Chapter One: A Stroke of Heat
As the sun rose to greet another day, Maxwell Harrison hammered a hot strip of iron over his anvil, shaping it into a U. “Add some coal to the forge, Tim,” he said to the lad who sat on a bench in the blacksmith’s shop, organizing tools into the new wooden toolkit Max had built. Like a doctor who traveled around town with medicine to fix people, Max traveled with tools to fix just about everything else.
Tim set his small task aside to do as Max instructed. They were expecting two newly broke horses for shoeing that day, so they needed to shape eight horseshoes. After ensuring the mustangs were properly shod, they needed to fix an axle on a rancher’s buggy.
Max had been a blacksmith or blacksmith-in-training for most of his thirty-four years. Nearly as soon as he could pick up a hammer, his father began teaching him the trade. Because much of the work Max and his father used to do, like sculpting nails, could now be done by machines in the factories found in bigger cities, Max’s work evolved into more than just blacksmithing. The folks of Weston, Arizona could count on him to fix or build just about anything made of wood, metal, or leather.
Max taught everything he knew to Tim, his sixteen-year-old apprentice and unofficial charge. The son of a man who liked to swing his fists as much as he liked to sling back whiskey, Tim had been living with Max for nearly two years at Max’s insistence. Tim’s father agreed to the arrangement, provided that Max pay him for the use of his son. It was ridiculous, Max knew, to teach the boy the tools of the trade, and on top of that pay for his service and room and board, but he couldn’t stomach another day of Tim showing up with a black eye, so he agreed to the terms without much argument.
Max heard the hinges of the heavy door to the shop whine behind him. Expecting Jack with his two horses, he was surprised when he turned to find Marshal Robert Davis striding in.
Max set the hammer and half-bent horseshoe on the anvil and removed his work glove from his right hand. “Howdy, marshal. What brings you here?”
The marshal shook his outstretched hand and spoke hurriedly. “I must ask a favor of you, Max, and before you answer, let me say two things. One, I wouldn’t ask unless I urgently needed it, and two, it might not be entirely unpleasant. It involves the company of a rather fetching young woman, if her picture is any clue.” He handed Max a photograph the size of a playing card.
Max studied it. The woman in the photograph who frowned back at him was certainly pretty, though she had a stiff look about her with a back held very straight. Her chin tilted upward just a bit too high to appear biddable, or even friendly.
“What sort of favor, marshal?”
“That’s to be Weston’s new schoolmarm. She’s on her way from Boston, and I’m supposed to meet her at the train station in Arcadia tomorrow morning. Trouble is, I can’t make it. Not ten minutes ago I received a wire from the sheriff in Tucson that two baddies are headed here with a law posse in pursuit. The sheriff requested that I form a posse of my own to cut them off at the pass.”
“So you want me to fetch a girl, not join your posse? I’ll try not to let that injure my manly pride, marshal.”
The marshal let out an amused snort. “I’ve never even seen you pack iron, Max, so I wouldn’t ask you to join in a hunt for outlaws. If you leave now, you’ll reach Arcadia by nightfall. Take a room there overnight and meet the schoolmarm in the morning. The county will pay for your boarding, of course.”
Max scratched his head. “I can shoot a gun, you know. I’m not a terrible aim either. But, well, I suppose I could have Tim attend to the work today and head for Arcadia. I just need—”
“Great,” the marshal interrupted, turning to leave. “Appreciate it, Max.” He walked at a quick clip toward the door.
“Hey, marshal,” Max called. “Mind telling me her name?”
“It’s Charlotte. Charlotte Rose. Give her my regrets for being unable to meet her,” he said, and left as abruptly out the door as he came in it.
Max instructed Tim on what to do while he was away and went about fitting his buggy with food, water, and a few emergency supplies, including his old Remington, his new toolkit, and a quilt. In less than an hour, he climbed into the buggy seat and directed his horse toward the path headed east.
He studied the picture of Charlotte Rose. She was truly beautiful. She had almond-shaped eyes and long hair that fell to her waist. The photograph captured her in a seated position from head to toe. Max’s eyes lingered on her breasts, the ample size of which couldn’t be concealed despite being draped with modest clothing.
“Settle down there, Max,” he muttered to himself.
He stared at the haughty lift of her chin, trying to convince himself it didn’t give him a bit of a thrill. She looked like a handful in more than one way. His thoughts wandered to his ex-wife, who ten years ago had traveled from the east to the west, intent on starting a new life, but realized after a year of marriage to Max that she didn’t belong in the crude landscape. She left him and returned to the big city she came from, and he didn’t try to stop her.
