True to the Law
He was on the hunt for a runaway beauty
“Find her” is the only instruction that private detective Cobb Bridger receives from Richard Mackey. The scion of a wealthy Chicago family, Mackey is desperate to know the whereabouts of the woman who disappeared from his employ, taking with her something of great value. Intrigued as much by what Mackey won’t say about the missing item as he is by Mackey’s description of the missing woman, Cobb accepts the assignment.
And the one true lie that could destroy them both
Bitter Springs, Wyoming, has a new schoolteacher who may or may not be exactly what she seems. Upon making the acquaintance of Miss Tru Morrow, Cobb begins to question the guilt of this golden-haired lady—and the protective feelings she stirs in him. His investigation hinges on understanding where the truth lies. Can he believe in Tru? Or is she just another treacherous woman out to swindle this hardened detective’s heart?
Cobb Bridger gave no indication that he was inclined to accept or dismiss the job. Most men in his position would have taken this opportunity to ask a question, perhaps several questions. Cobb remained silent. In his experience, silence was a powerful motivator, and he judged that it would be a useful tool now.
Andrew Charles Mackey III stopped turning over the envelope in his hand and set it on the desk blotter. He laid his palm over it. “Is it the money? I was given to understand that what I’m offering is well in excess of your usual retainer. I’m aware there will be other expenses. We will settle those when you find her.”
Cobb said nothing. He tilted his head slightly to one side. His eyes narrowed a fraction. The look was a calculating one, thoughtful in the way one was when taking the full measure of a man. In Cobb’s case, it was also a sham. He was bone weary. Worse, he was bored. No amount of money was an incentive when he was bored. Besides that, he had taken Mackey’s measure at their introduction and distilled all the details to a single salient point: Here was a man with no expectation that he would be, or should be, challenged.
“I was told you would not ask questions,” said Mackey.
“I don’t believe I have.”
The hand over the envelope curled slightly. Mackey began to drum it lightly with his fingertips. “Then you’ll do it.”
“I don’t believe I’ve said I will.” Cobb’s eyes never left Mackey’s face. He heard rather than saw the drumming fingers miss several beats. After a brief pause, they resumed their tattoo. That’s when Cobb knew Andrew Mackey had made his decision.
“Miss Morrow has something that belongs to me. I want it back.”
Cobb detected a hesitation; something in Mackey’s speech suggested he was choosing his words carefully. Although he did not rouse himself to attention, Cobb Bridger was marginally less bored than he had been moments earlier.
“It is not just for me,” Mackey said after another hesitation. “The family also has an interest in recovering what she has stolen.”
Not my family, Cobb noted. The family. Cobb wondered if Mackey were aware that a distinction had been made. Probably not. One of the reasons Cobb had a reputation for asking so few questions was that he knew the answers to many of them before he scheduled the first meeting.
Andrew Charles Mackey III was still a bachelor at thirty. As Cobb himself was only one year younger and also unmarried, Mackey’s single state was not by itself very interesting. The fact that Mackey had been engaged three times and all of them ended abruptly, was. As far as Cobb was able to determine, Mackey had no bastards. An only child, his parents had died within months of each other when he was still at Princeton. More recently, in fact just two months ago, his only remaining grandparent, his paternal grandmother, passed away. The death of Charlotte Mackey left a not insignificant hole for the society pages to fill; yet that hole was nothing compared with the one left in the business pages.
The Mackey empire was in want of an . . . emperor? Empress?
Andrew Mackey’s failure to marry and produce any offspring, and the death of his parents and now the Mackey matriarch, did not, however, mean that he was without family. Cobb counted one uncle on the Mackey side and half a dozen Mackey cousins. Charlotte Mackey’s death meant there was a vacancy at the head of the family and an opportunity for someone to fill it.
