Jake looked down at his horse’s leg in disgust. Just what he needed, the beast to throw a shoe. Sliding off the animal’s back, he patted the gelding on the neck before lifting his front leg. Straightening, he removed his hat and wiped his arm across his forehead. Squinting into the sun, he realized it would be setting soon. From his directions, he figured he should shortly arrive in town.
“Can’t be more than a few miles,” he reassured his horse. He ran his hand through his dark hair before positioning his hat on his head again. Gathering the reins he started walking, leading his horse and keeping up a steady stream of chatter for the most part.
He was disappointed to find he had not entered in to the section of town near the blacksmith’s shop. With his luck, he would have to go through town first.
Stopping in front of the saloon, he hitched his horse and dusted himself off before entering the building. Making his way to the bar, he noted most of the tables were filling up quickly, although there was still room at the bar itself. “Beer,” he told the bartender, passing over his coin. He continued to take in his surroundings. It was the number one rule of his job and he never forgot it. Thanking the man for the beer, and inquiring as to the blacksmith, he leaned against the bar, half-turned toward the door. He would have been more comfortable with his back to the wall, but you had to work with what you had. As soon as he had another shoe on his horse, he would be off, continuing his search for Tom Brooks. Simon Barr, one of the top government agents in the elite group of the Secret Service, had told him he was out this way. Since he had just seen Simon the day before, he was confident he would find Tom in these parts – if he could stay mounted long enough.
Finishing his drink, he placed the glass on the bar and headed out. Scratching the horse’s nose, he unhitched him and started for the blacksmith, who fortunately was still at his work.
“Have to work late and early out in these parts,” he assured Jake. “We’ll get you fixed up right quick.”
The blacksmith looked him up and down before selecting the shoe and nails needed. He didn’t speak again until he bent to his task. “You seem in a hurry to get through town.”
Jake chuckled. “Not a hurry, precisely, but I am looking for someone. Tom Brooks.” When the man stilled for a moment, Jake continued. “Ever hear of him?”
The blacksmith gave a few more whacks, and set the shoe in place before dropping the horse’s hoof and straightening. “Can’t say I have,” he said, turning away from Jake.
“Pity. I need to find him quickly.”
The blacksmith wiped his hands on a towel and quoted his price.
Reaching into his jacket pocket, Jake paid him, and withdrew another smaller coin which he also gave the man. “If you see him, tell him that Jake Armstrong is looking.”
The blacksmith tossed the coin in the air. When he caught it, he tossed it back to Jake. “You a lawman?”
Catching the coin neatly, Jake nodded. “Is that a problem?”
“Not for me it ain’t. What’s that fool boy done now?”
“So, you do know him!”
The blacksmith shook his head. Catching up the reins to Jake’s horse, he led him to the outside rail but didn’t hitch him, waiting for Jake to claim him. Taking his cue, Jake tucked the coin in his pocket, and sauntered over to the horse but didn’t take the reins until he asked another question. “Suppose you tell me where to find him?”
“Told you, don’t know where he is.”
“But you do know him?’
“No. Raised some kind of trouble a few weeks ago. Heard he shot someone.” He jerked his head toward town. “His sister works in the saloon in town. Abby. Everyone knows her.”
Raising his hand to his hat in a salute, Jake mounted his horse and headed back to the saloon. He couldn’t help but wonder how well everyone knew Abby.
When he appeared at the bar again, this time inquiring for Abby, the bartender pointed her out readily enough. He was surprised his eyes hadn’t immediately focused there earlier. Looking now, he blinked. He had to remember to breathe. Abigail Brooks took his breath away. Petite, she probably would fit just perfectly under his chin. All of her curves seemed to be in the right place and the right proportion. She wasn’t smiling, but that didn’t seem to hurt her popularity with the customers as she moved from table to table taking drink orders. The close fitting scarlet colored gown she wore enhanced her dark hair but didn’t overwhelm her delicate features. He wished she would turn in his direction so he could see the color of her eyes.
