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Authors: Janet Tronstad

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A rumbling growl came from the man's coat pocket.

“Excuse me,” he said as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. “That'll be Mrs. B.”

The conversation was short, and all Francis heard were several satisfied grunts.

“Flint's got them in custody,” the man said when he put his phone back in his pocket. “He's holding them in something he called the dance barn in Dry Creek. Said you'd know where it was. Told me to bring you with me and come over.”

“So I'm free to go?” Francis asked blankly as she looked up. She'd been so distressed about everything the man had told her she hadn't realized her first impressions of him must not be true.

“Of course,” the man said as he stood and put his backpack on his shoulders.

“But who are you?”

“Inspector Kahn—FBI,” the man said as he fum
bled through another pocket in his coat and pulled out an identification badge.

“But—”

“The cattle business,” the man explained as he showed the badge to Francis. “It's interstate. Makes it a federal crime.”

“So the FBI sent someone in.” Francis took a moment to look at the badge so she could scramble to get on track. She had heard the FBI was working on the case. They had asked Garth to help. “So you really didn't need Garth, after all.”

Inspector Kahn grunted. “Not when I have a hot-head like Flint working for me.”

“Flint works for you?”

Inspector Kahn grunted again and started walking toward the door. “Sometimes I think it's me working for him. I'd place money that the reason he's so keen for me to get there is because he wants me to do the paperwork. Flint always hated the paper side of things.” He looked over his shoulder at her. “You coming?”

“Yes.” Francis certainly didn't want to stay in this cold house any longer than she needed to. She pulled the jacket Flint had given her earlier over her shoulders and picked up the Bible.

The inspector looked at the Bible. “I expect you'll need to talk to Flint about this marriage business.”

“I intend to try.”

The inspector smiled at that. “Flint isn't always an easy man to reason with. Stubborn as he is brave. But you know that—you're married to him.”

“I guess I am, at that.” The ashes inside of Francis might not be blowing away, but she could feel them shifting all over the place. It appeared she, Francis K. Elkton, had actually been married to Flint L. Harris some twenty years ago.

 

For the umpteenth time that night, Flint wondered at the value of being a hero. He had saved Garth Elkton's hide—not to mention the even more tender hide of the attractive woman with him, Sylvia Bannister—and they were both giving him a shoulder colder than the storm front that was fast moving into town.

In his jeans and wool jacket, Flint was out of place inside the barn. Not that any of the men there hadn't quickly helped him hog-tie the three men who had kidnapped Garth and Sylvia and attempted to take them away in the back of an old cattle truck.

But the music was still playing a slow tune and the pink crepe paper still hung from the rafters of that old barn. And Flint felt about as welcome as a stray wet dog at a fancy church picnic.

“There, that should do it.” Flint checked the knots in the rope for the third time. He'd asked someone to call the local sheriff and was told the man was picking up something in Billings but would
be back at the dance soon. He hoped the sheriff would get there before the inspector. Maybe then some of the paperwork would be local.

“Who'd you say you were again?” Garth Elkton asked the question, quiet-like, as he squatted to check the ropes with Flint.

“Flint Harris.”

“The guy who called me the other night about the kidnapping?” Garth sounded suspicious.

“Yes.”

“Still don't know how you knew about it.”

“Because I've been freezing my toes off the past few nights following these guys around.” Flint jerked his head at the men on the floor. Flint could see the direction Garth was going with his questions and he didn't appreciate it. “If I was one of them, don't you think they'd at least recognize me?”

Flint looked at the three men on the floor. They looked quarrelsome and pathetic. He didn't appreciate being lumped in with them. But at least it was clear that none of them claimed to have ever seen him before now.

“They didn't seem too clear about who their boss was,” Garth continued mildly. “Could be they wouldn't recognize the man.”

“I can't tell you who their boss is, but he's using a local informant,” Flint said in exasperation. “We've got that much figured out. And I'm not local.”

“You were local enough for my sister.”

Ah, so it's come to that,
Flint thought. It seemed he'd never get a square break from an Elkton. “Let's leave your sister out of it.”

