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Authors: Janet Tronstad

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BOOK: A Bride for Dry Creek
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Flint tried to move his arms so that he could turn around and hold Francis. He was terrified. The freezing cold was a worse enemy than any he had faced. At least, with a kidnapper or a terrorist, you had the chance of talking them out of their plans. But the cold? What did the weather care for either threats or emotions?

Finally, Flint moved so that his hands could grip Francis's. The plane was growing smaller in the mid-morning sky. It had started east and then slowly turned to head west. The old man must have changed his mind and settled on Billings, after all.

Flint murmured again, “It'll be okay.”

Francis hiccuped and then quieted. Her throat was beginning to hurt from the gulps of cold air that she had breathed. Every exposed inch of skin on her body was tingling. She felt like she was being pricked with a thousand daggers. She forced herself to focus. She was facing her death, and only a few things were still important.

“I should say I'm sorry,” Francis said calmly. The only warm place on her body was her hand, and that was because Flint held it in his. “I should have
waited for you twenty years ago instead of thinking you had deserted me. I should have trusted you.”

“I should have trusted you, too,” Flint said as he strained against the ropes tying them together so he could move his back closer to hers. Finally, their bare shoulder blades met. Francis leaned into him, and he could feel the elastic ridge of her bra strap. Their skins gradually warmed.

Flint continued to strain at the ropes. The old man had watched Jenny carefully as she knotted the ropes, but Flint believed she would have left them room to escape if there was any way she could.

“I wish we'd gotten to church this morning,” Francis continued pensively. “I was thinking of going back, you know—not that I guess I was ever there much as an adult. But still, there's a sense of going back. Looking for the hope I'd lost.”

“I know what you mean.”

“It would be a comfort to know how to pray to God.”

“My grandmother always said you just open your mouth and talk to Him.”

“Still, it would have been nice to pray in a church,” Francis continued, her voice drifting. “Do you suppose they'll come looking for us when we don't show up this morning?”

“Sure,” Flint lied. He'd already thought of that. He and Francis had left early. No one would miss them for a half hour. By then the service would just
be starting, and they would think that Francis was taking longer to get dressed or that they had gotten stuck in a snowdrift or changed their minds altogether. It would be a good hour before they would even start to worry.

Flint knew it would be several hours more before anyone would find them. And that would be too long for people left in a snowbank in ten-below-zero weather without even a shirt between them.

“But if they don't come right away we could make some kind of shelter from those boxes,” Flint said brightly. He had no idea if a box house would keep them alive long enough. What he did know is that Francis needed hope. He needed it himself.

“And there might be something to start a fire with in those boxes,” Francis agreed willingly. “Some cooking utensil or something. Chefs are always flambéing something or another.”

Flint felt the ropes at his wrist start to give.

“Twist your hand away from me,” Flint instructed. “I think I've got it.”

One of Flint's hands scraped through the knot. He pulled his hand up and flexed his fingers. The cold was stiffening them more quickly than he had thought. He needed to act fast.

“If we had a fire, we might be able to find something to burn that would make enough black smoke to make someone curious,” Flint said as he twisted his other hand to free it as well.

Finally, both of Flint's hands were free.

He turned and saw Francis's back. Her shoulders were hunched, and the thin line of her spine stood out whiter than the rest of her skin. She had curled her hair for church, and the curls still bounced. Her hands were still behind her back, and with the extra room in the knots since Flint had removed his hands, she was twisting her hands to free them.

The threat of death does strange things to a man, Flint reflected. It certainly made him dare things he wouldn't otherwise.

“Come.” Flint turned Francis and drew her to him.

Francis knew that their only victory might be untying their hands. She knew they might not have a way to burn the boxes for heat and that they might freeze to death after all. But she would still be glad that they had freed their hands and could hug one another.

Flint's chest had changed since they used to embrace. He'd been a lanky young man, and his chest used to be wiry. Now his chest was solid. Muscles rippled as his arms tightened around her.

Flint almost couldn't breathe, and he wasn't so sure it was because of the biting cold in his lungs. He had Francis in his arms once again. He wanted to let his words of love spill out and cover them, but he didn't.

“I'll get us out of here,” he said gruffly as he
pulled away from her. “If it's the last thing I do, I'll get us out of here.”

Francis nodded. She was too cold to think.

Dear Lord,
she thought,
we might actually die out here.
This time the thought did not terrify her.

