On a desolate night in the Dakota territories, fate deposits a mysterious drifter at the door of a lonely spinster. It was supposed to be just one passionate night ... instead, it became the love of a lifetime.

Harper Monogram · isbn: 0-06-108475-1


Kieran had a tiny part in Home Fires. He appeared in only two scenes, but he'd lost so much that I felt guilty for putting him through it and I had to put it to rights. This was a wonderful book to write. It features two older characters (older for the late 19th century, at least) and is, at its heart, a story about people who start out backwards. What happens the morning after? How do you put together a relationship after that precipitous intimacy, when you know both too much and far too little about each other? It was a fascinating journey to try to write well.

Plus I don't feel guilty about Kieran anymore. He'd say that Maggie was well worth it.

One Lonely Night is currently out-of-print, but has been sighted in many used bookstores. Know of any good used bookstores? Email me about them. I will post their link on my order page.

--Susan


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1884

"Redemption, Dakota Territories." Kieran McDermott murmured the name to himself, testing it out. It seemed a strange place to find a murderer, a town called Redemption. He'd look there all the same, for the instincts honed over two decades of hunting urged him on.

The small rented room on the outskirts of Chicago was dim, sparsely furnished with battered furniture and ragged curtains. Outside, a train rumbled past, clouding the air with smoke and harsh sound.

Kieran ignored it. He occupied the cheap room not because he couldn't afford better, but because it simply didn't matter to him at all. He'd learned to disregard such trivialities years ago.

A map spread out on the lopsided pine table in front of him. Pins stabbed through the thin paper, indicating crime sites, their scattered arrangement holding no pattern that he could discern.

If there was one thing that marked his quarry, that was it. The man had no pattern, no favorite methods at all. He was as likely to invest months posing as a colleague or employee, gaining access to vast company funds before quietly absconding with them, as he was to recruit a gang and stage a bold, bloody daytime holdup of the largest bank in Milwaukee. Years of crimes, all over the Middle West, without coming close to being captured. Crimes that wouldn't even be linked together, if it weren't for his single, signature habit -- he sent notes thanking his victims.

So he had pride, Kieran thought, pride and arrogance enough that he couldn't stand his successes going completely unnoticed. There'd be no reason to send the notes -- indeed, much safer not to -- other than to claim his work.

It wasn't the sort of job that Kieran would normally accept. The wealthy businessmen and profitable enterprises that had been robbed could well afford it. They could command dozens of law officers to catch the Uncatchable Man -- as the newspaper writers had recently dubbed him -- and hire detectives of their own, as well.

But then there'd been a young girl drawn in, a lovely fifteen-year-old girl -- sixteen now, Kieran reminded himself. And a broken and distraught father had begged him to help, and the hunt had begun.

Kieran mentally sifted through the bits of evidence he'd collected, a witness here, a train record there. The hotel chambermaid who'd taken note of the strangeness of the young girl being found in her "father's" bed one morning. The experienced Minneapolis detective who'd followed a trail all the way across Minnesota before being found, stabbed to death, in the Big Sioux River.

For nine months Kieran had followed the trail. Longer than he'd chased anyone, except the first.

That one had taken him ten years.

Despite his work, the trail would still seem pitifully thin to anyone else. It didn't matter to Kieran; he felt it, the razor-sharp focus of his attention, his senses, and the rising churn in his blood that always told him when he was narrowing in on his prey.

He reached forward and placed his finger on the tiny dot on the map, just east of where the Missouri River snaked its way through the southern half of the Dakota Territories. "Yes," he whispered.

It would be Redemption.

Margaret Thayer lit the tiny stub of candle -- saved from last year for just this purpose -- that was carefully pushed into the exact center of her birthday cake. The cake was small, thinly frosted in white icing, an indulgence she'd earned by prudently drinking her coffee unsweetened for the previous two weeks.

Her thirty-fifth birthday. And she was entirely alone, just as she had been for the past three.

Outside, the wind raged and battered her small house. An unusually vicious late-April snowstorm drove needle pricks of snow through the air with a whistle like bullets. After a week of mild temperatures and clear days, the sudden storm was a shock, as if mocking anyone foolish enough to believe that spring had come to Dakota. Though Margaret had stuffed every crack she could find with rags, the wind still forced its way in, fluttering the small candle flame.

Thirty-five years old. When so many of those years had seemed to pass so slowly, how in the world had she gotten here so fast? At church services, just last Sunday, Martha Ann Perkins -- who Margaret knew full well was three months younger than she was -- had confided she was soon to become a grandmother. A grandmother!

Margaret's goddaughter Carrie, whom she still thought of as a tender, tow-headed six-year-old, had married, known a man, conceived a child. And here it had been almost twenty years since Margaret herself had been so much as kissed. Even then, only once, a quick stolen mashing of lips that was so long ago she could no longer conjure up even the slightest memory of the feeling.