It seemed that Andrew Mackey was speaking for the family. Cobb was uncertain if he had appointed himself to this front-and-center position or if he had been thrust there by the Mackey collective, and neither was he sure that it mattered. What piqued his curiosity was the missing item. What had Gertrude Morrow taken with her when she disappeared? What was important enough to Andrew Mackey, and ostensibly to the rest of the family, that hiring a private detective was a reasonable solution?
Cobb asked, “Is it bigger than, say, my fist?”
Mackey blinked. “What?”
“This something that you allege Miss Morrow stole . . . is it bigger than my fist?”
Now Andrew Mackey frowned. “Miss Morrow took it. That is what it is important. The size is of no consequence.”
Cobb wondered how that was possible. Mackey had given him a useful description of Miss Morrow, discussed at length her former position in the house and the access she had to every part of it, but especially the access she had to his grandmother, and finally, albeit without fanfare, shared the classified section of the newspaper he recently discovered in Miss Morrow’s former room—with seven advertisements for employment neatly removed from the pages. The newspaper, which he described as having been secreted away by Miss Morrow, had been found in a stack of similar papers bundled for removal. In Mackey’s mind this was further proof of Miss Morrow’s clever and concealing nature.
Cobb did not point out that a more clever and concealing woman would have burnt the paper, not left its discovery to chance. Mackey had a great deal to say about Miss Gertrude Morrow and nothing at all to say about what she took.
“The size,” said Cobb, “has some bearing on finding what’s been taken . . . and returning it to you.”
Andrew Mackey picked up the envelope and tapped one corner of it against the blotter. Before he spoke, his mouth thinned briefly. “You mistake the assignment, Mr. Bridger. I am not hiring you to find and return what’s been stolen. I don’t believe I ever said as much. For the matter of the theft to be resolved, you only have to find Miss Morrow. She is, you will note from my description, bigger than your fist.”
Cobb thought he probably deserved Mackey’s condescension. It did not make it more palatable, but it did stay the aforementioned fist from mashing Mackey’s patrician nose. “And when I find her?”
“You will inform me. I expect you will observe her until I can arrange a meeting. It is a precaution, nothing more, in the event she decides to disappear again. At all costs, you should prevent that.”
“At all costs,” Cobb repeated, shrugging. “It’s your money, Mr. Mackey.”
“Yes, it is.”
On the face of it, the job was straightforward. Cobb doubted that was the case. The point of hiring someone with his particular skills generally meant that the face of it was a façade.
All the better, else where was the challenge?
“Very well,” said Cobb, rising to his feet and extending his hand across the desk.
Mackey also stood. He offered Cobb the envelope, not his hand.
Cobb thought he correctly read the intent of the exchange in Mackey’s taut expression. No gentleman’s agreement here. This was business.
Cobb Bridger was fine with that.
Bitter Springs, Wyoming
Finn Collins decided he would stare at Priscilla Taylor’s braid until his eyes crossed. The braid, perfectly plaited with every hair still in place at the end of the day, rested along the line of Priscilla’s ramrod straight backbone. Priscilla never slumped on her bench. She never fidgeted. The braid never moved except when Priscilla raised her hand to answer a question, then it slid ever so slightly to one side and the tip curled like an apostrophe. Or maybe a comma. Those punctuation marks were suspiciously similar, except one was high and one was low. It was no wonder he got them confused.
Finn did not stir. In point of fact, he did not hear his name being called. He sat with his elbows on the desk, his head cupped in his hands. His chin and cheeks rested warmly between his palms. His eyes had begun to relax. Priscilla had two braids now. Two ramrods. And when she raised her hand to show everyone that she knew the answer to something no one cared about–like the name of the fifth president–the tail of one braid curled in a comma, the other in an apostrophe.
“Carpenter Addison Collins.”
Finn came to attention with the jerkiness of someone suddenly roused from a deep sleep. His elbows slid off the edge of the desk, his head snapped up, and his feet, which had been swinging in a lazy rhythm under the bench, kicked spasmodically before slamming hard to the floor. He blinked widely. There was only one person who called him by all three of his proper names.