“But if not, you'll hold me some more, won't you?” Francis asked quietly. “I mean, if it turns out that there's no hope? I don't want to die alone.”

“You're not going to die,” Flint promised fiercely as he forced himself to stand. The cold was beginning to slow him, too. “I'm going to look through those boxes that just came in. Then I'm going to see if the cigarette lighter in the Jeep works.”

Flint stood and eyed the boxes. It was so cold the snow wasn't melting, and the boxes were not damp at all. He slowly counted ten large boxes. Quite a parachute drop. Nine of them had the red stamped logo of a supermarket on them. Howard's Gourmet Foods.

Flint was walking toward the first of those boxes when he noticed the tenth box in more detail. It was a rectangular box with the imprint of some clothing store on it.

“Bingo!” Flint shouted, and turned to Francis.

She was huddled in the snow where they'd been tied. Her skin was too white, and her eyes were half-closed. That was a bad sign.

“You need to move around,” Flint urged her as
he quickly walked to her and held out his hand. “Come over here and let's open the boxes.”

“I'm not sure I can,” Francis said. But she took Flint's outstretched hand, and he slowly pulled her to her feet. Her body almost creaked as she moved.

“There's a clothing box.” Flint led Francis over to where the boxes had been dumped. “Robert must have had them drop off some winter clothing along with the food.”

“Maybe a—wool jacket—or thermal long johns,” Francis whispered as Flint tore through the tape on the box. Her teeth were chattering in slow motion, and she needed to pause between words. “I do—hope—it's long johns.”

“Well, it's—” Flint held up the first piece of clothing he pulled out and announced in disappointment “—a tuxedo.”

The black jacket was made of silk. Even packed away as it had been, it was obviously expensive. Expensive and light enough for a summer evening.

Francis hugged herself and rubbed her arms slowly. She couldn't even feel her fingers.

“They must have come late,” Francis said hoarsely. “The dance is already over.”

Flint noticed that a small receipt was tucked into the box under the tuxedo jacket. He pulled it out. “I don't think it was meant for the dance—these are addressed to Laurel Blackstone.”

“The woman who came in—the one who knew Robert Buckwalter?”

Flint nodded as he pulled out a pair of man's slacks. The black slacks had a shiny dark gray stripe down the leg. At least the slacks looked like they'd keep some of the cold away.

“My guess is she knew him rather well,” Flint said as he pulled out the final garment in the box—a frothy wedding gown.

“My word,” Francis breathed and then realized the implications of the dress. “Poor Jenny.”

Francis had seen that the young chef was smitten with Robert Buckwalter. But it looked like Laurel Blackstone had expectations of her own.

The gown was beautiful. Francis reached out to touch the beaded flounces in the full skirt. Even in the bitter cold, she had to appreciate that gown. The bodice was made of soft ivory satin. A square-cut neckline was lined with satin trim and embedded pearls. Yards of sheer net fell from the waist and formed a train. “I've never seen anything so exquisite.”

“Well, it's yours,” Flint said as he handed the dress to her.

“But, I can't—”

“I suppose we could reverse them—but I don't think the dress would do nearly as much for me as it would for you,” Flint joked.

“But it's Laurel's wedding dress,” Francis pro
tested. She might be in an extreme situation, but good manners should still mean something. “I can't just put on someone's dress and then—lie down and die in it.”

Flint's heart gladdened at the pink consternation on Francis's face. She always was one to be concerned about the proper time and place of things. It was good to have her back. He'd been worried when she seemed so listless.

“Well, I guess that means I have to get into it then,” Flint teased as he lifted the cloud of net over his head.

“Oh, don't be silly,” Francis protested like he'd known she would. “Give me that thing.”


Flint couldn't restrain himself. He lifted the cloud of white net high and then, stepping forward, settled it over both Francis and himself. Inside the tangle, his lips found hers.

Francis felt Flint's warm breath seconds before she felt his lips on hers. She didn't bother to hide the purr that vibrated deep within her. A kiss, she decided, was a very nice thing.


Flint was adjusting his violet silk cummerbund and muttering about the fact that only a woman would buy a fancy cummerbund and no shirt when he heard a sound that made him turn and scan the horizon.

“Well, hallelujah! Look at that!”

Francis turned to look in the direction Flint was pointing. The dress was strangely warm for being so frothy. “What is that?”

