Lauri Robinson.

Inheriting a Bride





As if not sure what they saw, the big brown eyes staring at him closed for a moment and then opened again.

Miss Ackerman, he said in greeting.

Her groan was accompanied with a slow and distraught headshake as she pressed a hand to her forehead. Id forgotten, she whispered.

Plenty of people grew sick riding the train up the mountain. The motion and altitude took some getting used to. Her head once again lowered to hang over her knees. Clay leaned across the small space, drawing back a hand moments before it could touch her knee. Forgotten what?

How treacherous these train rides are.

Coupling the fear of heights hed sensed back on the trail with the train ride, he felt compassion opening up inside him. With little thought, he moved across the aisle and sat down next to her. Resting a hand in the middle of her back, he assured her, Youre safe.

She shook her head. If one of these cars came loose wed plunge to the bottom of the mountain and never be found.

Clay glanced over his shoulder, out the window to where the houses, commercial buildings, even people moving about in Black Hawk looked like a miniature world. Others had made the same statement she just had, and hed laughed it off, but the shakiness of her voice indicated real fear. Protectiveness sprang up inside him. That wont happen, he answered. You have my word on it.

How could you stop it?

She had yet to lift her head, and beneath his fingers her body trembled. There was something about this woman that got to him, and not just her unease right now. From the moment theyd met he hadnt been able to stop thinking about her, almost as if shed had the key and opened that deeply guarded compartment inside him hed long ago secured away.

Exposing the things long hidden there was not something he was prepared to do, so he blocked the thought from his mind and dug in one pocket. I have something for you, he said.

I know. A ticket to Boston.

Her groan made him chuckle. No, Mr. Green still has that.

Opening one eye, she cast a wary gaze toward Clay, head still down, face still white.

He dangled the medicine bag by the leather strap.

A faint, wobbly smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Inching upward, she trapped his hand on her back between her and the wall. My amulet, she whispered. Howd you

Its not the same one you lost. But its similar. He leaned closer and whispered, This one doesnt stink.

As she let out an adorable half gasp, half giggle, he eased the leather strap over her head, careful of the little hat and the pins holding her thick curls in place. There, now youre safe. I apologize for making you lose the other one.

A hint of color appeared on her cheeks as she fingered the bag gently. Thank you.

The train rounded the hill, and the sound of the whistle announcing the upcoming depot prevented him from responding.

Which was all right, since he had no idea what to say. The sincerity in her voice had sucker punched his heart.

Biting her bottom lip, she closed her eyes again as the train slowed to a crawl near the big drum of water towering over the tracks, marking Central City.

He didnt have a moment to speak then, either, because the door in the center of the roof opened and brown boots caught the first rung of the ladder.

Beneath Clays fingers, Katherines trembling increased, and he rubbed her back in a wide circle.

What Looking dumbfounded, Ty Reins, dressed in his gray-and-white-striped bib overalls and matching hat, glanced around the small area. Clay, I didnt know you were riding in here.

Its not as crowded as the passenger car, he answered.

The way Katherines eyes snapped open, and the shock on her face, said she knew hed just covered up the fact shed sneaked on board, and the bashful fall of her lashes had his blood moving a bit faster.

Clay, about to introduce the two, bit his tongue as she asked the man, What do you do up there?

Keep a lookout for falling rocks and other things that could derail the train, Ty responded.

Clay groaned inwardly. It was what the man did, but the way Ty had said it was sure to increase her fears. Which rarely happens, Clay said, rubbing her back again. The touch of velvet beneath his fingers, not to mention the heat of her body, was rather addictive.

Ty chuckled. Thats right. It rarely happens. Nothing to worry about, miss.

She nodded, but Clay sensed it was out of obligation, not belief.

Well only be here a few minutes, he assured her.

The conductor pointed toward the little overhead door. You want to ride in the pilothouse? You can see forever up there.

Clay wanted to shake the man.

No. No, thank you, Katherine said nervously. The caboose is just fine. She tugged at the high, ruffled neckline of her white silk blouse. D-down here. Down here is just fine.

All right, Ty said, shrugging his massive shoulders and giving Clay a nod that said hed tried. Well be heading out in another minute or two. Just had to drop off the mail here in Central.

Thanks, Ty, Clay said, nodding toward the pilothouse door.

Right on cue the screeching whistle blew, and the man swung around to grasp the ladder again.

How long will it take us to get to Nevadaville? Katherine asked in a shaky whisper.

Its only a couple of miles, Clay answered, as an overwhelming urge to grasp her waist and pull her closer to his side had his fingers moving over the blue velvet of her dress again.

Course, we gotta go all the way around before we stop, Ty added, with one foot on the bottom rung of the ladder.

Around? she asked.

Yeah. Nevadaville is the end of the line. The track makes a loop at the top of the mountain so were headed back in the right direction.

Thanks, Ty, Clay repeated, slipping his hand down to the small of her back as her shivers returned. He nodded toward the trapdoor again, half wondering how the conductor couldnt sense how deeply afraid she was.

Smiling brightly, the man said, Some folks get scared on account of all the bridges. Theyre loud but theyre safe. Built real solid. Ask Clay, there. Hell tell you.

