Double Chance Claim [Badlands 3] (Siren Publishing Menage Amour)

DOUBLE CHANCE CLAIM

Badlands 3

Elle Saint James

MENAGE AMOUR

Siren Publishing, Inc.

www.SirenPublishing.com

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A SIREN PUBLISHING BOOK

IMPRINT: Ménage Amour

DOUBLE CHANCE CLAIM

Copyright © 2009 by Elle Saint James

E-book ISBN: 1-60601-702-0

First E-book Publication: November 2009

Cover design by Jinger Heaston

All cover art and logo copyright © 2009 by Siren Publishing, Inc.

ALL
RIGHTS RESERVED:
This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission.

All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.

PUBLISHER

Siren Publishing, Inc.

www.SirenPublishing.com

DEDICATION

Dedicated to my very favorite hero, my husband. Thanks for supporting me in this dream job.

DOUBLE CHANCE CLAIM

Badlands 3

ELLE SAINT JAMES

Copyright © 2009

Chapter One

A mile outside of Campbell’s Valley Township—1890

“I can’t help it if my husband chose last night to head for his final reward unexpectedly, sir.” The midday sun beat down upon the top of Maggie Altman’s head as if she wasn’t wearing her thickest bonnet for protection. The tingling in her warming cheeks signaled she was already getting an excess of sun and this fact increased her anger and despair to the boiling level. “Why can’t I continue on alone with this group?”

“As wagon master on this journey, my word is the law. With your husband dead, your options are limited to one.” The wagon master spat out a long stream of tobacco juice, wiped the back of one sleeve over his mouth, and turned his face up to Maggie’s.

She tried not to show the disgust she felt at his barbaric oral practices. “And what is my singular option?” Even though she already knew the answer to her own foolish question. She was screwed.

Maggie Altman never wanted to come out to the dusty Wild West. Her hometown of Philadelphia bustled with a myriad of activities to indulge in, places to go, things to do, people to see and be seen by. She adored the refinement and elegance of living in a city. She’d never wanted to ride a long distance in a lonely covered wagon much less accompany a wagon train in one. The only thing worse was being left all alone in the Badlands of South Dakota with a dead husband.

After an arduous three-month trip headed for the even more barren wilderness of Montana, her life certainly hadn’t turned out the way she’d once expected it to. Of course, it was her own damn fault. She’d made a mistake with a man.

Caleb had warned her about Edgar, but she hadn’t listened. Caleb rescued her when her family abandoned her. However, his plan to carve out a life as a sheep farmer in Montana had been his long-sought dream not hers. And now he was dead. A ripple of sadness threatened to engulf her, but she held her sorrow and tears inside for now.

“I’m as sorry as I can be about this unfortunate set of events, ma’am, but without your man to accompany you farther, you can’t be associated with this wagon train anymore.”

“So I’m just stranded out here in the middle of nowhere?” The rough planks of the buckboard’s unyielding seat where she perched dug deeply into her derriere. All the layers of petticoats beneath her skirt didn’t help cushion the uncomfortable bench. She squirmed first right and then left, searching for a modicum of respite. Truthfully, it was better to sit still than to move, but she was restless. Contemplating her dismal choices—or rather her single dismal choice. She didn’t want to be left by herself in this desolate, unforgiving place.

“That was the agreement signed by your man. If for any reason the occupants of the wagon can’t pull their own weight, they’re dropped at the nearest city, village, or township along the way.”

“And you think I can’t?” The awful reality was she
couldn’t
pull her own weight in this circumstance, but she hated that the wagon master assumed as much. It was common knowledge among the other folks traveling along on this trip. Maggie loathed campfires and living outside. The bugs, the uncomfortable ride in the wagon, the endless sunshine beating down on her once-fair skin were all additional torture. This entire journey had been like taking a slow, hot, bug-infested ride to hell.

“Ma’am, we’ve all seen what you are and are not capable of doing to help on this journey. Honestly, I don’t believe you even have the basic skill needed to drive the wagon you’re sitting in.”

She tilted her head to one side wondering if she could pander to his good side. “Well, you could teach me. I’m a fast learner.”

He sent her a look of disbelief, likely questioning her ability to learn quickly, and muttered, “That’s not my job.”

Apparently, he didn’t have a good side. Maggie pushed out a long sigh of resignation. “Please, couldn’t you make an exception?”

“No. Your husband should have prepared you better.”

“He liked doing everything. He didn’t want me to help. He treated me like a lady. No one, least of all me, expected him to…pass on so suddenly.” She couldn’t bring herself to say the word
dead
out loud.

“Well, I’ll give you that. It’s pretty uncommon for a man as young as your husband to keel over. Usually, the women are the ones that don’t make it all the way to the destination, not the men.”

She wasn’t sure how to respond to that observation, so she remained silent.