Flint didn't need to see more of the distant figure to know in his gut that it was who he thought it was. “Honey!”

The horse neighed in response to Flint's call and started to trot toward them.

“Well, well,” Flint said to himself. He was right about that horse. She made a fine partner.

“She came to get us?” Francis asked in gratitude.

“Close enough.” Flint grinned as Honey did as he suspected she might and stopped at the back of his pickup to sniff the bag of apples he'd tossed there earlier. “Close enough.”

Flint was careful to give Honey only half of the apples before handing the red mesh bag, half empty, to Francis. “Hold these.”

Flint put his foot in the stirrup and swung himself into the saddle before reaching down and helping Francis climb up behind him.

Honey fidgeted for a moment, uncertain about the two adults on her back.

“Easy, girl.” Flint soothed the horse as he smiled. The fidgeting made Francis lean in closer to him and clutch him fearfully around the middle.

Now this is how a hero is supposed to feel,
said to himself in satisfaction as he recalled the last time he and Francis had been riding Honey.

“Let's go to town,” Flint said softly to the horse. “We've got a bride to warm up.”

Chapter Twelve

eading down the country road into Dry Creek, Flint held Honey to a fast walk, at least most of the time. Now that he and Francis had some clothes on their backs, their heat loss was much less. He didn't want to risk Honey overexerting and becoming so cold she couldn't go on.

“What time is it?” Francis asked behind Flint's back. She'd recently lain her cheek against his tuxedo jacket for warmth, and he liked her nestling against his shoulder blades.

Flint lifted the back of his jacket so that Francis's arms would be covered as she clutched him. It left a draft on the middle of his back where the cummerbund ended, but it kept her arms warm, and she snuggled even closer to him.

“Ten to eleven,” Flint said after looking down at
his sports watch. Mr. Gossett had apparently considered watches in the same necessary category as underwear and hadn't demanded that Flint take it off.

“Everyone will be at the church,” Francis mumbled.

“That's what we want,” Flint said. “We'll be able to mobilize everyone right away. The sheriff should be there still, and he can get in touch with the Billings police and any security they have at the airport.”

“Do you think Jenny and Robert are all right?”

“Robert knows what he's doing.” Flint comforted her as well as himself. “He won't take any unnecessary chances.”

Flint didn't add that he was more worried about Jenny. He searched the skyline as though he might see the small plane. The young woman was high-spirited. High-spirited people tended to make themselves targets in hostage situations.

The morning seemed to warm a few degrees as the sun rose higher in the sky. It still wasn't warm enough to disturb the snow, however, and soft banks lined both sides of the country road they were riding down.

Honey seemed to sense they were close to Dry Creek and started to move faster as they took the last turn in the road before coming into the small cluster of buildings that made up Dry Creek.

Flint steered the horse toward the church. The
white frame building with its steep roof and empty belfry had never looked so good to him. The double doors at the top of the cement steps were closed, so that must mean the service had started. If he remembered rightly, they kept the doors open in the summer during the services, and the hymns spilled out into the area around the church. He had sometimes sat on the last step and listened as a teenager. But in winter, the cold didn't allow open doors so the thick stained pine doors were closed.

“Let's get you inside,” Flint said to Francis as Honey stopped at the bottom of the church steps. The sky had grown overcast and dark. There'd be snow soon.

Flint swung his leg around awkwardly so he could dismount before Francis and help her. Once on the ground, Flint lifted his arms. “Just slide down. I've got you.”

“My leg's like wood,” Francis whispered as she leaned over.

Flint's heart would have stopped if it hadn't already been frozen. Thick rich waves of black hair tumbled from her porcelain face, and the wedding dress was cut to show off her curves.

How much torture can a man stand?
Flint asked himself as he clenched his jaw and did his duty. He reached up, grabbed Francis by the waist and pulled her off Honey. Flint almost welcomed the prickles
of icy pain that ran along his chest as Francis slid down him.

They were both freezing. Inside the church, the piano had begun to play an introduction to a hymn that sounded vaguely familiar. But outside, where they stood, snowflakes were beginning to fall.

“You just need to get your circulation back,” Flint said soothingly, careful not to reveal either the tension that stretched inside him or his ever-increasing worry. At least they'd had snow boots and socks, so with luck they wouldn't have frostbite on their toes. “You'll be fine once we get you inside. Does that retired vet still go to church here?”

