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Authors: Janet Tronstad

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BOOK: A Bride for Dry Creek
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Francis didn't argue. She simply couldn't think of anything to say. She had been swiveled, swept up in his arms and now rested on Flint's shoulder with a view of his chin. This was not the way anything was supposed to go. She was supposed to be forgetting him. “You nicked your chin the night of the prom, too.”

“Huh?”

“When you shaved—the night of the prom, you nicked your chin. Almost in the same place.”

“I was nervous.”

“Me, too.”

“You didn't look nervous,” Flint said softly. He had tied Honey to a branch and was carrying Francis out of the pine grove. “You were cool as a cucumber.”

“I hadn't been able to eat all day.”

“You were perfect,” Flint said simply. He was walking toward the small wood frame house. “Everybody is hungry at those things, anyway. You think there'll be food and it turns out to be pickled mushrooms or something with toothpicks in it.”

Flint stopped. He was halfway to the house, and he knew someone had been here recently besides himself and Honey. A faint smell was coming from the house—the smell of cigars. He'd only known one man to ever smoke that particular brand.

“I'm going to set you down and check out the house,” Flint whispered. It could be a trap. The cigars weren't a secret. “Be quiet.”

Francis shivered, and not from the cold. Even in a whisper, Flint's voice sounded deadly serious. For the first time, she was truly afraid. And, for the first time, it occurred to her that if it were known by now that she was kidnapped—and it surely would be known once Jess checked around the barn—then someone would be out to rescue her. And if they intended to rescue her, they would also be out to hurt—maybe even kill—Flint.

The very thought of it turned her to ice. She could cheerfully strangle Flint herself. But seeing him hurt—really hurt—was something else again.

Think, Francis, think,
she told herself as Flint slid her out of his arms to a dry space near a pine tree. The shade of the tree made the night darker here than anywhere. Even the light of the moon did not reflect off her sequins when she was sitting here. She could no longer see his face. He was a black shadow who crouched beside her.

“Be careful,” she whispered at his back as he turned to leave. The words sounded futile to her ears. And then she saw his black silhouette as he drew a gun from somewhere. He must have had a gun in the saddlebag. Or maybe he had a shoulder holster.

Francis didn't want to be responsible for Flint be
ing hurt. But anyone who was here to rescue her would think nothing of shooting Flint.
Think, Francis, think.
There had to be a solution. She couldn't just sit here and wait for the gunfire to begin.

That's it,
she thought victoriously. She knew she could think of a solution. It just needed an orderly mind. If there were no kidnapping, there would be no need for any shooting.

Francis forced herself to stand. Her one leg wobbled, but it would have to do. She took a step forward, praying whoever was inside that wooden house would have sense enough to recognize her voice.

“Flint, darling,” she called in what she hoped was a gay and flirtatious voice. She was out of practice, but even if her voice wasn't seductive she knew it was loud enough to be heard through the thickest walls. “I thought you said there was a bed inside this old house for us to use.”

There,
she thought in satisfaction,
that should quell any questions about a kidnapping.
It would, of course, raise all sorts of other questions, but she could deal with that later. She wondered who of the many Dry Creek men had come to her rescue.

Flint froze. Only years of training stopped him from turning around to stare at Francis. The deep easy chuckle that rumbled through the walls of the house confirmed his suspicions about who had
smoked the cigars. The cigars could be duplicated. The chuckle never. It was safe to turn around.

Flint could only see the silhouette of Francis, but it was enough. He walked toward her and said the only thing he could think to say. “I told you to keep quiet. That could have been anyone inside.”

“I didn't want you to be shot on my account,” Francis whispered airily as she limped toward him. “If you just let me go now, there'll be no kidnapping.”

“There never was a kidnapping. This was a rescue.”

“A rescue?” Francis turned the word over in her mouth and spoke low enough so that whoever was inside the house could not hear. “Don't you think that's going a bit far? I don't think anyone would believe it's a rescue— I think we better stick with the seduction story.”

Flint shook his head. No wonder being a hero was so difficult these days.

“Not that they'll believe the seduction story, either.” Francis continued to whisper. Her leg was painful, but she found it easier to limp than to stand. “I must look a sight by now.”

The deep darkness of the night that had gathered around the pine trees lifted as Francis moved toward him. “I wonder which of the men from Dry Creek knew enough to drive out here and wait for us. Pretty quick thinking.”

Flint held his breath. In the night, he could look at Francis and not worry about the naked desire she would see in his eyes any other time. His jacket had fallen off her shoulders under the tree, and her arms and neck gleamed white even in the midnight darkness. The sequins of that red dress glittered as she moved, showing every curve in her slender body. She was beautiful.

“It's not one of the men from Dry Creek,” Flint said softly. “It's my boss.”

