Bittersweet by Jannine Gallant by Jannine Gallant - Read Online



Eight months after her husband is killed in a train robbery, Tess Moran knows she must pick up the pieces of her shattered life and build a future for herself and her infant daughter. Daniel Moran's love for Tess is bittersweet. Acting on his feelings for his sister-in-law will betray his dead brother's memory. Watching her search for love elsewhere may destroy him. In 1880, life in rural Colorado is filled hard work and simple pleasures, but trouble looms on the horizon. Together Tess and Daniel must battle drought and the outlaw who killed the man they both loved, but the greatest challenge is finding solace for their battered hearts.
Published: Whiskey Creek Press on
ISBN: 9781611602265
List price: $3.99
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Bittersweet - Jannine Gallant

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Chapter 1

September, 1879

Eagle Valley, Colorado

The train slowed and came to a shuddering halt on the open prairie five miles south of Eagle Valley. Daniel Moran stared at his older brother and frowned. Why did we stop? Rising to his feet, he pushed open the window and looked out, craning his neck to see farther up the line of cars to the front of the train.

See anything? Rory asked.

The smoke’s too thick. Shivering in the unseasonably cool weather, he ducked inside and resumed his seat. I imagine the conductor will tell us something shortly.

Rory scowled. I don’t like it.

Daniel lifted one shoulder in a shrug. There’s not much we can do until we know what the problem is. But as they waited, an uneasy feeling grew in the pit of his stomach.

His anxiety escalated to alarm when four men, waving revolvers, burst through the door at the front of the railcar. Bandannas hid the lower halves of their faces. Daniel tensed. Apprehension knotted in his chest. In the back of the car a woman screamed. Fleetingly, he thought of Tess, and relief that his sister-in-law hadn’t accompanied them to Denver surged through him.

The man in the lead stared at the passengers with cold gray eyes. Filthy blond hair straggled from beneath the brim of his worn hat, and sweat stained his pale blue shirt. He gestured with his revolver at the man behind him.

My friend here is coming around with a bag. Put your money and valuables in it and don’t hold nothing back. If any of you has an urge to play hero, I suggest you reconsider. My daddy taught me to shoot first and think later.

Daniel’s lips tightened as he pulled his wallet from his pocket. He and Rory carried a substantial amount of cash, but they’d deposited the bulk of the money from their late uncle’s estate in a Denver bank before leaving the city. His brother shifted in the seat beside him, and he glanced over. Instead of the leather billfold Tess had bought him for his birthday, Rory held a pistol in his hand.

Daniel’s pulse raced. He nudged Rory with his elbow, shaking his head. It was just like him to do something foolish. For Rory taking risks was second nature.

His blue eyes glittered. Back me up.

Don’t be stupid, Daniel said in a fierce whisper.

The leader watched them through narrowed eyes. You two shut your mouths and hand over your money.

As the man with the bag approached, Rory slipped his pistol beneath his thigh. The outlaw pointed his revolver at Daniel. Give me your wallet. You, too, mister, and I want that pretty gold ring you’re wearing.

Rory’s lips tightened. That’s my wedding ring.

I don’t care what it is. Toss it in the bag.

Do as he asks, Daniel said. He stared at his brother, silently willing him to comply, nearly choking on his fear.

I don’t think so. Whipping out his pistol, Rory pulled the trigger. The man with the collection bag grabbed his chest and crumpled in the aisle.

Damn it! Daniel reached for the pistol in the coat he’d carelessly draped across the seat. Two more explosions echoed through the railcar. Rory’s second shot hit the leader with the gray eyes in the arm. The outlaw’s aim was better. The force of his bullet flung Rory against the seatback, and a red stain spread across his shirt and vest. The acrid smell of gun smoke hung in the air.

Abandoning the search for his pistol, Daniel cradled his brother in his arms. Chaos reigned. Men shouted and children cried. Outside the sound of pounding hooves reached his ears. He pressed his hand to his brother’s chest. Warm, sticky blood pooled beneath his palm. This couldn’t be happening.

The wounded leader cursed and gestured to his men. Leaving their fallen companion behind, they fled out the door they’d entered. Silence followed their departure. One of the passengers prodded the outlaw with the tip of his boot, turning him onto his back. The man’s sightless brown eyes stared up at the ceiling of the railcar.

Daniel pressed harder on his brother’s chest, trying to stop the flow of blood, watching in horror as it seeped between his fingers. Panic surged. His skin grew clammy, and he shook like a fever victim. Help me. Someone please help me!

A heavyset woman handed him a towel. Here.