Voices inside, some off-key and some too loud, began to sing “Amazing Grace.”

“Dr. Norris?” Francis tried to steady herself. A snowflake landed on her cheek. “I think so.”

Flint hoped the vet was sitting inside right now. Francis relaxed her grip on his shoulders, and Flint could see she was trying to stand. She winced, and her face got even whiter than he'd thought possible. He needed to get her inside.

“Lean on me,” Flint commanded. “Don't try to walk yourself.”

“No,” Francis protested. “I'll do it.” She drew a breath of the frigid air to steady herself. “I take care of myself.”

“Not while I'm around.”

Flint didn't know where he got the strength. His
arms shot daggers of icy pain through him every time he moved them. His feet had gone numb long ago. But he could not bear to see Francis struggle. Flint bent his knees slightly and scooped Francis up in his arms.

“Oh,” she breathed in surprise.

Flint shifted Francis so one hand was free to grab the railing that divided the cement steps. Francis hung around his neck as he pulled them both up the five stairs. He could as well have been climbing Mount Everest for the effort those five steps took. His legs were like frozen sausages, and that lace— Flint thought he'd never seen a wedding dress so full of lace. Layers of ivory froth were everywhere. They trailed between Flint's legs. They covered his arm. The bag of apples that Francis still clutched in her hand beat a gentle tap-tap on his back. Snow was falling everywhere.

Flint reached for the doorknob and tried to turn it. It was no good. His hand couldn't grasp it. He couldn't bend his fingers. He tried again. Finally, he gave the bottom of the door a thudding kick.

Please, God, let someone hear me.

The words to the second verse of “Amazing Grace” were filtering through the door. Someone was trilling a soprano harmony.

Flint kicked again.

The door slowly opened, and a young girl looked around it. She must be about seven, Flint thought.
She had serious eyes and short blond hair. Her eyes grew wide as she saw Flint and Francis.

“I thought it was Johnnie,” she whispered. “He's the kind that'd kick at doors. You're not supposed to kick at doors,” she added virtuously.

“I know. Can we come in?” Flint asked softly.

The girl nodded. “It's church. That's where brides are supposed to go.”

The girl turned and opened the door wide.

Francis looked inside the church she'd visited often as a child. The walls were painted a light yellow, and thin sunshine streamed into the main room from tall rectangular windows of clear glass. The pews, made of solid oak over a hundred years ago, had an uneven patina because of the years of use. The church should look shabby, but it was too clean for that.

Today, the church was half full. Obviously the snow had kept some people away. But Francis looked and saw Mrs. Hargrove and the Edison family. Glory Beckett Curtis was there with the twin boys. Doris June was sharing a hymnal with a handsome man Francis didn't recognize.

The air inside the church was warm, and the faint hum of the heater could be heard from the doorway. Someone had fashioned a bouquet from pine boughs and holly branches and put it in front of the solid pulpit.

Everyone in the small church was looking at their hymnals, singing in unison.

We'll just slip into a back pew and whisper with the sheriff,
Francis thought.
No need to disturb everyone.

But Francis hadn't reckoned on the little girl.

“It's a wedding,” the girl announced loudly as she opened both doors wide for Francis and Flint. “They need to get married.”

Everything in the church stopped. Francis swore she heard a gasp, but maybe it was just the last note sung. The pianist stopped with her hands half-raised off the keyboard. Matthew Curtis, the minister who had been leading the singing, lifted his head and looked straight down the aisle at them. Every other head in the church slowly turned and looked at the open doorway.

Flint almost swore. Then he looked at Francis and saw what the citizens of Dry Creek saw at that very minute. Francis was all ivory and pink, with wet snowflakes like dewy sequins scattered over her face and arms. Ivory lace and netting spread out from her in luxuriant waves. The curls in her black hair had softened, and strands of her hair hung down, covering his hands. Flint had never believed in fairy-tale princesses until now. Francis was so beautiful he ached just looking at her. She was a bride.

Francis almost fainted. Then she looked at Flint's face and saw what the citizens of Dry Creek saw.
He was fierce and elegant all at the same time. The black silk of his tuxedo jacket fit his broad shoulders like it had been tailored for him. But his bare chest where his shirt had been—ah, Francis thought, she could see why the women looking their way were speechless. He looked more pirate than groom, but he looked every inch a man to be reckoned with.

“We're not—” she whispered.

“We don't—” he murmured.

