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Judge Wilson Dunn has an extremely bad heart, and the people who know the Dunns claim that it’s Keely who has kept him alive this long. Keely loves her father, and she isn’t about to tell him that their cattle are being systematically rustled; their hired hands murdered. On top of that, someone is blackmailing her – threatening to tell her father that she is the notorious Miss Peaches.
Lucas Mackenzie’s granddad, Bulldog, recently passed away, and Lucas is making a trip to see Wilson Dunn to tell him in person. He has questions he wants to ask of the man, in order to learn of Bulldog’s past. Lucas knows something caused his gramps great pain, but he has no clue what, and he hopes Wilson can tell him.
While he’s talking to the judge’s neighbor, shots are fired, and the stage coach driver stops the horses. Lucas wants to fight. Elderly Mrs. Murphy advises against it, stating it must be Miss Peaches, and they won’t be harmed if they don’t resist.
Keely nearly passes out when she set eyes on Lucas. She’s positive he’ll recognize her from the robbery – and when he doesn’t, she warns herself not to fall in love with the handsome man. If he does learn she is Miss Peaches, he might tell her father. The shock of that would kill her completely honest papa, who served on the bench for many years, sending many people like her to prison!
Lucas isn’t about to let Mr. and Mrs. Murphy do their best at matchmaking, even though Keely is beautiful. She has a sharp tongue and a quick temper. Besides, he needs to find that hellion, Miss Peaches. He owes that female a hiding she’ll never forget for taking her whip to him during the robbery. He intends to enjoy every second of his retaliation…
Publisher’s Note: This historical romance contains elements of power exchange and domestic discipline.
“Keep your mouth shut and don’t turn around!” the menacing, muffled voice ordered harshly.
Keely felt the cold steel of the gun barrel pressed against her temple and realized it would be foolish to try anything while her assailant had the advantage.
“You’re going to do a little job for me, Keely,” the voice declared. “In two weeks’ time you and your father will be entertaining a houseguest. He has something I want. You are going to search his rooms and find it for me.”
Keely knew the man referred to Lucas “Bulldog” Mackenzie, an old friend of her father. She tried to turn to face the man, but he quickly moved to the side. “Don’t look at me unless you want to die, Keely. This isn’t a game.”
“I don’t care who you are,” she rashly declared, her ever-present quick temper showing itself. “I am not about to help you steal from old Mr. Mackenzie.”
“You will do exactly as I say, Keely,” the voice said with absolute certainty, “or your father will learn the truth about his precious daughter.”
Keely breathed in sharply, and then exhaled slowly. There was no way this stranger could know. Could he?
“You’ll do exactly as I say, Keely,” he repeated in his ominous voice. “Do you understand?”
“I don’t take orders from the likes of you,” she retorted.
“No, not usually.” He surprised her by agreeing. “But this time, Miss Peaches, you will.”
My God, he did know! Keely reeled with the revelation, and if he told her father, the shock would kill him. She swallowed hard, and then asked in a small voice, “What is it you want me to find?”
Lucas Mackenzie shifted around on the uncomfortable seat, wishing he dared to stretch his long legs out in front of him. But that would be impossible, given the cramped conditions inside the small coach filled to overflowing with people.
“I am sure you must be very uncomfortable, young man,” the elderly woman sitting directly across from him remarked in sympathy. Mrs. Murphy was at least seventy-five, and dressed entirely in black, despite the heat.
“We are all uncomfortable, Mrs. Murphy,” the portly gentleman sitting next to her commented as he wiped his damp face with his kerchief. “I wish I’d remained another day or two in Cedar Falls, at least until this warm spell passes.”
“Some of us don’t have that option, Mr. Clayton,” Mrs. Murphy said tartly. “You know very well I need to get home to my Edward.”
“Yes, ma’am, of course,” Seymour Clayton had the grace to acknowledge, unwilling to put up with a lashing from her razor-sharp tongue.
“How much further is it?” the young boy traveling with his mother asked petulantly.
“Not much further, William, now hush up,” his mother scolded, embarrassed.
“Is this your first trip on a stage, William?” Mrs. Murphy smiled at the youngster.