The mention of his sister made Garth scan the room. “Where is she, anyway? Thought she'd be back inside by now. I heard Jess was looking for her.”

“She was with me.” Flint resigned himself to his fate.

“With you? What was she doing with you?”

“Don't worry. She'll be back here any minute now.”

“She better be or—” Garth seemed unaware that his voice was rising.

“Now, now, boys.”

Flint looked up. He'd recognize that voice anywhere. He grinned as he looked at the woman who had been his grandmother's staunch friend in her final days. “Mrs. Hargrove! How are you?”

Mrs. Hargrove had aged a little in the years since he'd seen her last. And she was wearing a long velvet maroon dress tonight instead of her usual cotton gingham housedress. But she held herself with the same innate dignity he always expected from her. “Doing just fine, thank you.”

“You know him?” Garth asked Mrs. Hargrove skeptically.

“Of course,” the woman replied warmly. “He
was in my Sunday school class for six months when he was here, and if he doesn't get up off that floor and give me a hug pretty soon, I'm going to be mighty disappointed.”

Flint felt less like an unwelcome dog just looking at the woman. He stood up and enfolded her in his arms.

“I still miss that grandmother of yours,” Mrs. Hargrove whispered as she held him.

“So do I,” he whispered back.

“It comforts me to know she's with our Lord,” she added and then leaned back to look Flint in the eye. “And I'm still working on her final request of me.”

“Oh?” This was something Flint had not heard about.

“I pray for you every day, son,” Mrs. Hargrove said with satisfaction. “Just like she would be doing if she were alive.”

Flint had faced bullets. But nothing had made him feel as vulnerable as those words did. In his astonishment, he mumbled the only thing he could think of. “Well, thank you.” To his further amazement, he meant it.

“And here you've come back to us a hero.” Mrs. Hargrove stepped out of his arms and spoke loudly so that everyone could hear. “This is Essie Harris's grandson, folks. Let's give him a good welcome home.”

With those words, Flint was transformed from the unwelcome stray into the prize guest. A murmur of approval ran through the folks of Dry Creek, and he heard more than one person mutter that it was about time.

“Here, let me introduce you around,” Mrs. Hargrove said as she took Flint's arm. “You probably don't remember everyone. Here, this is Doris June—you might have met her, she went to school with Francis.”

Flint found himself shaking hands with an attractive blond woman about his age. “You were a cheerleader, weren't you?”

The woman nodded. “The coach was always hoping to find a way to get you to try out for the basketball team.”

“I was busy helping my grandmother.”

“I know.” The blonde smiled.

“And this is Margaret Ann.” Mrs. Hargrove moved him on to another pleasant woman.

Flint noticed Mrs. Hargrove introduced him to the women first. The men hung back. They didn't seem as willing to shake his hand as the women were. In fact, some of them still looked at him with suspicion thick on their faces.

“Francis should be here soon,” he said to no one in particular. He knew why the men didn't trust him. “She really is fine.”

Flint had no sooner finished his words of reas
surance than the barn door opened and his words came true. Francis was back.

The men of Dry Creek looked at Francis in disbelief and then looked at Flint, the suspicion hardening on their faces.

Flint would have cursed if Mrs. Hargrove wasn't standing, speechless, at his elbow.

Francis stood inside the doorway. She must have had dropped the jacket on her way inside, because she wasn't wearing it, and her neck and arms were pearl white. Her hair tumbled around her head in a mass of black silk that was sprinkled with dry pine needles. She had a bruise on her arm that was deepening into a ripe purple.

Flint could have tried to explain away the bruise and the needles. But he knew he'd have a more difficult time talking his way past the ragged tear in Francis's dress that went from her ankles to a few inches short of her waist. Even now Francis had to hold her dress shut around her with one hand while she carried something behind her back in the other hand.

“It was the horse,” Flint stammered into the silence. He'd been called to testify in federal drug investigations, but he'd never felt the pressure of his testimony like now.

“She was with you.” The quiet steel in Garth's voice came from behind him and prodded. “What happened?”