Practically tearing his gaze away from her, he focused on the bartender and ordered a whisky. “She work here long?”
“Abby? No, a few weeks. Not our normal type of saloon girl, but she does
quite well with the customers.”
Jake felt his hackles rise. To distract himself, he sipped his whiskey. He was here for her brother, not Abby.
“Tried to get her to take some of the men upstairs, know what I mean, but she wasn’t interested.”
He was glad to hear it. He downed his drink and carefully placed the glass on the bar. He needed to exert control somewhere. “When’s a good time to talk to her? Privately.”
“Told you, she won’t take any gentlemen…”
Jake grabbed the man’s shirtfront before he finished the sentence. “Let’s get this straight. I’m here to talk to her about her brother. That’s all. You can keep your comments to yourself.” He released the man and watched him smooth the front of his shirt.
“Hey, no offense, just explainin’.”
Nodding once, Jake made his way through the small crowd, trying to catch her between one set of tables and another.
“Yes?” she asked politely when she realized he was waiting for her.
She raised his eyes to him, and Jake sucked in his breath. Green. They were clear emerald green, framed with dark thick lashes. Quickly he introduced himself.
Her brows drew together in puzzlement.
“Look can we talk somewhere in private.”
She drew herself up to her maybe five foot, two inches of height, indignantly bristling.
Jake chuckled and held up his hands. “Just to talk. I’d rather say what I need to in private.” Although he suspected if every male in the room felt the same as he, or had a similar reaction, they all wanted private time with her. Too bad he wouldn’t get any closer than they, but that wasn’t what he was here for. She didn’t look any more comfortable.
He stepped back, giving her room to move. “We can step over to the bar, if you want, but private would be best.”
She looked at him warily, then seeming to come to a decision, she nodded her head and preceded him. He had no complaints with the view, but was sure his eyebrows rose when she stepped out of the saloon doors. Outside wasn’t exactly private. Reaching out a hand he grasped her elbow and told her so. Even that brief contact with her skin exposed under the short sleeve of her dress made him appreciate its softness. He had a difficult time reminding his fingers to be still.
“Thought you agreed to private,” he said.
She didn’t look at him, but had stopped. She nodded her head once and headed for the stairs on the side of the next building, a dressmaker, he noted. Mentally checking his gun in his holster, and knife in his boot and the one in his jacket, he followed her up the stairs. She didn’t speak until they were inside and she had lit a lamp.
A swift glance showed the room to be small, but tidy. Her bed took up a large portion of it and there was a small screen, he assumed for changing. There was barely room for the small table and two chairs tucked in the corner. She didn’t offer him a seat.
“You wanted to talk.” She stood stiffly near the chair, resting one hand on the back.
“I have some questions about your brother.”
“Tom?” A gasp escaped her lips. “What has happened?”
“Nothing.” He gave her a reassuring smile.
“I don’t understand. The sheriff arrested him and I have been working,” she held the sides of her dress with distaste, “to get enough money for a really good lawyer. I... I didn’t trust the one he had.”
Jake stepped closer to her and put out a hand to pull the chair around for her to sit. But she didn’t move. Instead he found himself awkwardly close, kissably close. She didn’t retreat.
“I sent him some money –“ she bit her lip and looked up at him, “but it couldn’t have been enough. I know how expensive legal matters can be.”
Jake really wished she wouldn’t do that. He swallowed hard, surprised that he didn’t have to clear his throat. “That’s what I wanted to tell you. It turns out the charges were dismissed and he has a full pardon. He’s fine.”
They hadn’t needed to be private for that exchange but he had anticipated her asking more questions about what Tom really did. He could hardly tell her if she didn’t already know Tom was working for the government. The man surely had his own reasons for keeping it quiet among his family. Jared shook his head to clear it. “I understand Simon Barr was here to see you. I’m a little surprised he didn’t tell you that.”
“Mr. Barr,” she said sharply. “He was here. He asked about Tom, but nothing else. He only said he was with the law. Did he know?”