“No, ma’am,” he dutifully replied.
“I will just bet your pa will be happy to see you and your ma home safe,” Mrs. Murphy predicted.
“We will certainly be glad to be home too, ma’am,” Cynthia Fredericks spoke shyly to the other woman.
“What about you, young man? What brings you to Silver Flats?” Mrs. Murphy questioned Lucas.
“I’m visiting an old friend of my grandfather.” Lucas smiled, willing to divulge the harmless information. Talking seemed to help pass the time. “Perhaps you know him? Judge Wilson Dunn?”
“Why, yes. The judge and I are old, dear friends,” she said with a smile. “Oh, dear. You do know he isn’t well, don’t you? Why, Doc says it’s a miracle he has lived this long, and we all know if it weren’t for that sweet little Keely, the judge would have given up long ago. But she just fusses over her papa and cares for him like the angel she is, with not a thought to her own happiness or future. Why, the child must be going on twenty-two years of age, and not keeping steady company with anyone.” With those final words, Mrs. Murphy flashed the tall man a speculative look.
Lucas was hard pressed not to laugh when he realized that the elderly woman was sizing him up as prospective husband material. The last thing he needed or wanted was a wife. He didn’t trust women and he never would. There was no way in this lifetime he would ever let himself be roped into marriage with one of the selfish creatures.
“Are you a businessman, Mr. Mackenzie?” Mrs. Murphy asked curiously, taking her role as matchmaker quite seriously.
“I am a lawyer, Mrs. Murphy,” Lucas replied politely.
“I see, and a good friend of the judge, no doubt?” She nodded, pleased by the information.
“Actually, I have never met the judge, even though Gramps talked about him all the time,” Lucas replied with a smile. “I have heard so many stories, I feel as though I know the man.”
“Well, I certainly don’t want to disappoint you, Mr. Mackenzie, but dear Wilson barely resembles the man your grandfather knew years ago. He has such a bad heart.” She clicked her tongue sympathetically. “Perhaps your grandfather should be told so he could visit?” she suggested.
“Gramps passed away a few weeks ago, ma’am,” Lucas revealed, feeling the tightness in his chest that simply refused to go away every time he thought of the irascible old man he had loved with all his heart. Gramps had raised him after his parents died in a flash flood.
“Oh my, I am so sorry, young man. Please accept my condolences.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Murphy.”
“Was he ill?” she asked kindly, sensing Lucas’s need to talk.
“No, ma’am. He was splitting wood, and his heart gave out. Gramps didn’t believe in asking the hired hands to do anything he wasn’t willing or able to do himself.” He smiled at the memory of his grandfather insisting just that. “He died with his boots on, and that’s all any man can ask,” he added, recalling another of his grandfather’s favorite sayings.
“And you’re coming to tell Wilson in person? That’s very commendable, Mr. Mackenzie.” Mrs. Murphy nodded her approval. “Your grandfather would be proud of you.” She looked out the window when the coach started slowing down and finally stopped. “Oh my goodness. What is going on?”
“It’s a robbery!” ten-year-old William declared in excitement mingled with a touch of fear.
“Get away from that window, William.” Cynthia Fredericks practically threw the boy on the floor of the coach.
“I am carrying over three thousand dollars,” Seymour Clayton complained. “Where can I hide it?”
“Money isn’t worth getting killed over.” Edna Murphy straightened her back, then thrust her chin up and out. “Cynthia, dear, please calm yourself. We will give them what they ask for, and no heroics, gentlemen,” she ordered sternly, her brown eyes settling on Lucas. “Kindly remember that there are ladies and a child present.”
“Step out of the coach,” a deep voice boomed from outside.
“We’re coming,” Edna called out in a suspiciously frail voice, and then she whispered, “I will go first. They won’t shoot an old lady.”
“Mrs. Murphy, I will go first.” Lucas gently reseated her, then opened the door to the coach and stepped out into the bright sunlight, his alert eyes taking in the scene at once. There were three of them, two fully grown men and a youth, all of them pointing guns. Their faces were covered, and all he could see were eyes, eyes that were watching him warily.