“Now, boys.” Mrs. Hargrove found her breath and interrupted again. “Can't you see Francis is frozen to the bone? There'll be time for sorting this all out later.”

Flint met the metal in Garth's eyes and smiled inside. He might not like the steel at his back, but he was warmed to know that Francis had such a loyal protector.

“Nothing,” Flint assured the other man quietly. “Francis is fine.”

Chapter Four

F
rancis blinked. Her eyes had become accustomed to the black night, and when she stepped into the golden light inside the barn, she felt like a spotlight was on her. She blinked again before she realized that every single person in the barn, even those three men tied in a muddle at Garth's feet, were staring at her.

“What happened to the music?” Francis took an uncertain step forward. The audio system that someone had set up was attached to an old record player, and the scratchy music it had been playing was reminiscent of the fifties. Before she'd gone to look for the Big Dipper an hour or so ago, however, the record hadn't skipped like the one that was on in the background now. “Why isn't anyone dancing?”

“Are you all right, dear?” Mrs. Hargrove was the first to move, and she stepped toward Francis.

“I'm fine—fine,” Francis stammered. She looked at her dress, and for the first time realized how she must look. The fabric on her ill-fated red dress was thin in the best of circumstances, but the section she held in her hand was nothing more than fly away threads held together by sequins. “It was the horse.”

“The horse did that to your dress?” Garth asked, disbelieving, as he, too, stepped forward.

“Well, no, I ripped the dress when I tried to get off the horse.” Francis realized as she said the words that they didn't sound very plausible. The polite eyes of her neighbors told her they didn't believe her. She tried again, a little defensively. “Well, I wasn't just getting off—I was going to ride Honey so I needed to swing my leg around.”

“It doesn't matter, dear,” Mrs. Hargrove said soothingly as she patted Francis on the shoulder, and then exclaimed, “Why you're ice cold! Come over by the heaters.”

Tall electric heaters stood at the far side of the barn. Garth had them installed when the barn was used several months ago for the Christmas pageant. Francis let Mrs. Hargrove start leading her over to them.

“Here, let me carry that for you,” Mrs. Hargrove offered as she held out her hand.

“Oh, it's nothing,” Francis said quickly. She let go of the threads of her dress so she could slip Flint's family Bible under her arm more securely. She didn't know how Flint would feel about her taking the Bible, even though he'd left it in his grandmother's deserted house years ago and any stranger traveling through could have picked it up and taken it. That fact had bothered her the whole ride in. How could he leave something like that—something that spoke of their wedding—for strangers to take? Or for the wind to blow away?

Sequins fell from her dress as she hobbled closer to the heat. She felt a long shaft of cold on her leg where her dress was torn and a small circle of even colder metal where her garter fastened to her nylons.

A ripple of slow, approving murmurs moved through the group of men—most of them single ranch hands—already standing near the heaters.

 

Flint felt every muscle in his body tense. He didn't know which of those men around the heaters was Francis's boyfriend, but Flint didn't think much of him. What kind of man would let other men see that much leg of his girlfriend? Especially when the girlfriend looked like Francis. He doubted there was an unmarried man here tonight who wouldn't go to bed with the image of those red threads trailing across Francis's leg.

“Doesn't anybody use tablecloths anymore?”
Flint took a dozen long strides to get to the food table and looked around impatiently. The tables were wrapped in a pink bridal paper with pink streamers placed every few inches twisting from the table to the floor.

“You're hungry?” Francis stopped to stare at Flint.

Flint only grunted as he tore several of the streamers from the back of the table. “These will have to do.”

The streamers were wide, and Flint had his hand full of them when he kneeled by Francis. “Hold still.”

Flint began wrapping the streamers around Francis, starting at her waist and moving on to her hips. The crepe paper wasn't any heavier than the material in that red sequin dress, but it held the pieces of Francis's dress together. Flint knotted the first strip around her waist as an anchor and then began to wrap her like a mummy from her waist to her knees.

“I can do it,” Francis said as she shifted awkwardly to keep the book behind her back.