Sly dog! “I’m not sure.” Simon knew the story, had sent him, in fact. Looking into the green eyes in front of him he could only guess she was the real reason he was here. “Tom will be heading home in a few days. Does he live here too?” Although Jake couldn’t imagine where.
“Oh no, he has a room on the other side of town. He’s not here much, you know.”
Did he ever know. If it was as often as he was in one place, the man would be better off living in a barn.
Seeing that she was quite recovered and no longer looked frightened, Jake let his hand fall from the chair back. To his surprise she caught it in both of hers.
“How can I ever thank you.”
Jake gave her a warm smile. “I’m only the messenger.”
Stepping closer yet to him, she stood on tiptoes and brushed his jaw with her lips. “Tom means a lot to me.”
“Really?” This time Jake reached out his arm and curved it about her waist bringing her closer to him. She made no protest, in fact she willingly stepped closer and lifted her lips. What could he do but oblige.
# # #
Jake, the hero in Finding Abby, is a Secret Service Agent. In 1874, the Secret Service was still relatively new. It had been created to combat counterfeiting and later to encompass other activities of national concern. In passing, Jake mentions another agent, Simon Barr. Simon is the hero of his own book, False Notes.
“Miss Annabelle, Mister Morgan is here. Do you want to see him now?”
Annabelle looked up from her seat. She had been reading, but put her finger in the book when she heard someone at the door. Now she laid the book aside and stood. “Please, Thomas. It would be better if I talked to him here, I think.”
She paced about the room, waiting for Jared to enter. She finally stopped and faced the fireplace. She didn’t want to look at him. What she had to say wouldn’t be easy. And it would hurt him. She had never wanted to hurt him, no matter that his engagement to her sister had torn her apart.
“Annabelle! I came as soon as I got your message.”
At the sound of his voice, she closed her eyes to savor it, then opened them and turned to face him. She didn’t hold out her hands to him, as she usually did. Instead, she crossed them over her middle. He seemed to notice and came to stand in front of her, grasping her shoulders and giving her a swift salutation on her cheek. She held herself stiffly. She tried not to breathe, but when his lips touched her cheek, she inhaled sharply. He still smelled of horse and leather, and Jared. He swiftly stepped away from her and frowned as he looked at her.
“I just got back from Lancashire and got your message. What is the problem? It sounded dreadfully urgent.”
It was, and it had been even more so ten days ago when she sent the message.
“I hadn’t realized you were going to be gone so long, or I would have tried another method of contacting you.”
Jared ran his hand through his hair. “There was no other method. I told Cynthia that father and I would be traveling to Preston by water. Unless you knew our ports I would have never received a message. And no one knew, not even myself!” He looked around the room as if he would find someone hiding there. “Where is Cynthia?”
“She’s not here! That’s what I needed to tell you.”
He focused his sharp blue gaze on her and came to a complete halt. “Where is she?”
“Jared, please sit down.”
He stepped closer to her and grasped her hands. “Tell me, Annabelle, where is she? She’s all right, isn’t she?”
“She’s fine as far as I know.”
She felt him relax, and he dropped his hands from hers. She missed the warmth of them. But he only reached for her because he was concerned about her sister, she reminded herself.
“She is my fiancée,” he said. “I think I need to know.”
Annabelle nodded, and then sank into the sofa she recently vacated. When Jared didn’t join her, she stood again and stepped closer to him. Even if he saw her strictly as his fiancée’s sister, she cared about him and didn’t want him hurt. They had been neighbors all their lives.
“She went to Scotland.”
She had his complete attention again. “I don’t understand.” He frowned. “Do you have a relative there or something?”
Annabelle shook her head. She wasn’t handling this very well at all. “Oh, Jared! I’m so sorry to tell you, but she went to Gretna Green. I haven’t heard from her since, but I don’t doubt that she’s married by now.”
“Married? To whom?”
He sounded more curious than upset. How odd. Maybe he was in shock and hadn’t heard her.