He held it against the gaping wound. Hang on, Rory. We’ll get you to a doctor.

Rory coughed. Cold, he said, his teeth chattering.

Daniel wrapped his coat around him. Fight, Rory. You have a wife waiting for you at home. Think of Tess.

His eyes glazed. Sorry. I shouldn’t have done it. I should have listened to you, but he made me mad.

Don’t talk. Save your strength. Daniel’s gaze darted around the railcar. Why aren’t we moving? We have to get him to a doctor.

No one said anything. Finally an older man with a bristling moustache stepped forward. That was the sheriff and his deputies who chased off those outlaws. I’m sure he’ll send someone back to help us as soon as he can.

Doesn’t matter. Rory coughed, and blood trickled down the side of his mouth. I’m not going to make it.

Yes you will, Daniel said harshly. Tess is waiting for you.

A smile curved Rory’s lips. Watch over Tess for me. He coughed again. Tess and the baby when it comes.

Daniel clasped his brother’s hand and swallowed, blinking fiercely. I’ll take care of them. I promise. Oh, God, Rory, please hold on. Tess needs you. I need you.

Take care of Tess, he whispered and closed his eyes. Slowly his breathing stopped.

With an anguished cry, Daniel clutched Rory’s lifeless body to his chest, rocking him back and forth in his arms. Surely this was all a nightmare. Any minute now Rory would look up at him and wink. Gotcha again, he’d say. His brother couldn’t be dead. The vibrant, laughing man he’d looked up to his whole life couldn’t be gone. Grief crushed him. Blinded by tears, he held Rory in his arms and stared out the railcar window. The train moved at last.

* * * *

Tess Moran stood at the stove stirring gravy in a skillet when a wagon pulled up outside. At her feet Shadow barked once and trotted to the door, his tail wagging.

Rory’s home! Tess smiled in delight. Her husband had been gone only a few days, but it seemed like an eternity without him.

You missed him, too, didn’t you, boy. She wiped her hands on her apron and smoothed back stray wisps of hair before opening the kitchen door. Anticipation sent her spirits soaring.

The sun sank below the horizon, creating a colorful backdrop for the man climbing down from the wagon, casting him in shadow. It wasn’t until he walked toward her that Tess realized it was her brother-in-law and not her husband who had come home. As much as the two men resembled each other, she would never mistake Daniel’s measured steps for Rory’s swagger.

As he approached, she wondered where Rory was. Uneasiness settled in her chest. The Gallagher buggy rounded the corner of the driveway and pulled to a stop near the wagon. Her father stepped down first and helped her mother to alight.

A cold wind blew through the barnyard. Tess folded her arms protectively around her bulging abdomen. Dread ate at her, steeling the last of her excitement. When Daniel reached her, she saw the lines of strain on his face and the pain in his steady blue eyes. She stared at the blood stains on his coat and caught her breath. Fear slammed through her, and she swayed on her feet. Dear Lord, what had happened?

Where’s Rory? Her parents stood one on either side of her, offering their support, but she had eyes only for Daniel. Tell me where he is!

He caught her hands between his and cleared his throat. Outlaws held up the train. They shot Rory.

The weight of the world crashed down on her. Surely this was all a dream. God couldn’t be so cruel. Is he hurt? Where is he? Take me to him, Daniel. Her breath came out in hard gasps.

His grip on her hands tightened. He didn’t make it, Tess. I’m sorry. God, I’m sorry.

She backed up a step. At her feet, Shadow whined. No. She shook her head, setting her long braid in motion. She wouldn’t listen to him. Daniel was wrong. He had to be wrong. Her gaze flickered over the bloodstains on his coat and darted away. Bile rose in her throat. She swallowed it down.

Rory is strong. He’ll be fine. He wouldn’t leave me. Rory would never leave me. Take me to him! Her shouted words carried on the wind.

Come sit down, Tess, her mother urged, her voice breaking. Think of the baby.

No! she cried. Her father reached out a steadying hand, but she lurched away from his grasp. Rory couldn’t be dead. She needed him. Tess clutched her belly. We need him. Rory is alive. He has to be. Please tell me he’s alive, Daniel. She looked into her brother-in-law’s tear-filled eyes, and his pain hit her like a fist in the gut. Emptiness engulfed her, gripping her heart in a hollow fist.

I can’t, Tess. I’d give anything to tell you he is, but I can’t.

No, no, no, she whimpered. No!

Her father raised a callused palm and stroked the back of her head. Tess, honey, come inside.