If Francis hadn't acted so uncomfortable, Flint would have taken at least another minute before he focused on the book she was obviously trying to hide from him.

“That's Grandma's,” Flint said, tight-lipped. He supposed Francis had read what he wrote that day.
Well, there was nothing for it. He had been a fool, but he wouldn't apologize.

He remembered the day he'd arrived at his grandmother's house after leaving Francis at her father's to pack. His grandmother had been at a church meeting in Dry Creek and wasn't home. On impulse Flint had pulled his grandmother's family Bible off the shelf and recorded his marriage. Then he put the Bible back.

The book wasn't his grandmother's reading Bible, but it was important to her nonetheless. Her wedding and the wedding of Flint's parents had been recorded on its center pages. He planned to pull the Bible out and surprise his grandmother when he came back from Miles City that day.

But it was three months before he came back from Miles City, and by then the ink would have been fully dried on the divorce papers he'd signed in jail. He had no calm words to explain what had happened, so he left the Bible on the shelf. As angry as he was with Francis, he didn't want the good people of Dry Creek to force her into accepting a marriage she didn't want. He didn't even tell his grandmother what had happened. If she ever saw the words, she never asked about them in their weekly phone conversations.

Even after all these years, Flint still didn't want Francis to be publicly blamed. He doubted the good people of Dry Creek would think much of a woman
who abandoned her marriage vows within hours of saying them. They might not be as forgiving as he had learned to be.

“Don't worry. Your secret's safe,” Flint murmured as he impatiently knotted one of the crepe streamers just above Francis's knee. He wished there was more noise in this old barn, but it seemed like everyone would rather watch him wrap Francis in crepe paper than dance with each other. “You were just a kid. I'm the one who should have had sense enough to stop it before it went as far as it did.”

“I was no more a kid than you were. I was certainly old enough to know my own mind,” Francis snapped back in a low whisper. She hadn't counted on having this conversation in front of a hundred curious witnesses with Flint kneeling in front of her and angrily wrapping crepe paper around her legs. But if that was the only way to have it, she'd do it. “You should have realized that instead of—”

“Me?” Flint reared back when he finally heard the mild tone of reproof in Francis's voice. It was one thing to forgive her. But it was asking a bit much of him to let her take that tone with him. “I should have realized something? The only thing I should have realized was that you were too young for the responsibilities involved in getting mar—”

Flint suddenly heard the silence. The bride and groom who were celebrating their wedding tonight were standing still as statues. Even the men tied to
gether into a pile at Garth's feet had stopped scraping their feet along the wood floor. A hundred people were watching, and no one was crumpling a paper cup or moving in their chair. Someone had shut off the record player, so even that empty scratching had stilled. This old barn had never been so quiet.

Flint willed his voice to a mild whisper. “You were a bit young, is all. That's not a crime.”

“It would have been a crime if I hadn't been so caught up in my career,” Francis replied as the reality of the situation became a little clearer. Bigamy. What if she had married, never knowing that she was already married? She wondered if the law forgave such silliness. “You at least knew we were married.”

“Married?” The word was picked up by someone standing near them and passed around the barn quicker than a fake dollar bill at a carnival.

Flint looked up as a new group of men slowly gathered from around the barn and moved over by the heaters. These men had a look about them he'd seen in combat. He'd wager the lot of them worked for Francis's brother. They all had calluses on their hands and scuffed boots on their feet. He expected he could take any of them in a fair fight. By the hardening looks on their faces, he figured he'd have to do that very thing before the night was over.

“Maybe we better discuss this outside,” Flint
said calmly as he stood up, twisted the last piece of crepe paper into a tidy roll and set it on the corner of the refreshment table.

Flint didn't want to call Francis a liar in front of her family and friends, but if she thought he'd buy some story about her being drunk or confused that night in Vegas, she was going to be disappointed. He knew she hadn't had a drop of liquor to drink. They hadn't even opened the complimentary champagne that came with the wedding ceremony. And, while she had been wonderfully starry-eyed, she had not been confused.

Francis nodded. The warmth from the heaters was uneven, and she shivered. “Let me look for my jacket.”