“That’s just the thing. I don’t really know who he is. He showed up here one day, said he was a friend of yours -- a Mister Harrison. Father seemed to like him well enough.” She took a deep breath, knowing what she would say next would hurt him. “He came here a few times, and I’m sorry to say the next thing I knew they were practically in each other’s pockets.” She wouldn’t tell him Cynthia had been so bottom over top sh would have been hard pressed to remember his name, let alone that they were engaged.
“Robert Harrison,” he said absently.
“Yes. I’m so relieved you do know him. I thought it might be a sham.”
“Know him quite well, m’dear,” he said absently. A small smile played about his lips.
He wasn’t acting at all like she thought he should. “I tried to stop her; to make her see reason.”
“Cynthia doesn’t reason very well,” Jared said wryly,
“No, she doesn’t.” This time Annabelle did frown, but not at what Jared had said. As lifelong neighbors, they certainly had very few secrets. There was something wrong. He didn’t sound at all like she thought he would. And she had played the scene over numerous ways waiting for him to return home. None of them matched this…unfeeling experience.
She took a step closer to him.
“Wasn’t he a friend of yours?”
Jared smiled at her causing the dimples to appear on the side of his cheeks. She blinked. She loved those dimples. She dropped her gaze, but raised it again at his next words. “He’s a very good friend. One of the best, in fact.”
“Then aren’t you angry? That he ran off with your fiancée, I mean.” She tried to explain it was hardly the act of a best friend, but he didn’t seem to understand. Why else would he look so satisfied?
“I ran into Robert before we set sail. He nearly came with us, but I convinced him that since he gets seasick it would be best if he stayed behind. It wouldn’t be that long of a trip.” He shrugged, “When I was at home, no one mentioned that he had come by so I figured that he decided not to take the opportunity to visit.”
“But why would he come here, we don’t know him.”
Jared gave her that slow smile again and she really, really wished he wouldn’t. It made her weak at the knees. Even if he was no longer engaged to her sister, they were still only neighbors. Even so, she was glad that he would marry someone else. She didn’t think she could stand to see him with her sister too often. Now she wouldn’t have to, but she hadn’t wanted him hurt either. He was much too nice for that. Well, she told him the news, now he could go and they would just meet at events in the area.
“I asked him to stop by and say hello,” he said.
“So, he did. But I think that was a pretty poor way to repay you for your friendship.” She tried not to sound as heated as she felt.
Jared was close enough to reach out and capture her chin, forcing her to look at him. “I think it was a wonderful way,” he said softly.
She jerked her chin from his grasp, and his words penetrated. Her eyes widened in surprise. “You wanted him to run off with my sister?”
“Not quite,” he said wryly, dropping his hand to her shoulder.
She hardly noticed. How could that be? Why would he want his friend and her sister to run off? He said not quite. Did that mean he wanted him to run off with her?
She asked him. That made him start.
“Good God, no! I never even thought of that.” He sounded more appalled than at any time since he had entered the room.
“Then I simply don’t understand you, Sir.”
“Don’t you, Annabelle? Truly?” He stepped closer to her and she watched him warily, but she didn’t back away when he put both hands on her arms, forcing her to face him.
“How could I marry Cynthia when it’s you I love, have always loved?”
Intense joy spread through her. Had he meant what he said? She placed her hands over his. “Then why did you offer for my sister?”
“I didn’t! She decided that she wanted to marry me –“
“Probably so I wouldn’t,” she finished bitterly.
“I don’t know about that, dearest Annabelle. I certainly didn’t know of your feelings or I would not have let things go as they had.” He gave a soft chuckle, “I still don’t know of them.” He started to let his hands slip away, but she caught them in her grasp and pulled them to her lips.
“I have always loved you, Jared. Why do you think I had spent so much time at your house?”
“I didn’t know. You never let me know, and Cynthia was there too.”
Slipping his hands from her grasp, he raised them to cup her face, letting his thumbs move over her cheeks as he looked into her eyes, clear and truthful and full of love for him.
“Will you marry me, dearest Annabelle and let me love you forever?”
“All my days are yours, darling Jared.”
# # #