This female bounty hunter is the Deputy Sheriff’s only solution, for crimes and love!
Everyone expected that the famous bounty hunter, C.A. Hernandez was a man. But when the tough and beautiful Claire Hernandez walked into the sheriff’s office answering the ad calling out for the bounty hunter’s help, she was met by ultimate surprise.
Nicolas Miller, a smart British man, is now a Deputy Sheriff, leaving his bounty hunter past behind to make his fortune. But when a series of murders, got out of his hands, calling out for C.A. Hernandez was the only solution…
Nicolas is quickly intrigued by Claire’s independent character and although she can’t deny that she’s drawn to him, her big secret could jeopardize everything and everyone.
As the two are now closing in on the killer, their unexpected love will be threatened by the dark secrets behind the murders – and the one person they never thought would be the accomplice.
But, like as in the murders, things aren’t what they seem. When their lives will be hanging by a thread, will true love be enough to keep them safe?
The wheel hit another rock, and her shoulder bumped the wall again. The stagecoach continued forward as though no one had noticed. Fixing her jacket, Claire Hernandez wiped the wince off her face. She could feel the bruise already forming. That could become a problem.
But she had two shoulders and two hands. She would make do with whatever she had, just like she always did—whether that was one hand, one jacket, or a one-way ticket north.
Or was it west? Her eyes darted to the curtain that couldn’t stand still and glanced out at the sunlight peeking through as though desperate to catch hold of her. The sun would follow her wherever she went. It didn’t matter where she was going, so long as she got there.
That’s what Claire told herself as the stagecoach continued on its journey.
It was a newer stagecoach, painted with gold trimming as though they were headed somewhere special. There were plump pillows that had lasted longer than she thought they would and the restless curtains that kept a little of the heat from melting everyone.
Claire was most grateful for that. She could feel the sweat dripping down her spine, sticking to her blouse. It wasn’t her favorite blouse, and she had recently starched it. After this, however, she would need to starch it again. Or perhaps she could see about purchasing another one. Would she have enough money?
That sounded lovely. A new blouse, and perhaps a pie. Her stomach growled. Any pie would do. She’d only eaten a muffin that morning. Again, she looked to the curtain to place the sun. It was starting its descent. There was only an hour more to go on the road, perhaps two if the horses slowed again. She was pretty certain one of them had a limp.
Claire whipped her head around. Though her hair was supposed to have remained in its braid, curls were escaping and now hit her in her face. She smiled apologetically. “Pardon me?”
Tommy Connelly sat across from her on the bench and by the other window. He looked directly over her way, his eyes searching hers. The look made her uncomfortable. There was an intensity to those blue eyes, even as he asked her a question in a tone that made it clear in the quiet stagecoach that this wasn’t the first time he had asked.
She was in her head again. Claire glanced at the curtain as her hands balled into fists. It was a bad habit, but even more so a dangerous one. Her chest tightened but she forced her heartbeat to slow.
“Past noon,” she offered, and was about to say that they were nearly to town. Instead, Claire hesitated. She was still a stranger. It was always difficult to decide how much to say, how much to share. Take a step in the wrong direction, and you could end up in the wrong place. A very, very wrong place.
Claire closed her mouth and smiled again. Her hands went back into her lap.
Tommy smiled right on back, never noticing a thing. “Oh, that’s good. That means we’re close, right? I think Mr. Wentworth—that’s the driver—said we would reach town right around supper.”
His blonde hair was soft, reminding her of a duckling’s feathers. It curled around his ears, flat on top from wearing a hat too often. There was baby fat in his cheeks, but the broad shoulders showed promise for his impending manhood. A growing boy headed to Willow Creek. He looked happy. Hopeful.
A scoff interrupted the silence. Claire and Tommy turned to the other young woman that was sitting beside her. There was only four of them in the stagecoach, which meant they didn’t have to bump elbows.
Another bump in the road and another bump on the shoulder. Claire shifted.
Miss Evangeline Trevor sat with her shoulders back, chin forward, and her lips pressed tightly together. Like Tommy, the young woman had blonde hair and blue eyes, only a shade or two darker. The grasp with which she held onto her travel satchel in her lap had to be vehemently strong for her knuckles were glowing white.
“Willow Creek,” she muttered now that there was attention on her. “It sounds like a sweet little valley with fresh water and fertile ground. It’s a ploy. Everything west of Charlottesville is hardly civilized. We all know that.”
Tommy shifted, his eyes drifting back to Claire before the other girl again. “Oh. Have you—have you been west?”