A loud thud made her jump, her heart race. Was she now to become a foolish, fearful woman, too, who jumped at every stray sound? For surely it was nothing; likely the wind had just ripped a loose board from the shed and flung it against the house.

The candle's flame wobbled, diminished, threatening to extinguish itself before she even had a chance to make a wish. Best to be quick about it.

Margaret had long ago given up wishing for things like love or fortune or even happiness. Now, her dreams were more modest.

Please, I just want something to happen.

And, with a quick huff of breath, she snuffed the meager fire.

This time there was no mistaking the sound for a wind-borne object. The thudding was steady and hard, a heavy fist against her door.

For a brief, ridiculous instant, she thought that perhaps someone had remembered her birthday after all. But none of her acquaintances would come out in this weather; it would be sheer stupidity. The stupid did not survive long in the territories.

What, then? The banging grew slower, weaker. For a moment she considered ignoring it. Certainly that would be the wisest course; a woman living alone two miles from town couldn't be too careful. And everyone in the area had more sense than to go out in weather like this. Still, what if there was an emergency, a desperate need for her assistance?

Well, she could hardly let whoever was out there die on her doorstep. Surely there was not that much danger. Far more likely that someone had merely been lost in the storm than they'd deliberately gone out in it to find her and do her harm. Still, she checked the loading of her shotgun and propped it up against the wall within easy reach before she opened the door.

Cold and snow blasted her, stinging her face. A tall figure swayed in the doorway, long dark coat flapping stiffly in the wind. Not a slice of skin showed between the battered, ice-coated felt hat pulled low and the turned-up collar hunched high around the ears.

"C ... cold. Din' ‘spect ..." The words were slurred. He moved forward a shuffling step. "Storm," he said, and toppled over.

"Oh no, don't do that!" He pitched straight into her arms, a heavy, frigid weight. She valiantly struggled to keep them both upright, but she was not a large woman and she slowly sank beneath the burden.

Oh, dear, she thought, as the hard plane of the floor painfully met her hip. Perhaps I should have been a bit more specific with my wish.

Something good.

Had he simply died right on top of her, just like that? He didn't move, and his weight made breathing hard. She squirmed, easing herself from beneath him until he rolled to one side with a thump. She was free.

Margaret scrambled to the door and leaned against it, forcing it shut against the wind. She dropped to her knees beside the still form, tugged off the hat, and turned down the stiff fabric of the coat's collar.

She'd never seen this man before. For surely if she had, this face she would have remembered. Cleanly sculpted features, not marred a whit by the lines bracketing his mouth and eyes. A fall of heavy dark hair, thickly iced with silver. Skin pale as the blowing snow outside, a stark contrast with the dark stubble of a few day's beard.

Strange to think of a man as beautiful, but there was no other word for this one.

And he was still alive.

Beneath her fingertips, where she'd placed them against the curve of his neck, she could barely detect his pulse. Faint, and far too slow, but there just the same.

"Can you hear me?" When she got no response, she grabbed his shoulders and shook hard, nearly shouting this time. "Wake up! We've got to get you up."

The hard, driving bits of snow had scored his eyelids with tiny cuts, leaving them swollen and red. When he blinked his eyes open, she found the purest blue she'd ever seen.

"Sorry," he mumbled "Din' know ... I ..."

"Not now. We've got to get you warm, and the floor's too cold. I can't get you up myself, and you have to help me. Do you understand?"

"Unnerstan'." He didn't move.

She lifted his limp arm and looped it around her shoulders, locking her own arms around his chest. "Come on," she urged him. "Get up!"

He moaned -- not a pained sound, she judged, but one of exhaustion and protest. How long had he been caught in the storm?

He tried; she had to give him that. But it seemed as if his limbs weren't entirely under his command, and she had to pull and tug and shout, taking as much of his weight as she could, dragging him to his feet.

They stumbled toward the bed together, once bumping hard against the wall -- of course she was the one nearest the wall, and took the brunt of it -- and twice nearly pitched to the floor. Finally, they made it, and, relieved, she simply released her hold and let him tumble onto the bed. It creaked and shuddered beneath him, and for a moment she regretted dropping him like that, concerned the old frame would break beneath him.

His face pressed against the straw mattress, he mumbled something she couldn't hear. Perhaps he couldn't breath, with his nose buried in the bed like that. She climbed up beside him and crouched down, working her hands beneath him, positioning her shoulder at his side, and gave a heave. He flopped over.

Legs next. She scrambled off and grabbed his feet, dragging them up on the bed so he finally lay full upon it. Despite the biting air that rushed into the room while the door had been open, sweat dampened her forehead and back by the time she finished. Who would have thought a man would be so dad-blamed heavy?

Unfortunately, the exertion hadn't warmed him at all. He shivered so hard the bed quaked, his teeth clicking together.

First, she decided, she had to get him out of those cold, wet clothes.

His boots had probably once been expensive. The leather was very fine, the stitching even and small. But they'd had hard use, the heels worn down, the leather scarred and scratched. They were easily dispensed with; she just grabbed and yanked.

Machine-made socks, she thought in disgust, thin, knitted things that probably wouldn't keep a toe warm in August. Had none of the women in his life enough sense or care to knit him some good sturdy ones? She stripped them off, too, throwing them in the direction of the boots. The flesh beneath was white and cold, hard as marble. His feet needed tending, but it would have to wait.

Best to worry about saving his life before she set herself to saving his feet.

He wore a duster of heavy gray glazed cotton that reached his ankles. It didn't matter how long it was, though. Dakota required skins, and anyone with half a brain knew it.

Her fingers fumbled on the buttons of his plain white shirt. Stop that! she scolded herself. This was no time for maidenly nerves. Surely she should have left such useless conceits behind years ago.

She moved faster, attempting nurse-like efficiency. But she couldn't keep her gaze from sometimes brushing the skin she bared, any more than she could pretend that she didn't feel a bit of ... curiosity. It was foolish, but she was a thirty-five-year-old spinster who'd never seen a bare-chested man -- not even her father. And she'd never expected the fascination of it, the way that skin -- just plain human skin -- could seem so much more male than hers.

The wet heaviness of his denim pants made the metal buttons stubborn. Margaret found it hard to force them through their holes and even harder to ignore where her fingers worked and pressed. The heat in her cheeks shamed her, for there was nothing at all prurient here. It was only about saving a man's life.

Still, she tried looking away, focusing on a strip of wallboard that showed through the plaster instead of the sight of her work-roughened hands against a man's bare belly and denim-covered crotch. But trying to unfasten his pants without sight only made her flounder all the more. She squared her shoulders and concentrated on her task, finally freeing the last button. She tugged the denims from his hips and his long -- very long -- legs, eyeing the drawers that twisted low around his hips, and decided that would have to be enough. They were still fairly dry, and she'd done as much as she could bring herself to.

He lay, still trembling with the cold, sprawled on her old sheets, his hair dark and mussed against the creamy white of her pillow. She piled blankets over him until she feared the weight would hinder his breathing, and stacked several more next to the stove to warm.

What next? His cheeks, his fingers, his feet; all showed signs of frostbite, but she thought she should try to get something warming in him first. She bit hard on her lip, wishing there was someone to tell her if she was doing the right thing. The man -- the stranger -- could easily lose his fingers if she chose wrong. She wasn't accustomed to responsibility, to having others dependent upon her decisions.

Hot water from her supper still simmered in a pot on the stove. She grabbed a mug, dropped in a pinch of cayenne and ginger, and scooped in a healthy dollop of tinned milk. She debated only a moment, then added a heaping spoonful of sugar, sighing as she consigned herself to a few more days of black coffee. He needed it more than she did.

Steam rose as she poured hot water into the mug. It would probably have been better if she'd had some whiskey to add, but she never kept spirits around. This would have to do.

Stirring, blowing ripples across the surface of the mixture so it wouldn't burn him, she hurried across the room, surprised, once again, by the sight of a man in her bed. She thought it rather sad that it was such a shock to her, that she couldn't seem to prepare herself for the look of him there.

She'd assumed he was asleep, but at her urging he opened his eyes and struggled up. She sat next to him, hip hard against his side, and slipped her arm behind him for support.

"Here, drink this," she said, nudging his lips with the rim of the mug. "It will warm you."

He shook his head, his hair, surprisingly soft, brushing against her cheek. Scent filled her nostrils, cold and soap and something so alien and surprising in her house that it took her a moment to identify it -- the smell of a man.

"My ... horse." His speech, though still slow and careful, as if the words came hard, was more coherent than before. That was good. "Outside. Take ... care of him?"

Margaret sighed. Of course he had a horse; how else would he have gotten here? She didn't relish the thought of going out in the bitter cold, and now she had little choice. "I'll take care of him soon. Let's worry about you first."

He turned his head to face her. His chin bumped the mug, sloshing a little over her hand. He frowned, blue eyes holding her gaze, demanding.

"Now."

"Soon." She brought the cup toward his mouth. "Drink this, and then we'll see about the parts you froze, and then I'll take care of your horse. Okay?"

He pressed his lips together, set his jaw, making it clear she wasn't getting any of her concoction down his throat without his cooperation.

"Now."

"For heaven's sake." Weren't people supposed to be grateful to the ones who saved their lives? Obligated to do whatever they asked without protest?

Oh, better not to examine that thought too closely. Too many dangerous possibilities there.

