He is an undercover sheriff determined to solve a mystery and stay away from her. Their love is the forbidden fruit, but how can they keep their hearts from falling?
“The truth she’d been denying herself became as clear as a cloudless summer’s day. She was in love with James Miller.”
Minnie grew up as an only child and her father’s soft spot. Their ranch is one of the wealthiest in the area, and when robberies start occurring in town, her father hires a ranch hand recommended by the sheriff to find the robbers. But Minnie doesn’t know that the handsome newcomer is actually an undercover sheriff. How can she trust her sensitive heart when everything she believes is a lie?
James is the deputy of a nearby town. He introduces himself as a newcomer ranch hand to solve the mystery of the leaking information and the missing cows. The rules are simple; nobody must know his real identity, and he must stay away from his boss’s daughter. But when he lays his eyes on the beautiful and determined Minnie, he is not sure he can follow the latter. How can he make this woman trust him when he can’t even reveal his true self?
Minnie and James need to stay away from each other, but their attraction is undeniable. How can they make things work when the danger is closer than they thought?
Virginia City, Montana
Minnie’s bedroom was bathed in a soft white glow, the moon—nearly full, but not quite—looming just outside her window. She was comfortably warm beneath the weight of her favorite quilt. She didn’t remember her maternal grandmother, but she’d heard the story a million times, about how, in her dying days, the old woman forced her trembling, frail hands to work a needle and thread to sew together fabric squares, determined to leave her first grandchild with a keepsake. She’d lived long enough to help her daughter through the trials of labor, and to help swaddle Minnie in the quilt made specially for her.
Her grandmother passed peacefully in her bed a day later, and at eight years old, Minnie still treasured that quilt, stubbornly refusing to admit that her most recent growth spurt was making it difficult for her to keep her toes covered throughout the night. Cold toes were a worthy sacrifice in exchange for the safety of her grandmother’s love she felt when she lay beneath the quilt.
Which was why, when Minnie awoke suddenly, her heart thudding in her chest, her first instinct was to wrap the quilt around herself tighter. She didn’t even know why her pulse was racing, but she clung to the old quilt just the same.
Fighting a groggy haze, Minnie became more aware of her surroundings, and began searching her mind for some indication of what might have frightened her awake. She needn’t search long, however, because a moment later she heard the shattering of glass, followed by muffled shouts, and dread filled her belly.
Minnie was used to noise at night—cicadas trilling in the trees, the creaks and moans of the house settling, an occasional whinny from a horse making conversation out in the barns—but the sounds of nocturnal life were like a lullaby, soothing and sweet. These noises, however? These noises of violence and brashness had no comfort in them, and Minnie was frightened. In her gut, she knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that something was terribly, terribly wrong.
The shouts grew louder, and although she couldn’t make out the words, she could feel the anger in them rising. The voices weren’t familiar, but she could tell that they were coming from men. What were strange men doing in her home at this time of night, and why on earth were they so angry?
Then she heard a voice she did recognize, and her blood ran cold.
This one was a woman, and not just any woman. It was her mother, sounding like she was in distress. Again, there were no words to discern, but the desperation in her tone was all Minnie needed to know that these men were not just angry—they were dangerous. There was no other reason for her mother to sound like that. Where was her father? Why wasn’t he there protecting his wife? What if, Minnie wondered in horror, these men had done something to him, and he couldn’t help her?
Well, if her father couldn’t help her mother, that left only one other person in the house who could. Minnie might have been young, but she had top marks in school, and her father’s newest ranch hand had told her just yesterday that he was impressed with how much hay she could carry at once. If I’m smart and strong, then there’s no reason I can’t be the one to help, Minnie thought to herself, and ignored the nervous voice in the back of her head that was asking if she was really so sure about that.
Cloaking her slim body with the quilt like a robe, Minnie slid out of bed, her bare feet making contact with the cool wooden floor. Walking on tiptoes and stepping over the rag dolly she’d yet again forgotten to put away—leaving a vacant space on her built-in shelves between the book of fairy tales her mother read to her from every night, and the small satchel that held the pretty marbles her cousin George had let her have from his collection—she made her way toward the door.
She took hold of the brass handle, turned it, and opened the door slowly, trying to stem the creaking from the rusty hinges that were in need of a good polishing. She crept into the narrow hallway, thankful for the wool rug that muffled the sound of her footsteps. As she inched toward the sitting room, she saw the silhouettes of three, maybe four people being casted on the wall by the light of the candles kept on the mantelpiece.
