Morrow Creek Marshal(8)

By: Lisa Plumley



Good-natured yokels, she was used to handling. A man like him? He was another beast entirely. She wasn’t sure she knew what to do about him. But she knew backing down wasn’t possible.

For her, it wasn’t even an option.

“—until you interfered and got me dragged offstage,” Marielle went on, deliberately transferring her gaze away from his eyes...only to notice how attractively his dark hair swept back from his face. An errant wave tumbled over his forehead, lending him a newly boyish look that she understood to be false.

Dylan Coyle was all man. Tall. Handsome. Not to be trusted.

“Your fall was an accident,” Coyle assured her, seemingly sincerely. His husky tone soothed her, despite everything. “I never meant for you to get caught up the way you did. I saw that cowboy manhandling you. I set out to put a stop to it. I did.”

“I wish you hadn’t.” Purposely, Marielle glanced away from their semisecluded corner. Rufus the cowboy was still nowhere in sight. She hoped he really had gone to fetch Doc Finney, the way she’d suggested. If not...well, she’d be stuck with her unwanted, self-appointed protector—at least until her younger brother, Hudson, turned up to assist her. He ought to be someplace inside Murphy’s saloon. They’d come there together. “As I said, I was handling it. Of the two of us, I have the most experience, expertise and aptitude at discouraging suitors.”

His grin flashed. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that.”

She flicked her gaze over his broad-shouldered form, neat clothes and open, self-assured posture. Most likely, women did pursue him. Not that such brazen behavior mattered to her. Marielle inhaled. “Aside from which, I have my own protectors—”

At that, Coyle had the audacity to scoff. He emanated certainty, strength and outright authority the way some men—like poor, misguided Rufus—exuded confusion and bodily odors.

“—who can come to my aid,” she went on, wincing as a fresh wave of ankle pain struck her, “so I certainly don’t need—”

“You’re hurting,” Coyle interrupted, suddenly out of forbearance for their conversation. As she opened her mouth to protest, he shook his head. “Don’t try to deny it. Just let me take a look. Please. I’ll wrap it up for stability, then...”

As he went on describing a potential treatment for her injury, he sounded startlingly knowledgeable. More surprisingly, he sounded caring. Despite his rough tone and imperious manner, Dylan Coyle appeared to be both bright and kind. Darn him.

All the same, Marielle didn’t want him probing under her skirts again. No good could come of that. Even if, in that single shocking moment, she’d been tempted to let him continue.

Purely for the sake of good medicine. Of course.

“I’ve been hurt before.” Not like this, though, she knew. Something in her ankle had snapped. She’d felt it give way beneath her. That was part of the reason she was so infuriated with him. Thanks to him, she was in a verifiable pickle.

If she couldn’t dance, she couldn’t earn a living.

Still, Marielle didn’t want Dylan Coyle’s help—or anyone else’s. Except Doc Finney’s. Even his, only reluctantly.

She knew better than to become reliant on other people. Growing up backstage, she’d seen how frequently people came and went, leaving her behind with typical bonhomie. Taking care of herself was nobody’s business but her own. Mustering another airy wave, she assured him, “I’m stronger than I look. I know what I’m talking about—dancers get injured fairly often.”

Coyle gave her an evaluative look—one she fancied included him enjoying her appearance in the same way that she’d mooned over his a few seconds ago. Why was she so addlepated, anyway?

Doubtless, she reasoned, her nonsensicalness owed itself to the pain. All the same, it would be only fair if Coyle dished out a compliment for her bravery. Or offered up some praise for her dancing. Or composed a sonnet to her “cerulean blue” eyes, the way a ranch hand from Everett Bannon’s place had done last year, with the probable help of a thesaurus and memorable—if doomed—romanticism. If not for Hudson needing her, in fact, Marielle might have given in to that ranch hand. Eventually.

Her unshared secret was that she adored all things dreamy and sentimental. Maybe because she didn’t expect to enjoy them for herself. Not for years and years yet.

“Hurt fairly often, eh? Hmm.” He rubbed his stubbled jaw, examining her carefully. “Especially at your age, I’d imagine.”

“What?”

“You’re getting on, that’s all,” Coyle clarified in a blasé tone. “After all, you must be...what, thirty-three or so?”

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