Tess didn’t answer. She pulled away from his embrace. Sobs wracked her body as grief overwhelmed her. She couldn’t imagine life without her strong, loving husband. She didn’t want to wake up in the morning if he wasn’t at her side. Rory was everything to her. He was her life.

A sudden, sharp pain stabbed her middle. Gasping, she pressed her hands to her abdomen and doubled over. Daniel rushed forward and caught her before she folded to the ground. Fear ripped through her with the pain. It was too early. The baby couldn’t come now.

Tess, what is it? her mother asked, her voice high and frightened.

The baby, she moaned. It’s the baby.

Oh no! Nora’s hand flew to her mouth. It’s too soon. Wesley, we have to do something. It’s too soon!

I’ll go for Doc Fredericks. Her father ran to the buggy and whipped the horses into a gallop.

Daniel lifted Tess in his arms and carried her toward the house. Over his shoulder, she watched the last of the sun’s dying rays fade against the earth. Rory was gone. She couldn’t lose his child, too. It was all she had left of him, her only reason to live. A mockingbird sang out as the sound of her father’s buggy disappeared in the distance. When another pain wracked her body she screamed.

Rory! Rory! Rory!

Chapter 2

May, 1880

A warm breeze blew across the prairie grasses and whipped Tess’s pink gingham dress around her ankles. With an exclamation of annoyance she untangled her skirts and continued down the row of baby lettuce plants, hacking at intruding weeds with her hoe. Every so often she glanced over at Emily, asleep in the shade cast by the east wall of the house. Her child was her one true joy, her reason to face each day. Shadow regarded her with soulful brown eyes but remained where he was, curled protectively around the baby.

Good boy, Shadow, Tess called, smiling at the picture the two made. The big black Labrador retriever thumped his tail once against the quilt and let out a gusty sigh.

She returned to her task just as a wagon rattled over the ruts in her driveway. A team of matched bays rounded the corner at the southwest end of the house and pulled to a stop in front of the barn. Daniel set the handbrake and jumped down from the seat. Turning, he lifted a fifty-pound sack of flour from the bed of the wagon.

I’ll put it in the pantry, he called.

She leaned on her hoe. Thank you, Daniel.

Her brother-in-law was her salvation after Rory died, always there with an offer of support, propping her up when she wanted to give up and die. Sometimes she’d hated him for it. Now she felt only gratitude.

He returned a few minutes later, quietly shutting the screen door behind him. How’s Emily? he asked, glancing at the baby asleep on the quilt. He stood with the toes of his boots digging into the soft earth at the edge of the garden.

Tess smiled, love for her daughter filling her with contentment. She’s absolutely perfect.

He smiled back, lines crinkling at the corners of his sky blue eyes. I bought corn seed to replace what the gophers ate. The price wasn’t too high.

That’s a relief, but I’m sorry you have to go to the trouble of replanting. You’ve lost weight. Working this place alone is too hard on you. Guilt ate at her. The farm was her responsibility, too, yet Daniel did all the work.

His jaw clenched stubbornly. I can do it. Besides, we don’t have a choice.

It’s not fair, you slaving in the fields from dawn to dusk and insisting I take half the profit. I should hire someone to help with my share of the farm.

You can’t afford to, and I wouldn’t let you pay for it, anyway. Besides, there won’t be any profit until after harvest time. Maybe when Uncle John’s house in Denver sells we can hire a man to help in the fields. Until then, I’ll manage.

Tess saw the unyielding gleam in his eyes and gave up nagging him. Convincing Daniel to ask for help was like beating her head against a rock wall. Futile.

Have you heard anything from that lawyer you and Rory saw?

He shook his head. No, but I learned something else while I was in town.

What? she asked, knowing from his sober expression the news wasn’t good. Dread filled her.

Jack Craven and his men held up the bank. Hank stopped them before they got away with the money, but they shot him in the shoulder during their escape.

Is Hank all right? Tess’s grip tightened on the hoe. Hank and his wife, Mary, were close family friends. She couldn’t bare it if another man she cared about was hurt by the outlaw who had killed her husband.

He’ll be fine. It was only a flesh wound, but Hank says he’s had enough. As soon as they send out a new sheriff, he’s retiring.

Oh no! He and Mary aren’t moving back east, are they?

No, Hank said he’ll be content to farm full time like the rest of us. He said he’s too old to get shot at.

Hank’s not old.

He’s not young either. He’s past forty.

Who are they sending to replace him?

Daniel shrugged. I don’t know. I’m not sure they’ve found the right man yet.

