Written in 41 minutes.
Colorado Territory, 1872
They had changed trains in Denver, setting course for the small town of Port Charles at the base of the Rocky Mountains, and the last stage of a journey that had taken Elizabeth Webber from her home on Lake Ontario in New York across the country.
It had been the name of the town that had caught her attention in the advertisement she’d seen. She had grown up in region dotted with small villages and hamlets that had the “Port” in its name between Lake Ontario and the Erie Canal that fed into it, the lifeblood of upstate New York. In fact, her hometown had been Port Hamilton. It had seemed like a sign to her — exchanging one lake for another. Surely, they wouldn’t name themselves that without some sort of water.
She’d clung desperately to that sign as she’d read the rest of the advertisement, Lawman, Port Charles, Colorado Territory, aged 29, good appearance and good family. Looking for a strong woman. Must want children.
It had been that final line that convinced her. She glanced down at her sweet son, napping next to her. Cameron, only four years, was the center of her existence, and all she wanted in this world was to give him a better world than they had at home. In Hamilton, everyone knew she was unmarried, and he’d be labeled with that nasty label of bastard.
So she’d sent a letter to the man in Colorado who wanted a wife and a family, and hoped for the best. Now, Elizabeth was finally closing on the miles between Denver and Port Charles, waiting to start her new life and hoping desperately that Sheriff Jason Morgan was everything he’d promised in his letters.
Port Charles lay at the base of the Rocky Mountains, a strange name for the small settlement that had sprung up when the miners flooded the area following the gold and silver strikes of the 1850s. Twenty years later, there was still a decent silver mining operation in business and the settlement had flourished into the largest town for miles. They’d even managed their own railroad spur, connecting themselves to Denver and increasing the business in town.
Jason’s grandfather had made the canny and lucrative decision to uproot his entire family—including his children and grandchildren to invest in those silver and gold mines. The Morgan family was one of the founding families, and that sense of obligation was rooted in Jason from the moment he’d arrived from San Francisco at the age of nine.
Now, he was an adult, walking the streets with a star pinned to his chambray shirt that proclaimed him the ultimate word of law in the town. He rode down the main street, casting his light blue eyes over the buildings and denizens, always looking for trouble. Not that they had a lot of that these days, but he was always ready.
He tied the horse to the post outside the jail where he spent most of his waking hours and tugged off his hat. Inside, at the desk, he found one of his two deputies pouring over papers. Dillon Quartermaine, his younger cousin, jumped, startled at the sound of his boots, and several pieces of papers flew into the air, floating to the ground.
Jason narrowed his eyes as the boy scrambled to his feet and grabbed for the papers. Dillon was always pretty excitable with a tendency to speak at a rapid pace and use his hands to gesture wildly, but over the last few weeks, he’d also become squirrely. Nervous. Something was up.
Jason squatted, reaching for one of the loose papers, and Dillon snatched it back, his face flushing. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Dillon stammered. He cleared his throat, clutching the papers to his chest. He got to his feet. “Just didn’t sleep well.”
“Cut the bull.” Jason set his hands at his waist. “Don’t make me find out later—”
“I was up all last night thinking about Grandmother,” Dillon said, lifting his chin. “Don’t tell me you weren’t.”
Jason exhaled slowly, some of the suspicion melting away. “Yeah, I’m starting to dread Sunday supper,” he admitted. He removed his hat and set it on the post by the wall. “I thought she’d let this go.”
“She won’t,” Dillon muttered. “Not as long as you keep this up.” Jason shot him a look. “And you know it. She wants us both tied down, but she’d give me a break if you’d just do it—”
Jason scowled. “It’s not that easy,” he said defensively. “I’m busy—”
“You’ve been saying that for almost a year,” his cousin shot back. “You didn’t even try—”
That was true, but it still stung. “Look—” Jason began.
“Nothing. You’re the one that promised Grandmother you’d get married this year, not me. And somehow I got dragged into it.” Dillon stabbed a finger at him. “This is your fault.”