Max wondered about the woman in the photograph. Would she be cowed by the hard work, lack of certain leisure activities, and rugged culture? Something in her eyes told him she just might make it.
Charlotte stood with some difficulty when the train screeched to a halt. Her legs were cramped and she felt hot and in need of rest, despite having hardly moved in days of travel. She’d had little opportunity to stretch her legs other than when she paced the confines of the train car. Looking out the window at the smattering of people on the platform, she tried to locate a man with a badge. She didn’t see anyone who looked like a marshal, which was the occupation of the man she’d been informed would meet her, but that didn’t mean anything. She knew that lawmen in the west didn’t wear uniforms, unlike in Boston where jobs and manners were far more structured. Charlotte was struck by the overall simple nature of everything from the signs to the bushes lacking flowers. The place was crude, severe, and without ornament.
Like many times previously in the last few days, she again felt a knot in her stomach over the decision to throw herself into a place so unknown to her. She already missed her mother terribly. Her mother had sent Charlotte off with her full blessing, blubbering through her tears about how proud she was of her only child. Her father hadn’t said goodbye, but that wasn’t surprising. He never cared about her. One of her motivations for leaving was to escape him and men like him.
As she stepped down onto the platform, carrying a sturdy black carpetbag that held all of her earthly possessions, she looked around. Jealousy gripped her as she watched one of the women she’d traveled with run into the open arms of a beaming man. Charlotte felt very alone and insignificant in comparison.
She noticed a man striding in her direction. He wore a black Stetson that cast a shadow over his face, a blue bandanna around his neck, faded denim trousers, and a white shirt that buttoned down the front. She wrinkled her nose as he neared. White was clearly not the right color to wear in this dusty town, since his shirt appeared more tan than white in some places. She briefly looked down at her dress. It was her finest. Its taffeta skirt was pink, and the bodice was made of black crushed velvet with white lace trim that also didn’t appear as white as it should. The silk of the skirt and the three petticoats under it felt terribly heavy and uncomfortable in the heat of Arizona’s summer, and she wished for a brief moment to be wearing one of the light cotton frocks donned by the women around her, as unattractive as they were.
The man took off his hat as he neared. “Miss Charlotte Rose?” he asked in a deep, lazy drawl, so very different from her own accent.
Charlotte felt a moment’s surprise when she saw his unshaded face. The man was very handsome in a rugged, unassuming way, with dark brows and thick dark hair. Stubble dotted his pronounced jawline. His full lips turned up in a half smile, and he regarded her with twinkling green eyes. She suddenly felt glad to be wearing her best dress.
“Yes, I’m Miss Rose. And you are?”
“Maxwell Harrison. Call me Max.”
Charlotte felt disappointed upon learning he was not the marshal in charge of fetching her, and she bristled at his greeting. “That wouldn’t be proper, Mr. Harrison, as we only just met. And at the risk of sounding impolite, I must say I don’t know why we’re meeting. I’m here to meet Marshal Robert Davis.”
His eyes seemed to twinkle more after her reproach. “The marshal sends his regrets. He had an emergency and asked me to fetch you, so I’ll be escorting you to Weston. My buggy is just this way. I’ll carry your bag.”
He reached out to take it, but Charlotte clutched the handle tighter and moved the bag slightly away from him. She frowned. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Harrison, but I wasn’t informed of this change in plans. How am I to know you tell the truth? I don’t know you from Adam. You could be a thief or ruffian, and you expect me to allow you to escort me on a journey to the boondocks?”
She could see that he struggled not to smile at her rebuff, which irritated her. She didn’t see any humor in her valid concerns. He cleared his throat. “Weston isn’t Boston, Charlotte, but it’s not the boondocks either, which is why we have the need for a lady such as yourself. There are plenty of people there, including plenty of children who need a schoolmarm. Do I look like a ruffian or thief?”
“Please be so kind as to call me Miss Rose.” She paused, wondering if she should hold her tongue, but the man had irritated her and so she continued. “Are you sure you want me to answer that question regarding your appearance, Mr. Harrison?”
He smiled then, which crinkled the corners of his eyes. He removed something from his shirt pocket and handed it to her. “The marshal gave me your photograph so I’d know what you look like. Not that I needed it. Your appearance hollers greenhorn from a mile away. Is your photo proof enough he sent me?”
Charlotte glanced at it, then tucked it under her dress near her bosom. She glared at the man, who, to his credit, did not remove his gaze from her face, despite her hand resting near one of her finest assets. “If my appearance hollers greenhorn, then your appearance screams ruffian, Mr. Harrison.”
