The Runaway Wife – CiCi Cordelia

Sam Singleton mopped the back of his neck with an already-damp bandana. The breeze coming off the Lower Cascades reduced the hot sun overhead from sweltering to uncomfortable, ruffling some of the picnic blankets spread out over schoolhouse grounds. The heated air rang with shouts, giggles, and feminine shrieks as children ran circles around their folks, ignoring admonishments and scolding fingers. He caught the suspenders of a rowdy youngster barreling into him. “Slow down. Before you hurt somebody.” The freckled carrot-top stared up at Sam with rounded eyes bluer than the sky above. His slack jaw revealed three missing front teeth as he hung in Sam’s grip. “I ain’t done nothin’. Leggo, or I’ll tell my paw.” Ornery little boys, the ones boasting all attitude and mouth, often irritated the hell out of him. “Who’s your paw?” Sam growled. He leaned down until his nose was inches from the child’s, whose smirk changed to panic. He squirmed against Sam’s hold, to no avail. “I ain’t tellin’ an’ yew can’t make me.

” A bead of sweat trickled down his grubby face. “Yew gonna run me outta town on a rail?” His temper easing, Sam released a sharp snort. Hot days irritated him too, and this kid wasn’t any brattier than half the boys in town. He set the rascal on his feet and straightened the crooked shirt and patched britches. “Go on now, find your folks. And stay out of trouble or I’ll be having a talk with your paw.” The boy took off on a tear, speeding toward the shade of a sprawling juniper where a large family overflowed the edges of a faded quilt. At the last moment he turned and stuck out his tongue. In response, Sam danced his fingers over his holstered Colt and bit back a grin at the way the kid’s eyes bugged out, before he disappeared into the clot of children scattered over the quilt. Tipping down the brim of his brown felted slouch to block the sun, Sam kept to the outskirts of the festivities.

He’d already been offered plenty of food, accepting a chicken leg here and a plate of cookies there, his grunting version of gratitude met with uncertain smiles and a couple of matronly titters. He’d rarely spoken more than a few dozen words to anyone outside of his place of business and several other locals he considered friends. Half the town probably thought he was a miserable bastard; he’d wager the rest understood his real occupation involved making certain nothing untoward happened when folks came to gamble. These days, a lot of men patronized Gleason’s Gambling Galleria regularly, and it was Sam’s responsibility to his boss, Knight Gleason, to see winners and losers alike moving on amicably. It was a duty he viewed seriously since his arrival a year ago. If his overall demeanor sometimes took on a dour cast because of that duty, then so be it. Sam strode along the wooden boardwalk, past various businesses and shops, more than ready to put the crowds behind him and get back to the Galleria. He’d spotted Sheriff Joshua Lang along with a few of the local deputies, enjoying their family time. He had grudging respect for the way Lang and his staff patrolled Little Creede and the outlying areas of Rocky Gulch, as far north as Prairie Lick. The man’s level of dedication was admirable even if it was the sort of work Sam wouldn’t choose for himself.

As he approached the Galleria porch, shadowed against the bright afternoon sun, he offered a tip of the hat to Hannah Gleason, busy watering the flowering pots hanging along the sturdy awning. The woman was sweeter than candy and the perfect foil for her husband’s blustering, bigger than life personality. “Missus Gleason, those posies of yours are looking mighty pretty.” It was easy to swallow his usual gruffness and act politely toward his boss’s wife. She offered a happy smile amid rosy cheeks. “Thank you kindly, Mister Samuel.” She fussed with the edges of a bright red flower. “The gardenias seem especially large this year.” Sam squinted at the fat petals of an unfamiliar flower. “That’s what they’re called?” He would never tell her of the significance of hanging red flowers on a front porch.

A genteel lady like Hannah didn’t need to learn anything about the seedier side of life. Something Sam was all too aware of, having grown up in an orphanage from a young age before running off in search of a better life. “Yes. For some reason, Knight kept trying to get me to plant those white begonias the Carter twins dug up in back of the Mercantile.” Giving the heavy flowers a final caress, she bent to lift the watering can at her feet. “I do so love red.” Sam jumped to her side and scooped it up first. She beamed at him, rubbing her belly. “I could have gotten it.” “Your man would skin me alive if I allowed you to lift things in your condition.