Thirteen of Finn’s classmates were moved to laughter. Finn’s brother, Rabbit, was an exception. He glanced over his shoulder at Finn and rolled his eyes. Somehow he managed to convey disapproval and embarrassment. Just like Granny.
Finn felt color rush into his face and knew his cheeks were glowing like hot coals. If someone poked at him, he would burst into flames. For himself, he didn’t mind so much. In some ways it would be a relief. More concerning was that no one would be safe from the conflagration. Priscilla’s braid would take to the fire like a candlewick. She’d whip her head around then, he was certain of it, and shoot tongues of fire at anyone who tried to save her. Stupid girl. She would burn down the school. Probably the town. It would be his fault because no one ever blamed girls. To save the school, the town, to save everyone, really, he had to act. The solution was clear.
He yanked hard on Priscilla’s offending braid.
She squealed. It was a sound no one had ever heard her make before, but everyone knew how a piglet sounded when it was in want of its mother’s teat. Priscilla squealed like that, and all eyes shifted to her. A moment later, so did the laughter.
Priscilla swiveled on her bench seat, slate in hand, and swung it at Finn’s head. Finn ducked instinctively, but he was never in any danger. Miss Morrow stepped in and stayed Priscilla’s arm. Out of the corner of his eye, Finn saw her calmly remove the slate from Priscilla’s hand and set it gently on the desk. She had a small, quiet smile for Priscilla, one that was more understanding than quelling. For the class, she effectively used a single raised eyebrow to stopper the laughter. It was Finn for whom she had words. He held his breath, waiting for the pronouncement.
“Finn, you will stay after the others leave today.”
Finn kept his head down, his eyes averted. He knew better than to look pleased. He kept his voice small, penitent. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Is there something you want to say to Priscilla?”
Now Finn looked up and stared squarely at Priscilla’s back. “Sure is. Prissy, that pigtail is nuthin’ but a temptation. And now that I heard you squeal, well, giving it a yank now and again is a thing that can’t be resisted.” He risked a glance at Miss Morrow. For reasons he did not entirely understand, she looked as if she was going to choke on her spit. “That’s all I got to say, ma’am.”
Tru Morrow covered her mouth with the back of her hand and politely cleared her throat. “We will speak later, and you can write your apology.”
Finn’s narrow shoulders slumped. Staying after school with Miss Morrow was nothing but a pleasure. Writing, whether it was an apology to Priscilla or “I will raise my hand before I speak” twenty times, well, that cast a long shadow on the pleasure of Miss Morrow’s company. His pap would tell him that a man has to pay for his pleasure, and it seemed to Finn that his pap was proved right again. He tucked that thought away so he could use it when Pap asked him to account for his behavior today. There was nothing like flattering a man with the rightness of his thinking to stay another lecture on the same subject. Granny would be a little trickier. She wasn’t impressed by flattery, and it seemed that a man paying for his pleasure had a different meaning to her because when Pap said it she snorted and set his plate down hard. If she didn’t have a plate in her hand, she just cuffed him.
Finn sighed. He would consider the problem of his granny later. Miss Morrow was walking to the front of the classroom. His eyes followed her. The carefully tied bow at the small of her back perched as daintily above her bustle as a bird hovering on the edge of its nest. It was as severe a temptation as Priscilla Taylor’s braid. Even if he could keep himself from tugging on it, he still might blurt out the question he was asking himself: How did she tie it?
Finn sat on his hands. For the moment, it was the best way to stay out of trouble.
Tru Morrow stood to one side of the door as she ushered her students out. She made certain they left with their coats, hats, and scarves. Most of the girls wore mittens or carried a muff. The boys, if they had gloves, wore them. Those with mittens simply jammed their hands into their pockets. Mittens were for girls and babies, she’d learned. Finn had explained it to her.
