Read Wolf Creek Widow (Wolf Creek, Arkansas Book 4) Online

Authors: Penny Richards

Tags: #Historical, #Romance, #Fiction, #19th Century, #American West, #Western, #Christian, #Religious, #Faith, #Widow, #Inspirational, #Second Chance, #Farm, #Native American, #Spousal Abuse, #Struggle, #Isolated, #Community, #Amends, #Husband, #Deserves, #Protect, #Killed, #Assistance

Wolf Creek Widow (Wolf Creek, Arkansas Book 4)

BOOK: Wolf Creek Widow (Wolf Creek, Arkansas Book 4)
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The Widow’s Second Chance

Meg Thomerson needs assistance getting back on her feet—even if it comes from the man who made her a widow. Ace Allen didn’t intend to kill her husband, he only wanted to protect the town from the man’s rage. Now Ace is keeping Meg’s business and farm running while she heals, both physically and emotionally. But is he helping her out of charity—or because of something more?

Half Native American, Ace struggles to find his place in the world. He keeps himself isolated from the community, but sweet Meg begins to penetrate his defenses. At first, he simply wanted to make amends to her. Now, if she’ll let him, he could become the loving husband she deserves...

“Look at me.”

As he spoke, he gave her arms a gentle tug.

Bit by bit, as if she were expecting it to be a trick, she did as he commanded while her mind recanted the litany that this man had killed her husband.

Common sense prevailed.
If he hadn’t shot Elton, Colt would be dead and you’d probably be dead yourself. He did it for you. To save you. To save Colt.

His crystalline eyes clouded with remorse. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I was only going to get a twig out of your hair.”

Holding one palm up in a “stop” gesture, he reached out with the other to pluck the harmless twig from her tangled hair. Without a word, he held it out to show her.

She felt like a fool for overreacting. “Th-thank you,” she whispered, daring to let her gaze make contact with the disturbing intensity of his.

He nodded. “I know you don’t have many reasons to believe anything a man says, but I want you to know that I have never raised my hand against a woman, and I never will. You have no reason to be frightened of me. Ever.”

Penny Richards
has been publishing
since 1983, writing mostly contemporary romances. She now happily pens
inspirational historical romance and loves spending her days in the “past” when
things were simpler and times were more innocent. She enjoys research, yard
sales, flea markets, revamping old stuff and working in her flower gardens. A
mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, she tries to spend as much time as
possible with her family.

Books by Penny Richards

Love Inspired Historical

Wolf Creek Wedding
Wolf Creek Homecoming
Wolf Creek
Father
Wolf Creek Widow

Love Inspired

Unanswered Prayers

Visit the Author Profile page at
Harlequin.com
for more
titles.

PENNY RICHARDS

Wolf Creek Widow

In His favor is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

—Psalms
30:5

This book is for Ace Allen Richards, first great-grandchild and Adventurer Extraordinaire. I hope to have many more “’ventures” with you, precious blue-eyed boy.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Benjamin Neeley for telling me about “thin places.” Now I know what to call those special moments.

Chapter One

Wolf Creek, Arkansas, 1886

T
hunk!

Thunk!

Thunk!

The dull, rhythmic sound penetrated the light layer of sleep shrouding Meg Thomerson’s consciousness. She lay on her side, her knees pulled up to her chest as far as her injured ribs and healing arm would allow. Her hands, palms pressed together as if she were praying, were tucked beneath her cheek. Even now, dull pain pulsed in her side with every slow beat of her heart, a persistent reminder of the last time she’d been in this room.

Thunk!

Restless, she moved her head on the pillow, not ready to face the day just yet. Not ready to face what might be left of her life. The lonely night had been made worse without her children there to cheer her. She’d thought of going into their room, but knew it would only make their absence harder to bear. Besides, she was filled with the certainty that if she started sleeping in their room for comfort, she would never again find the courage to stay alone at night. Meg knew she might be many things, but she didn’t think she was a coward.

It was almost dawn before she’d fallen into a light sleep filled with echoes of Elton’s mocking voice and vivid dreams of him hitting her.

Thunk!

Her eyelids flew upward against her will. She didn’t want to wake up, didn’t want to remember the last time she was here. Too late. Her gaze collided with the battered chest of drawers that sat next to her bed. Elton had hidden some cash and a gun there. The same gun he’d used to try to kill Sheriff Colt Garrett almost six weeks ago after escaping from prison, where he’d been sent earlier in the year for a series of robberies in the area and almost killing Gabe Gentry and Sarah VanSickle. The attempted murder had taken place on the same day Elton had been shot and killed.

It was that decision, one of the many bad choices he had made through the years, that led to his own death. Meg moved her head restlessly on the pillow. If she let herself remember, she would be filled with that wonderful, horrible,
sinful
feeling of relief that had swept through her when the sheriff broke the news that Elton was dead.

Surely she was bound for hell to feel as she did.

Thunk!