“Goodness, no.” Evangeline sniffed. “There’s too much roughness out there.” Her expression made her look as though she had just smelled something revolting. Trapped in a warm and dusty stagecoach, it made Claire grin a little. What was a young lady of society doing all the way out here? If she didn’t change her tune, she might have a hard time of the west.
“Too much roughness?” Claire repeated politely. “Whatever do you mean?”
When she had first stepped into the carriage and seen Claire, Evangeline had hesitated as though she wanted to turn around and run. Even though she dressed in some of her nicest clothes, apparently it wasn’t enough to receive respect. Claire wondered where she had gone wrong. Was there not enough lace on her dress?
Evangeline unstuck one hand from her satchel to wave it flippantly in the air. “Oh, you know. The dirt. The lack of manners. Gunslingers and outlaws. I’ve heard some folks live outside of houses whenever they travel, and they never have fresh tea. The stories I’ve heard are hardly tolerable. People out there live like—like savages.”
Just as Claire’s fingers were beginning to loosen up, they balled up tight all over again. That was an ugly word. But she forced her fingers to spread out, carefully flexing every single one. It’s not like she wanted them to get stiff.
The other girl didn’t appear to notice, still chattering away as though the more words she said would garner more respect. Her plump red lips moved about eagerly. “And Willow Creek at the end of the day is just a miner’s town. Have you ever been to one?” She paused for effect. “Miners everywhere. That means there is dirt everywhere.”
“You’ve really never been to Willow Creek before?” Claire couldn’t help her curiosity getting the better of her as she tried to sort out this strange young woman.
Evangeline hesitated. “No. But I’m going there now, and I already know what to expect. I’ve heard the stories. I’ve met people who came back to the city after losing their livestock to terrible people and monsters. Anything we hear about the west is just terrible news. The people are a terrible type of people, and there’s nothing clean or pleasant about the land.”
“It is fairly rough.”
Her petty and clearly uneducated rant came to an end as the fourth passenger finally spoke up. Everyone went quiet, remembering now there had been one more person. For the last couple of hours, he’d had a newspaper covering the front of his face. And now he carefully folded it back up. Silence reigned as he set it on his lap and gave them a look around.
While Claire couldn’t remember his name from earlier, she memorized his face and features. He was well dressed in a tailored gray suit and worn dark boots. His hair was streaked with gray around the ears, like wings, wrapping around his thick black hair. Light blue eyes. Thin whiskers. Large nose. And thick hands that were clearly calloused as though from a life of hard work.
“Especially Willow Creek these days,” the gentleman continued. His eyes drifted over to Claire’s for a minute to study her as well. “There’s been some good ore found there in the last couple of years, you see. The town has potential now. And that can mean one or two things. One, the town grows. And lately, that’s what’s been happening. Good folks coming in, staking land, making a living where they are.”
Tommy nodded along, his eyes bright. “That’s right! And that’s why I’m headed there. I’ve done a mite of mining since I was a tyke. Helping with the water and lights. But I’m ready now to do the hard work, and they said they needed every able-bodied man.”
The words sounded almost rehearsed, like he’d been telling them to himself for a while now. Claire couldn’t help but smile at him. He sounded so eager. There weren’t many miners who loved the work, after all, but he certainly had enthusiasm for it. He grinned around at them. “Willow Creek needs a lot of bodies. I hear they’ve been taking a few hundred dollars out every day. Sometimes even before noon.”
The gentleman nodded slowly as his hands stroked the newspaper in his lap. “That’s correct. Business has been booming. But that’s just the bright side of things, the natural course for a town’s beginning. Everything moves upward with happy folks and satisfied businesses. That’s natural enough to start out with.”
Tired of how he was playing with his words and with them, Claire interrupted. Good news was always nice to hear, but it was the bad news that people needed to watch out for. “Pardon me, sir, you said there was another thing that could be happening? The town grows, and then what else?”
His smile turned grim. “Or it doesn’t. Some towns die out on their own. Some towns are forced into an ugly death.”
Miss Evangeline scoffed. “You make them sound like they’re alive. Towns don’t die.”
“But, my dear, they do. They are born out of hope and hardship, grow through childhood into adulthood if they’re fortunate, and sometimes they die. Out west, life is harder. You can’t go to the shops to purchase what you need, and you can’t walk to your neighbor’s house in twenty steps.
“If the people suffer, the town suffers. The town is a living organism composed of the people within and near the outskirts. Take Willow Creek, for example.” The gentleman rolled his shoulders back to sit up straight. Claire studied him again. Was she supposed to know this man from somewhere? He spoke with a soft twang. And he liked having everyone’s attention on him, like he was used to it. Those types of people had always irritated her.