I hope it’s someone who can stop Jack Craven, Tess said fiercely. He deserves to rot in jail or worse.

Daniel kicked at a clump of dirt. I think the reason Hank is quitting is because Craven is still on the loose.

Maybe it’s for the best. She stared up at him from beneath the brim of her old sunbonnet. You know I love Hank dearly, but I hate hearing Craven is out there, free as a bird, while Rory is dead and buried.

I know, Tess. He stepped across two rows of carrots and touched her shoulder. I don’t like it either. Why don’t you put up your hoe and quit for the day. I think your nose has had enough sunshine.

Is it burnt? she asked. Her hand flew to her face. The fact that he cared enough to notice warmed her battered heart.

It’s a tad pink.

They stepped over the rows of vegetables, and she was relieved to leave the emotional subject of Jack Craven behind.

It’s just not fair. With your red hair, you should be the one to burn, not me, she teased.

Just be glad Emily didn’t inherit your complexion. It’s only May, and she’s already as brown as a berry.

Speak of the devil. Tess headed across the yard as her daughter let out a shrill cry. My little darling just woke up.

I’ll leave you to her, then.

Tess picked up Emily and cradled her against her shoulder, loving her sweet baby smell. Don’t you want to stay for supper? Though she had Emily and Aunt Fay for company, she missed a man’s presence at the dinner table. The house didn’t echo as much when Daniel was in it.

No thank you. I have cows to milk, and with a little perseverance I’ll finish repairing the south pasture fence before dark.

Another time, then. Don’t work too hard, Daniel. You need your rest.

Tomorrow’s Sunday. It’s a whole day of rest.

She frowned. It should be, but we both know you’ll be out in the field planting corn as soon as church lets out.

Daniel didn’t answer. At the kitchen door, he paused to touch Emily’s cheek. ’Bye ’bye, sugarplum.

The baby turned at the sound of his voice and babbled happily.

She sure loves you, Tess said. Emily would never know her father’s love. Having her uncle’s affection didn’t make up for the loss, but it helped.

Thank you for bringing me the flour, Daniel.

I don’t need your thanks. I’ll pick you up for church at the usual time.

She watched him go, thinking for the thousandth time how lucky she and Emily were to have Daniel. Gratitude filled some of the empty crevasses in her heart. Without him, she would never have been able to manage the farm after Rory’s death. They would have had to move to town to live with her parents. Much as she loved her folks, she was far happier in her own home, even with Aunt Fay living with them. She smiled ruefully, remembering her aunt’s appalled expression when she stated her intention of living alone on the farm with Emily. According to Aunt Fay, she would never live down the scandal. Though Tess didn’t care much what people thought, having Fay on the farm was a help.

Knowing her aunt was resting, she shut the screen door quietly and walked through the kitchen to the front room and settled into a corner of the settee.

Don’t grab, Emily. Tess held back her baby’s eager hands as she unbuttoned the bodice of her dress. Mama’s going to feed you.

Once Emily was nursing, she ran her fingers through her daughter’s silky auburn hair and smiled down at her. She was a mixture of Rory and herself, this child who meant the world to her. She had her mother’s green eyes and delicate features and her father’s coloring. Tess sighed, regretting as she did each day that Rory hadn’t lived long enough to see his daughter. Sometimes the pain of it nearly brought her to her knees.

Oh Rory, she whispered. Why couldn’t you let well enough alone on that train? Why did you risk your life for a ring?

She touched her husband’s wedding ring where it hung from a ribbon between her breasts. Shutting her eyes tightly, she forced back tears. She was through crying. For Emily’s sake as well as her own, she had to let go of the past. Her thoughts flashed to Jack Craven and the recent robbery, and her brows drew together. It would be a lot easier to accept Rory’s death if his killer was behind bars where he belonged.

When Emily finished nursing, Tess lifted her to her shoulder to burp. She’d grown so much over the past few months. Remembering how fragile she’d been at birth, Tess thanked God for her healthy baby.

Those first months had been torture, caring for Emily while the pain of losing Rory was a weight in her chest, crushing her spirit. The first horrible winter without her husband with a baby who cried incessantly, she’d wanted to die. If it hadn’t been for Daniel’s support, she was certain she would have given up. He’d been far more help than Aunt Fay during the worst weeks, walking the floor with Emily in the early morning hours before hurrying off to his chores so Tess could get an hour or two of sleep.

Emily burped. Tess smiled, holding her daughter out in front of her. Never mind the trouble you gave me in the beginning. You’re perfect now.