Minnie could hear the words of the strange men now, pressing her back flat against the hallway wall when she heard one of them bark out, “You’re a liar!”
“I’m not, I swear! We don’t keep our valuables here! Everything we own that’s worth somethin’ is down in a safe box at the post office. Please, let us be!”
Minnie shivered involuntarily, because there it was again—the sound of her panicked mother. She’d never heard her mother so terrified, not even the time she’d thought Minnie had cracked her head open falling off her horse. Without thinking, Minnie rushed forward into the sitting room, coming to a halt at the entrance, startled by what she found.
Before her were three giant, broad-shouldered men, and the meanest-looking one of them all had a shiny silver pistol pointed right at her mother, his index finger a lethal threat where it rested upon the trigger. At the horrible sight of her mother in imminent danger, Minnie’s heart leaped up into her throat and she could hardly breathe.
Fear overtaking any logical thought, Minnie forgot to be quiet and gasped aloud. Instantly, four sets of eyes were trained on her. For a moment, she expected her father to burst in and save them—telling these men they had no business laying eyes on his daughter—but the brass handle to the front door stayed ominously still, and it was up to her and her mother to fend for themselves. She held onto her quilt so tightly her knuckles ached.
“Who’s this pretty li’l thing?” the man with the pistol asked. He wasn’t the tallest or the most muscular of the three men, but he was clearly the leader. He was grimy, with dust on his cheeks and greasy brown hair sticking out beneath his cowboy hat, but he held himself with confidence. A sick grin spread across his face, revealing a missing front tooth among the remaining yellow ones, and the two men of his entourage—both bulky, looming men who reminded Minnie of angry bulls—grinned with him.
Minnie’s mother let out a choked sob.
“Minnie, no, go back to bed!” she begged, her tone desperate. Her mother, who always seemed so self-assured and put-together, looked so weak and defenseless, staring down the barrel of a gun in her silky white nightgown and stocking feet, her sandy hair let loose from the elegant knot she kept it in during the day. And Minnie’s presence only seemed to make her weaker, and the man with the pistol could sense it. His rotten smile grew wider as he moved the aim of his pistol from Minnie’s mother to Minnie herself, and just as easy as that, Minnie was the one who needed saving. How wrong she’d been, thinking that she was smart and strong enough to protect her mother.
Minnie was suddenly very aware of being only eight years old.
“You’ve got ’til the count of three to give me my loot,” he said.
“I don’t have it!” Minnie’s mother insisted, but even Minnie knew that these men weren’t here to listen to reason.
“Please, no! She’s just a child! Don’t hurt my baby, please!” Minnie’s mother tone had transcended desperation into something so anguished that it pierced Minnie’s chest, and for a moment she wondered if she’d actually been shot.
Absently, Minnie thought that perhaps she should move; run back down the hallway and slam her door shut. Except her body wouldn’t listen. It was as frozen as the soil in the thick of winter, and she was rooted in place.
The word “three” was leaving the man’s tongue, and Minnie’s eyes grew wide. Was she about to die? She hardly knew the meaning of death, and here she was facing it. That didn’t seem fair at all.
But then her mother moved, swift like a fox, and before the man finished his countdown, she was standing in front of Minnie like a shield, her arms held out at her sides to block as much of Minnie’s tiny body as she could with her similarly petite one.
The number three was spoken into the air.
The bang of a gunshot assaulted Minnie’s ears.
The thud that followed was the sound that hurt the most.
Virginia City, Montana
Minnie jolted awake, her long, slender fingers clutching the quilt that lay bunched up beside her, too short to cover her eighteen-year-old body, but never leaving her bed all the same.
Letting out a frustrated sigh, Minnie tried to still her racing heart, the image of her mother’s lifeless body fading but still present in her mind’s eye. It was always like this at the start of summer. Most of the year she was able to carry on with her feelings in check, but it was as if her emotions paralleled the seasons, and as the days grew hotter, the memory of that night in the sitting room grew closer to the surface without her consent.
Stubborn as a mule, Minnie never let the emotions overtake her in the daylight, but in her sleep she was powerless to fight them. Like the hummingbirds that nested in the trees outside her home, Minnie’s nightmares had returned from their winter migration, and there was nothing she could do but wait for them to fly away again.
But Minnie did not dwell. She was the rancher’s daughter, after all. Girls her age were all soft edges and gentle temperaments, but Minnie had calluses on her hands from hauling hay. She had permanent chafe marks on the backs of her ankles from her work boots, and blisters on the soles of her feet.
