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Authors: Janet Tronstad

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Francis had left the whole envelope on the kitchen table. She'd opened it enough to know the contents were the old divorce papers.

No wonder she was unable to sleep, Francis finally decided around four o'clock. Her whole life had turned upside down in the past twelve hours. She'd seen Flint again. She'd found out he was her husband. She'd thoroughly embarrassed herself to the point that he felt he had to kiss her to save her pride. She'd felt both sixteen and sixty at the same time. It stung that the only reason he was even here in Dry Creek was that he had a job to do. At least she'd had the decency to come back here to mourn their lost love. He hadn't even come back to pick up his family's Bible.

Finally, the darkness of the night started to soften.
The hands on her bedside clock told Francis it was almost five o'clock. She'd given up on sleep, and she got out of bed and wrapped a warm robe around her. She might as well set out some sausage to thaw for breakfast.

She had checked last night, and there was a case of sausages in the freezer downstairs. There were one hundred and sixty links in a case.

If Francis hadn't been dividing the number of sausages by the number of breakfast guests, she would have noticed there was something a little too lumpy about the pile of blankets that someone had left on the kitchen floor. But she hadn't wanted to turn on any lights in case they would wake Sam in the living room. She was used to the half-light of early Montana mornings.

Her first clue that something was peculiar about the pile of blankets was the whispered endearment, “Rose.” She recognized the voice even as she was tripping on a blanket corner—or was it a boot—and was falling square into the pile of—

Umph! Chest. Francis felt the breath slam out of her body and then felt her chin solidly resting on a man's chest. She groaned inside. Even if she didn't know the hoarse voice, she'd recognize that smell anywhere—half horse and half aftershave. She moved slightly, and then realized her dilemma. Her elbows were braced one on each side of Flint's chest, and her fuzzy chenille bathrobe was so
loosely tied that, if she raised herself up more than an inch or two, any man from Flint's perspective, if he opened his eyes, would see her navel by way of her chin and all of the territory between the two.

Not that—she lifted her eyes slightly to confirm that his eyes were closed—not that he was looking.

Francis studied his eyelids for any betraying twitch that said he was really awake and just sparing them both the embarrassment of the situation. There was none.

Francis let out her breath in relief. A miracle had happened. He hadn't woken up when she fell on him, and if she moved lightly, she would be up and off of him without him even knowing she'd fallen.

The congratulatory thought had no sooner raced through Francis's mind than she had another one—only a dead man wouldn't feel someone falling right on top of him! Francis moved just slightly and cocked her head to the side. She laid her ear down where Flint's heart should be, and the solid pounding reassured her that he was alive.

Francis dismissed the suspicion that he was drunk—she would smell alcohol if that were the case. He must just be so worn out that he'd sleep through anything. She'd heard of that happening.

 

Flint lay very still. He was afraid if he opened his eyes Francis would stop the delightful wiggling she was doing on his chest. He'd felt the smooth warmth
of her cheek as she laid it over his heart. It was sweet and arousing all at the same time. He almost couldn't keep his pulse normal. He sure couldn't keep his eyes completely closed. His eyelids shifted ever so slightly and his eyes opened a slit so that he could see the ivory warmth of Francis—he looked and almost sighed. She could pose for drawings of the goddess Venus rising from her bath.

And then everything changed. Flint could almost see the moment when the warmth of Francis turned to stone.

 

Francis had managed to locate the belt on her robe and cinch it tighter before she realized what she had interrupted. Flint was dreaming. A floating half-awake dream that kept him in bed even though the only pillows he had were his own boots and his mattress was nothing but hard-as-nails floorboards. A dream that sweet wasn't about some distant movie star or unknown woman. No, Flint was lying there with that silly dream smile on his face because of a woman named Rose. Rose! Suddenly, Francis didn't care if she did wake Flint up.

With the flat of her hands fully open on the floor on either side of Flint, Francis lifted herself up and none-too-carefully rolled off Flint.

 

“It's you.” Flint finally opened his eyes and smiled.

Francis was sitting beside him, a peach-colored
fuzzy robe tied around her tighter than a nun's belt. Her hair wasn't combed, and a frown had settled on her forehead.

Francis grunted. “Yeah, it's me. I suppose you were expecting this Rose woman.”

“Huh?”

“Not that you aren't entitled to dream about whoever you want to dream about—”

Francis stood up.

Flint lay there. He'd never noticed Francis's toes before—never seen them from this angle before. But right across from him, sitting as they did at eye level to him since he was flat on the floor, he marveled at them. How had he never noticed what dainty little toes she had?

“What are you doing here, anyway?” Francis demanded in a low voice. She didn't want to wake the whole household. “Who let you in?”

“Garth.”

Her brother was the densest man on the face of the earth. “I guess Garth would take in anyone on a night like last night.”

Flint didn't answer. He suspected Garth might draw the line at letting him in under ordinary circumstances. But he didn't want Francis to know that. “Blistering cold last night.”

“Well, now that you're here you might as well stay for breakfast—I just came down to get it started.”

Flint deliberately winced as he lifted his head a few inches off the floor and then fell back into the pile of blankets.

Francis took the bait and knelt beside him. “You're hurt? I'm so sorry about falling on you. I tripped and, well—” Francis had reached out and was running her hands lightly over Flint's sides. “Do your ribs feel all right?”

His ribs felt like a hammer was pounding against them, but he knew it was only his heart. Francis was bending over him and her hair was trailing against his chest. It was like being brushed with feathers. Black, glossy feathers. “It's more the sides of my back.”

Francis didn't hesitate. To reach his back without him moving, she had to straddle him again and run both hands along his side.

Flint sighed. There'd been little luxury in his life. Francis's hands felt like silk—or satin—maybe even rose petals.

The sigh was a mistake. Flint knew it the moment Francis's hands stopped.

“You're not hurt at all,” she announced abruptly.

Flint grinned. “Can't blame a man for trying.”

“You're incorrigible,” Francis scolded. She should move. She knew that. But she rather liked staring down at Flint like that. His grin made him look younger than he had since he was nineteen. Only he wasn't nineteen any longer. His early morn
ing whiskers were brushed with gray toward his sideburns. He had a scar on his face that hadn't come from falling out of a tree. And his eyes—his eyes lived in shadows.

Francis didn't realize a tear had fallen from her eye until Flint reached up with a warm hand and wiped it away.

“It's okay,” Flint said simply. He didn't move the hand that had found the tear. Instead, he lifted the other hand to cup Francis's face.

Francis heard a grumble behind her, slow and insistent. She didn't want to move. But someone else was up in the sleeping household.

“What's going on here?”

Francis's heart sank. Of all the people sleeping in the house tonight, this was the last person she wanted to have to deal with right now. “Sam.”

Francis turned her head slightly, and Flint dropped his hands from her face. She felt the morning cold keenly after their warmth. Sam had plaid flannel pajamas on, and still he had two blankets wrapped around his shoulders.

“There's no need for you to be up.” Francis hoped he would take the hint. “Let the house warm up a little first.”

Sam grunted. If he heard the hint, he didn't heed it. “What's going on?”

Francis sighed and moved so that she no longer straddled Flint. “I tripped and fell.”

Only a blockhead would buy that explanation, Flint thought in bitter satisfaction. He and Francis had been seconds away from a kiss. Surely, it had been obvious.

“Oh.” Sam seemed uncertain. He didn't sound convinced, but he apparently didn't want to challenge Francis. “Well, I need to talk to you.”

“Can't it wait?” Francis asked as she adjusted all of the chenille in her robe until she looked more respectable than a grandmother. Once she was adjusted, she glanced at Flint again a little shyly.

Flint noticed the pink in her cheeks even if the blockhead Sam didn't.

“Francis is busy now,” Flint offered. “You can talk to her later.”

Flint had a problem in life—he didn't know when to quit fighting a battle. Sometimes, like today, it cost him. He saw it right away in the way Francis's chin went up and her eyebrow raised.

“No one answers for me. I can talk now.”

Flint knew he needed to backtrack. Francis wasn't a woman who liked being told what to do. He rolled his blankets around him closer like he was contemplating going back to sleep. “Yeah, I won't be in the way.”

Sam started to puff up. “I want to speak to Francis alone. I am, after all, her fiancé.”

“Well, that's a problem,” Flint said lazily. “Because technically I'm still her husband.”

Sam puffed up in earnest. “I doubt that marriage is even valid anymore.”

“Don't count on it,” Flint said as he stood.

“Please—” Francis started to scold the two men. She fully intended to. She just hadn't counted on Flint standing up right at that moment. Sam was wrapped in plaid flannel and gray wool blankets. He looked like an overgrown boy. But Flint—Flint looked every inch a man. His shirt was unbuttoned and half off his shoulder. Francis had seen his chest muscles when she'd fallen on top of him, but nothing prepared her for the majesty of him standing there. The sight of him made her mouth grow dry. It also made her cranky. “I can talk to whomever I want to talk to.”

Flint nodded and smiled. He wasn't going to lose the war on this one just because he couldn't give in on a battle or two. “Of course you can.”

Chapter Six

F
lint took his time walking down the stairs. There were creaks in steps fourteen and nine. He'd have to remember that. He had taken Francis's hint and left her alone with Sam so that the two of them could talk. For precisely seven minutes. In his opinion, they'd had twenty years to do their talking, and seven minutes was long enough for whatever Sam had to say.

“Where's Francis?” Flint could see into the kitchen from the bottom of the stairs. Someone had finally turned a small light on over the sink, and it outlined the kitchen appliances. The clock over the refrigerator was illuminated, and the hands shone at half past five o'clock. Early morning still in most places, he thought.

“You and I need to talk.” Sam ignored the ques
tion. He had wrapped the blankets around him more closely and smoothed back his hair. He cleared his throat like he was ready to give a speech, and Flint's heart sank. “We need to settle some things—”

“You and I don't have anything we need to settle,” Flint said mildly as he turned so he could see into the living room. Maybe Francis had gone in there. She certainly hadn't gone up the stairs.

“Francis and I think—” Sam persisted.

“Francis asked you to talk to me?” Flint turned.

The words sliced through the air one syllable at a time. Flint didn't raise his voice. In fact Sam had to lean forward to hear the words clearly. But even in their quietness, the words made Sam Goodman stumble and step back.

“Well, we—”

“You didn't answer my question. Did Francis ask you to talk to me?”

“Well, we—”

“And just where is Francis, anyway?” Flint had finally looked completely around.

“She went out to gather the eggs for breakfast.”

“Outside! You let her go outside alone!”

Flint didn't breathe again until he stood in the open door of the chicken coop beside Garth's working barn. There was Francis. She was all right. Well, as all right as one could be in a chenille bathrobe and men's boots in the freezing morning after a blizzard.

“Don't do that again.” Flint strapped on the gun holster he'd grabbed on his way out the door. He'd run to the chicken coop, following the footprints in the snow. He'd known the footprints could be a decoy—that a clever kidnapper could have set up an ambush for him. But he ran anyway. The air was so cold his breath puffed out white smoke.

 

Francis looked up. This wasn't her morning. Every time she turned around there was a man looking at her like she was doing something wrong. “I'm only getting the eggs.”

Francis slipped her hand under another laying hen and found a warm egg. The chickens weren't used to being visited this early, but they'd behaved with remarkable poise. Maybe it was so cold they weren't interested in protesting. “Sixteen so far.”

She wished she'd stopped to do more than comb her hair this morning. The cold would have added pink to her cheeks, but it was an uneven redness and she wished she'd put on some foundation. Or some eyeliner. Her eyes tended to disappear without eyeliner.

She knew she didn't look as good when she first woke up as Flint did. His rough whiskers and tousled brown hair made him look rugged, especially with the morning light starting to shine behind him.

“You are not to go out by yourself.” Flint leaned
against the doorjamb and said the words clearly. “If you want to go get eggs, I'll take you.”

Francis slid her hand under another warm hen. There were several dozen laying boxes in the chicken coop, each stacked on top of another. Every hen had her own nest lined with straw. Francis had looked around earlier to see where the rooster was, but she hadn't seen him. He had been unusually aggressive lately, and she always tried to check on him when she entered the coop.

“You're not still worried about me! You caught the kidnappers.”

“We caught the goon guys,” Flint explained patiently. Why would the sight of a woman plucking eggs from beneath those sleeping chickens affect him like this? “We still don't know who the local contact person is—and we're a long way from catching the boss of the whole operation.”

“Well, certainly they won't want me. I'd think by now they'd give up.”

“We're not dealing with juvenile delinquents here. They aren't likely to be distracted just because some little guys in the operation get taken in. No, they'll stay with it. They're in this deep already.”

“But what am I supposed to do?” Francis laid the basket of eggs on a shelf and turned to face Flint completely. “I can't live my life in a bubble and you can't guard me forever.”

Want to bet?
Flint thought. “You can take reasonable precautions.”

“I do take reasonable precautions. I've been trained by the City of Denver in hostage survival. And how to deal with a terrorist. I'm as prepared as any average citizen could be.”

Flint didn't want to tell her how many average citizens were dead today. “Humor me. Until we find the local informant, I intend to guard you.”

“But—”

“No argument. That's the way it's going to be.”

“But what about—”

“Don't even ask about Lover Boy inside there. He can wait to be alone with you.”

“He's not—”

Flint held up his hand. “And another thing. You're going to have to tell me you want that divorce. If you're so set on getting divorced from me, I'd at least like the courtesy of hearing it from your own lips this time.”

“Who said—”

“The envelope's on the kitchen table. Still has the coffee stain from twenty years ago—”

In the shadows of the chicken coop Flint could see that Francis looked tired and worried. All of the vinegar went out of his anger.

“I just think you should ask me this time. Tell it to me straight.”

Francis watched Flint turn polite. The brief hope
that she'd felt when Flint stormed into the coop died. He didn't intend to fight their fate. “I see.”

“It was mostly my fault anyway. I had no business asking you to marry me. I figure your dad knew that.”

Francis felt every one of her thirty-eight years.

“You'd be better off with someone like Sam anyway,” Flint rambled on.
You can stop me anytime.
“He'll give you a stable home and—and—ficus. He seems like a decent enough person. Steady.”

“Yes, he's steady all right.” Francis didn't like the direction this conversation was going. Flint might be totally indifferent to her, but she didn't want him to encourage her to marry another man. She didn't know why he even needed to pretend to care about who she married. And then it hit her. He had his Rose. He probably wanted that divorce. “You don't need to worry about me. I don't intend to press you on anything. You're completely free.”

Completely free. The words echoed in Flint's ears. Why did they have to sound like a prison sentence? “I'm not worried.”

“Well, you don't need to be,” Francis repeated as she gathered herself together. It had been twenty years, for pity's sake. She searched in the pocket of her robe for a hair clip and found one. She was a middle-aged woman and needed to start acting her age.

Francis reached up, twisted her hair into a tidy
bun and then clipped it into place. “I'll finish getting these eggs in and fix you some breakfast.”

Flint's throat was dry. “Don't bother just for me, unless the others are getting up.”

Francis picked up her basket again and returned to her task. “They'll be up soon enough. I may as well get all the eggs.”

Francis knew her eyes were blurry. She told herself firmly it was because of the dust in the chicken coop. All that grain and straw made for dust. Dust led to allergies and red eyes. It certainly wasn't tears that made it hard for her to see.

Francis slipped her hand under another feathery body.

Flint had turned to look outside the coop door. A white expanse of smooth snow covered the area around the ranch outbuildings. The only footprints were the ones he and Francis had made. The thick snow made the silence even more pronounced, and it blanketed the low foothills that led up to the Big Sheep Mountains.

Flint was too relaxed. That's what he told himself later.

The indignant screech of the rooster awakened his instincts. Animals were often the first to notice danger. He turned as the feathered black bird half-flew out of the box it had been occupying.

Francis screamed.

After looking at the snow, it was hard for Flint to
see clearly when he turned to look inside the coop. White dots swam in front of dark shadows. He couldn't swear there wasn't something in some corner. Something that black rooster had just noticed. He didn't have time to even look closely.

Years of training kicked in, and Flint took four giant steps toward Francis and wrapped his arms around her before rolling with her to the floor of the coop. Once they hit bottom, he turned so that his bulk would take any bullet that might come from any corner.