He laughed. “I might just be a ruffian. I don’t have a woman at home nagging me about my appearance and manners.”
Everything she said seemed to amuse him, which perplexed Charlotte. She was known for her beauty, not for her humor. She sighed, feeling much more fatigued than worried about his character by this point. He seemed to notice her weariness. The amusement left his face, replaced by resolve. He put his hat back on his head and took the bag from her hand. She didn’t try to stop him.
“Enough blather. Come along now. You still have a spell of travel before you can rest properly.” He walked toward what Charlotte assumed was his buggy, which looked very small and dirty. She followed him. When they reached it, he placed her bag in the back and picked up an old army canteen, which he handed to her. “Drink some water,” he ordered. “Are you hungry?”
Charlotte took a long drink. Her thirst properly quenched, she said, “That depends on what you have. Somehow I doubt you have anything I’d find edible.” She knew she was being rude, but his casual manner and presumptuous nature rankled her. She was accustomed to being spoken to in courtly tones, not laughed at and ordered about.
Max raised an eyebrow slowly and studied her for a moment. “I’ve got bread, jerky, and apples, if that suits your fancy, but we can stop at a restaurant before leaving if it doesn’t. Which would you prefer, Charlie?”
Charlotte could hardly believe her ears. How dare he not only use her first name, but also a bastardized, male version of it? She lifted her chin and gave him a withering look. “I informed you that I prefer to be called Miss Rose, not Charlotte, and certainly not Charlie.”
“Yes I know you did, Charlie, and that was your first mistake. Your second is not answering my question about whether you’re hungry. That could try a lesser man’s patience.”
Charlotte scowled. “I fail to see how asking to be regarded properly is a mistake, Mr. Harrison.”
Max folded his arms in front of him and leaned against the back of the buggy. “I’ll tell you how. You shouldn’t let people know what raises your bristles if you wish to keep that smart mouth of yours. Folks out here won’t appreciate you looking down your nose at them. You do that to a man, he’ll find a way to annoy you, as I managed to do without even hardly trying.”
Charlotte’s mouth hung open for a moment before she closed it and set her jaw angrily. The man had actually lectured her about proper behavior, despite his own being anything but! His impertinence overshadowed his good looks, and she decided that she didn’t think much of the brazen man she was unfortunate enough to be dependent on for the next eight hours.
“I’ll do without your chicken feed and forego the restaurant. The sooner I can be alone in my new dwelling, the better.” She lifted her skirts and stormed to the front of the buggy. She stopped and stared up at the seat. “Where are the steps, Mr. Harrison? How am I to get up?” she asked, genuinely flummoxed. “Am I to run and jump, or would you have me clamor up the muddy wheel?”
She heard a coughed laugh before she felt her feet leave the ground. Max deposited her on the seat like one might a sack of flour, then rounded the buggy and climbed up next to her. Without a word, he released the brake, clucked to the horse, and slapped the reins on her back. The horse moved forward at a quick clip.
Charlotte’s heart beat wildly. She felt outraged, but she also felt something else—a fluttering in her stomach. No man had ever dared touch her without her consent. Men were generally shy around her. She knew she was a beauty and that her beauty rendered men weak, yet here was a man who, after minutes of knowing her, had not only scolded her but also taken her into his arms. If he thought she was beautiful and felt shy over it, he certainly didn’t let on.
“I suppose it’s considered proper out here for a man to grab a lady’s person without her consent. Is that the case, Mr. Harrison, or are you unique in that respect?”
He chuckled. “Proper isn’t a big concern of most men out here, I’d say.”
“Oh? And what concerns a man such as yourself?”
He raked her with his gaze from head to toe before answering. “My concern at the moment is getting a young lady home to rest before she keels over. You look flushed and clear tuckered out. Perhaps even a mite feverish.”
“I feel fine, thank you.” As she said it, she knew it was a lie. She felt warmer than she’d ever felt and the thought of enduring eight hours of travel in the oppressive heat filled her with something like despair.
“Do you have something to wear other than those fancy duds?”
Charlotte felt her cheeks grow even hotter hearing his words. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
He sighed. “You have a problem answering questions, don’t you, Charlie? I’m only asking because you might feel more comfortable in lighter clothing. How many petticoats are you wearing under that gown?”
Charlotte gasped. “Mr. Harrison, there’s a reason a woman’s unmentionables are called just that. I’ll thank you to remember your manners, if you ever had them.”