That was also true. If Jason had just stayed strong just a bit more, but his grandmother had a way of looking at them, and everything they’d been through—he dragged a hand over his face. “It’s not that easy,” he repeated. “It’s not like I have a lot of choices.”
“That’s true.” Dillon cleared his throat. “But if you met the right someone, you’d be on board? You promise you’d consider it?”
Jason glanced down at the papers, then back at his cousin. “What are you planning?”
“Nothing. I’m just working on arguments for next Sunday. Eventually Grandmother is going to give up on you, and then I get a starring role.” His eyes were wide. “I’m barely twenty-two! I haven’t even lived yet!”
Jason scowled. “Listen—”
“And I need to have something to say to Grandmother,” Dillon continued. “So you promise if someone showed up you could see yourself marrying—”
“Then I’d consider it,” Jason bit out. “Fine. Tell her that.” He yanked Dillon’s hat off the post next to his. “Now get to work and make your rounds.”
“Mama.” Cameron rubbed his eyes as Elizabeth set him on the bench. “Are we home yet?”
“Not yet darling.” She ruffled his blond hair, then smiled at the train manager. “You said there was a message?” Her heart pounded, but she forced herself to remain calm. A message didn’t mean he’d changed his mind—didn’t mean that she’d spent the last of her funds to drag her son across the country—
“Uh, the sheriff got held up down at the jail,” the manager said, folding his hands. “Said he’d be along as soon as possible. Just have a seat, and it will all be sorted out.”
“Oh.” Well, the letters had said he was the only law enforcement for the entire area, she remembered. There were two duties, but he was in charge. She’d have to understand that sometimes that would have to come first. She could deal with that.
She sat next to Cameron, pulled him close to snuggle, and hoped the wait wouldn’t be too long.
Dillon returned from his rounds, his face a bit flushed. “The train from Denver came in.”
Jason got up from the desk where he’d been sorting the local bulletins and wanted papers from San Francisco. “I heard it a while ago. So?”
“Mike sent a message there’s a delivery for you. For the station,” Dillon clarified. “Don’t know anything else. But you need to pick it up.” He shoved his hat back on his head, wiping at the beads of sweat. “You know how that Pinkerton guy sends all those official papers and gets cranky if I sign for it.”
The Pinkertons had only recently come west to break streaks in San Francisco, and were constantly searching for union leaders in hiding. Jason liked to pretend most of their orders went missing, but occasionally he didn’t have a choice.
“Fine,” Jason said. He reached for his hat. “Let’s get this over with.”
The train station was just outside of town, no more then a ten minute ride from the jail. His cousin went with him, his face still flushed from the heat. Jason reminded himself that he’d need to send him for some water. Idiot might get overheated and get sick, and then what would their grandmother say?
Jason stepped inside the station, scanned the small room and didn’t see Mike Corbin, the manager anywhere. Just a young woman on a bench, with a little boy curled up next to her. She was fair-skinned slightly flushed from the heat, her brown hair caught up beneath a hat with curly tendrils escaping. She turned at their entrance, and then she smiled—her blue eyes lighting up with a sparkle. “You made it.”
Jason stared at her for a long moment, then looked at his cousin, then back at her. She stood, carefully allowing the dozing boy to continue sleeping as she set his head on bundle of cloth she’d had in her lap. “I—”
“The train manager said he didn’t know how long you’d be,” the woman continued, approaching, her smile switching to Dillon, then back to him. “But you weren’t long at all! I’m sorry—” Her cheeks flushed again, and her smile turned sheepish. “I’m doing all the talking and you haven’t had a chance to say a word. I did tell you in my letters I tended to ramble, didn’t I? I tried to warn you.”
In her letters. Jason flashed to the papers Dillon had had that morning, his strange behavior—and then their conversation.
Dillon had taken matters into his own hands, found a woman, and put her right in front of Jason—and she didn’t know a damn thing about it.