Francis couldn't breathe. She forgot all about being a middle-aged woman in a fuzzy bathrobe. Her heart was beating so fast she could be inside the pages of a French spy novel. She could only see the bottom half of Flint's face, but any doubts she had about the danger she was in faded. Flint was stone-faced serious. Deadly, almost. He truly believed someone might still be after her. He'd pulled the gun out of his shoulder holster.

Dear, Lord, someone could really be after me!
The realization rose like a prayer to a God she rarely thought of anymore. She wished she had stayed closer to Him. Maybe then this panic wouldn't send her emotions skittering around.

Francis wasn't prepared for the panic she felt. The training sessions she'd had about hostage situations didn't come close to preparing her. “They can have my money.”

Flint looked down. Francis was lying on her back beneath him. The clip had fallen out, and her hair spread around her face like black silk. He hadn't realized he'd scared her. “Where's that fool rooster going to spend your money?”

“It's just the rooster?” Francis started to breathe again.

“Looks like.” Flint choked back the rest of the reassuring words. He'd spoken too soon. He heard a sound. Outside. The soft crunch of a foot on snow. Very soft. But there. Definitely there. He shouldn't have given in to the urge to reassure Francis. Unless that rooster wore boots, they were not alone out here.

“Shh.” Flint mouthed the warning silently.

Francis felt the coil of Flint's body. Every muscle was alert even though he hadn't moved. Francis willed her body to shrink. She'd heard the footstep, too. It didn't seem fair that Flint was obviously using himself as a shield between her and whoever was outside the chicken coop.

There was no other footstep. Someone outside was listening.

Flint almost swore. That meant whoever was on the other side of that knotted wood wall was military trained. Not that that was necessarily a bad thing, he reminded himself. Amateurs were always more dangerous to deal with than professionals, because amateurs sometimes missed and got the wrong target.

Flint slowly moved so that he was no longer sprawled across Francis.

“Move to the corner,” he mouthed silently as he jerked his head in the direction of the right corner.

If Francis went to the right, he'd stay in the middle. That way, just in case there were any bullets, she wouldn't be close enough to him to draw fire. He hoped.

Francis mutely shook her head. She didn't want to cower in some corner while Flint faced the danger alone. She mouthed, “I can help.”

Flint didn't have any more time to argue with her. He knew whoever was outside would be making a move soon.

“Francis?” The low whisper came from outside the chicken coop, and Francis recognized it immediately.

“Garth?”

Flint didn't move his hand from his gun holster until he saw the dark silhouette of Garth Elkton in the open doorway of the chicken coop.

“What in blazes is going on in here?” Garth demanded.

The ground beneath her back was ice cold, but Francis didn't want to move. Her older brother had always scolded her when she'd misbehaved as a child, and she recognized the same sound in his voice today. “Nothing.”

“Nothing?” Garth asked incredulously.

“I was guarding Francis,” Flint explained, in his best government-business, don't-bother-me voice. It usually backed people off. It didn't even faze Garth.

“I can see what you are doing,” Garth snorted. Francis's brother had obviously rushed out here in a hurry. He'd pulled on a pair of jeans, but he wore nothing over the thermal underwear that covered his chest. “There's not a square inch of light between the two of you. I don't even want to know what you are doing out here rolling around on the ground.”

“You think I'd pick a place like this to seduce a woman? At five in the morning? In freezing weather?”

“I think you'd pick any place you could, Romeo. Any place. Any time. It's just that when it's my sister, you go through me first.”

Francis looked at the two men and sighed. That's all she needed. A few macho games. “Garth, I'm not a child. I can take care of myself.”

Garth looked at her and shook his head. “But the chicken coop?”

“I was gathering the eggs.”

“At this hour of the morning?” Garth finally looked around and saw both the basket of eggs and the rooster, strutting aggressively in the corner. Garth seemed to visibly relax. “Well, no wonder you're flat on the ground. Big Ben here doesn't like to get up before the sun. I'm surprised he didn't chase you out of here.”

“I think you interrupted him,” Flint said. The black rooster was watching the three humans with a growing annoyance in its beady eyes. “He doesn't want to take on all three of us—at least not yet.”

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