Francis stopped. She'd never thought—never even considered. And she should have—there's an order to everything, she reminded herself blindly. One needed to know the place of everything. And a kidnapping, she noted dully, required a motive and, in this case, a boss.

Francis stared unmoving at the weatherbeaten deserted house that used to belong to Flint's grandmother. The white paint had peeled off the frame years ago, leaving a chipped grayness that blended into the darkness. Gaping black holes marked where the glass had broken out of the windows.

“He must think I'm a fool,” Francis whispered stiffly.

Francis looked so fragile, Flint moved slowly toward her. She looked like a bird, perched for flight even with her sprained leg muscle.

“No, I'm sure he doesn't think that at all,” he said softly.

When he reached Francis, Flint picked her up again. This time he cradled her in his arms properly, as he had wanted to each time he'd picked her up tonight. For the first time, she didn't resist him. That should thrill his heart, Flint thought. But it didn't. He knew Francis wasn't warming toward him. She'd just given up.

“And that bit about the bed.” Francis continued to fret. “I'm a middle-aged woman. He must think I'm a featherbrain—especially because he knows why you have me out here.”

“He does, does he?” Flint asked quietly. It came as somewhat of a surprise to him that he'd rather have Francis kicking his shin with her pointed high heels than to have her lying still in his arms feeling foolish after having done something so brave.

The angle wasn't perfect for what he needed to do, but Flint found that if he bent his knee and slowly lowered Francis until she was securely perched on the knee, he could crane his neck and do what he needed to do.

He bent his head down and kissed her. He knew his lips were cold and chapped by now. He knew that the quick indrawn breath he heard from Francis was shock rather than passion. But he also knew that they both needed this kiss more than they needed the air they were breathing.

Flint took his time. He'd waited twenty years for this kiss and, planned or not, he needed to take his
time. He felt the stiffness leave Francis's lips and he felt them move against him like they used to. He and his Francis were home again.

“Thank you.” Francis was the first one to breathe after the kiss ended. Her pulse was beating fast, but she willed it to slow. “At least now your boss won't think I'm delusional—he'll think you at least tried to seduce me. Middle-aged or not.” Francis stopped speaking to peer into the darkness of the broken windows. “He is watching, isn't he?”

For the first time since he'd bent down on one knee, Flint felt the bone-chilling cold of the snow beneath him. He might be home again, but Francis wasn't. “You think the kiss was for my boss's benefit?”

“Of course. And I appreciate it. I really do.”

Flint only grunted. He must be losing his touch. He went back and picked up his jacket to wrap around Francis.

Chapter Three

“T
here's trouble in Dry Creek.” The words came out of the other man's mouth the moment Flint kicked open the door to the abandoned house and, still holding Francis, stepped inside. “Kidnapping.”

“I know,” Francis said stiffly. She was glad she'd have the chance to show she wasn't a ninny. “That's me.”

“Not unless you got here in the back of a cattle truck, it's not,” the other man said mildly, a lit cigar in his mouth and a cell phone in his hand. The only light in the room was a small flashlight the man must have laid on the table recently. The flashlight gave a glow to the rather large room and showed some bookcases and a few wooden chairs scattered around the table.

“Well, surely there's no point in kidnapping more than me.”

“It appears they have some woman named Sylvia Bannister and then Garth Elkton.”

“Oh, no.” Francis half twisted herself out of Flint's arms. “I'll need to go help them.”

“You can't go.” Flint finished carrying her over to one of the chairs and gently sat her down.

“That's right. I'm a prisoner.”

“You're not a prisoner,” Flint said impatiently and then turned to the older man. “It better be me that goes. I've gotten a little acquainted with the guys responsible for this. Might have picked up a tip or two.”

While Flint was talking, he was rummaging through a backpack resting on another chair. He pulled out an ammunitions cartridge and put it in the pocket of a dry jacket that was wrapped around the back of the chair. Then he pulled out a pair of leather gloves.

“Mrs. B called it in.” The older man gestured to his cell phone. “Said to hurry. Some kids are chasing the truck in a bus as we speak. You can use my Jeep. Parked it behind the trees over there.” The older man jerked his head in the opposite direction they had ridden in from. “It'll get you there faster.”

“Not faster than Honey,” Flint said with a smile as he walked toward the door. “She can beat a Jeep any day. She makes her own roads.”

Flint opened the door and was gone in a little less than five seconds. Francis knew it was five seconds because she was counting to ten and had only reached five when the door creaked shut. Her teeth were chattering and she didn't know if it was because she was near frozen or because she was scared to death. She hoped counting would force her to focus and make it all better. It didn't.

“I've got one of those emergency blankets in here someplace,” the older man said as he turned to a backpack of his own leaning in the corner of the room. “Prevents heat loss, that sort of thing.”