” His gaze dropped toward her roundness, visible beneath her increasing gown. Sam hurried ahead to open the front doors of the Galleria, allowing Hannah to enter first. “I’ll take your bucket to the kitchen. You go and put up your feet.” She turned to regard him appraisingly. “A woman in the family way doesn’t faze you at all, does it, Mister Singleton?” “Nope. Do I need to beg your pardon for such an unseemly attitude?” “Not in the least.” With a wink, the First Lady of Gleason’s Galleria made for the second floor, where her husband kept an expansive office. Shaking his head ruefully, Sam headed to the kitchen. Something about the delicate Hannah always brought out the gentleman—albeit rusty and unused—in him.

The kitchen was deserted this time of day, not surprising since most of the staff were still enjoying themselves at the picnic. Sam set the can on the floor near the wide farmer sink Knight had installed six months ago. Dolores Lund, the Galleria’s cook, kept the kitchen spotless and had vowed eternal devotion to Gleason after he’d presented her with the new sink and counterspace. Sam’d never seen a woman carry on so, over kitchen things, no less. At the end of the counter sat a fancy glass plate cradling a luscious two-crust pie. He sniffed the air appreciatively. By the rich fragrance, Sam guessed cherry, recently pulled from the oven. His mouth watered despite his already stuffed stomach. Maybe Dolores wouldn’t mind if he snuck a thin wedge— Searching for the pie server, a thump and a muffled oath brought him up short. He spun toward the sound, coming from the cavernous pantry where most of the dry goods and supplies were stored.

Silently he advanced across the large room, drawing his gun as a precaution. He wouldn’t put it past some drunken sot to stagger in from one of the gaming rooms, searching for money, thinking any Galleria staff would be dumb enough to keep a safe in here. The pantry door stood open an inch. The whisper of rustling and more muttering hovered in the air. Tensing, he readied for possible danger. Thumbing the latch, he brought up his gun arm and yanked, hard. A mound of tattered clothes and dark curls tumbled out of the opening, landing on the floor at his feet. What the—? Sam bent and caught a thin, flailing arm, jerking the thief upright. From the cracked, scuffed boots to the downcast head of tangled, choppy hair, this was no gambler desperate for extra coin, only a young boy starving for something to eat. Narrow-shouldered, dressed in torn trousers and a shirt studded with burdock stickers, the kid could probably cram an entire cherry pie into his gullet and his britches would still slide down his backside.

Tamping down any feelings of sympathy, he marched the now-struggling pantry poacher across the kitchen and shoved him into the nearest chair. The boy tried to bolt, so Sam gripped one bony shoulder. “Stay put and tell me who you are.” A dirt-encrusted face raised to his. “Let me go!” He frowned, taking a more focused look at the boy. Full lips. High cheekbones underneath the crud. Long lashes framed remarkable blue-gray eyes. Delicate ears were visible from between the shorn locks. “You’re a girl.

” She squirmed in her seat and made to escape. Sam’s grip tightened, holding her in place. “You’re not going anywhere, missy.” He hooked another chair on the toe of his boot and dragged it over to block her in, trapping her against the wall until she had no choice except to remain still. “Start talking.” Her grimy fist pounded the table surface. “You’ve no right to keep me here.” Sam didn’t have time for this foolishness. “Your name. Now.

” She strained against his hold on her shoulder and spat out, “Izzy.” Her mouth firmed. “Now, let go.” “Last name.” He gave her a brief shake. “I’m fast losing patience, and our jail doesn’t have any niceties for females.” At the mention of jail, what color remained in those high cheekbones leeched out. “Don’t lock me up! I only wanted a place to rest and maybe something to eat.” Dejection came off her in waves. “My name is Izzy McDougall.

Please don’t stick me behind bars.” He eased up on his grip, cupping her shoulder with more care to examine her, looking for lies and finding nothing more than a scared girl. If she was more than eighteen or nineteen, he’d eat his hat for supper. Judging by what he now determined were bruises underneath all that dirt and grime, he realized someone had mistreated her. Anger tightened his jaw. Where her ragged shirt gapped, a man’s fingerprints marred her slender neck. Doubtful a woman would have such a large grip. A growl rumbled in his throat. The urge to track down whoever’d hurt her—and beat the hell out of ‘em—rose swiftly inside him. Her eyes widened, and she shrank away.

