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Authors: Debbie Macomber

Montana (33 page)

BOOK: Montana
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The next morning, Sam knew something was wrong with Molly the minute he awoke. It probably had to do with that dinner scene the night before, but God's honest truth, he'd had one bitch of a day and was dead on his feet. Not wanting to disappoint her, he'd gone along with her romantic charade, and to be fair, he'd been surprised and delighted when she joined him in the shower. Never having made love in an upright position, he'd been required to improvise—admittedly without total success. But all in all it had worked out rather nicely once he got her into bed. He was too much of a tradionalist to be very experimental when it came to making love with his wife. But he was willing to try if she was.

Dinner was wonderful, and it was clear that Molly had gone to a lot of trouble. But now he knew he'd committed some terrible faux pas. Molly was curled up on the far side of the bed, as near the edge as she could possibly get.

“Morning, sweetheart,” he whispered, wriggling across the bed to get closer to her.

He knew it probably hadn't been good form to fall asleep in the chair so soon after dinner, but he'd been exhausted. He didn't even remember getting into bed.

Silently Molly tossed aside the covers and climbed out of bed.

“Is something wrong, sweetheart?” he asked.

“Oh, Sam, sometimes you make things so difficult.”

He sighed, wondering how often he'd be obliged to apologize for falling asleep in the middle of her romantic evening. He did feel bad about it, but she
could
be a bit more understanding.

“Just tell me what's wrong, okay?”

“Nothing's wrong,” she whispered.

He'd swear she was crying. “Molly, for heaven's sake, tell me!”

“You don't know, do you?” She shook her head, her expression hopeless. “You honestly don't know.” Sniffling, she grabbed a tissue from the dresser.

“Uh…”

“Think about it, Sam. Just think. I had a wonderful night planned for us and…I don't know why I should have to tell you anything! You should be able to figure this out yourself. You were the one who noticed I've gained weight.”

“Honey, a few pounds. Don't worry about it. You look great. You
are
great. It's just a little more of you to love.” He reached out to her, planning to pull her into his arms.

She slapped his hands away and blinked hard. “Sam, there's a reason I've gained a few pounds.”

“Sure, it's all the desserts you've been baking lately, but I don't want you to worry about it.”

She released a soft groan and left the bedroom.

Sam didn't know what her problem was, but he had work to do. The way he figured, she'd tell him when she was ready. Right now he needed to get over to Lonesome Creek to check on the herd.

Molly had coffee and toast waiting for him when he joined her in the kitchen.

“I gotta go.”

“I know.” She'd wiped all traces of tears from her cheeks and kissed him. “Think about what I said, all right?” she murmured.

She looked so small and pitiful that Sam held her longer than necessary before he headed for the barn to saddle up Thunder.

As he rode toward Lonesome Creek, it hit him.

Molly was pregnant.

Pregnant!

His heart felt like it would explode with excitement. With happiness. His instinct was to turn around and ride back, kiss her senseless, tell her how thrilled he was. He would have, too, but he heard voices just then, and the sound of a truck. This was
his
land and anyone on it would be up to no good.

Without considering the fact that he was alone and unarmed, he charged for the hill and crested it in time to see four men dressed in fatigues loading up his cattle.

They saw him, too.

What happened next seemed unreal, like something out of a flickering scene in a silent movie. He heard a shout and watched transfixed as one of the men raised a rifle to his shoulder and took aim. It was a moment before Sam realized the man was aiming at
him
.

With a cry of outrage, Sam pulled back on Thunder's reins to reverse the gelding's direction. Bending low over the horse's sleek neck, he made for the ranch, knowing that even the slightest hesitation could cost him his life.

The sound of the rifle blast reached him at the precise moment he experienced the searing pain of the hit. The sheer force of it flung his arms wildly into the air. With his weight off center, he slid from the saddle, just managing to free his feet from the stirrups. The gelding's thundering hoofs echoed like cannon shots as he fell. His last conscious thought before he slammed against the hard ground was a simple prayer. He asked for only one thing. To live long enough to tell Molly how happy he was about the baby.

Eighteen

T
his wasn't going down the way Monroe had planned. The Loyalists needed the Wheaton land, but the old man had been too damn stubborn. Wouldn't listen to reason. Okay, he'd expected that. Walt Wheaton had been a cantankerous fool most of his life. Monroe had considered it a godsend when his granddaughter arrived, but he'd been wrong. The situation had quickly gone from bad to worse.

Sam Dakota had thrown a monkey wrench into the entire scheme. Without him Molly would've been forced to sell the property, and she'd have been glad to be rid of it. Dakota was as stubborn as the old man, and it was clear he intended to fight for the land with the same unshakable determination.

Monroe leaned forward and planted his elbows on his desk. The situation had taken a sharp turn south starting with Pearl Mitchell's murder. He'd confronted Lance, who claimed he'd had nothing to do with it and offered an alibi. When Monroe checked, he was surprised to learn Lance had been telling the truth. Yeah, he'd come to town that night, but Lance had been at Willie's playing pool with that hothead Travis. The bartender confirmed it.