She shoved the shameless thought aside. She would take Doc Rachel’s advice and try to keep her mind occupied with other things. The lady doctor had assured her that in time, her inner wounds would heal, just as her physical ones were healing, and her joy in living would return. Meg hoped the doctor was right, but for now, she would not think; she would do. As tempting as it was to stay in bed and lick her wounds, she would get up and see what on earth that irritating noise was.

Using her uninjured arm to lever herself, she sat up. Though she had more or less healed, it was hard to break the habit of moving as if her bones were made of delicate crystal, like that she’d once seen at Sarah VanSickle’s fancy house.

Meg eased her legs over the edge of the mattress and sat straight and still, waiting for her still-tender ribs to accustom themselves to the new position before putting her feet to the floor.

She didn’t have to get dressed. When Doctor Gentry and her husband, Gabe, had brought her home from their place the evening before, Meg had been too tired to put on a nightgown. She’d pulled the hairpins from her hair, kicked off her shoes and curled up fully dressed on the threadbare quilt.

Now she crossed the wood floor to the window at the rear of the little three-room house. The bare planks were cool through her thin stockings. Faded blue-patterned curtains, hand-stitched from flour sacks and hanging from tautly stretched twine wrapped around a couple of sixpenny nails, were drawn against the night. Moving slowly, Meg raised her arms and pushed the curtains aside.

A familiar scene greeted her. The sun was already making its debut above the tree line in the eastern sky, hens scratched in the dirt with an industriousness Meg envied and the big white rooster flapped his wings, puffed out his chest and welcomed the day with a prideful crowing, as if it were all his doing. A lone pig rooted around near the small shack that served as a barn and her ancient gray mare nibbled at the stubs of green grass in the rickety corral.

Sunrise had always been her favorite time of day, an almost sacred time. A time when night and day merged, heaven and earth seemed to mesh and God seemed so near she could feel Him. From watching the world awaken and the animals working so hard, each new morning had seemed like a promise, filling her with warmth and hope and a chance to start over as the soft glow of the rising sun urged her to get up, move on, work harder and just maybe, things would get better.

They never had.

Today she found no joy in the familiar setting. No connection with God. All hope had been taken from her. Not even Elton’s death and the knowledge that he was no longer a threat could fill the emptiness in her heart.

Please, Lord, let Doc Rachel be right. Let me find hope and peace in Your presence once more.

The brief entreaty crossed her mind before she could give it thought, a habit so ingrained that not even the guilt that kept her from voicing a proper prayer could halt the habit of a lifetime.

Thunk!

The sound drew her attention to the couple attacking the woodpile—a man splitting the logs and a small woman with a long braid hanging down her back who was stacking the split wood beneath the lean-to.

He was a big man: tall, broad through the chest and shoulders, long-legged and lean-hipped. Even from where she stood, it was easy to see that he radiated raw power and brute strength. Perfect for chopping wood.

Or battering a woman.

A shudder shivered through her, and her knees threatened to buckle, forcing her to lean against the window frame for support.

The movement must have caught his attention. He turned and, resting the ax on his shoulder, fixed her with a penetrating stare. It was the Indian—well, part-Indian—man who had helped her with her laundry baskets a few times.

She’d never noticed how intimidating he was. His hair, so dark it was almost black, hung just past his shoulders and was held away from his face by a bandanna tied around his forehead. Though she couldn’t see their hue from where she stood, his eyes, in contrast to his swarthy skin, were so light they looked almost colorless.

His features were rough-hewn, and his face was all sharp angles, harsh planes and deep shadows. Heavy eyebrows were set in a straight line above a bladelike nose and a square chin and jaw. The combined effect should have rendered him ugly, but even though his face was fierce and a bit frightening, he possessed a harsh beauty. There was a noble look about him, something in the way he stood with his denim-clad legs slightly apart and the tilt of his head that seemed to shout that he was much more than what she saw standing there.

He looked magnificent and proud and wild.

Nothing at all like a killer.

* * *

Feet apart, shoulders back, his expression showing none of the turmoil churning in his gut, Ace Allen stood in the growing warmth of the September morning and stared at the woman whose husband he’d killed. Though the shooting was justified, done to save the sheriff, he was still responsible for taking a life and making the woman at the window a widow and her children orphans.

He wondered where that put him with God.

Maybe everyone was right and Elton Thomerson had deserved his fate, but Ace was having trouble making peace with what he’d done. For good or ill, his actions had forced him and the woman together and would take their lives in new directions. Wherever their paths might lead, they would forever be bound by Elton’s death.

Seeing the woman—Meg—made his guilt even harder to bear. A small woman, she looked insubstantial since her ordeal. She hadn’t braided her hair for the night and gold-blond tresses fell straight and silky from a side part, framing a too-thin face with almond-shaped eyes that he knew from previous encounters were green. A wide mouth, round chin and straight nose combined to make her one of the loveliest women he’d ever seen.

Almost as if she’d heard his thoughts, she ducked her head, reached up and swept the golden mass over one shoulder and began to weave it into a careless plait. The utter femininity of the gesture took his breath away.

“She’s awake.”