“Don’t try anything you’ll regret,” the youth warned in a low, husky growl, and Lucas nodded in tight-lipped disapproval. He wasn’t a man to do nothing, but he couldn’t very well risk putting the others in danger simply because he was disgruntled and wanted to punch someone.
“I’ll help the others outside,” he said with forced calm, then turned to find Mrs. Murphy framed in the doorway. He could have sworn later that he heard one of the robbers gasp, but when he turned to look at them, they were all watching him, and the driver, who sat with his arms up in the air, afraid to move for fear of losing his life.
One by one the passengers dismounted. “There’s no one else?” the youth questioned sharply.
“No, there isn’t. Were you expecting someone?” Mrs. Murphy asked tartly.
“Keep your mouth shut, Grandma,” one of the men growled a warning, only to be silenced by something the youth said in rebuke. “Aw, Peaches.”
“You are Miss Peaches?” Edna Murphy gasped in shocked surprise. “Why, I thought you were just a bunch of lies.”
“Miss Peaches is for real, lady,” the other man chuckled. “Who is it, Peaches?”
“Him.” Miss Peaches pointed toward Seymour Clayton.
“You heard Miss Peaches, fat boy. Hand over your money.”
“No. You can’t be serious? This is— All right. All right! Here, take my wallet,” he capitulated when Edna smacked him sharply with her parasol.
“Foolish man,” she muttered.
“That’s right, Grandma. Now give me your rings.”
“No,” Miss Peaches declared. “Leave her alone. Get the other gentleman’s wallet and we’ll be on our way.”
Lucas handed over his wallet, and then saw the man approach Cynthia. “What about you, honey? What’ve you got under that dress worth—” He never finished the sentence because Peaches struck out with her long, coiled whip, catching him across his backside. “Ow. What did you do that for, Peaches?” he wailed in genuine distress.
“Apologize to the lady,” Peaches ordered sharply, and when he didn’t immediately comply, she let loose with the whip once more.
“Damn it, Peaches. I’m going to— Ouch! Stop it, will you?”
She whipped him again, causing him to drop his gun.
Lucas didn’t give it conscious thought. While the blubbering robber was apologizing to Cynthia, Lucas dove for the gun. He nearly had it in his grasp when the whip caught the gun and threw it into the air, out of his reach. “That was stupid, mister.” Peaches sailed the whip again and caught Lucas across the back of his thighs. “Help the others into the coach.”
“You do as she says, young man.” Edna Murphy reached down to pull him to his feet. “I mean it now. I won’t have you getting yourself killed.”
Lucas could swear he saw a smirk in the green eyes watching him with pure amusement. He vowed he was going to find out Miss Peaches’ identity, and then they would see who laughed at whom. He wasn’t “Bulldog” Mackenzie’s grandson for nothing.
Lucas reined in his temper to help Cynthia and Mrs. Murphy into the coach. Once William and Seymour were seated, he climbed inside and shut the door, unable to resist glaring at the woman who still had her gun trained on him through the window. Once the driver was reseated, Peaches nodded, and the man wasted no time in getting them out of there.
“Don’t cry, Ma. You ain’t hurt none,” ten-year-old William looked at his mother in helpless distress when she burst into tears and hugged him tightly.
“It’s all right, William. Your ma was frightened.” Seymour tried to comfort the child while gallantly offering Cynthia a clean handkerchief, which he produced from another pocket of his coat.
“Are you in much pain, young man?” Edna Murphy asked Lucas.
“I’m fine,” he answered shortly, the sting to his pride much worse than the one to his legs.
“I wish I would have had the time to tell you that we weren’t in any real danger from Miss Peaches,” Edna said contritely, having raised six sons and understanding how fragile male egos are. “Peaches isn’t a killer.”
“Just a thief,” he said darkly.
“Yes, but, she is a thief with a heart,” Edna said. “She never robs women or children, and she never allows anyone to be harmed in any way. Truth to tell, I think she’s playing a very dangerous game.”
“I can’t believe you are defending her, Mrs. Murphy,” Cynthia said softly, wiping her reddened eyes.