Francis ran her eyes over the people in the barn, looking for Sylvia Bannister. The last time she'd seen Sylvia she had been wearing Francis's black lion jacket, a remembrance from long-ago high school years. As Francis looked over the small clusters of her friends and neighbors, they began to shuffle in sudden embarrassment and start to move.

“You're welcome to borrow my jacket.” Mrs. Hargrove stepped forward efficiently with a wool jacket in her hands. “I won't be needing it since I'll be dancing—if someone will put the music back on.”

The crowd took the hint. Someone flipped a switch, and an old Beatles song started to play. A
few of the women walked to the refreshment table and poured more punch in the bowl. The kidnappers, tied in a heap to one side of the barn, started to twist their rope-bound feet and complain that there wasn't even a local law official there to see to their comfort.

“We got our rights, too,” the stocky brother started to protest. “Ain't right we're kept tied up like this just so he—” the man jerked his head at Flint “—can play Romeo in some snowdrift with his Juliet.”

“Yeah.” One of the other brothers took his lead. “We ain't even had supper.”

“I'm not feeding you supper,” Flint said in clipped exasperation, although he almost welcomed the excuse to turn from Francis and focus on business for a minute. “Give me a break, you've only been arrested for fifteen minutes. And it's almost midnight—you should have eaten supper hours ago.”

“Well, we didn't get a chance to eat before.” The brother whined.

“You should always take time for a proper meal,” Francis said automatically as she slipped her arms into the jacket Mrs. Hargrove held out for her. “Good nutrition makes for a more productive worker.”

Flint snorted as he nodded his head toward the kidnappers. “Trust me, they don't need to be more productive.”

“I think there's some of those little quiche appetizers left,” Mrs. Hargrove said as she headed for the refreshment table. “The Good Book says we need to look out for our enemies.”

“The Good Book says a lot of things,” Flint said as his eyes skimmed over Francis. Yes, she still had it in her hand. His grandmother's Bible. “Not all of the things written in its pages are true.”

Flint heard Mrs. Hargrove gasp, and he hurried to explain. “I mean some of the things that are handwritten—by a person in their own Bible—aren't necessarily true.”

“Essie stood by everything she wrote in that Bible of hers.” Mrs. Hargrove defended her friend. “And I'd stand by them, too.”

“It wasn't something Grandma wrote,” Flint said softly. He suddenly had a picture of his grandmother sitting down in the evening at her old wooden table and reading her Bible. She'd have her apron on and the radio humming in the background as she'd mouth the words. She read silently, but occasionally—when the words seemed either too wonderful or too horrible to be held in—she'd speak them aloud to whomever stood by.

Flint had never seen anyone else read a book like it was a letter that had come in the morning mail. He had secretly envied her the faith she had even though he knew it wasn't for the likes of him. Even then he didn't feel like he'd ever clean up good
enough to merit much faith. But his grandmother was a different story. He didn't want anyone to question his grandmother's faith. “It wasn't something she wrote down. It was something I wrote. By mistake.”

Mrs. Hargrove looked Flint full in the eyes before she smiled. “I can't think of a better place to write something—whether it's a mistake or not, only God knows.”

Flint snorted. “Well, God isn't the only one who knows on this one. Wish He was. At least He can keep a secret.”

“I can keep a secret.” Francis was stung.

“I'm not worried about you, sweetheart,” Flint said wryly as he smiled at her. “It's my boss I'm worried about. I know you can keep this secret—you've kept it for the past twenty years.”

“Sometimes a secret needs a good airing out,” Mrs. Hargrove offered breezily as she finished stacking some petite quiches on a small paper plate and started toward the tangle of men on the floor. “Especially those old ones.”

By now several couples were dancing, and those who weren't dancing had politely turned their attention to other things.

“We do need to talk about it,” Francis said firmly as she pulled the wool jacket closer around her. She searched in the pocket and found a hairpin. Just what she needed. She swept her hair up and gave it a
couple of twists. Organizing her hair into a neat bun made her feel more in control. “There are things you don't know.”

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