If she put two fingers in her mouth she could whistle loud enough to call the herding dogs to her from a quarter-mile away, and she could make her voice carry loud and stern when she needed to reprimand the ranch hands when they tied the horses’ lead ropes too loose or left the gate to the sheep pen unlatched. She was no delicate flower, and she’d be damned if she was going to let the occasional nightmare bring her to her knees.
So, shaking away what remained of the unsettling dream with an actual, physical shake of the head, Minnie let go of the iron grip she had on her grandmother’s quilt, and that was that. No dwelling. It was half past four, and Minnie needed to start her day.
In her closet hung a handful of lovely dresses. She brushed her fingers along each item, coming to rest on a powder blue dress. She pinched the light fabric between her fingers and rubbed gently, feeling the texture. Her father always said her powder blue dress made her look just like her mother when she wore it, which was almost never.
Her father didn’t mention her mother much. Neither of them did. Minnie didn’t like to dwell, and her father? Well, her father carried a guilt so deep that the mere mention of his late wife could threaten to drown him in it.
In the early days he became very fond of whiskey and could hardly look Minnie in the eye out of shame. Time went on and he pulled himself together, but Minnie would never forget how, when the brown liquid in the bottle was dangerously low, her father would start saying, “I could have made it home. It wasn’t that dark, and if only I’d been there…”
That’s how she knew that he blamed himself. He’d gone to the neighboring ranch without incident a thousand times—to talk trade and business, or just to talk—but the night he decided to accept the offer of a cot in lieu of riding his horse back in the dark just happened to be the night robbers ambushed his home, and he never forgave himself for it. Meanwhile, it never occurred to Minnie to be angry with him. Maybe if he’d been there he could have saved her mother, but what if instead he had taken a bullet, too? Then Minnie would have been an orphan, with nothing and no one.
No, Minnie’s rage was at the bandits, not her father. She just wished his was, too.
Pushing the dresses to the side, Minnie found herself a simple cotton button-down, and a pair of well-worn trousers with hemmed cuffs to fit a woman’s legs. Cattle didn’t care about beauty. Crops didn’t care about femininity. The ranch didn’t run on vanity, it ran on hard work and skill, and with the exception of her father, there was nothing Minnie loved more than the ranch. Anyone who knew her at all didn’t bother with double-takes or offense when they saw her walking around in muddy cowboy boots and trousers.
Hardly glancing at her reflection in the mirror, Minnie combed through her long, brown hair. It was thick and silky, falling all the way down to her waist. More than once she’d considered cutting it short just to be rid of the nuisance, but she knew it’d hurt her father’s feelings.
Henry Harding loved his daughter despite all her idiosyncrasies, but although he’d not said so in years, she knew that deep down he wished she would act more like a lady. Minnie rarely wore dresses, never rode her horses side-saddle, and she was a spitfire, unafraid to stand up for herself even if it meant she said a few unladylike things. The least she could do for her poor father was keep her hair long, the way a woman should.
That didn’t mean she let it get in the way of her work, though. She compromised by always keeping it out of her face. She’d been doing it so long that she didn’t even need the mirror anymore to thread her hair into a perfect French braid that rested down the length of her back. She tied it off with a short ribbon and then shook her head slightly to test that it was secure—she was helping shoe the new, skittish paint horse they’d brought in, and the last thing she needed was to have hair fall into her eyes while holding the leg of a thousand-pound animal.
Once she was dressed, she went to the kitchen and lit kindling inside the wood stove, nursing it until true flames bloomed and crackled. Leaving it to heat, Minnie went to the front door, where she stuffed her feet into her boots, snatched up the wicker basket she’d set there the night before, and made her way outside toward the chicken coops.
It was a nice morning, the air crisp but comfortably so, and Minnie hoped the temperature would stay mild like it had been for the past few weeks. It wouldn’t be long before she and the farm hands would have to start suffering through the suffocating summer heat, which only served to make Minnie appreciate the tolerable days even more.
To the east, hues of pink and yellow were beginning to appear in the sky, highlighting the mountains in the distance. At this time of day, with the sun just starting to rise, the horizon looked like an oil painting, and no matter how many times Minnie saw it, she was never less awed. How unfortunate it was, she’d think often, that there were people in the world who had never been to Montana. She couldn’t imagine living in a different state. She couldn’t imagine living in a different town. Virginia City was home.
The chickens were restless that morning. They clucked and fluttered about at Minnie’s feet as she searched the nests for eggs.