“I am not defending her, dear. In fact, I don’t condone her actions at all. But, I don’t actually consider her a dangerous criminal either. I think she’s simply a misguided young girl who doesn’t have anything better to occupy her time. Someone needs to find out who she is, paddle the daylights out of her, then give her some decent, honest work to keep her busy and out of mischief. I cannot fathom anyone permitting a female to wear pants, a gun, and that whip! Why, who would teach a girl to do something so… manly? I certainly wouldn’t permit any daughter of mine, if I had one, to act the way Peaches does, and neither would my Edward. He would cut a switch. And, as for those friends of hers, give them to me for a week or two; I would soon teach them a thing or two,” she promised.
Lucas resisted the urge to smile, asking instead, “Do you have any idea at all who she is, Mrs. Murphy?”
“Why, no. Of course not,” the elderly woman quickly denied. “If I did, I would certainly do something about it, I assure you.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Lucas did smile this time.
* * *
“Did I hear Charles’ voice, daughter?” Judge Wilson Dunn asked weakly from his bed.
“Yes, you did, Papa. He dropped by to inquire about you.”
“That’s nice of him, daughter. Did you invite him to supper?”
“No. Papa, it’s only three o’clock.”
“You shouldn’t be so mean to Charles, daughter. He cares for you, and when I’m gone…”
“I don’t want to hear that, Papa,” Keely said firmly, leaning over to kiss the judge’s cheek. “Would you like for me to open the drapes and let in some light, or do you want to sleep some more?”
“I think some fresh air sounds good.” He smiled. He waited until Keely was in front of the window to say gently, “Keely, honey, I can’t help but worry about you. This isn’t the type of place where a woman can get by all alone, especially on a ranch the size of this one. It takes a man to run a spread this large. I really wish you would pay some attention to Charles. With just a smile or two from you, he—”
“Papa, I have turned Charles down twelve times now. I am not going to change my mind. I don’t love him and I never will.” She smiled to lessen the sting of her words, and then fluffed the pillows behind her father.
“You are only saying that because of me,” he told her with a frown.
“Papa, please don’t worry about me. We have been through this before. I don’t plan to marry anyone, but never, ever, will I marry Charles. I consider him a friend, that’s all.”
“Keely—” The judge was prevented from saying what he’d planned to say by a fit of coughing that lasted several minutes, leaving him too weak and too tired to speak.
“You just rest now, Papa.” Keely kissed him when he quieted, then waited until he was sleeping before she slipped from the room.
“Is he asleep?” Mary Larson whispered as she dusted a table in the hallway outside the judge’s bedroom.
“Yes,” Keely answered in a soft voice. “Oh Mary.” She shook her head as the silent tears streamed down her cheeks. “I just wish there was something I could do to make him well.”
“Child, you’ve kept that man going for years now.” Mary put down the rag to hug the girl she’d helped raise after her mama was thrown from a horse and killed.
“Miss Keely, I’m sorry to bust in on you, but… well, some of the hands are waitin’ for their pay,” the foreman, Zeke Winters, said self-consciously.
“I have it downstairs in the study, Zeke. Come with me,” Keely said quietly, leading the way down the carpeted hallway and winding staircase to the foyer below. “Come in.” She pushed open the heavy door to her father’s office and went over to his desk. She unlocked the top right drawer with the key from her pocket, and then produced the payroll. “Here you go.”
“I sure don’t know how you’re managing to hang on, Miss Keely, with things going so bad, and all,” Zeke said, scratching his head.
“How soon do you think we’ll have those horses ready to sell?” Keely questioned, all business.
“In about six more weeks, if we’re lucky and no one else gets busted up. Curly ain’t going to be able to help none.”
“You tell him not to worry about it, Zeke. He was injured on the job, and we’ll see him through this,” she said firmly.
“I still think we need to try and catch them rustlers ourselves, Miss Keely.” Zeke knew this was a sore subject.
“I think we will leave the job to the sheriff, Zeke,” she responded.
“Miss Keely, I know you feel bad about Smitty getting killed, but he sure as shooting wouldn’t want you to let them varmints get away with what they’re doing to you.”
