Patience Smith might have been surprised to know that her life had just changed dramatically. Sheriff Jay Longer didn't realize his had changed at the same instant.
Swinging a long leg over the saddle, the sheriff of Denver City, Colorado, climbed aboard his mare. His eye caught Dylan McCall hugging his wife on Main Street, right in broad daylight. And in front of the sheriff's office, too. He frowned. Was that any way to uphold the dignity of law enforcement?
A moment later Jay rode up to the waiting couple, sliding out of the saddle before the mare came to a stop.
Ruth McCall whirled to face him, her pretty face a mix of warring emotions. "We were in the shop. Mary was pinning the hem on Lenore Hawthorn's wedding dress—the bride's parents forbid her to try it on, so Patience was modeling it. A man burst into Mary's millinery and grabbed Patience. They went off in that direction!" She pointed west. "Go!"
"Honey, slow down," her husband warned. "I don't want you upset."
Tears brimmed Ruth's eyelids. "You have to do something, Sheriff!"
Jay frowned. Deliver him from newlyweds and estrogen-produced hysterics. All that sweet talk between the marshall and his bride should take place in the privacy of their home, not in the presence of people who might find it scratchy to watch. Of course, time was, when he still had Nelly, he might have been as love-struck as Dylan, but he'd have had enough sense of propriety to keep it to himself.
Sure, he would.
If he had Nelly back, he'd get down on his knees right out there in the middle of the street and tell her all the things he wished he'd said when he had the chance.
Jay casually straightened the brim on his Stetson. "She was wearing Lenore Hawthorn's wedding dress when she was abducted?"
Ruth nodded, tears rolling down her cheeks. "She was standing in for Lenore for the final gown fitting."
Jay glanced at Dylan, then back to Ruth. "Well, there's our answer. There's been bad blood between the Hawthorns and the McLanes for years. Ben and Lenore's wedding has set them off again—my guess is that the culprit has a connection with the groom's family."
With the Hawthorn/McLane wedding scheduled to take place tomorrow night, Jay figured that had to be the circumstance. Old man McLane was a crusty old reprobate, and he'd sworn to stop the nuptials between his oldest son and Hawthorn's youngest daughter. Apparently he'd found a way to interfere.
Ruth lifted a shaky hand to her forehead. "Sakes alive. The kidnapper mistook Patience for Lenore?"
Jay nodded. "That'd be my guess. What about you, Marshall?"
Dylan agreed. "That's the way I have it figured."
Denver City bustled in the background. An hour from now it would be dark, and a posse would find it impossible to track the young woman. Jay would have to set out alone and follow the trail until it got cold—or until he found Patience Smith.
"But why?" Ruth argued. "Why would anyone snatch a bride? What do they want with Lenore—Patience?"
The sheriff and the marshall exchanged sobering looks before Jay finally admitted, "Well now, that's hard to say." Could be a million explanations, but only one thing mattered. What would the kidnapper do with the girl once he discovered his mistake?
"Let's not panic," Dylan said. "When Patience tells the man that he's got the wrong woman, he'll probably turn her loose."
Whirling, Ruth bolted back into Mary's millinery shop in tears, and Dylan approached the sheriff.
"We've got a problem," the marshall said.
"Could be—then again, he might have realized his mistake instantly and let her go at the edge of town."
"Maybe—but if he didn't?"
Jay took off his Stetson and wiped his forehead. "Then you're right—we have a real problem."
Dylan stood by while Jay slid a Winchester Model 1873 into the hand-tooled rifle scabbard tied to his saddle. A cold wind buffeted the men's sturdy frames. Tomorrow night 1873 would be ushered out with parties and noisy celebrations, but Jay wouldn't be part of the festivities.
Dylan ran a hand across his face. "I still think I should be the one to go after her. Those girls and Ruth—they're like family to each other."
Longer busied himself checking cinches and stirrups. He knew Dylan had brought the girls all the way from Missouri to be mail-order brides, an arrangement that hadn't worked out. The orphaned young women were as close as sisters, so Dylan's bride's tears were understandable. "You're newly married, and you're the marshall. I'm single, the sheriff, and the crime was committed in my county."
Not that Jay wanted to go after this particular orphan. He'd had more than one disagreeable run-in with Patience Smith, the last occurring a couple days ago. She'd burst into his office carrying a bird with a broken wing and asked if he knew anything about setting bones. He'd calmly pointed out he was town sheriff, not town vet. He'd eyed the critter that scattered droppings on the office floor.
She'd eyed him back sternly, then asked if he was coldhearted.
He had to admit that he was—had been for a long time. And he wasn't in the bird-fixing business.
She'd left with the bird in hand, and the last he'd seen of her she was crossing the street, head held high, determination evident in her squared shoulders and stiff back.
Dylan's voice broke into Jay's musings. "The kidnapping took place in my town."
Jay sighed, knowing how stubborn McCall could be. "Look, let's not argue. I'm going after her, and I'm going to bring her home. That's my job; it's what I get paid for."
Conceding, Dylan stepped back. "I'll look after the town while you're gone. That much I can do."
Nodding, Jay gathered the reins between his gloves and mounted. "Finding her—finding anyone—in these mountains isn't going to be a cakewalk." The sheriff settled his hat more firmly on his head. He'd be lucky if he survived the search this time of year. January wasn't for the fainthearted. But he had another reason for going, one he wasn't going to mention. The wire he'd received today crackled in his shirt pocket. He knew what it said by heart. His gambling debts had caught up with him. The people he owed were coming to collect, and he didn't have the money to pay. If he wasn't here, there wouldn't be much they could do, and if he could buy enough time, maybe he would recoup his losses. And then again, maybe he wouldn't.
Turning the horse, he