“You got anything for me today, Marigold?” Minnie asked softly when she approached a fat chicken, with feathers a unique shade of brownish-gold, sitting prim and proper on a pile of hay. Minnie held out a finger, and Marigold nipped at it affectionately, shutting her eyes in contentment as Minnie gently pet her beak.
Minnie had raised Marigold as a chick. When Marigold had reached seven months without laying a single egg, Henry had told her daughter that it was likely Marigold would end up on the kitchen table, and had scolded her for getting attached, although Minnie knew her father was only cross because he felt bad about potentially breaking his daughter’s heart.
That night, Minnie had a frank conversation with Marigold, where she’d informed her that on this ranch, everyone needed to pull their weight, and it was time she did her part. She’d pet Marigold’s beak, and when she said her prayers before bed, Marigold featured heavily.
The following morning, Marigold had laid one beautiful, oval egg, and five years later she was the Harding’s highest producing chicken to date.
That morning was no exception. Minnie collected Marigold’s egg—the largest one of the lot—and as a thanks, Minnie fed her a fresh basil leaf she had in her back pocket.
“Don’t tell the others,” she told Marigold in a stage whisper, and left her chicken there to munch on her reward.
Back inside the house, Minnie pulled together a simple breakfast for herself and her father. In a seasoned cast iron skillet, she scooped a generous dollop of lard in the center. Once it was melted, she laid several slices of salted pork in the pan, and while it sizzled, she cracked the fresh eggs—including Marigold’s—in the remaining space. She heated the bacon, scrambled the eggs, and gathered two leftover corn muffins wrapped in a cloth.
Minnie did not fancy herself a particularly skilled cook, but she could get by. If she put the time into it, she was certain she could learn to make a meal worthy enough to serve the soldiers in the Union army, but that was the thing—she didn’t put the time into it. When she was younger, her school teacher once told all the girls in the class that the most important thing they needed to learn was how to prepare the perfect roast. Minnie had never made a perfect roast, but she had made an adequate one, plus she could lasso a bull better than any boy in town, and that, frankly, seemed like a more useful skill.
She was sure her father missed her mother’s cooking. Even during the winter of ’52, when their storage ran low and an ice storm prevented them from going into town for two whole weeks, her mother could still manage to make delicious meals with only a handful of ingredients.
Some days, Minnie felt guilty that she wasn’t a better substitute—that she didn’t know what her mother’s secret ingredient had been to make her fry bread so perfect, or how she’d managed to keep her pie crusts from crumbling—but thoughts like those quickly became rabbit holes, and Minnie did not intend to dwell, so she never let herself feel bad for long.
“Pa, breakfast is ready!” Minnie called out the kitchen window to her father, who was out in the yard sharpening knives on a whetstone in the early dawn light.
After a while, Henry joined Minnie at the kitchen table. When they held hands to say grace, Henry’s felt almost like sandpaper with his work-worn skin rough and cracked. His coveralls needed mending, and his annual summer tan was starting to reappear, uneven as always, making his bare arms look a bit like a hog on a spit that hadn’t been turned evenly.
And he looked tired. He always looked tired. As much work as Minnie did, her father did more, and the feel of his hands during every mealtime prayer served as a reminder that her father put his everything into making sure the ranch was up and running, and that Minnie was cared for. With no mother to guide her, Minnie was her father’s through-and-through, and she hoped he could always be proud of her, without her having to become something she wasn’t.
“What’s on the agenda this afternoon?” Henry asked through a mouthful of bacon.
“Jeff and I are gonna go about tackling that new paint horse. Its feet are a wreck, it’ll probably take an age to get him shoed.” Minnie kept her opinions of Jeff to herself. She didn’t like to speak badly of the ranch hands. At least not where her father could hear.
“Hm,” Henry hummed, a slight crease in his brow. “You be careful. That horse nearly kicked Mike right in the rear end. Listen to Jeff, no talking back, you hear?”
Minnie rolled her eyes and said, “Pa. I’ve been helping with the horses since I was able to stand on my own two legs. There’s nothin’ Jeff is gonna tell me that I don’t already know.”
“All right, all right.” Henry held his hands up in mock surrender. “Do what you want. I’m just tryna keep you from having hoofprints on your rump, but I mean, if that’s the style nowadays…”
“Oh shush, you,” Minnie said, smiling in spite of herself. She stood, collecting the now empty plates off the table, and gave her father a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll be careful. I always am.”
“I know you are. Doesn’t mean I won’t worry, though. I’m your father, it’s what I’m supposed to do.”
True as that might have been, Minnie couldn’t help but feel like her father worried too much about her, and that one day all that worry was going to come to a head.
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