* * * *

Daniel knocked on Tess’s back door, opened it, and stuck his head inside. The empty kitchen smelled faintly of cinnamon. Tess, Fay, are you ready? he called.

Almost. Tess’s voice carried down the stairs. I’ll be finished in a minute.

Can I bring anything out to the wagon for you?

You can come up and take Emily while I get her things together.

Daniel climbed the stairs and paused in the bedroom doorway. He disliked entering the room Tess had shared with Rory. He felt like an intruder, but his sister-in-law never gave him any indication she felt the same way. Emily, dressed in white lawn, sat in the middle of the bed. She turned her head and smiled when she saw him. Tess stood at the looking glass, stabbing hairpins into her coronet of brown braids. Her brows drew together in a scowl.

Finally. She smoothed back the last few wisps of flyaway hair. I thought I would never get it to stay.

With her hair up or down, Tess was beautiful. Love for her filled him, eating at his heart. He took a deep breath, burying his emotions so deeply not a hint was revealed. When Tess met his gaze, he knew she saw nothing of what he was feeling.

Why not leave your braid hanging the way you usually do? he asked.

And shock Reverend Thomas to the depths of his soul? I don’t think so. She hurried about the room, stuffing diapers and a change of clothes for Emily into a bag. If you’ll get her, I think I have everything else.

Is your aunt ready? She wasn’t in the kitchen.

Tess smiled. Doc Fredericks escorted Aunt Fay to church this morning. She was all atwitter waiting for him to arrive. He lifted Emily into his arms and stared at Tess over the top of the baby’s head. Doc Fredericks and Fay?

She led the way down the stairs and out the kitchen door. You can imagine my surprise when she told me. I don’t believe my aunt has ever let a man escort her anywhere since Uncle Hershel died, and that was over ten years ago.

Then it’s high time she did. Daniel scratched Shadow’s ears. Taking Tess’s elbow, he gave her a one-handed boost onto the wagon seat. He handed Emily to her mother and climbed up beside her. We’ll have to hurry if we don’t want to be late.

I’m sorry I wasn’t ready. That stupid weasel got into the chicken coop again.

Did he kill any of them?

No, he just ate a few eggs, but I had to stop and clean up the mess.

I’ll look for his hole and take care of him.

Thank you, Daniel.

It was a beautiful spring day. He enjoyed the ride into town with Tess at his side, her face turned up to the sun’s warmth. On her lap, Emily chattered happily in a language only she understood.

You like the horses? Tess asked, when the baby pointed a chubby finger in their direction. We’ll have to get you a pony when you’re bigger.

Daniel glanced over at them. She’s grown so much. It amazes me every time I see her.

I was thinking the same thing. Can you believe she’s eight months old already?

No, I can’t. Sometimes it seemed like only yesterday Rory had died, the anguish of his loss still deep and painful. Today it felt like an eternity, a lifetime of caring for Tess, of loving a woman who would always belong to his brother.

He cleared his throat. Are Emily’s teeth still bothering her?

Another one just broke through the skin. I think the pain is easing.

That’s good.

You know, Daniel, I missed out on so much with Emily up to now. I’m determined it won’t happen anymore.

He stared at her, alarmed by the resolute look in her eyes. What are you talking about? You’ve been with her every minute since the day she was born.

I was here, yes, but I didn’t take any joy in her day to day accomplishments. I was so miserable over losing Rory, I let it overshadow everything. You know I don’t remember her first smile, or when she first rolled over or sat up by herself. At some point, I simply realized she was doing all those things.

It’s understandable, Tess. You lost your husband. You needed to grieve.

Yes, I did. I loved Rory, and I’ll always miss him. But it’s time I got on with my life.

Daniel stared at her with raised brows, his uneasiness growing. What is it you intend to do?

I don’t know yet.

He let out a breath. I’m relieved. You sounded so determined, I was afraid you had big changes in mind.

Would that bother you?

His gaze met hers. I suppose it would. I’m content with the way things are.

Sometimes change is good. Sometimes it’s necessary.

He didn’t answer. Changing the nature of his relationship with Tess wasn’t an option. She was his sister-in-law and his friend. Loyalty to his brother’s memory made anything else impossible. Despite the pain of loving her. It also left him wondering exactly what changes she had in mind.

* * * *

Tess watched Daniel out of the corner of her eye as they approached the church. His lips were set in a tight line. He seemed upset by her words, but it was too late to question him now. He stopped the wagon in the sparse shade of a group of young aspen. A few worshipers still climbed the steps to the church.

We made it in time. Tess handed Emily to Daniel and took his hand to