Ace turned toward his mother. There was a curious expression in the dark eyes regarding him. “Yes.”

“I’ll go to her, see what she needs,” Awinita Allen said, adding the wood in her arms to the neatly stacked pile.

Ace looked toward the window once more, but Meg was gone. “I want to talk to her.” His tone was more forceful than was necessary.

Nita placed a gentle hand on his arm. “Let me tend to her needs first. I’ll call you when breakfast is ready.”

* * *

Meg used the moment when the woman spoke to the man to break the strange trance gripping her. No. He was not just a man, she reminded herself. He was the man who had shot Elton. It was important that she remember that.

Ace.
His name is Ace Allen.

Sheriff Garrett and Rachel had told her his name...among other things that had been mostly lost in the laudanum-laced world she’d drifted in and out of those first couple of weeks. Ace Allen had been in prison before. She’d heard that somewhere. She didn’t remember why he’d been sent away, but he was out now and chopping wood for the upcoming winter. For her.

Meg wondered again how she had allowed herself to be talked into such a thing. She’d been shocked when the sheriff and doctor had approached her together and suggested that Ace and his mother would be the perfect ones to help her around the farm until she was strong enough to handle things on her own, possibly until cold weather settled in. Rachel added the argument that the self-sufficient Allens could keep her laundry business going so that she wouldn’t lose her main source of income.

“I can’t afford to hire them or anyone else,” she’d said, though the thought of maintaining her income was tempting. “And I’m sure no red-blooded man is going to want to do laundry.”

Sheriff Garrett laughed. “Actually, Ace did a lot of laundry while he was in the penitentiary.”

“They live off the land, Meg,” Rachel told her. “Ace hunts and traps and fishes and they sell produce and fruit to the mercantile in season. They’re the kind of people who would do it for nothing, but you can give them meals, and I’m sure we can have a benefit or something to bring in some money. You know how people stand by each other here. No matter how strapped for cash they may be, they always manage to come up with something to help out.”

Meg couldn’t deny that. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen a more giving community than the one in Wolf Creek. She’d just never been the recipient of their generosity before. She’d always stood on her own two feet and “scratched with the chickens” for her living, as her aunt would say. Accepting help felt a lot like charity. She said as much to the pair doing their best to persuade her.

“Now isn’t the time to let your pride get in the way,” Colt told her. “And if you’re worried about Ace being in prison, it might help to know that the killing he was accused of back when he was younger was accidental. He got in a fistfight and the other guy’s head hit a rock when he fell. But because Ace was an Indian, they took the word of the bystanders. He spent two years at hard labor for something men do all the time.

“When Elton was caught and sent to prison for robbing Gabe, Sarah and the others, and word was that his partner was an Indian, he said it was Ace to protect his friend, and the judge sent Ace back to jail for the second time. Elton was lying.”

Meg wrung her hands together and looked at him with a furrowed brow. “How can you know that for sure?”

“Because I followed some leads and found out Joseph Jones was the guilty party. Ace was set free. He’s a good man. Will you be uncomfortable around him because of Elton?”

“No, not really,” Meg told them. Everyone in town knew Elton’s death was a result of his own actions.

“Look, Meg,” Rachel said, “I know you’ve had a lot to deal with, but you need to let us help however we can. We care about you. At least give some thought to letting Ace and his mother help.”

“He learned to do about everything while he was locked up,” Colt added. “He’s a jack-of-all-trades if ever there was one, and Nita will be a big help, too.”

“Don’t worry about payment. We’ll figure out something,” Rachel added, her brown eyes smiling. “And it will not be charity.”

“But I already owe you a small fortune.”

“And you’ll pay what you can, when you can. You have two children who need you, and you can’t take care of them alone just yet.” She gave a wry lift of her eyebrows. “You can’t even fully take care of yourself yet. Doesn’t it make sense that if you want them to come home you need to get better as fast as possible?”

Of course it did.

“Fine, then,” Meg had told them at last, and Colt and Rachel had promised to take care of everything.

They’d done just that, even making certain her children were taken to her aunt Serena’s place. Now she was home, and Ace Allen and his mother were here, as well.

Slipping on her worn shoes, Meg wandered into the larger space that served as both kitchen and parlor. She stood in the center of the room, hugging herself against a sudden chill despite the warmth of the morning.

Why had she ever thought she could come back here to live when memories of Elton were everywhere? She looked at the door and imagined him lounging against the door frame, three sheets to the wind, that arrogant, cocky grin on his handsome face before he...

No! No! Don’t think about it.

Malignant memories bombarded her from every direction, and she couldn’t think for the raw terror rising inside her. She turned in a circle, rubbing her upper arms, confused and unsure what to do next.

Stay calm and breathe. Remember that Elton can’t hurt you anymore. If things seem overwhelming, think them through. First things first.

Rachel’s voice, so soothing and sensible, played through Meg’s mind. She drew in several deep breaths and felt the anxiety begin to recede.

BOOK: Wolf Creek Widow (Wolf Creek, Arkansas Book 4)
12.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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