The Wicked West
CHAPTER ONE
    “Mrs. Anders,” Sheriff Hale murmured, touching the brim of his hat. The young widow lowered her eyes when she inclined her head, more modest than any other woman he’d ever met. She was English, and that probably explained it. It certainly explained her pale skin.
    “I understand you have some misgivings about our local bank. Mr. Johnson asked me to stop by and give my reassurance. It’s secure and legitimate and a much safer place to keep your money than in your mattress.”
    “I apologize,” she said. Her soft voice touched him like a physical sensation, like fur against his skin.
    Hale frowned at the strange thought.
    “It’s not that I suspect Mr. Johnson of being a criminal. It’s just that I was warned not to be naive, so the idea of turning my money over to a stranger…And I’ve never seen a bank constructed of raw timber before.” When her green eyes rose, they didn’t look the least bit timid despite her soft voice. In fact, they flashed with strength before she lowered them again.
    Hale took a step back, because what he really wanted to do was step forward, closer to her. Her shiny brown hair glinted gold in the sun and those jade eyes burned through him. He felt the edge of the rough porch with his heel, and set his foot down on the packed dirt of the street. “You were smart to hesitate,” he assured her. A faint flush washed over her cheeks as she licked her lips.
    Hale cleared his throat. “I’m always right next door if you have any more questions.”
    “Thank you, Sheriff,” she whispered.
    Well, hell, he thought as he turned toward the setting sun and made his way toward the saloon. He couldn’t tell if she was delicate, weak-willed or just quiet. If she was delicate, Mrs. Anders wasn’t going to last long in Wyoming. He wasn’t really sure why she’d come in the first place. Just because her brother had left her the house didn’t mean she had to live in it.
    “I give her a month,” he muttered as he drew closer to the grating music spilling out the open windows of the saloon. One month at most, and then his new neighbor would head back to England where she clearly belonged. “Fool woman.”
    He had no idea why her being here bothered him. He just knew that it wasn’t right. Life here in Wyoming was short and rough. Even the toughest men could end up broken, and everyone, regardless of age, sex or strength…everyone turned hard after a few years in the face of the harsh sun and brutal winters.
    He didn’t like that he’d have to worry about this fragile woman. Didn’t like that she was his responsibility. And he definitely didn’t like the way her downcast eyes roused shifting shadows on his soul.
    When Mrs. Anders left this place, he’d be able to breathe easy again. But right now, he needed a goddamn drink, and that was one thing he wouldn’t deny himself.
     
    Hale didn’t bother lighting a lamp before he moved through the entry of his home and trudged up the stairs. The moon wasn’t bright enough to light his way, but he’d lived in this house for four years now. There was nothing here to trip him up.
    Head heavy from one shot of whiskey too many, he shrugged wearily out of his coat and unfastened his gun belt. The pistols clanked hard when he laid them on the low dresser, and Hale winced.
    He unbuttoned his shirt and laid it neatly over a chair. He didn’t have a wife to take care of these things anymore. Marie had left three years before, run off with some rich miner headed for Sacramento. Now anything that needed pressing had to go to the laundry. Any food he needed, he had to cook himself. And anything else that required a woman’s touch…Hale went without. His head grew even heavier at the thought.
    Though he wanted to drop straight into bed, his face felt coated with grit, so Hale washed up quickly with some cold water and soap, then scrubbed his skin with a piece of rough toweling. As he lowered the rag, his eye caught on movement in the

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