He let out a noise that sounded much like a growl. “Do you have something to wear other than that heavy silk dress? Just answer me that.” He frowned at her, then added with sarcasm, “If you please, good lady.”
Charlotte gaped at him a moment before lifting her chin higher and responding, “I do have another dress in my bag, but I assure you I am fine in this.”
He shook his head but relented with another sigh. “If you say so.”
They rode in silence for some time. After what seemed like hours of travel, Charlotte felt dizzy and nauseated. She inwardly cursed her stubborn pride and wished she’d changed into her lighter calico dress when the man suggested it. She loathed the thought of admitting he was right, so she didn’t speak of her distress, even when her breathing became panting and sweat dripped from her face onto her hands. She felt her muscles weaken. She soon had no strength to remain upright and balance herself in the seat, which jerked at every bump in the road. She slumped toward the edge of the buggy and then felt Max’s hand grasp her wrist and yank her back.
She passed out after that because the next thing she knew, she was lying on a quilt next to the wagon with Max on his knees by her side. “I was a fool to listen to you,” he snarled. “Damn and blast!” His voice seemed far away. “I need to take off your dress. I’m sorry, but you have a touch of heatstroke and you’re burning up.”
She offered no resistance as he stripped her to her shift and removed all but one petticoat, which he mercifully left on her body. He removed her shoes and stockings, and she felt relief when the air touched her toes. He poured water from the canteen over her face, neck, and along her arms. He did the same to her feet and legs up to her knees. As her body felt relief from the anguish, her mind became anguished over the humiliating situation.
He soaked his bandanna and tied it loosely around her neck, then slid an arm under her shoulders and lifted her to a seated position. He held the canteen to her lips, and she drank a few sips. “Drink some more,” he ordered, and Charlotte obeyed.
“Feel better?” he asked, his eyes boring into hers.
She nodded and averted her eyes from his penetrating stare. With her arms, she covered her chest, which was as good as naked. The water he’d poured on her had rendered her thin white shift transparent. She hung her head. Max stood, retrieved her bag, and located her lighter dress. Handing it to her, he said, “Put this on, then take off your petticoat from under it. We’ll be on our way after that.” He dropped her bag and walked to the other side of the buggy to give her privacy, which would have been laughable after he’d seen her stripped to her underclothes, if it wasn’t so humiliating.
Charlotte felt knocked down more than a few pegs, but she still didn’t like being told what to do, especially about her own clothing. The least he could have done was explain to her politely what he thought was best instead of ordering her around. He might also have asked before rummaging through her personal belongings to locate her other dress, and he might have placed her bag on the quilt instead of dropping it in the dirt. Insufferable man! Her ire toward him returned as she stood and slipped the dress over her shoulders.
Upon buttoning the last of the buttons up to her chest, she addressed him in hesitant tone, knowing her words would displease him and unsure about the wisdom of doing so. “I will leave my petticoat on, Mr. Harrison. This dress is improper otherwise.”
For an awful moment, there was no sound or movement. Then she saw his shadow appear near the back of the buggy and shortly after Max himself approaching her, wearing a fierce scowl. He stopped a horse length away.
“Foolish woman! If you possess a lick of sense, you will remove your petticoat. Then you will obey any other order I give you from now until I get you home. Give me any more trouble before then, and I’ll turn you over my knee. And so help me, there won’t be a petticoat, or a dress, or anything else between my hand and your high-and-mighty backside when I spank some common sense into you.”
Charlotte felt horrified. She gulped, then exclaimed, “You wouldn’t dare, Mr. Harrison!” Tears suddenly stung her eyes.
“Oh, but I would, Charlie.” He moved a step toward her. “Maybe I ought to smack your bottom a few times right now to prove it.”
She took a step back and held out a hand to stop his approach. “That won’t be necessary, Mr. Harrison. I will do your bidding. I see I have no choice, since you’re devoid of the manners that befit a gentleman and would feel no compunction over beating me.”
She sniffled as she bent to remove her petticoat from under her dress. This place was like a foreign country, so very different from Boston, and she suddenly felt like she’d never be able to adapt, if all the men around were like the one standing in front of her scowling. After folding her petticoat in half a couple of times, she held it against her chest and gazed at him sorrowfully. She felt her lower lip tremble and told herself not to humiliate herself further by allowing the sobs to overtake her.
Max’s expression softened as he sighed and closed the gap between them. Lifting her into his arms yet again, he said, “I wouldn’t beat you, honey. A spanking is not a beating. Thank you for obeying me, though, so as not to learn the difference today.” He placed her on the buggy seat gently, then removed the petticoat from her limp hands and stuffed it into her bag.