sure know it here. I promise. Richstone is full of good-hearted people.” She smiled at Deputy Jones. “The kind who care about an old woman on her own.”

The deputy smiled back at Annabelle. He almost seemed embarrassed.

“Thank you, Deputy Jones,” Layla was finally able to mutter through sniffles.

“You don’t need to mention it,” he answered. “I was happy to help. Both of you.”

“We are both grateful,” Annabelle confirmed. “Now, I think this young lady needs to get settled. I’m sure she’s had a long journey. Where did you say you were from?”

“Silvertown,” Layla told her.

“And where’re yer things?” the older woman asked, looked back at Deputy Jones. “Did you leave them at the sheriff’s office?”

The deputy looked at her. “This is all she has,” he answered honestly.

“I see,” Annabelle replied as she turned to Layla. “Well, I ‘spose we’ll need to go to the general store soon for some fabric.”

“But I have no money to pay for fabric,” Layla admitted.

“I didn’t say who’d pay for it,” Annabelle pointed out. “So, don’t you trouble your head.”

“I have to be getting back to the station,” Deputy Jones informed them as he looked from Layla to Annabelle. “I trust I can leave you two to get better acquainted?”

“We’ll be best friends in no time,” the older woman declared.

“I’m sure we will,” Layla agreed, a genuine smile creeping across her face. “You just tell me where you want me to start in the house and I’ll get right to it.”

“Stop that,” Annabelle chided gently. “You just got here. Rest first, work later.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Layla said with a grin. She felt distinctly like a child, but in the best kind of way. She could hardly remember the last time someone had cared so much about her needs or comfort.

“Well, you two ladies have a good evening. I’ll call around ten to take Miss McCarthy over to the saloon and show her around.”

“I’ll make sure she has a good breakfast before you arrive,” Annabelle said. “You have a good evening.”

“Yes, Deputy, have a good evening,” Layla chorused. She stood with Annabelle and watched him leave.

“Come inside, dear, it’s gettin’ chilly,” Annabelle suggested as she stepped back into the house. Layla followed, looking out onto the street before she closed the door.

Annabelle chuckled as Layla followed her inside. “That Peter Jones is somethin’ else, I tell you. He’s the heart of this town. The breathing, bleeding heart of it. He cares more than most—and gets far less than he deserves, I reckon.” She turned to Layla with a smile. “You’ll see it for yourself, in time.”

Layla smiled back, but she was far from convinced. Life had taught her the hard way that all that glitters was far from gold. She wasn’t about to make that same mistake again by rushing to conclusions about people. She would wait it out and see for herself.

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