She closed the door as soon as the last student filed out. The “bitter” in “Bitter Springs” didn’t refer to the quality of the water, but the quality of the wind. Born and raised in Chicago, she had been confident that she understood cold. She was familiar with the wind blowing over the water of Lake Michigan, funneling ice into the collective breath of the city. That was frigid. It was only October, and she was coming to learn that there was a qualitative difference between frigid and bitter. Here in the high plains country, wind seared her lungs. It was so cold, it was hot, and even when she sipped it carefully, she seemed to taste it at the very back of her tongue. Bitter.
Tru lifted her poppy red shawl and drew it more closely around her shoulders. The wool felt substantial and warm and smelled faintly of smoke from the stove.
“Finn, would you add some coals to the stove? Half a scoop. That will keep us warm long enough for you to write your apology.”
Finn stood. Tru sensed his uncertainty as she passed him.
“What is it?” she asked without pausing.
“Well, it’s just that you’re awful confident that I know what I’m apologizin’ for.”
Careful not to smile, Tru took her seat behind her desk. She folded her hands and placed them in front of her where Finn could see them. Her posture was correct, her spine perfectly aligned, shoulders back, chin lifted. She envisioned herself as a model of rectitude, and she was impressed with herself even if she could see that Finn wasn’t. It was probably her eyes that gave her away, she thought. She had been told they were a merry shade of green, a color, according to her father, that could not be easily captured by an artist’s palette because the substance of it was a quality of character as much as a quality of light. It was a fanciful notion, but one she brought to mind when she was in danger of taking herself too seriously.
Now was such a time. She relaxed her spine and leaned forward, unclasping her hands as Finn moved to the stove to add coals. She smoothed back a wayward coil of hair that been pushed out of place by her brief encounter with the wind. She could not help but notice that Finn’s eyes followed this small movement, and when her hand fell away from her hair, he remained exactly as he was a moment longer, transfixed. She could only guess at what he was thinking.
“Are you tempted to give my hair a tug?” she asked.
Finn blinked. “How’s that again, ma’am?”
“I wondered if you were tempted to yank on my hair.”
He ducked his head, cheeks flushing, and hurried to the stove. “Uh, no. No, ma’am.” Finn used the sleeve of his shirt like a mitt to open the stove door and tossed half a scoop of coals inside. “Wasn’t tempted at all.”
Tru watched Finn poke at the fire and warm himself in front of the stove long enough to provide an explanation for his rosy cheeks. “I just wondered,” she said. “After all, my hair is the same color as Priscilla’s.”
Finn turned his backside to the stove and stared at her. “I sure hope you’ll pardon me for setting you straight, Miss Morrow, but you ever hear tell of a man named Rumple Sticks?”
“That’s the fellow. You know of him?”
“I believe I’ve heard of him.”
“That’s good because I couldn’t explain it all. Rabbit’s better with stories than I am. Well, anyway, I can see you want me to get on with it. It’s like this: Priscilla’s got hair that puts me in mind of the straw that Mr. Stiltskin wanted for his spinning wheel, and your hair is what Mr. Stiltskin spun it into. So you see, one color’s not at all like the other. Yellow. Gold. I got some idea there’s a big difference.” Finn rocked back on his heels. “Besides, you got your hair lassoed so tight to your head that it would be hard to know what thread to pull.”
Now it was Tru who blinked and blushed. “How old are you again, Finn?”
“Ten. Or I will be soon enough.”
“So you’re nine. Maybe you shouldn’t be in such a hurry to grow up.”
Finn moved away from the stove and shut the door. “That’s what everyone says. Even Rabbit. He’s eleven and thinks he can say things like that now. Sort of like he’s wise. He’s not.”
Tru knew better than to make any judgment on Rabbit’s wisdom. Finn was certain to carry the tale, and it did not take much provocation to start a war of words between the brothers. She’d seen them use elbows and fists like periods and exclamation points to punctuate their threats.
“Sit down, Finn, and clean your slate. I trust that given sufficient contemplation you’ll arrive at what you need to write.”
