A rugged Montana man, Jonas will guard Eliza from her vile brother-in-law as fiercely as he guards his own heart. But though he can fight her enemies, he can't fight the attraction between them.
Soon Jonas is sure they have a future together—only Eliza hides secrets that could change everything….
READ CHAPTER ONE
Silver Bend, Montana, May 1885
Jonas Black looked up from his ledgers and flipped open his ornately engraved gold pocket watch. Nearly three already. In preparation to leave his desk, he blotted the numbers he'd just tallied, then rubbed his ink-stained fingers on his denim trousers. There was something he did every afternoon at this time.
"Gonna be trouble at the North Star!" The tall stoop-shouldered man who tended bar rapped on Jonas's open office door at the same time as he shouted.
The North Star was the three-story hotel a few doors down, where Jonas and most of his employees lived. Jonas owned the hotel as well as the Silver Star Saloon.
"Tall fella, but not beefy," Quay told him. "He's hollerin' for Mrs. Holmes."
Jonas didn't bother to grab his jacket. He might talk this man into leaving peaceably, but experience had taught him it might take more than a simple please to appeal to an abuser. No call to ruin a perfectly good coat.
He glanced at the holstered Colt hanging on a peg just inside the door, but deliberately walked past and locked the door behind him.
With the shutters open to the warm afternoon sun, the saloon was warm and bright. The freshly scrubbed floors, the two patrons and the woman polishing the top of the mahogany bar barely registered as he strode for the door and out onto the shaded boardwalk.
"Madeline, come out here now! Don't make me come in and get you."
The stranger stood in the street, a sweaty bay tethered to the post in front of the hotel. His tailored black suit was coated with a layer of dust as though he'd been pushing the mare for the better part of a day. In Jonas's book, men who abused horses ranked right up there with men who mistreated women. Jonas had heard Madeline Holmes's story and drew the easy conclusion that this was the man she'd run from before finding refuge in Silver Bend.
"Don't make me come in there and drag you out!" the man shouted.
"Looking for someone?" Jonas called easily.
"Stay outta this, mister. Ain't none of your concern."
Jonas walked several yards toward the hotel. "Well, seems it is my concern since you're standing there hollerin' at the front windows of my establishment. State your business, Mister…"
"Baslow. This your hotel?"
"That it is. Jonas Black's the name. And you are?"
"I'm lookin' to take a woman back with me. I want Madeline Holmes."
"Is she your wife?"
The angry man deepened the scowl on his already craggy face, and his complexion reddened. "Ain't none of your damned business what she is. All you need to know is that she's comin' with me."
"I guess we can leave that up to Maddie, now, can't we?"
At Jonas's familiar use of her name, Baslow turned his whole body toward Jonas and squinted. "What's she to you?"
"A good employee. I'll go tell her you're here and you can ask her directly what she'd like to do."
The man jerked his head toward the saloon Jonas had exited. Quay still stood just outside the doors.
"She's in there?" Baslow shouted. "Whoring?"
Jonas gestured to a brightly painted wooden sign that hung on the outside of the building. "No sportin' women in my establishment. Maddie's one of my housekeepers."
"The hell you say. Madeline!" he roared, stalking toward the saloon.
Jonas frowned at Baslow's belligerent tone and aggressive stance. Eagerness for the man to try to push past him so he'd have reason to restrain him made his fingers tingle and his blood pump.
Instead, Baslow gave him a wide berth, striding to face the open saloon doors.
Casually, Jonas turned and stepped past Quay into the dim interior. This time his gaze sought and found the dark-haired woman who'd stopped polishing the bar and stood in rigid fear, her eyes as wide as saucers, her face pale. "Frank," she said on a dry rasp.
Jonas thought she might have been pretty once, before abuse and fear had added the appearance of more years to her narrow face. Using intimidation, the man had held her in his home and his bed for eight years. Breaking away had taken courage. Following through with her decision to escape would take even more.
"You don't have to be afraid," Jonas assured her. "Quay and I are right here. The whole of Silver Bend would see if he tried to force you away in plain sight. You don't have to go back with him. He can't make you. Tell him you don't want to leave. Make it loud 'n clear so there are witnesses."