"All right, then. You drink this first, though, and then I'll go out and look for your horse."

He nodded and bent his head to the cup. He drank deeply, quickly, his shoulder pressing hard against her breast. The cup drained, he looked at her, his mouth gleaming moist, and repeated: "Now."

"Fine." Obstinate man. She settled him in, blankets tucked around his stubborn chin, and dressed for going out in the storm.

She hated to leave him alone. His frozen flesh wouldn't thaw properly without attention, and she wasn't sure how much time they had. She thought he was in no immediate danger, but what did she know of it? And she felt another reluctance, an odd, foolish one, to leave her house when he was there. An impatience to stay inside -- with him -- when, all winter long, she'd longed to leave and had snatched any excuse to get out of that confining space.

A knotted rope led from her front door to the shed that housed her own animals. Thank goodness she hadn't taken it down in last week's good weather.

Snow churned the air. Wind caught the bits -- couldn't really call them flakes, when they were so small and hard -- before they hit the ground, whipped them in a straight line across the empty spaces. Not all that much snow, she judged, but enough to blot out any vision when it flew like that. And the cold was bitter, making her eyebrows and her teeth hurt.

She'd hoped the horse had stayed where it had been left, near the door. Unfortunately, as she expected, it wasn't there. Likely it had wandered out into the endless white, where it would be found only after the weather warmed and the snow melted.

But she had promised him, and so she worked her way along the rope, shouting for the animal, even though she knew the wind's scream would blot out her voice almost completely.

She'd nearly reached the shed, and the end of her determination, when she found him. The horse stood still, waiting, at the front door of the shed, as if he fully expected her to come and let him in.

"Well, there," she said softly. "Find it, did you?"

She led him inside and quickly unsaddled him, checking her own elderly mare and cow before giving them all handfuls of straw. Water was solid in the tin bucket, but they'd drink little while the storm raged, anyway. Impatiently she turned for the door, pausing at the last moment to grab the bag she'd found lashed to the stranger's saddle.

The warmth of her small house welcomed her back inside, and she rushed toward the bed, tugging off her mittens and coat as she went, carelessly tossing them over a nearby chair. No one in Redemption would have believed it, she thought, that Margaret Thayer was scurrying to get to a man in her bed.

He'd stopped shuddering, she saw immediately, lying still and large against her pillows. She lightly brushed his forehead and he opened his eyes.

"Is --"

"Your horse is fine," she promised him, and bent to her work.

Too much to do; she needed more hands. His feet had seemed in the worst shape, she decided, and tugged the quilt from the mattress and peeled it back.

To her shame, her stomach gave a silly little lurch. What was so intimate about a bare foot that would make her react like that? She tried to recall the last time she'd seen one. This one seemed so much larger than hers, with its pale skin and little bit of wiry black hair. Undeniably male.

Get on with it, Margaret. You have no time to stare at the poor man's feet.

She lifted his knees, placed his feet in a pan of alum water, and let them soak while she turned her attention to the other parts of him that had been marked by the cold.

To prevent as much damage as possible, the flesh needed to be warmed slowly, carefully. She probably shouldn't have left his hands and feet under the blankets for so long as it was. Margaret fetched a bucket of snow, sat on the edge of the bed, spread a towel across her lap, and took his hands in her own.

She rubbed them with the snow, her own fingers aching with the cold. She glanced up once, checking to see if the treatment pained him, and found him watching her. Her hands fell still.

His steady gaze was assessing, unwavering, as if taking in everything about her while giving nothing of himself away. Unused to such close regard, she quickly looked back down and returned to her task.

Muffling silence lay heavy between them. She'd never had the taste or the talent for useless chatter. She had questions, certainly, many of them, but now wasn't the time for them. Fierce exposure to cold tended to blur the mind temporarily, and it would be a few hours before he'd think clearly again. He needed rest.

But she was constantly, acutely conscious of him watching her as she worked. She focused instead on his injuries, alternating between his hands and his cheeks, rubbing first with snow, then flannel, then simply her own hands.

Once her discomfort faded, she found herself unwillingly fascinated. By the feel of frozen fingers taking on her warmth, by watching white skin flushing pink and then red. By seeing his flesh come to life beneath her palms, and an answering heat sparked in her.

She was working witch hazel into his fingers when she dared to look up at him again. "I know it hurts," she said. "But that's good. It means it's thawing out."

"Don' matter," he said, but she thought she detected pain lurking deep in his eyes.

"You should rest," she told him.

In answer, he turned his wrist, curling his fingers until he cradled her hand in his own. Good strong fingers, ones she'd likely saved. Hoped she'd saved, for the thought of him losing them was more than she could bear.

"Thank you," he said softly, and drifted off to sleep, holding her hand as he would a lover's.


END OF CHAPTER ONE
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