Sam immediately released her and eased back into his chair, so he wasn’t towering over her. “I won’t hurt you.” She didn’t reply, only continued to watch him with suspicion. The uneven ends of her hair indicated she’d chopped it off with a blunt blade. Disguising herself as a boy. Her feet were covered in a pair of the rattiest boots he’d ever seen. Mud spattered, they appeared to be at least two sizes too big with a hole in the left toe. He flicked a glance back to her and held steady. “How long have you been on the road?” She hesitated, mumbling, “Not sure. A week, maybe more.

” Good Christ. “You’ve had nothing to eat since?” One birdlike shoulder raised in a shrug. “I stole some eggs from a chicken coop.” At his frown she added, “About three days ago.” No wonder she’d raided the place for food. Raw eggs and then nothing for three days. With a grunt, Sam got to his feet. When it looked like she might try to flee, he cast her a warning glance. “Sit tight, girl. I’ll get you something to eat.

You can stay here for now. Staff quarters are safe and nobody’ll bother you.” He turned toward the largest icebox, another newfangled item Knight had ordered, to the delight of Dolores. Usually packed full of her excellent cooking, today he found a plate of roast chicken and a bowl of bread pudding. Returning to the table, he ignored Izzy’s eye-popping gape at the amount of food and pushed the chicken toward her. “Go on, eat.” She lifted a trembling hand, but quickly dropped it back onto the table. “I’m dirty.” “Pretty much.” Stepping to the sink, Sam pumped enough water to fill the dish basin Dolores kept on the counter and dipped a dishrag in to wet it.

He brought it to her. “Wash up. I’ll get you some milk.” As he rooted in a cupboard for a tumbler, from the corner of his eye he saw her wipe off before grabbing for a drumstick, cramming in the food as if he’d take it from her any second. Having gone hungry more than once during his childhood—not to mention being on the receiving end of a few mean beatings during his years at the orphanage—Sam understood what she must have dealt with already. He brought the tall tumbler of milk to the table, setting it down along with a dry dish towel in lieu of a napkin. Taking a seat, he watched as she gobbled down the chicken. Removing the dirty plate, he placed a saucer of bread pudding in front of her. He sat by silently while she dug in, pausing between swallows to gulp the milk. “What’s your name?” she mumbled around a mouthful of pudding.

“Samuel Singleton.” He inclined his head briefly. “I never heard of anyone called Izzy. Got a full name?” “My real name is Isadora. But I prefer answering to Izzy.” Her gaze dropped to the mess of chicken bones, empty tumbler, and pudding crumbs she’d left on the table. “I— Thank you for the food. I can clean it all up.” Her eyes met his, for the first time shining with something other than defiance. “I can do a lot of household things.

Polishing, mopping. I can cook, too.” Even he wasn’t big enough of a rotter to throw her into the streets, obviously on the run from someone. He had no doubt Dolores would take the girl under her wing. “Missus Lund is the boss of the kitchen at the Galleria and does all the hiring. What she says goes, but I’m sure she could use some extra help.” At Izzy’s eager nod, Sam held up a cautionary hand. “I’m in charge of security, and I’ll need to know where you’re from, how old you are, and what sort of trouble you’re in.” “I’m not—” “Don’t finish that lie.” He couldn’t do his job if he didn’t know what he was facing.

“If you’re bringing danger to the Galleria, you’d best tell me now.” Izzy glanced away. She picked up the towel and used it to wipe her mouth with awkward thoroughness. Long moments passed while he waited her out. Finally, she folded the cloth neatly and laid it on the table before she met his gaze. “I’m nineteen, old enough to take care of myself. Please don’t ask me anything more.” “Do I need to worry about someone coming to Little Creede to find you?” Sadness shone in her eyes, then she squared her shoulders. “No one cares where I am, Mister Singleton.” “Just Sam.

” He pushed back his chair. “C’mon. Let’s see what Missus Lund has to say.”


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