It would have been convenient if they'd been able to pin the murder on Dakota, but that hadn't panned out. Monroe could deal with Molly, persuade her it'd be wise to sell—if he could get her husband out of the picture. What shocked him was that his cousin, his own flesh and blood, was the one responsible for seeing the man set free. It angered him every time he thought about it. Damn attorneys weren't to be trusted. Even when they were part of the family.

He wished the hell he knew what Russell's angle was with Pearl. The way his cousin had hounded the sheriff's office for information led him to believe there might have been something between them. That was enough to make him laugh. His cousin falling for a hooker!

Monroe felt bad about Pearl's murder, too, but she was the one who chose to live this life. She knew the risks. If he found out who'd killed her, he'd make the son of a bitch pay, if for no other reason than the lost income she'd provided. The freebies Pearl threw in every other week or so would be sorely missed, but he'd convince one of the other girls to be just as accommodating.

The girls had gotten nervous after Pearl's death, and profits had dropped by thirty percent. He'd been against setting up this prostitution ring in the first place, afraid someone would trace it back to him. But it was the least of his worries now. Lately there'd been any number of problems developing.

Tightening the screws on Dakota had been downright fun, but the bastard had refused to break. Messing around with his stepsons hadn't done it, either. Hiring the Hudson kid to paint the wall had been Lance's idea. He snorted. Lance was a fool and not to be trusted. He was sure Lance's friend was the one who'd set the Cogan boy free. Travis was a good man and a capable soldier, but he couldn't stand seeing anything happen to kids. They were his weakness. Damn fool.

Burns had turned on him, too. Without ready cash Dakota would've been at their mercy, but the bank president had stepped in and rescued him. Monroe understood that Burns had to put business first, but it complicated an already complicated situation. Once Monroe heard the terms of the loan, though, he'd realized what had to be done. Dakota had to be prevented from getting his cattle to market.

The door opened and Lance walked into his office.

Monroe's anger flared like a match to a blowtorch. “I told you never to come here.” He was on his feet, prepared to personally drag Lance's sorry ass onto the street. Talk about stupid!

“It went wrong,” the other man muttered.

This wasn't what Monroe wanted to hear. “Meet me behind Willie's at midnight.”

“Travis shot him.”

“Shot who?” he demanded. Forced as he was to deal with incompetence and insubordination, it amazed him the organization had held together this long.

“Dakota,” Lance said. “There was nothing we could do.”

Monroe gave a slow satisfied smile. So Dakota was a goner. No great loss. And who better to comfort the grieving widow than Monroe himself?

 

Grumbling to herself about how obtuse men could be, Molly set about her busy day. There never seemed to be any shortage of projects needing attention. She had a list of chores for the boys, as well.

Humming as she sorted laundry on the back porch, she heard the unmistakable sound of a horse galloping into the yard. It didn't seem possible that Sam could be back already—but maybe he'd figured out what she'd been trying to tell him. She felt a bit queasy this morning, and she pressed her palm over her stomach, loving her unborn child with the same fierceness as she loved her boys.

Molly peeked around to see Thunder prancing about in front of the barn door, snorting and jerking his head.

Riderless.

Molly stared at the horse. Where was Sam? Grabbing her sweater from the peg, she raced onto the porch.

“Sam?” she called. She stopped suddenly. She
knew
something was wrong. Terribly wrong.

With her breath coming in short frantic gasps, she stormed back into the house for the truck keys. Her fingers trembled so badly she had trouble inserting the key in the ignition, and she cursed under her breath. Taking a moment to calm herself, she pushed in the clutch, revved the cold engine and headed in the direction she'd seen Sam ride.

The pasture was anything but smooth, and she was hurled, jarred and jolted as she sped across the uneven terrain. All the while she prayed frantically, fear gnawing at her insides. She had no idea what she'd find. If Thunder had thrown Sam, there was a possibility he'd reinjured his back. He'd been forced to give up the rodeo because of a spinal injury; any further damage could leave him paralyzed for life.

Dread roared through her like wildfire. So intent was she on her worries that she nearly drove right past Sam. When she did see him staggering across the pasture, holding his head, she stomped on the brakes.

Leaping out of the cab, she raced toward him. When he saw her, Sam sank to his knees. Blood oozed between his fingers and flowed onto his face and into his eyes.

Molly gasped.

“It's not as bad as it looks,” he assured her, his voice barely audible.

“Sam, oh, Sam.”

“We got troubles, sweetheart.”

His eyes fluttered and she knew he was going to pass out.

“Rustlers got our herd.” With that he toppled over, face first.

 

Sam awoke and groaned at the hammering in his skull. Pinpoint lasers pierced his brain, blinding him with light. He raised his hand to protect his vision and tried to figure out where he was.

He recognized nothing.

“Sam?”

Molly was with him; that was promising, anyway.

“Where am I?” Each word demanded tremendous effort.

“Home. Dr. Shaver just left. Ginny's here, too. I don't know what I would've done without her and Fred. They helped me carry you into the house. Can you tell us what happened?”

“Rustlers…got the herd.”