His shoulders slumped, and he jammed his hands in his pockets. “Suppose I will.”
“You’ll read it to the class tomorrow morning, first thing after prayers.”
He grimaced but slid into his seat without a word.
“And perhaps at the end of the day, you will be so kind as to help me clean all the slates.” She reasoned that if she found small tasks for him to do, he might not choose getting into trouble in order to remain in her company. He would probably tire of that soon enough. This was her first encounter with a boy’s infatuation, and she had been slow to recognize it for what it was. Her sense was that it would pass quickly. She thought she might be a little sorry when it did.
Tru left the schoolhouse ten minutes after Finn shuffled out. He had done everything he could think of to draw out his time. She admired his creativity, was even a tad flattered by his motives, but was careful not to encourage either. She listened with half an ear when he prattled on about the most recent visitor to Bitter Springs and nodded at what she hoped were the proper intervals when he gave a full account of the birth of a foal in Mr. Ransom’s livery just that morning. He also added a rapid, if somewhat incoherent, story about the milliner’s daughter accepting Mr. Irvin’s proposal of marriage. Finn wasn’t clear if it was Millicent Garvin who was marrying the undertaker, or her younger sister Marianna, but there was definitely a wedding being planned because Mrs. Garvin was ordering catalogs and silk from Paris.
Tru thought that even if she hadn’t been apprised of some of the town’s more interesting citizens when she interviewed for the teaching position, it would not have taken her long to identify Heather Collins, grandmother of Rabbit and Finn, as the one who invariably had her ear to the ground and her tongue positioned for wagging. While her husband was the station agent for Bitter Springs, and privy to all the comings and goings of the trains and travelers, he was still merely the human hub. Mrs. Collins, on the other hand, was the human hubbub.
Tru had a suspicion that Finn’s ear was similarly pressed and his mouth similarly positioned.
Pulling her scarf up so that it covered her mouth and the bottom half of her nose, Tru stepped out of the schoolhouse. Wind whipped at her skirts. She ignored the flare of her petticoats but surrendered to the shiver that rattled her teeth. She tucked her chin against her chest and watched her step on the uneven sidewalk as she bucked the wind.
She would have been knocked to the ground if the same force that stopped her forward progress had not also stopped her downward plunge. In that first moment, she lost her breath. In the next, she recovered it.
And promptly lost a little of it again when she met the direct, crystalline blue gaze of the man who was at once an obstruction and her protection.
“I beg your pardon,” he said.
Feeling rather foolish, Tru sought purchase on the ground with the toes of her boots. He immediately set her down.
“Yes.” Tru could feel her bonnet slipping backward. She made a grab for it, exposing her tightly coiled hair to the wind’s icy teeth, and set it properly on her head before it could blow away.
Still watching her, he frowned. “Are you all right?”
Tru realized that her scarf had muffled her answer. Rather than expose her face to the cold, she nodded.
“I’m afraid I wasn’t watching where I was going,” he said.
She nodded again and pointed to herself, hoping he understood she was offering the same explanation.
“Are you certain you can walk? You didn’t twist an ankle?”
The answer to the first required another nod. The answer to the second required a shake. It would be too confusing if she did both. Tru pulled the scarf just below her bottom lip. “Really, I’m fine.” Her moist breath was made visible by the cold air. She burrowed her mouth and nose into the warm wool again. When he continued to stare at her as though gauging the truth of her words, Tru took a step sideways. The wind slipped under her petticoats and her skirt fluttered wildly against his legs as she made to pass.
“You’re Miss Morrow. The schoolteacher.”
Tru stopped. She supposed that if he had any doubt about her identity, the simple act of pausing was sufficient to confirm it.
“My name’s Bridger,” he said, touching the brim of his pearl gray Stetson with a gloved hand. “Cobb Bridger.”
She sighed and tugged on her scarf again. “I know who you are, Mr. Bridger.”