Like the other woman. Miss Evangeline skirted a glance between Tommy and Claire.
Claire shifted uneasily, suddenly hesitant about the direction of this conversation. There was tension building in their stagecoach and they still had another hour on the road. “What do you mean? What’s wrong with Willow Creek? My mother said it was a good time to join her.”
“It is,” Claire answered quickly, shooting the man a frown. “Of course it’s a good time. Willow Creek is supposed to be a lovely place.”
“Oh? You’ve been?” Evangeline looked at her through narrowed eyes. She didn’t like Claire, but Claire didn’t know why. A lot of people didn’t like her for their own reasons.
She hesitated. “No, not yet.”
“So, you don’t know about the murders, then,” the gentleman interceded, leaning forward before moving back again. All eyes returned to him, just like he had hoped. He was looking a little smugger than Claire liked. She bit her tongue as Evangeline clutched her heart. “Yes, sir, that’s right. It’s all right here.” He patted his newspapers.
Tommy shifted uncomfortably. “Why? What’s happening? Is it the mine?”
“Yes and no,” the gentleman replied, drawing out the moment. “There have been a few… incidents. Don’t worry, ladies; there hasn’t been a single attack on women in Willow Creek.”
Miss Evangeline Trevor’s gulp was heard round the stagecoach. “What sort of attacks?”
“Miners.” The gentleman looked purposefully at Tommy. “A few of them have been attacked lately. They think it’s the Sioux, seeing as they’ve got some close by territory. See here?”
He unfolded the newspaper a few times over before showing off a page. “Willow Creek is offering a thirteen-thousand-dollar reward to whomever can put a stop to the attacks. They’d run out of miners otherwise,” he added.
Tommy shifted uncomfortably. Clearly, no one had mentioned this to him before he moved himself out there to the middle of Wyoming. He rubbed his neck and then he rubbed his hands together. Then he wiped them on his pant legs. “Oh, I didn’t hear about that. That ain’t so good news. What… what do you think is going to happen?”
Since she didn’t like where the gentleman was going with the conversation, Claire decided to put a stop to it once and for all. No one was about to say anything helpful. From what she could tell, the man sitting across from her was only stating what he’d seen in the newspaper. He knew little of the story himself and he just wanted to look like the big man in the stagecoach.
She cleared her throat. “What’s going to happen is that these attacks are going to come to a stop. Tommy, you don’t need to worry. The attacks will be put to a stop soon enough; I’m certain of it. You’ll be just fine.” Claire gave the gentleman a look before turning her gaze back to the curtain.
“Oh. Okay, thanks, ma’am,” Tommy murmured. But Claire noticed his hands continued to sweat for the rest of the ride as he constantly wiped them on his pants, leaving damp stains behind.
No one else noticed. They didn’t care when they could stare at her. She could feel everyone eyeing her curiously.
Claire assumed they wanted to ask her who she was, since she had purposefully not handed over her name during their trip together. They would be wondering a lot of things, which was nothing different than what everyone else on her journeys asked her. They wanted to know if she was Mexican, Spanish, or had just sat in the sun for much too long. They wanted to ask her what she was doing there, since she brought so little with her and wore no wedding ring.
But the way she set her shoulders back and closed her lips tight had a way of inspiring people to leave her alone. It was a look she’d spent a lot of time on and it had worked well for her in the past. Besides, they didn’t need anyone to dive into hysterics. If she hadn’t halted the course of the conversation, the young lady of high society would be in tears and Tommy would be already planning a way out of town.
No, she told herself just as she had told them, everything was going to be fine. One way or another, everything was going to be just fine.
The clouds from that morning disappeared into the mountains. There would be no evening rainstorm as she had hoped. Instead, the windows were opened in Penny Simon’s boarding house, allowing the evening breeze to waft through. It had been a hot day, and they were grateful for any type of relief. A soft wind swept against Jack’s collar as he took another bite of the mashed potatoes. He hummed to himself between bites.
Penny Simon pushed her dark hair away from her face to offer him a kind smile when he looked up. No matter how tightly she bound her hair in a bun, something always escaped. It didn’t always bother her. Mostly just when she wanted to see something, and a clump of hair got in her way.
Like now. Jack was sitting at the far end of her table. He was too far away, but she couldn’t think of another way to get him closer. Besides, she wasn’t even at the table. There was bread pudding in her pot, and she couldn’t leave it unattended at the fire. Her chair was so far away from Jack as he stared at his plate.