Bridges? Her voice was a mere squeak.

Yeah, Ty answered. We gotta cross Clear Creek a few times and

Its time you got back in the pilothouse, Ty, Clay said sternly.

With a dip of his hat, the man climbed the ladder and closed the door.

Clay scooted a bit closer, inching his arm all the way around her until his palm cupped the swell of her hip. There isnt anything to worry ab out.

The whistle sounded once more, and with a bout of hissing steam floating past the windows, the train, clanging and banging, pulled away from the station. Clay waited until the chugging grew smooth again before asking, You havent ridden on many trains, have you?

She shook her head. This is my first trip anywhere.

There was more than a hint of loneliness in her tone, and that made the desire to hold her close grow stronger. Clay was a caring man; he understood that. Had to be, with Oscars demands and Clarices overflowing heart. Yet the immediate attraction and level of desire he felt for this woman was uncanny. His past had left him with very little trust for any woman.

A frown formed as she continued to gaze up at him. What are you doing here? she asked. I thought you were in Nevadaville.

Im having a new boiler delivered. I came down on the morning train to look it over. The tale flowed out easy enough, after all the times hed repeated it to himself.

A thunderous, echoing rumble signaled the start of one of the bridge crossings, and with a nervous screech Katherine burrowed into his side. Shh, he whispered, liking the feel of her next to him probably more than he should. Theres nothing to be afraid of.

Thats what Im afraid of, she answered timidly. The nothingness below us.

He grinned and, holding her close, set a knuckle under her chin, intending to pull her face up and assure her the train wasnt going to derail. Yet when those big brown eyes peered up at him, a completely different thought overtook him.

Kits heart landed in the back of her throat and the air in her lungs sat right there, unable to move, just like the rest of her body. She knew they were still on the trainthe rumble beneath her said that. But Clays hands softly holding her, and his eyes looking at her in a mesmerizing way, seemed to transport her into some kind of dreamland where thinking coherently grew impossible.

He moved then, slightly forward, and his lips brushed over her forehead, as soft as a feather. Yet they sent a hum through her body. A clump of air left her lungs and rattled in the back of her throat as his lips dropped lower, touched her eyelid, which had somehow closed.

His lips brushed her nose next, then her cheeks, and by then her entire body was humming. Instinct told her to move, and she did. She tilted her head up and pressed her lips to his. The connection was unique, and tantalizing.

It happened several times, their lips meeting. Each touch was gentle, unhurried and so tender it drew her full attention. There was excitement in those kisses, too, and they set off a spark inside her, yet even that was soothing in a fascinating way she couldnt describe. She nestled closer, not wanting the kisses to end, and gladly immersed herself in an absorbing journey that took her to a fantasyland not even books had told her about.

When he lifted his head and tucked hers beneath his chin, she was still floating in that once-upon-a-time place, and unwilling to leave, she snuggled against his broad chest, swaying with the gentle rocking beneath them. Never before could she remember feeling so content and safe, almost as if this was the one place shed always been searching for.

It wasnt until the train rolled to a stop that Kit lifted her head, still half-dizzy or dazed in the stardust world shed entered. Add that to the smile on the handsome face peering down at her and it was almost impossible to remember where she was. Who she was.

That wasnt so bad, was it? he asked.

No, it wasnt bad at all, she answered, not quite sure what he was referring to.

With a thud, Mr. Reins seemed to drop down from the ceiling, grinning broadly. There, now, lass, he said kindly. I told you not to worry. The bridges are strong.

The narrow wooden bridges shed traversed on the way to Black Hawk, crossing never-ending ravines that seemed too deep to host bridge supports, came to mind. She hadnt noticed one on this trip. Her gaze went to Clay and her mind took to wondering if they had kissed, or if it was some kind of fantasy her fear had conjured up so she wouldnt have to face the terrifying experience of crossing the bridges again.

Come on, Clay said, taking her hand and helping her to her feet.

He led her to the door and gently guided her down a set of metal steps she hadnt noticed before. Once her feet hit solid ground, her composure returnedsomewhatas did her awareness of her state of affairs.

I left my luggage in Black Hawk. She flinched, wondering why that had leaped to the front of her mind.

Ty, Clay said, collect the ladys luggage, would you? Its at the hotel.

Mr. Reins nodded. Sure thing, boss. Ill bring it over on the six-thirteen.

Thanks, Clay said, before leading her off the platform. This way. Lets get you settled in The Gold Mine. Its the best hotel on the entire mountain. Mimmie Mae will have some tea she can brew up for you. Hows that sound?

A cup of hot, fortifying tea sounded downright heavenly, especially considering all the confusing thoughts popping in her head like a sinkful of soap bubbles. While many disappeared as quickly as they formed, a couple stayed, causing her to turn abruptly. Mr. Reins, she called, stopping the man from climbing into one of the cargo cars.

Yes, maam?

She swept her gaze to the little lookout on top of the caboose. You be careful riding up there. Thinking about the railroad man gave her mind something to do while thoughts of Clay and how he still held her arm continued to rattle and crash into one another.

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