Her frightened gaze moved from Jonas to the doorway. He'd seen the same bleak dread on too many faces, and it made his blood boil. "You're free, Maddie. You have a job and can take care of yourself. You don't need him. He has no control over you except what you give him. From here on out you can live your life any way you see fit. It's up to you."
His words took effect, and her expression changed. Madeline Holmes placed the cloth she'd been holding on the bar and, with precise movements, removed her apron, folded it neatly and set it down. She ran her palms over her skirt in a nervous gesture, then straightened and raised her chin. "He can't make me do anything I don't want to, can he?"
"No, he can't."
She walked toward the doors. Jonas followed.
As she stepped out onto the boardwalk, Baslow's severe gaze narrowed on her. His attention sidled over Jonas and Quay before fixing back on her as though the men were irritating flies he intended to swat later. "If you want to bring anything with you, get it now."
Her hands trembled, but with obvious deliberation she hid them in the folds of her skirts. Jonas cheered silently for her brave front.
"I have a job now. And my own room at the hotel," she said, her voice louder than he'd expected, though a slight tremble betrayed her nervousness. "I'm content to stay right here."
Baslow's thunderous expression darkened even more noticeably.
A few citizens had gathered on the boardwalk across the street and were watching the goings-on with interest. Wouldn't be the first time a fight had erupted in front of his place, Jonas thought, his blood pounding with keen awareness, and it wouldn't be the last. He had never minded a good fight to clear the air.
"You choosing a life of whoring over comin' with me?" Baslow bit out between clenched teeth.
Jonas kept his mouth shut. He'd already told the man there weren't any sporting women at his place, and everyone in town knew it. This was Maddie's chance to speak her piece.
"That's what I felt like when I was with you," she said, coming straight to the heart of the matter. "I don't want to live that way anymore. I'm not your wife." Her voice and demeanor showed renewed strength in her decision. "Nobody hits me," she declared. "And I get a fair wage for a day's work. I can take care of myself just fine."
Baslow headed toward Maddie. "I don't know who fed you that hogwash," he said, "but you belong to me, and you'll do as I say."
She backed away.
Jonas met him before he could reach the shade of the boardwalk. "Remember the brother's war, Baslow? It's against the law to keep slaves."
They stood three feet apart. Baslow's right eye twitched with anger. Jonas's palms tingled.
"Get outta my way, mister, before you regret it."
"Can't do that. Maddie's my employee, and I take care of my people."
Baslow lunged toward Jonas. Jonas dodged his first attempt to reach him, spinning with hands locked together to land a blow on the back of the man's neck.
Caught off guard, Baslow fell to his hands and knees in the dirt, losing his hat. Slowly, he shook his head, and then scrambled to his feet to come after Jonas. The fight was on.
The growing crowd pushed forward for a better look.
Energized now, Jonas raised both fists and bent his knees in readiness. Baslow faced him and they squared off, circling in avid concentration. The man's eyes bored into Jonas's with contempt. Jonas studied his stance, his movements, waited to see how he hit. Faster than Jonas anticipated, Baslow landed a blow to Jonas's shoulder that forced him to catch his balance and got him mad. He retaliated with a quick right that landed on the man's jaw with a crack and drew a grunt from his opponent and a murmur from the crowd.
Jonas didn't feel the hits that came next, though he knew one landed against his ribs and another at his temple. Adrenaline lent him strength and numbed the pain. In the minutes that followed he used the reprieve to his advantage, skillfully finding opportunities to put down punches.
Half-a-dozen solid hits later Baslow's lip was bleeding. He had a cut over his left eye, and he was breathing hard. Jonas watched for and found an opportunity, hit his eye again, then positioned all his muscle into landing a blow to his gut.
The man moaned and doubled over, dropping to his knees in the dirt. He glared up at Jonas, one eye red from streaming blood. "You got no right to keep Madeline."
"You're finally right," Jonas answered. "Nobody's got a right to hold her. She's free to leave, she's free to stay." He turned to Maddie, who'd been watching with both hands clasped under her chin. "You want to go?"