“Jack?” Penny Simon asked in the silence when he stopped humming to take another bite. Her voice wavered only slightly before she forced herself to carry on. She had already caught his attention as he glanced up from his plate. “How is your supper tonight? Are you well?”
He didn’t look well. Sure, he smiled, but something was off about him. It made her stomach tight. His dark blond hair was all messed about and in need of a good haircut. The man looked tired. There was a big wrinkle in his brow and that worried her. She bit her lip. Had her potatoes burned? They hadn’t looked terrible, but she hadn’t had that much time to fix any potential mistakes with her supper. She just had so much to do. She swallowed, and hoped that if he was sick, it wasn’t her fault.
“I’m fine,” he said with a grin. Then he winked at her. “I’m fine, Penny Simon. I just don’t think I’m that hungry tonight. That’s all.”
Her eyes glanced down at the pot as she hoped to liven up the evening. Jack wasn’t known for being quiet, and she worried this was her fault. She had a few other boarders at the moment but had asked them to eat later so she could spend some time with him. “Well, I’m sure my bread pudding will change that. It’s your favorite, isn’t it? I’m making it just for you.”
“Oh?” He rocked back on his chair, hands dancing across the table. “You didn’t have to do that for me! You’re just a doll, Penny Simon.”
Her cheeks flushed as she gave him another smile in return. She paused from stirring to give him a shrug. “It’s the least I can do. You put in so much hard work to protect the town, after all. Just yesterday, I was talking with Mary Wallace and she said you’d been going all over town and the mines and didn’t sleep for two days straight. That’s a lot, Sheriff.”
Waving a hand in the air, Jack shrugged. “None of that nonsense. You know you can just call me Jack. Besides, Mrs. Wallace just likes to talk. You know that. Did you know she once told me that Boston was never going to be good enough for me? She’s a doll. Too bad her husband is a drunk. Anyways, it was only one night, and I’ll make up for it eventually. Oh, I can smell the bread pudding now. Does that mean it’s almost ready?”
Penny Simon grinned. “You sure know it.” She glanced in her pot again. “We just need three more minutes, and then it’s ready for you.”
“Then I’ll get ready for it as well,” the sheriff offered with a chuckle. She heard the scrape of his fork and knife against the plate as he went back to eating. There was always a lot for him to do, after all, and enjoying his meals wasn’t usually one of them. Somehow, there was always an interruption.
As though bidden, her back door clattered open noisily after a single loud rap. Penny Simon stood hastily and stared as Boss Davis stomped his way in through the back hall to find them in the kitchen. Jack stood as well, a hand wrapped around his knife and the other clutching the holster he had wrapped around his chair. He was always ready when he had to be, and she liked how she always felt safe around him.
“Jack!” Boss thundered more loudly than he needed to in the mostly empty room. He was a large man who took up more than enough space. She frowned at his arrival. The old man never could leave them alone. “We need you out there. What are you doing all cooped up inside this house?”
Penny Simon wiped her hands on her apron. She shook her head in disbelief. “Boss, I asked you to stop walking in like that.” They weren’t close family by any means, but they were family nonetheless. Surely, he could respect her enough to wait for someone to open the door for him.
“I knocked.” He glanced back to Jack. “We need to talk. Penny, please step out of the room. This isn’t the place for a lady.”
Her hands balled into fists at his flagrant disregard for her. “It’s my place, Boss.” After everything they had been through together, after all that she had done for everyone, this was how she was still treated. It was her home, wasn’t it? Pursing her lips together, she wanted to object but saw Jack turn to her and nod.
Penny Simon swallowed down her pride and glanced at the bread pudding in her pot. That couldn’t be left there to burn. Not when she had worked so hard on it. She pulled out the pot and set it on the table carefully before stepping out of the room without another word to either of them.
Wiping her hands on her apron, she tried to listen at the door, but it was a solid door that only allowed her to hear muffled sounds as the two men talked. Penny Simon leaned against the door and she thought through her frustration.
Sighing, she wrung the ends of her apron as her thoughts trailed off. How had this come to be the only family she had left? A man who stomped around wherever he liked, and a handsome sheriff? They were hardly related, really. Not enough to count for anything. Her thoughts wandered. They always did these days. Being stuck in a small mining town like Willow Creek left her with little else to do.
“It’s not like I’ve always lived here,” she mumbled to herself.
Absent-mindedly she played with her bun and thought back to the days when she used to spend her mornings taking care of her hair. She would pin it up, curl it, brush it out. She’d had the time for things like that once.