“I'm okay.” Francis shivered through the words. She felt helpless to be sitting here when someone had kidnapped Sylvia and Garth.

“Not much to that dress,” the older man said as he walked over to her and wrapped what looked like a huge foil paper around her. “Especially in ten below weather.”

The paper crinkled when she moved, but Francis noticed a pocket of warmth was forming around her legs. It would spread. “I didn't plan to be out in it for so long without my coat.”

“I expect you didn't.” The man went back to his pack and pulled out a small hand-cranked lantern. He twisted the handle a few times and set the lantern on the table. A soft glow lit up the whole room. “Something must have gone wrong.”

“Flint kidnapped me.”

That fact seemed to amuse the older man. “Yes, I forgot. You mentioned that earlier. Sorry to spoil your plans.”

“They were hardly my plans. You're the boss. They were your plans.” Francis knew it wasn't always wise to confront criminals. But the old man seemed fairly harmless, and she did like to keep things clear.

“Sounded more like a lover's tryst to me.” The man sat on one of the chairs.

“Humph.” Francis didn't want to go into that.

“Not that it's any of my business,” the man continued and looked around the room. “Although I can assure you that if Flint told you there was a bed, he lied.”

“Humph.” Francis was feeling the warmth steel up her whole body. She could almost feel cozy. “We don't really need a bed.”

“Good.”

The man sat for a few minutes in silence and then got up and went to his pack and drew out a can. “Peaches?”

“I'd like that.”

The man opened the peaches with the can-opening edge of a Swiss knife.

“Handy thing,” he said as he flipped the blades into the knife and put it in his pocket. “Flint gave me this one almost fifteen years ago now.”

“You've known him for that long?”

The man nodded. “Almost as long as you have if you're who I think you are.”

Francis wondered if this were a trick to find out who she was. But then, she reasoned, it hardly mattered. Flint certainly knew who she was, and he would be back soon to tell his boss anyway.

“I'm Francis Elkton.”

The man nodded again. “Thought you must be. But I guess I'll share my peaches with you anyway. Figure you must have had your reasons for what you did.”

“Reasons for what?”

The man shrugged. “It's old history. Flint went on and so did you. I wouldn't even have remembered your full name if I hadn't seen that.”

There it was. The man was pointing to a faded family Bible. One of those with the black leather cover stamped, Our Family With God.

“I'm in there?” Francis moved outside the warmth of the foil blanket to stand up and walk to the bookcase. The Bible was closed, but she saw that a ribbon marker had been left through the center of the book. Curious, she opened it.

The man was right. There was her name. Francis Elkton.

The words read, “United in Holy Matrimony Flint L. Harris and Francis Elkton on the day of our Lord, April 17—”

“Who wrote that there?” Even the temperature
outside could not match the ice inside her. She'd never seen the words like that, so black and white.

The man shrugged. “It was either Flint or his grandmother.”

“His grandmother didn't know we—” Francis gulped. She could hardly say they had gotten married when the most they had done was perform a mock ceremony.

“Then it must have been Flint.”

“He must have stopped here before he left that day.”

The man nodded. “I expect so. A man like Flint takes his marriage vows serious. He'd want to at least write them down in a family Bible.”

“There were no marriage vows,” Francis corrected the man bitterly. “We said them before a fake justice of the peace.”

The man looked startled. “There was nothing fake about your vows.”

Francis felt a headache start in the back of her neck. “I'm afraid there was. The justice of the peace was a phony.”

“I checked him out. He was pure gold.”

“You can't have checked him out. He didn't even exist. Phony name and everything.”

Francis still remembered the smug look on her father's face when he got off the phone with a city official in Las Vegas and informed her there was no such justice of the peace.

The peaches were forgotten. The older man looked cautiously at Francis and said softly, “I did a thorough check on Flint myself before he came into the Bureau. I knew he had potential and would go far. I wanted to be sure we did a complete check. I talked to the justice of the peace personally. And the county sheriff who arrested Flint on that speeding ticket.”

Francis felt her headache worsen. “What speeding ticket?”

The old man looked at Francis silently for a moment. “The day after you were married, Flint was arrested on a speeding ticket just inside the Miles City limits. Thirty-eight in a thirty-five-mile-an-hour zone.”

“No one gets a ticket for that.”

“Flint did. And because he didn't have the hundred thousand dollars cash to post bail, he did ninety days in jail.”

Francis put her hand to her head. “That can't be. No one does that kind of time on a traffic ticket—and they certainly don't have that kind of bail.”

The man kept looking at Francis like he was measuring her. Then he continued slowly. “I talked to the sheriff who made the arrest. He was doing a favor for someone. The arrest. The high bail. The ninety days. It was all a personal favor.”