“I know.” He caught the way her voice trembled, but doubted she fully understood the magnitude of what this meant. “The loan, Molly. We have to make a five-thousand-dollar payment in three weeks.”

She grasped his hand tightly. “Don't worry about that now. We'll find a way.”

“But…” He half lifted himself from the bed, not sure why, but knowing he had to do something. Everything around him had an unreal quality, as though it were all part of a bad dream. The worst nightmare of his life. If so, he wanted to wake up soon.

Dear God, what were they going to do?

“It's all right,” she insisted gently. She placed her hands on his shoulders and eased him back against the mattress. He felt her lips on his cheek and for a moment welcomed her comfort and her love. But comfort couldn't last, not when they'd been robbed of every hope for their future.

“Sheriff Maynard.” He struggled to speak and clutched her arm, wanting her to know the importance of his request. He needed to talk to the lawman, and the sooner the better.

“I called him already,” Molly answered calmly. “He wants to talk to you as soon as you're a bit better.”

“Now.”

“Soon, I promise. But for now, please rest.” Her voice trembled again, and he did as she asked, rather than upset her further.

The pain in his head was vicious. Unable to fight it any longer, he closed his eyes. “Tell Maynard…I can identify one…if I saw him again.” The one with the rifle. Sam had gotten a good look at him. Unfortunately it wasn't someone he recognized. A stranger. In another sense, however, the fact that he
was
a stranger brought Sam a measure of relief. It would be difficult to accept that any of his neighbors would involve themselves in something so criminal.

Who? Why? The questions pounded in his brain, as painful as the physical agony.

Although his eyes remained closed, Sam was awake, at least partially so. Bits and pieces of conversation drifted his way.

“Dr. Shaver said another inch to the left and the bullet would have gone directly into his brain,” Molly said. “As it is, it gouged a path across the top of his skull.”

“Were they trying to kill him?” The voice belonged to Tom, and from his tone Sam knew the boy was fighting mad. “Who would do something like this? Who? If I ever find out—”

“Tom, we don't know,” Molly responded. “No one does.”

“What are we going to do if we can't make the first payment?” Tom asked. Sam wondered the same thing, and the weight of that burden was heavier than anything he'd ever experienced, including the prison sentence. It crushed him with fear.

Molly hesitated. “I don't know what'll happen, but we don't need to deal with it now.”

“Won't the bank give us more time?”

“I already called and explained the situation,” Molly said. “And while Mr. Burns is sympathetic, he said he couldn't make allowances.”

“We aren't going to lose the ranch, are we?”

Molly hesitated and her voice shook ever so slightly when she answered. “I…don't know.”

“Will we move back to San Francisco?”

Sam wanted to protest, reassure Tom and Clay that he'd do everything in his power to see that didn't happen. They belonged in Montana now, as much as he did himself.

“What about Sam? If we have to move, will he go with us?”

Sam living in a big city. Not likely. He nearly snickered out loud. He wouldn't last a day.

“Of course he will,” Molly said. “Sam's my husband.”

Although his head hurt like a son of a bitch, Sam almost smiled. Molly loved him, and by God he couldn't, wouldn't, let her down now. Walt had brought them together, and the old man knew exactly what he was doing. He and Molly might not have started their marriage in the traditional way, but they were going to make it work.

In his thirty-six years Sam had committed more than his share of sins. In all that time, he'd never asked for much. Mostly he hadn't given a damn about anything or anyone, including himself. Then he'd met Walt Wheaton and fallen in love with Molly.

He cared now. Cared about his family—Molly, the boys, his unborn son or daughter. Cared about his own life. Cared more than he'd ever thought possible. Somehow, some way, he'd get that money.

 

Russell sat in his office and read over the faxed report a second time. He'd had to pull a number of strings and call in several favors to obtain this information. Now that it was in his hands, right here in black and white, he was even more confused. He knew more about militia groups and domestic terrorists than he'd ever expected to learn. He'd made contact with the FBI and could negotiate the Internet like a pro. And he'd discovered that the paper trail led directly back to the Loyalists in Sweetgrass. To a member of his own family.

Countless hours had gone into his research. It had all started with Pearl's murder. Every time her name passed through his mind he experienced a deep sense of loss. The weeks hadn't eased it. Nothing had, and he suspected nothing ever would.

There'd been little comfort for him, except that one night he'd spent in the cabin. Often he'd close his eyes and bask in the memory, feeling again the cool silk of her nightgown, smelling her rose-scented perfume. Remembering her. It made him more determined than ever to find the man responsible for her death and see that justice was served.

That promise had led him to the papers that lay before him now. The print blurred and he pinched the bridge of his nose, weary in body and mind. It'd been a long day, and if this contract said what he thought it did, Pearl's death hadn't come at the hands of an overzealous john. She'd been a tool used by the Loyalists; he believed she'd been killed because she knew too much. Perhaps she'd threatened to tell what she knew…. For the first time he understood why she'd rejected his marriage proposals. Had she died trying to free herself from the Loyalists in order to marry him? It didn't bear considering. He understood now who was responsible for her death. His cousin. And the irony was that it'd been through his cousin that he first met Pearl.

BOOK: Montana
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