Not that her family had been rich. But they’d lived just fine in Boston, fine enough that she had spent most days around the house, sewing and stitching, learning how to take care of a house. At least that was a skill that had served her well.
She had to do that now that she was alone. Her eyes dropped to the floor as she felt her heart do the same. Her husband had passed away only a short while ago. Two years and three months. A lump formed in her throat as she tried not to think about it.
But how could she not?
When they had received the invitation to move out west and join her third cousin’s uncle, Boss Davis, in Wyoming, Penny Simon had been ready to write him back and tell him they weren’t interested. Maybe not even reply at all. But her husband had liked the sound of an adventure out west, and his business wasn’t faring so well lately.
It took a few months of convincing, but she was still head over heels for the man and eventually consented. Perhaps the west would treat them better. He moved the two of them out and built her a grand house just as he promised. But then the man took to drinking. And then he drank so much he wound up in a fight and never came home.
Turning to the door, she fiddled with a splinter. It was a good home. Sturdy, large, with five extra rooms that worked as a boarding house now. Penny Simon knew she didn’t have many other skills. At least not anything that she could make money from, so this had become her lot in life.
She was stuck here whether she liked it or not.
Her heart perked when Jack’s voice rose loud enough to be heard through the wall. At least he was around. And he didn’t disappear into the mines every day like so many other men. Those miners. She wrinkled her nose. No, Jack had made a dignified life for himself. He was the sheriff, a good man.
Sighing, Penny Simon grudgingly stepped away and started to pace in the hallway outside her kitchen. She wanted to respect the man. He’d done so much for her, including trying to protect her husband in the brawl. He had made sure the man was seen to for his injuries, and had been the one to tell her the terrible news. Every step of the way, he had done his best to help her through the worst time of her life.
Dropping her gaze as she remembered the food she had prepared just for him, she hoped it wouldn’t get cold. Was he eating it now? Or had Boss taken it? That thought made her frown. She hadn’t made it for him, after all. She glanced back down the hall. How long could they be talking?
Murder was a nasty business. They should all just forget about it. She shivered and closed her eyes against the image of a dead man.
Jack deserved better than that. Though they hadn’t put much in words together, it was clear to anyone that Jack didn’t like the mines. No reasonable soul would. But she could see that even now his role as sheriff weighed on him. What could it be? The hard work, the long hours, all of it or none of it? If he would just eat enough, she felt certain he’d have the strength to carry on.
She hoped he was eating. Penny Simon had made his favorite and wanted him to enjoy something. Trying to think of what else she would do to make sure he got a bite of the bread pudding, she didn’t hear Benny Pearson come down the stairs near her. “Mrs. Simon?” “Oh!” She gasped loudly, putting a hand over her heart.
Whirling around, she caught sight of her tenant. Benny Pearson was a young man, practically a boy, who had come west with his sister and brother-in-law to work in the mines. But the sister, Tracy Dubois, had given birth to twins a few months ago, and Benny had sought a room from Penny Simon to get some good sleep.
Shaking her head, she tried to calm her heartbeat down. Her arms wrapped around her waist for comfort. “Oh, I didn’t hear you. I’m sorry, Mr. Pearson. How can I help you? Is there anything you need?”
He shrugged. “I just wanted to see if there was supper available tonight. Otherwise, I can always go to the restaurant in town.”
Penny Simon cleared her throat and skirted her gaze back to the kitchen door. Boss and Jack didn’t appear to be finishing up just yet, so she shook her head. Besides, she hadn’t cooked enough for more than herself and Jack. “I’m afraid not. Not tonight. The restaurant would be your best shot.
“Go out the back, would you? The kitchen is busy,” she added when he took a step forward. Gesturing to the back, she smiled at him until he was gone.
Then she sighed. Those boys were everywhere. They left dust and grime everywhere they went. And then there was that terrible mining smell: the smell of soot, an outhouse, and a burned pot all bound together. It made her nauseated, so Penny Simon moved away from where Benny had passed and back toward the kitchen door.
Washing her hands with her apron, she tried to put the young man out of her head. After all, he was gone again. She might leave the back door open that night so she wouldn’t have to wait up for him or smell him again. Or perhaps he’d come back early, and she wouldn’t even notice. She wouldn’t mind that.
Just so long as Jack hadn’t left yet. She needed him to try the pie. Just to make sure it was as good as she always made it. Penny Simon bit her lip and turned her ear to the door again. They would finish their conversation eventually. And she would be there when they did.
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