Catherine bit her lip hard in an effort to not giggle at Curtis, leaning back against a log with her pretty pink parasol — with fringe — held over his head. He looked utterly bewildered for a minute, then caught her amused expression and grinned. The laughter that burst from her felt so good. She couldn’t remember the last time she laughed all the way from her toes.
Not every man would happily hold a parasol like that. A surge of admiration for him flooded her. She’d always thought he was a fine man, she simply had no interest in him romantically. She had no interest in any man in that way. But the more he visited, the more she rebelled against everyone’s suggestions that she encourage his attentions. For the first time, she was almost tempted.
No, you must keep your guard up, her brain insisted. Even if he wasn’t the typical rough and tumble Marshal, his vagabond lifestyle held no interest for her. After an entire life of not belonging — anywhere or to anyone — Catherine longed for a place to call her own, a real home.
“You’re awfully quiet,” he murmured, his shrewd eyes burning her skin.
“I was just wondering why you joined the Marshal Service,” she hedged.
His gaze remained on her for a long moment before he pulled open his coat and flashed the badge pinned to his chest.
“The jewelry, of course.”
Catherine had spotted flashes of his badge before, but she’d never seen the whole thing. She always envisioned something more ornate, with filigrees and special seals. This was made from flat gray steel, a wide ring circling a five-pointed star. The only lettering said U.S. Marshal. That was it. Pretty plain, really.
“Very funny. If you don’t want to talk about it, all you have to do is say so.”
Her feelings were only a little bruised that he wouldn’t share personal details from his life, even though he’d dragged far too many from her. To cover her emotions, she began packing away the remaining food. No sense in wasting it.
“No, I’ll tell you.” He sat up, closing the parasol and focusing on the carved handle. “Our motto is ‘Justice, Integrity, Service’. I strive to live up to those qualities every day, and I will until the day I die.”
What drove a man to be so committed to such an ideal? Catherine envied his dedication. She sat perfectly still, not wanting to break the spell. After a moment of gathering his thoughts, he continued.
“You see, my father…” He glanced up, eyes filled with grief. “I’ve never told anyone this before.”
“You can trust me,” she whispered, her heart aching for the pain he felt. She would never break his confidence.
“My father was unjustly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. The sheriff and judge in Durango were corrupt, and my father launched a campaign to roust them from office. It backfired. They framed him for the murder of his business partner and he was hanged by a mob before the trial.”
“Oh my…” A hollow ache sat where her stomach used to be. Her thoughtless words about how Mary and Maggie had been ‘lucky’ to have known their parents love must have cut him to the quick. Shame threatened to overwhelm her. Tears sprang to her eyes.
“I was seventeen. Before he died, he made me vow to not seek vengeance, but rather justice. The Marshals’ code appealed to me because those were the qualities my father valued in a man. As long as I follow those tenets, I know my father’s looking down on me with pride.”
A tear slipped down Catherine’s cheek unheeded. Emotion roiled around inside her, mixing up what she thought she knew and what was true, until her head spun from it all.
“What happened to the crooked men?” Asking seemed wrong, somehow, but she had to know. Curtis’s mouth turned up in a grim version of a smile.
“It took longer than I hoped, but justice finally found them.”
Curiosity burned inside her to find out what form justice took, but she didn’t press. Divulging such an intimate story must have hurt enough, he didn’t need her dredging up more bad memories.
They sat in silence, each ruminating over their own thoughts, when a nearby bush rustled loudly. Curtis whipped his pistol from its holster so fast she almost didn’t see his hand move. But instead of a wolf or catamount, the savage creature that emerged stood no taller than her tender ankle.
“Don’t!” she cried, motioning Curtis to put away his gun. Grabbing a rasher of bacon, she held it out to the skinny pup, which eagerly gobbled it down in two bites. “How did a puppy get way out here?”
“That’s a coyote, Catherine,” he said, jumping up and looking around. “You shouldn’t feed it. Its mother might be around. Last thing we need is to get rushed by a protective mama coyote.”
“Nonsense. Look at her, Curtis. She’s starving.”
He stooped to take a better look. Even she, a city girl, could see the pup’s ribs poking through her mangy, light brown coat. Reaching back, he grabbed a chicken leg, breaking off small pieces to feed the pup. It inhaled them.
“That’s a good girl,” he cooed, petting it gently. It leaned into his hand and whined for more food. “Not too much too fast, pretty lady.”
Scooping the little ball of fur up in his big hands, he cuddled it next to his chest and carefully examined it. The way it whined and wiggled in his arms drew a giggle from Catherine. She’d always been of the firm opinion that a man’s character could be discovered by the way he treated animals.
“Looks like she’s in good shape, other than being a little scrawny,” he finally announced, glancing at her with eyes that matched the coyote pup’s coat perfectly. “But I’m afraid it’s time to get back on the trail, Catherine.”
Disappointment coursed through her. She’d always loved playing with the odd puppy that strayed through the orphanage’s yard — not that the horrible headmistress would allow the children to keep one. Better not to get attached, old Mrs. Whipple used to say, cuz they’re just gonna up and die on ya anyway.
Sniffing back the tears that prickled at her eyelids, she nodded and turned to pack the food. She couldn’t bear to watch him shoo the little puppy away. But when she spun around to strap the half-empty satchel to Gladys’s saddle, her heart nearly leapt out of her chest.
Curtis tucked the pup into a saddlebag and when she caught his eye, he shrugged.
“What? Can’t leave her out here to die.”