“Flint never hurt anyone. Who would do that?”

The silence was longer this time. Finally, the man
spoke. “The sheriff said it was you. Said you'd changed your mind about the marriage and didn't have the nerve to tell Flint to his face.”

“Me?” The squeak that came out of Francis's throat was one she scarcely recognized as her own.

The man looked away to give her privacy. “Not that it's really any of my business.”

Francis needed to breathe.
Reason this out,
she said to herself.
Reason it out. Put the pieces in their places. It will make sense. There's an order to it all. You just need to find it.

“But I hadn't changed my mind.” Francis grabbed hold of that one fact and hung on to it. The whole story revolved around that one piece, and that one piece was false. That must make the whole story false. “I wanted to be married to Flint.”

The man lifted his eyes to look at her. With the soft light of the lantern on the table, Francis could see the pity in the man's eyes. “I'm beginning to think that might possibly be true.”

Francis was numb. She'd fallen into a gaping hole and she didn't know how to get out of it. She couldn't talk. She could barely think. “But who would do such a thing?”

Francis knew it was her father. Knew it in her heart before she had reasoned it out with her head. He was the only one who could have done it.

Her father had been upset when she and Flint had driven up and announced their marriage. She hadn't
expected her father to be glad about the marriage, but she thought he'd adjust in time. She'd been relieved when Flint had suggested he drive into Miles City to buy roses for her. If she had some time alone with her father, Francis had thought, she could change his mind.

She and her father had talked for a while and then she went in to pack. There wasn't much she needed to take. Some tea towels she'd made years ago when her mother was alive to help her. The clothes she'd been wearing to school. A few pieces of costume jewelry. The letters Garth had written her when he was overseas.

She'd filled up two suitcases when her father came in to say he'd called Las Vegas and found out that the justice of the peace was a fake.

At that moment, Francis had not worried about her father's words. If the justice of the peace was a fake, she'd calmly reasoned, she and Flint would only find someone else to marry them again. Flint had made a mistake in locating the proper official, but they would take care of it. They'd marry again. That's what people in love did. She started to fold the aprons her mother had given her.

When she finished packing, Francis went down to the kitchen to prepare supper for her father. It was the last meal she'd make for him for awhile, and she was happy to do it. She decided to make beef stew
because it could simmer for hours with little tending after she left.

Four hours later her father invited her to sit down and eat the stew with him. She knew Flint could have driven into Miles City and back several times in the hours that had passed. Francis refused the stew and went to her room. He must have had car trouble, she thought. That was it. He'd call any minute. She stayed awake all night waiting for the phone to ring. It was a week before she even made any attempt to sleep at nights.

“It was my father,” Francis said calmly as she looked Flint's boss in the eyes. “He must have arranged it all.”

“I'm sorry.” The man said his words quickly.

The inside of the cold house was silent. Francis sat with the open Bible on her lap, staring at the page where her marriage vows had been recorded and a scripture reference from Solomon had been added. As she looked at it closely, she could see that the faded handwriting was Flint's. She wished she could have stood with him when he recorded the date in this Bible. It must have had meaning for him or he wouldn't have stopped on his way into Miles City to write it down.

“Surely Flint—” she looked at the man.

He was twisting the handle that gave energy to the emergency lantern on the table. He didn't look up from the lantern. “He didn't want to tell me
about you. Didn't even mention your name. But he had to tell me the basics. I was only checking out his story. Part of the job. We needed to find out about the arrest. It was on his record.”

“So he thinks it was me who got him arrested.”

The temperature of the night seemed to go even lower.

The man nodded.

Francis felt numb. She had never imagined anything like this. She had assumed Flint had been the one to have second thoughts. Or that he had never intended to really marry her anyway. He wasn't from around here. She never should have trusted him as much as she did. She repeated all the words she had said to herself over the years. None of them gave her any comfort.

“He should have come back to talk to me.”

“Maybe he tried,” the man said. He'd stopped cranking the lantern and sat at the table.

The silence stretched between them.

“Mind if I smoke?” the man finally asked.

“Go ahead,” Francis said automatically. She felt like her whole life was shifting gears and the gears were rusty. She'd spent too much of the past twenty years resenting Flint. Letting her anger burn toward him in the hopes that someday her memories would be light, airy ashes that could be blown away. But instead of producing ashes that were light, her anger
had produced a heavy, molten chunk of resentment that wouldn't budge in a whirlwind.

There had been no blowing away of old, forgotten memories. These past weeks in Dry Creek had already proven that to her. She was beginning to believe she would be forever shackled by her memories. But now it turned out that the whole basis for her anger was untrue. Flint had not left her. She had, apparently, somehow left him.

BOOK: A Bride for Dry Creek
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