“Our outfit always tries to convince the menfolk to leave their women behind and send for them later once they’re settled, but sometimes they just can’t be swayed to good sense.” He eyed her from head to knees and added, “I guess it’s understandable on occasion.” He looked away, as if with regret. She wasn’t sure what his exact thoughts were, but with his lecture and intense stare seemingly at an end, he hocked up another repulsive spit ball and released it in another thin, coffee-colored spurt.

Maggie swallowed her disgust and made the effort to explain why Caleb had insisted she come along. “In our case, there was no choice. I needed to come along with him. He couldn’t leave me behind.”
Because I had nowhere else to go.

The wagon master’s eyes caught hers in another unreadable gaze. She wished she knew what would convince him to allow her to continue. He tilted his head back and sighed deeply as if no reason would ever compel him to journey with a woman if he had a choice.

After a long while, he shrugged. “Still, if your man needed to bring you with him, then he should have taught you better to pull your own weight before he dropped dead. And maybe he wouldn’t have, if you’d helped him more.”

His insinuation that
she
was to blame for her husband’s untimely demise sent a cold chill to her bones. Was this foul man correct? Was she at fault? She thought about her last few hours with Caleb from the night before. He’d gone to bed early with a worsening headache and then he just hadn’t woken up this morning. Her best friend. Her rescuer. Her husband. Gone. Just that quickly.

Even though she thought she’d cried herself dry over Caleb this morning, Maggie’s vision narrowed and again filled with bitter tears.
 
Not for the first time today, she contemplated whether she’d rather be the one dead instead of Caleb. At this point it was a toss-up. “His name was Caleb.”

The wagon master pushed out another long breath. “Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry
Caleb
didn’t prepare you better. But those are my rules.”

“You’re truly going to leave me out here all alone?”

“Not exactly. I’m not heartless.” The wagon master sent his gaze to the town of Campbell’s Valley behind them approximately one mile due east. “We haven’t even left sight of the town we stopped in yesterday.”

Maggie twisted her head around to gaze forlornly at the small town, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
Why am I even here?

The short answer was she hadn’t had any choice in the matter. The long answer involved her imprudent history and an ill-conceived plan to leave the difficult situation she’d created for herself back in Philadelphia.

“Normally in this situation, I’d have one of my scouts accompany you, but we’re already behind schedule and, honestly, I don’t have a man to spare.”

“But how will I get back home?” If she could even go back home. Her father had been fairly adamant that he never wanted to see her again. Her mother had been appalled over the initial disgrace. The trip to Montana made a bad situation even worse. If she ever made it to her family’s stately doorstep, her mother would take one look at Maggie’s sun-kissed face and refuse to allow her back into the family home.

“That’s up to you. I’d suggest selling off your supplies and equipment and buying passage to the place of your heart’s desire. Lucky for you there is a train station in Campbell’s Valley.” He lifted his arm and pointed at the town again.

“Right. Lucky.” She didn’t feel very lucky. “Since we aren’t continuing on the journey, shouldn’t I get a partial refund of the enormous amount of money Caleb paid you?”

His stare went as cold as a gravedigger’s shovel in winter. “No refunds. No discussion.” Apparently, money was another thing the wagon master was stubborn about.

“What about my husband?” Maggie sent her gaze to the back of the wagon where Caleb rested. He was already encased in a hastily handmade shroud created from leftover grain sacks. The wagon master frowned, likely annoyed at allowing Maggie to take the scrap fabric from his supply wagon.

“I’d suggest burying him.” The smirk on his face told her he was well rid of her and did not care one whit about her plight. He took his hat off, slapped it against his thigh and watched as dust flew from the creases. He wiped his sleeve across his forehead, transferring the sweat accumulated there to his shirt before putting his hat back on his balding head. He spat a final squirt of brown juice from between rounded lips, nodded his head once, and turned to the line of wagons already moving away.

Goodbye and good riddance. She had more important things to worry about—like burying her best friend and deciding what on earth to do next.

Maggie twisted to look over one shoulder at her new destination. Pretending she rode atop a lovely bay mare in the riding park near her home in Philadelphia, Maggie took hold of the reins, clicked her tongue and edged the two nag horses into a wide circle pointed toward town.

She did
too
know how to drive the wagon, but admittedly, this was the first time she’d attempted to do so on this awful trip.

A tear slipped out of one eye and down her heated face for Caleb’s sake. He deserved better. Caleb’s dreams and innate gumption concerning owning property in Montana, raising sheep, and working the land should have inspired her. However, his dream had never been close to her desire.

And while she hadn’t loved him like a husband, Caleb had been a good man. They’d grown up together in the same exalted circles of Philadelphia’s high society. Like Maggie, Caleb had also disappointed his family with the choices he’d made, most significantly that his selection of bed partners did not include women. An aspect of their unusual relationship as a young married couple was their lack of sexual intimacy.

The hot sun caressed her face as she drove the tired horses forward. She made her way slowly across the rutted lane back to Campbell’s Valley.

Her ultimate destination was the white-washed church with the small bell tower steeple they’d passed by only yesterday. Never in her wildest imagination had she thought she’d ever see the humble house of worship again, let alone consider a burial for Caleb there.

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