She shook her head and released a pent-up breath. "No."
"You sure? 'Cause we don't want any misunder-standin's. You're free to leave any time you want."
"I want to stay."
"There you have it." Jonas's knuckles were stinging now. "Need any more convincing?"
Marshal Haglar parted the crowd and made his way to stand on the brick street a few feet away. He took in both men's appearances. "What in blazes is goin' on here?"
Maddie immediately ran forward to explain what had taken place. When she'd finished, the marshal turned to the spectators. "That how it happened? Anyone see the whole thing?"
Jonas couldn't remember if anyone had been there during the initial exchange of words. He scanned the faces nearby. People had an aversion to getting involved, especially when a dangerous-looking fellow like Baslow glared at them as though daring someone to speak against him.
The marshal eyed the crowd, and one after another, the bystanders glanced at the person beside them and then away. Jonas figured his reputation and position on the town council would have enough sway. He wasn't a troublemaker, but he never ran from a fight, either. He didn't want to put Warren Haglar in a bad position, and the indifference of the locals irritated him.
Townspeople turned as movement caught their attention, and Jonas looked, too. From the opposite boardwalk, a slender woman in a blue-and-white gingham dress and a straw hat held the hem of her skirts above her shoes and stepped down onto the paving bricks. She walked to within four feet of the law officer. An unexpected tremor stabbed at Jonas's belly.
"I saw the entire incident, Marshal," she said. "I saw that man ride up and shout for Mrs. Holmes."
Of course. Jonas's three o'clock obsession. She'd been on the boardwalk the whole time. Eliza Jane Sutherland was rather tall for a woman, and on the rare occasion that she'd been without a hat, he'd seen that her hair was black and glossy in the sunlight. Jonas had never heard her speak more than a one- or two-word greeting, so now her magnificent silky voice, more than the words she spoke, caught and held his attention.
"Mr. Black came out of his establishment and suggested that he—" she pointed to the scowling stranger "—leave." Her bright amber gaze moved to Jonas.
Something in his chest throbbed at the direct look, something ragged and weighty, something more alarming than facing a dozen angry men in the street.
The marshal asked her several questions and she replied directly. Jonas couldn't take his eyes from her.
Every afternoon, rain or shine, Eliza Jane walked to the small tea shop that was a red brick storefront nestled on the corner beside Earl Mobley's tailor shop on the opposite side of the street. Once inside, she seated herself at a table before the front window, where Bonnie Jacobson brought her a china cup and a pot of tea. Most days Jonas observed her ritual from just inside the door of the saloon where she couldn't see him, but occasionally he found a reason to run an errand to the hardware store across the street in time for her arrival.
Once or twice he'd paused on the boardwalk as she passed and tipped his hat. As soon as she'd raised those amber eyes, his heart thudded in his chest and he'd chastised himself. Nothing and no one intimidated Jonas Black.
Apparently the marshal had no problem accepting the true story now that Eliza Jane had verified it, because he turned to Baslow. "Time you moved on."
Baslow shot Maddie a look of seething rage. "You ain't seen the last of me, woman. Don't think your friends can protect you forever."
"Anything happens to Miss Holmes, and we'll know who to look for," the marshal told him. "I'll be wiring the county seat to let 'em know about this disturbance."
Baslow located his hat where it lay in the street. He snatched it up, whacked it against his thigh and settled it on his head before walking toward his horse and untying it. From the clumsy way he mounted, Jonas suspected he was masking a couple of cracked ribs.
Marshal Haglar watched as the man turned his mount away and galloped out of town. "Stay out of sight, but follow him a ways to make sure he's headed home," he told one of the young men who had a horse tethered across the street.
Once Baslow was out of sight and the man he'd sent was tailing him, the marshal approached Maddie.
"Thank you, Marshal," she said.
"I had the easy part," he replied. "Looks like Jonas got the worst of it."
Maddie looked Jonas over, but after noting the onlookers, a tinge of embarrassment stained her cheeks. "Sorry," she said low enough that only Jonas and the marshal could hear.