“I will deal with it in time, Zeke. Right now, I don’t want to risk any more lives, and I don’t want Papa upset. He was beside himself when I told him that Smitty was killed in an accident. If he knew those rustlers murdered him, why—”
“Hiding things from the judge ain’t going to help none, ‘specially if he learns about it somehow. Then he’s gonna get mad at you, and you may find out you ain’t too big for a spanking.”
Keely felt the guilty flush stain her cheeks and she looked at the older man suspiciously. No, not Zeke. He’d never in a million years blackmail her. He’d be more apt to put her over his knee himself if he knew about Peaches. No, he was just scolding her for hiding the true state of things from her father. She forced herself to relax, and then said softly, “I would gladly suffer a spanking if Papa was well enough to administer it.”
“Well, he isn’t, but I sure am. I don’t mind telling you, Miss Keely, I’ve considered it a time or two. You need to talk honest with your pa, and let us do something about them rustlers. This ranch is gonna go bust if we don’t catch whoever’s stealing from you. Tell your pa,” he urged.
“I am afraid it would kill him, Zeke. Doc says any shock could cause him to suffer a fatal attack,” she explained her reasoning once again, her eyes filling with tears she refused to shed. She would like nothing better than go after the men who were stealing her cattle and horses. The rustlers were also killing and beating her hired hands.
Zeke’s fierce scowl softened. “I know that, honey. You do what you think is best and I’ll stand with you,” he offered his support, then left the study.
Keely sank into her father’s chair and wrapped her arms around herself, rocking back and forth. They’d been doing just fine until a few months ago; then the trouble started. At first, it was only a few head of cattle. Then it was a horse or two. Her men had been infuriated, and she’d given them permission to set up a trap to catch the thieves. Only the trap had backfired, and one of her longtime hands had been murdered while he stood guard. Fearing her father’s reaction, Keely had pulled her hands, not willing to risk any more lives, and had kept any news of the thefts from reaching his sickroom. The only one who knew of the thefts was the sheriff, and he certainly wasn’t doing a thing to help. If it weren’t for her papa, she would find the culprit and make him wish he’d never been born.
Now, wondering who was trying to blackmail her was making her crazy. The only two people she’d completely dismissed from suspicion were her father and Mary. Both of them would have a regular fit if they knew she was the infamous Miss Peaches. The knowledge of his daughter’s crimes would surely kill the judge, and Mary would be so disappointed in her charge that Keely didn’t think she could stand the shame.
She’d been so careful to keep her true identity a secret from everyone but the men she rode with. Actually, they were only boys. Boys, who like her, were in financial difficulty. They truly needed the money they took, which didn’t make it right. But Keely knew she’d rather face prison than put her father out of his home. She would do whatever she had to do, short of killing anyone, to protect her ailing parent.
Today was the first time that things got a bit out of hand. Tommy was in an ornery mood; his girlfriend had left him for a boy with more money, and he’d shamefully admitted that he’d wanted to punish Cynthia because she looked a bit like her. Keely chewed him out thoroughly and told him that if he wanted to be included in future business deals, he would have to promise that he would never threaten another woman with sexual violation. Tommy had hung his head and promised; Keely vowed she would whip him raw if he ever tried it again.
And, Mrs. Murphy… Keely had had no idea that the elderly matron would be on the stage. The only two people they’d been expecting were Seymour and old Mr. Mackenzie. Keely had hoped to get enough money to run the ranch for a while from the wealthy Seymour, and she’d wanted to get the map from the elderly Mackenzie before he arrived at the ranch. That way Peaches would be blamed, and Keely wouldn’t have to run the risk of being caught searching the elderly man’s room. The judge would be distressed if a robbery were to occur in his own home, but now she would have no choice. Since the elderly Mackenzie wasn’t on the stage, she couldn’t get the map, and it would be too dangerous to attempt another holdup for quite a while.
Keely took a deep breath, deciding that she had to face up to what was really bothering her – the handsome stranger. She still couldn’t believe she’d struck the big man, and she would never forget the warlike look in his blue eyes. Peaches had made an enemy in the stranger, and for some reason that she couldn’t identify, it upset her.
“Miss Keely, your papa is coughing again,” Mary rushed into the study to tell her.
* * *
“Thank you for trying to protect my wife, Mr. Mackenzie.” Allen Fredericks offered his hand.
“I’m afraid I didn’t do much,” Lucas said self-consciously. Peaches was the one who defended Cynthia, he added silently, renewing his determination to find the young woman and bring her before a court of law.
“Cyn said you tried, and I am very grateful,” Allen earnestly continued. “This woman is my whole life.”
“Allen, that is so sweet.” Cynthia’s eyes shone, and Lucas was fairly certain that she was secretly pleased that the Peaches Gang had robbed the stage.
“I mean it, Cyn. These last couple of weeks have been awful. I missed you and Will something terrible. And then to hear about this? Woman, you aren’t ever going anywhere without me again. I forbid it,” he ordered.
Far from being offended, Cynthia giggled, then nodded in agreement, only too happy to be home safe and sound. They walked off arm in arm, and Edna Murphy chuckled quietly. “It will do that young man some good to spend some time with that young wife of his. He wasn’t treating her nicely at all,” she confided in Lucas, and then smiled when she spotted an old buggy coming up the street.
“Edward, dear, where have you been?” she asked, happy to see the elderly man.
“Trying to remember if you said today or tomorrow,” Edward confessed with a toothless grin. “I’m getting old, sweetie, but not so old I can’t give you a welcome home kiss,” he declared. The one he gave Edna made Allen and Cynthia’s pale in comparison.
“You old goat.” Edna laughed, swatting him lightly with her parasol.
“Have any trouble, sweetie?”
“We were robbed, Edward,” she replied with a touch of spirit. “Or rather, this young man and Seymour Clayton were robbed.”
“Did anyone touch you, Eddy? If they did, I’ll get my gun and blow them sumbitches clear to hell!” Edward promised, and Lucas had no doubt in his mind that the elderly man would do just as he said.
“I am perfectly fine, Edward,” Edna said truthfully. “I was never in any danger. It was the Peaches Gang again, and you know they don’t rob females or children. Husband, this young man is Lucas Mackenzie. Mr. Mackenzie, my husband, Edward Murphy.”
“Mr. Murphy.” Lucas shook the man’s hand and was surprised by the strength in his grip.
“Mr. Mackenzie bravely tried to defend us, Edward,” the elderly woman praised the younger man.
“Well, I should hope so.” Edward openly appraised the younger man. “Are you related to Bulldog?”
“He was my grandfather,” Lucas said.
“Was? He’s gone now?” Edward demanded. When Lucas nodded wordlessly, he said, “Sorry to hear that. Bulldog was a good man, a fair man. The judge is going to be mighty sorry to hear about this. Eddy, sweetie, Wilson is much worse. I passed Doc on his way out there again.”
“No,” the elderly man said firmly, shaking his finger at his wife. “You’re going home and get some rest before I have to call Doc for you.” Edward has anticipated his wife’s response. “Mary is there to take care of little Keely, and we know Wilson’s been bad before but pulled through.”
“But, Edward, Keely may need me.”
“And she may need you more tomorrow. We’re going home, woman, and with no fuss. You hear me?”
“You’re as stubborn and bullheaded as ever, Edward Murphy,” the proud woman declared with a flash of temper.
“The only kind of man who could handle a sassy, feisty woman like you, sweetie.” He winked at Lucas, then took his wife’s arm and led her toward the buggy.
“You could at least be polite enough to offer Lucas a ride to the Dunn Ranch, since he is expected there today,” Edna fussed at her husband.
“Well, I am a polite man,” Edward said graciously. “Come on, young fellow. But I’ll tell you right now, I’ll tell you to get out and walk if you don’t like the way I drive.”
“Edward!” Edna was scandalized.
“I’ve missed your scolding ways, Eddy,” he teased. Once they were all loaded in the buggy, he asked seriously, “Did anyone report this to the sheriff?”
“Yes, dear. We all told Sheriff Jenkins what we knew. He said he’d see what he could do, but you know as well as I do that he won’t do anything but sit in his comfy office and smoke those stinking cigars of his.”
“No, Edward. You aren’t going to do any such thing.” Edna had no trouble reading his mind after sixty years of marriage.
“You don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Yes, I do, and the answer is no,” she fumed.
“Well, I could do it, and a heap better than Jenkins,” Edward announced.
“I agree. But it’s a younger man’s job, dear. You’ve brought in your share of the bad guys.”
“This is a darn girl, Eddy. She’s going to fool around and get herself killed. What is she thinking of? I can see where a man goes bad or gets desperate, but a girl?”
“She carries a whip, Edward, and she’s not afraid to use it.”
“How old would you say this Peaches is, young man?” Edward turned his attention to their passenger in the back seat who’d done his best not to snicker out loud at the couple’s fussing.
“I am not sure, sir,” Lucas replied politely. “Not very old, but not a youngster either.”
“She still needs a good switching, I don’t care how old she is,” Edward declared firmly. “Back when I was sheriff, I took the time to keep tabs on the kids, and when they got out of line, I either tanned them myself or took them home to their pas for a trip to the woodshed. Never once sent a female to prison either.”
“Peaches is certainly headed for jail,” Lucas said calmly.
“Thinking of going after her yourself, are you?” The old man was uncanny.
“She really got under my skin,” Lucas found himself admitting.
“Forget it, son. She’ll just give you a sad story, you’ll fall for it, she’ll rob you again, and take your pride while she’s at it.”
“Edward, I am sure Lucas can take care of himself.”
“That’s Eddy’s way of telling me to mind my own business.” He winked, then chuckled when Edna gently hit him with her parasol.
“Isn’t that Doc coming this way?” Edward asked.
“Yes, I believe it is. Stop him and ask about Wilson,” Edna bossed.
“Doc!” Edward dutifully did as he was told. “How’s Wilson?”
“Not too good, Ed. Miss Keely is keeping him quiet.”
“This young fellow has some bad news for him; one of our friends has passed on. Do you think Wilson can handle it?”
“That will be up to Miss Keely. She knows him better than anyone, but if it’s that Mackenzie fellow he’s been expecting, then she will have no choice but tell Wilson the truth.”
“Bulldog was this young man’s grandfather. Doc Adams, this is Lucas Mackenzie. Lucas, Doc.” Edward wasn’t big on fancy introductions.
“Sorry to hear about your granddad. He was a good man, Lucas. Welcome home, Edna. Can’t talk now. Sheila Morris is delivering today. Got to get over there.” He clucked at his horse and hurried off.
The rest of the ride to the Dunn Ranch didn’t take very long. Lucas entertained himself by alternately listening to the elderly couple fuss lovingly at each other and watching the countryside go by. It was a beautiful ranch, and he could see why the judge had chosen to settle here. The buildings surrounding the centrally located house were in excellent condition, and the house was huge – more what one would expect in the city.
“Hello, Mary. We’ve heard the judge is very ill, but we need to see Keely.” Edna was forthright.
“Certainly, Edna. You and Edward have a seat in the parlor. I will go and tell Miss Keely you’re here.”
“Thank you, dear.”
Lucas used the opportunity to look around the house, and was impressed by what he saw. The parlor was tastefully decorated, yet it seemed comfortable. There were knickknacks sitting everywhere, and the piano in the corner looked like it was put to use, rather than just being for show. There were photographs sitting on the table in front of the window; he was ready to cross the room and look at them when he heard the soft rustling of skirts behind him.
“Mr. and Mrs. Murphy, hello. It is so good to see you.”
Lucas listened patiently while the three exchanged polite greetings, more than content to stand there and observe the petite redhead. She was simply beautiful, he acknowledged to himself, and he felt as though he should know her.
“I am so sorry, dear, to hear about your papa. Is there anything at all Edward and I can do?” Edna offered.
“No, ma’am. He’s resting comfortably, and that’s all we can do.”
“I’m afraid we have bad news, honey.” Edward saw no reason to stall. “Bulldog Mackenzie has passed on; this young man is his grandson, Lucas Mackenzie. He’s come to see Wilson.”
Keely turned to face the man standing across the room, and had to grab the back of a straight chair for support. It was the handsome stranger from the stage!