Also vailable in paperback large print

Theresa “Tessa” Jackson has come to Creekbend, California to live a quiet life as the new schoolteacher. The secluded mountain town is a perfect place to hide from her twin brother’s gang of outlaws. But when she finds an injured man unconscious in the creek behind her tiny cabin, her life is anything but quiet. And when she learns he is a United States Marshal, Tessa fears her masquerade will soon be uncovered!

When Dillon Cade awakens in a strange bed, wounded from a shootout with one of the outlaws he’s tracking, he never dreams the pretty young schoolteacher who rescued him is the sister of the gang’s leader. She’s sweet and kind and mysterious and frustrating all at the same time, and though he’s vowed not to stop his hunt for Blade’s gang until he’s found revenge for the murder of his wife and daughter, he can’t help his attraction to the plucky young woman. Yet at the same time, he can’t stop the nagging suspicion there’s something familiar about her…

 

Chapter One

Creekbend, California
August 31, 1879

Trouble followed Tessa wherever she went. Lately, it seemed to be running to catch up with her.

The dust trail from the Davis’s departing wagon still drifted over the tree line. She hadn’t even been inside the tiny cabin, her new home, and already trouble taunted her, its icy fingers stroking up and down her spine.

Ignore it. Tessa looked at the rusted key in her hand. It had soiled her cream colored gloves.

The sound came again: a horse in distress, just beyond the trees. It issued high-pitched squeals, followed by furious snorts. Though she knew little about horses, even Tessa understood this was not an animal in pain, but one savagely angry.

The further she stayed from it, the safer she would be.

She dropped her traveling case from her aching left hand. As the Davis’s rattling buckboard bounced her across the rough road during the two-hour journey from the train station in Fresno, Mr. Davis had hardly uttered two words. Little Jimmy Davis apparently had nothing at all to say to his new teacher. Neither offered to help her with her bags when she’d hauled her aching body from their wagon, nor had they offered to escort her inside.

She cringed as she looked at her new home. If the inside looked anything like the dilapidated outside...

Tessa shrugged the thought away. Beggars couldn’t be choosers. With less than thirty dollars to her name, Tessa might as well be a beggar. In all truth she had begged for this job, desperate escape Arizona Territory to a place where no one knew of her past.

Thankfully the letters from Father Dwight had been just as desperate. Not much of a town here, he’d written. But sixteen children who can’t read or write.

Father Dwight and Mr. Hanlon, the owner of the general store and self-appointed overseer of the tiny community, had spent almost two years trying to find a teacher willing to come to Creekbend. The local people couldn’t offer much as a salary, but there was a nice little cabin just perfect for someone looking to start a new life.

Perhaps from her letters, Father Dwight understood she was that someone. He’d not asked for references in addition to the two recommendation letters she’d provided.

The horse whinnied again, rousing Tessa from her thoughts. She searched the trees shrouding the tiny cabin, scanned the sharply rising hills surrounding her. Go inside, she told herself. You have too many problems of your own. She picked up her bags and moved them to the porch.

The cabin was perfect, hidden in its own private valley. From the ruts and potholes in the road that had brought her here, Tessa could tell it was infrequently traveled, if not altogether unknown by anyone other than the twelve families in this remote place that honestly couldn’t even be called a town.

The outlaws would not find her here.

Nor would her brother. Tessa swallowed a bitter mouthful of regret. Leaving her twin brother had been one of the hardest things she’d ever done, but also one of the most liberating. As he’d always done, Jeremy had dragged her into his trouble; her current situation was his fault.

She had to look at this as a blessing. She’d always wanted to be a teacher; now she was.

Another whinny rang through the trees again, followed by another furious snort.

Tessa drew in a deep breath and stepped off the porch. Don’t do it, she told herself, but her feet were still moving. She lifted her skirts as she kicked up clouds of dust, and then dropped them again. Her green chambray traveling suit was already ruined, the hem of the skirts permeated with a layer of dirt.

She picked her way carefully into the shade cast by ancient oak, crunching across a blanket of fallen leaves dried by the late summer’s heat. The tranquil sound of a babbling brook helped ease her trepidation. Somewhat.

At least Father Dwight had not stretched the truth when he’d told her she’d find water nearby, as he had when he’d described “a quaint cottage perfect for a young lady.”

She stopped at the base of an immense oak, stunned by the curious sight before her. A magnificent black horse stood by the edge of the stream. The beast had noticed her long before she noticed it, probably by her scent, or the noise she made traipsing through the leaves. It still wore its saddle and bridle, though its owner was nowhere to be seen.

Fear prickled across her nape. This most certainly wasn’t normal.

The horse’s black eyes fixed on her, ears pricked in her direction. It pawed a hoof, splashing the water, and then snorted with an angry shake of its head, its reins flopping loosely.

The beast’s warning was not lost on Tessa.

“My, aren’t you a beauty.” She used her most soothing tone, cautiously starting closer. “Are you lost?”

As if in answer, it issued another strange, throaty cry. Its entire body rippled with the effort, its nostrils flaring widely. It could smell her fear, even at this distance.

“Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you.” She took a few more steps. “You certainly are fierce. If you would prefer, I’ll just turn around the way I came—”

Tessa froze. Dangerously close to the horse’s treacherous hooves, a man lay in the shallow water of a tiny elbow in the creek. Dressed in dark clothing and with his face turned away, she hadn’t noticed him behind a scruffy patch of grass until she neared.

The cold fingers of unease returned to her spine, stroking out their ever-taunting reminder that she would never escape the trouble stalking her. In one form or another, it was always there.

She swallowed through a hot, dry throat, tasting the dusty road. Surely this man had nothing to do with the gang of outlaws pursuing her...

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