But no one listened. There was a long, indrawn breath of silence, maybe even of awe, and then an eruption of joy.

“Congratulations!” someone yelled from the front pew.

“Hallelujah!” someone else shouted. “It's about time!”

And then everyone moved at once.

“Oh, your grandmother,” Mrs. Hargrove said as she stepped out of her pew and started toward them, dabbing a handkerchief at her eyes. “If she could have only lived to see—” She looked at the ceiling. “Or are you watching, Essie?”

The pianist's hands went to the keyboard, only now they were playing, “Here Comes the Bride.”

Francis felt the gentle hands of two young girls touching her dress reverently.

“We're not,” Flint tried again.

“We don't,” Francis tried, joining him.

“Why doesn't anyone tell me anything?” Sheriff
Wall complained as he slipped out of the last pew and walked toward them. “If I'd know you were planning this, I'd have brought my marrying book.”

“I've got my book,” Matthew Curtis said, smiling widely from the front of the aisle. “What a great way to start a Sunday morning! A surprise wedding!”

Flint felt the twinge in his stomach grow into a knot. He'd been scared when old man Gossett pointed that gun at him. He'd thought he was a goner when the old man left him and Francis to freeze to death. But nothing—absolutely none of it—terrified him like this moment.

He knew now why he'd asked Francis to elope twenty years ago. That was all he had the courage for. Some quick marriage in Vegas had none of the glow that standing in this church in wedding clothes had. The good people of Dry Creek stood around him, and he was almost undone by the expectation he saw on their faces. They expected something from him—something good, something important, something lasting.

He, Flint Harris, did not have the grit to face that kind of responsibility. It was beyond him. He couldn't bear to disappoint everyone, and he was sure to fail.

Francis felt the joy leave her. For a moment, she'd been caught up in the dream. Maybe, just maybe she and Flint would go along with the enthusiasm of
those around them. They'd be married—truly, gloriously married—finally.

Then Francis had looked up and seen the change in Flint's face. If she hadn't known him so well, she wouldn't have seen it at all. His jaw had tightened—not much, it was true, but enough. His eyes got a hunted look in them and grew hooded, like he wanted to hide his feelings. He was smiling, but it was only a motion of his lips.

He doesn't want to marry me,
Francis thought dully.
He doesn't want to be impolite—to embarrass me in front of all of these people—but he clearly doesn't want to marry me.

“There's been a misunderstanding,” Francis said calmly. Strange how the cold that had nearly frozen her earlier hadn't touched her heart the way the cold in Flint's eyes did now. She nudged Flint, and he opened his arms so that she could slide to the floor and stand alone. She was, after all, alone. No sense pretending otherwise. “The clothes—they're not ours—”

The church went silent once again.

“Old man Gossett has kidnapped Robert and Jenny and is making them fly him into Billings.”

“Why, the old coot,” Mrs. Hargrove said indignantly. “Doesn't he know that's dangerous? It's already starting to snow again.”

“I don't think he cares,” Francis continued. “He
has two guns and he wanted to meet some bus in Billings.”

“Where's he got to go that's so all-fired important?” someone muttered.

Flint met the inspector's eyes. The inspector had been in the last pew, as they had agreed earlier, and the pew had been roped off with a gold cord, waiting for Francis to arrive.

“He's our man?” the inspector asked Flint quietly. “The informant?”

Flint nodded. “We'd better alert the police in Billings to pick him up at the airport. He's running.”

“Armed and dangerous?” Sheriff Wall stepped closer to Flint. “I'll put out an APB.”

Francis felt soft hands tugging at her dress. She looked into the face of the young girl.

“You're still a bride, aren't you?” the little girl asked, worried. “You're wearing a bride's dress.”

“A dress doesn't make a bride,” Francis answered softly.

“But the dress is the best part of the wedding,” the little girl said, confident in her knowledge. “Except for the cake, maybe. Does this mean there's no cake, either?”

The girl's mother appeared at her side, “Hush, now, don't bother Francis with your questions.”

“It's no bother,” Francis said woodenly as she made an effort to smile at the girl. “And I wish there was a cake— I love wedding cake, too.”

When Francis looked up from the girl, she noticed that Flint had gone to talk with the inspector and the sheriff. They were standing in the back pew muttering, and the inspector had his cell phone in his hand.

BOOK: A Bride for Dry Creek
13.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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