She felt strangely pleased that she had surprised him. “I eliminated all the faces I know. Since I don’t know yours, that makes you new to town and therefore the gambler who has taken up lodgings at the Pennyroyal.”
“I’m staying at the Pennyroyal.”
“I don’t pass any judgment about gambling, Mr. Bridger. Or drinking for that matter.” The Pennyroyal was a hotel and saloon. “Your affairs are your own.” She thought she sounded a bit priggish for someone who professed to pass no judgment, but it was too late to make amends for it. “Excuse me, please.”
He retreated a step and let her move out of his reach before he said, “I thought you’d be more curious.”
If he’d put out a hand to block her path, he could not have stopped her with more ease. Tru turned her head and arched a single spun-gold eyebrow.
“Don’t you wonder how I recognized you, Miss Morrow?”
Tru yanked on her scarf. “I imagine you learned something about everyone in Bitter Springs in the same manner I did. You cannot get from the train station to the hotel without the assistance of Rabbit and Finn Collins, and no personal detail is too small for them to miss about you or relate about others. As the young masters are both my pupils, I can suppose one or both pointed me out to you as you rode by or told you all of the six ways I’ve made their lives miserable by accepting the position to teach in Bitter Springs. You probably noticed my horns and cloven feet.”
Almost immediately, Tru regretted calling attention to herself in that manner. Cobb Bridger’s scrutiny was thorough, though not particularly personal. He regarded her with a certain remoteness that was almost clinical, more akin to the dispassionate observation of a scientist. She was most definitely not flattered, but then neither, she realized, was she embarrassed.
“What I noticed,” he said, returning his eyes to hers, “is that the color of your hair is as fine as Rumpelstiltskin could spin it.”
Tru felt her jaw go slack. Gaping like a fish was unattractive, and she recovered quickly. Quite against her will, though, the dimple on the left side of her mouth appeared as a short laugh changed the shape of her lips. “Pardon me, Mr. Bridger, but this is the second time today that someone has made that rather odd comparison. I do have to ask myself whether you heard it first from Finn or whether he came by it from you.”
“No doubt about it, Miss Morrow. That’s a puzzler.”
Tru smiled again, this time appreciatively. Mr. Bridger had obviously decided to give nothing away. “So you and Finn have become fast friends.”
“I don’t remember that he gave me a choice.”
“No, I don’t suppose he did.” Her smile faltered, became earnest. “You’ll have a care with him, won’t you? He doesn’t know a stranger, and I understand from his grandmother that he’s drawn most particularly to gamblers.”
“He asked me right off if I knew his father.”
She nodded. “He believes his father is riding the rails playing high-stakes poker from one end of the country to the other. He might be. No one knows, but no one but Finn holds out any hope that one day he’ll turn up in Bitter Springs with his winnings in a wheelbarrow.”
Tru wasn’t sure what he saw. When he tilted his head, the brim of his hat cast a shadow over his eyes. She couldn’t tell whether he was being reflective or dismissive. “So you’ll have a care,” she repeated. “It would be a kindness if you did.”
“You are certain of that?”
His question seemed to suggest that she could be wrong. She felt herself bristling and responded with rather more sharpness than she intended. “It’s no burden to show kindness.”
“What if kindness is merely a deceit? There’s a burden there, I think, and usually unfortunate consequences.”
Tru shivered inside her coat. She tried to form a response, but her teeth chattered so violently that she would have bitten her tongue.
“Perhaps we should agree to disagree,” he said. “Before you are chilled to the bone.”
“May I escort you home?”
She shook her head.
“As you wish.” He tapped his brim again. “Good day, Miss Morrow.”
Tru thought she might have seen something like humor play about his mouth, but she couldn’t be sure. He did not strike her as a man who smiled as a matter of course but as one who offered it more judiciously and to far more devastating effect.
Tru covered the lower half of her face again and turned away. She fought the temptation to glance over her shoulder to see if he was watching her. She had the sensation that he was. The most disturbing thing about that particular fancy was that she was warmed by it.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: