Montana Territory, 1875
Cassie wanted to scream, “Put down that shovel!”
As if yelling at the red-headed gravedigger would bring Griff back to life. A gust of wind blew Cassie Griffin’s dark hair across her face, blinding her.
For one sightless moment it was as if the wind showed her perfectly what the future held for her.
Hovering in a wooded area, concealed behind a clump of quaking aspens that had gone yellow in the fall weather, she watched the hole grow as the man dug his way down into the rocky Montana earth.
Muriel, the kind storekeeper who had taken Cassie in, stood beside the ever-deepening grave. If Cassie started yelling, Muriel would start her motherly clucking again and force Cassie to return to town and go back to bed. She’d been so kind since Cassie had ridden in shouting for help.
In a detached sort of way, Cassie knew Muriel had been caring for her, coddling Cassie to get her through the day. But Cassie had gone numb since Muriel’s husband, Seth, had come back in with the news that Griff was dead. Cassie listened and answered and obeyed, but she hadn’t been able to feel anything. Until now. Now she could feel rage aimed straight at that man preparing the hole for her beloved Griff.
“I’m sorry, little one.” Cassie ran her hand over her rounded stomach. “You’ll never know your daddy now.” Her belly moved as if the baby heard Cassie and understood.
The fact that her husband was dead was Cassie’s fault. She should have gone for the doctor sooner. Griff ordered her not to, but first Griff had been worried about the cost. He’d shocked Cassie by telling her they couldn’t afford to send for the doctor. Griff had scolded Cassie if she ever asked questions about money. So she’d learned it wasn’t a wife’s place. But she’d known her parents were wealthy. Cassie had brought all their wealth into the marriage. How could they not afford a few bits for a doctor? Even as he lay sick, she’d known better than to question him about it.
Later, Griff had been out of his head with fever. She stayed with him as he’d ordered, but she should have doctored Griff better. She should have saved him somehow. Instead she’d stood by and watched her husband die inch by inch while she did nothing.
Cassie stepped closer. Another few steps and she’d be in the open. She could stop them. She could make them stop digging. Refuse to allow such a travesty when it couldn’t be true that Griff was dead.
Don’t put him in the ground! Inside her head she was screaming, denying, terrified. She had to stop this.
Before she could move she heard Muriel.
“In the West, nothing’ll get you killed faster’n stupid.” Whipcord lean, with a weathered face from long years in the harsh Montana weather, Muriel plunked her fists on her nonexistent hips.
Seth, clean-shaven once a week and overdue, stood alongside his wife, watching the proceedings, his arms crossed over his paunchy stomach. “How ’bout lazy? In the West, lazy’ll do you in faster’n stupid every time.”
“Well, I reckon Lester Griffin was both, right enough.” Muriel nodded her head.
Cassie understood the words, “lazy” and “stupid.” They were talking about Griff? She was too shocked to take in their meaning.
“Now, Muriel.” Red, the gravedigger, shoveled as he talked. “Don’t speak ill of the dead.”
On a day when Cassie didn’t feel like she knew anything, she remembered the gravedigger’s name because of his bright red hair.
One of the last coherent orders Griff had given her was, “Pay Red two bits to dig my grave, and not a penny more.”
Griff had known he was dying. Mostly delirious with fever, his mind would clear occasionally and he’d give orders: about the funeral, what he was to be buried in, what Cassie was to wear, strict orders not to be her usual foolish self and overpay for the grave digging. And not to shame him with her public behavior.
“Well honestly, it’s a wonder he wasn’t dead long before this.” Muriel crossed her arms and dared either man to disagree.
“It’s not Christian to see the bad in others.” Red dug relentlessly, the gritty slice of the shovel making a hole to swallow up Cassie’s husband. “And especially not at a time like this.”
It was just after noon on Sunday, and the funeral would be held as soon as the grave was dug.
Cassie looked down at her dress, her dark blue silk. It was a mess. She’d worn it all week, not giving herself a second to change while she cared for Griff. Then she’d left it on as she rode for town. She’d even slept in it last night. . .or rather she’d lain in bed with it on. She hadn’t slept, more than snatches, in a week. Ever since Griff’s fever started.
She needed to change to her black silk for the funeral.
Cassie wanted to hate Muriel for her words, but Muriel had mothered her, filling such a desperate void in Cassie that she couldn’t bear to blame Muriel for this rage whipping inside of Cassie’s head, pushing her to scream.
“Well, he was a poor excuse for a man and no amount of Christian charity’ll change that.” Muriel clucked and shook her head. “He lived on the labor of others ’n spent money he didn’t have.”
“It’s that snooty, fancy-dressed wife of his who drove him to an early grave,” Seth humphed. Cassie saw Seth’s shoulders quiver as he chuckled. “Of course, many’s the man who’d gladly die trying to keep that pretty little China Doll happy.”
Cassie heard Griff’s nickname for her. She ran her hands down her blue silk that lay modestly loose over her round belly. Fancy-dressed was right. Cassie admitted that. But she hadn’t needed all new dresses just because of the baby. Griff had insisted it was proper that the dresses be ordered. But however she’d come to dress so beautifully in silks and satins, there was no denying she dressed more expensively than anyone she’d met in Montana Territory. Not that she’d met many people.
But snooty? How could Seth say that? They were slandering her and, far worse, insulting Griff. She needed to defend her husband, but Griff hated emotional displays. How could she fight them without showing all the rage that boiled inside her? As the hole grew, something started to grow in Cassie that overcame her grief and fear.
That shovel rose and fell. Dirt flew in a tidy pile and she hated Red for keeping to the task. She wanted to run at Red, screaming and clawing, and force Red to give Griff back to her. But she feared unleashing the anger roiling inside her. Griff had taught her to control all those childish impulses. Right now though, her control slipped.
“A time or two I’ve seen someone who looks to be snooty who was really just shy. . .or scared,” Muriel said.
Red kept digging, determined not to join in with this gossip. But not joining in wasn’t enough. He needed to make them stop. Instead, he kept digging as he thought about poor Cassie. She’d already been tucked into Muriel’s back room when he’d come to town yesterday, but he’d seen Seth bring Lester Griffin’s body in. He couldn’t imagine what that little woman had been through.
“When’s the last time she came into our store?” Seth asked. “Most times she didn’t even come to town. She was too good to soil her feet in Divide. And you can’t argue about fancy-dressed. Griff ordered all her dresses ready-made, sent out from the East.”
Everything about Cassie Griffin made Red think of the more civilized East. She never had a hair out of place or a speck of dirt under her fingernails. Red had seen their home, too. The fanciest building in Montana, some said. Board siding instead of logs. Three floors and so many frills and flourishes the building alone had made Lester Griffin a laughingstock. The Griffins came into the area with a fortune, but they’d gone through it fast.
“That’s right,” Muriel snipped. “Griff ordered them. A spoiled woman would pick out her own dresses and shoes and finery, not leave it to her man.”
Seth shook his head. “I declare, Muriel, you could find the good in a rattlesnake.”
Red’s shovel slammed deep in the rocky soil. “Cassie isn’t a rattlesnake.” He stood up straight and glared at Seth.
His reaction surprised him. Red didn’t let much upset him. But calling Cassie a snake made Red mad to the bone. He glanced over and saw Muriel focusing on him as she brushed back wisps of gray hair that the wind had scattered from her usual tidy bun. She stared at him, taking a good long look.
Seth, a tough old mule-skinner with a marshmallow heart, didn’t seem to notice. “This funeral’ll draw trouble. You just see if it don’t. Every man in the territory’ll come a’running to marry with such a pretty widow woman. Any woman would bring men down on her as hard and fast as a Montana blizzard, but one as pretty as Cassie Griffin?” Seth blew a tuneless whistle through his teeth. “There’ll be a stampede for sure, and none of ’em are gonna wait no decent length of time to ask for her hand.”
Red looked away from Muriel because he didn’t like what was in her eyes. He was through the tough layer of sod and the hole was getting deep fast. He tried to sound casual even though he felt a sharp pang of regret—and not just a little bit of jealousy—when he said, “Doubt she’ll still be single by the time the sun sets.”
Muriel had a strange lilt to her voice when she said, “A woman is rare out here, but a young, beautiful woman like Cassie is a prize indeed.”
Red looked up at her, trying to figure out why saying that made her so all-fired cheerful.
Seth slung his beefy arm around Muriel with rough affection. “I’ve seen the loneliness that drives these men to want a wife. It’s a rugged life, Muriel. Having you with me makes all the difference.”
Red understood the loneliness. He lived with it every day.
“She’s a fragile little thing. Tiny even with Griff’s child in her belly. She needs a man to take care of her.” Muriel’s concern sounded just the littlest bit false. Not that Muriel wasn’t genuinely concerned. Just that there was a sly tone to it, aimed straight at Red.
Red thought of Cassie’s flawless white skin and shining black hair. She had huge, remote brown eyes, with lashes long enough to wave in the breeze, and the sweetest pink lips that never curved in a smile nor opened to wish a man good day.
Red thought on what he’d say to draw a smile and a kind word from her. Such thoughts could keep a man lying awake at night. Red knew that for a fact. Oh yes, Cassie was a living, breathing test from the devil himself.
“China Doll’s the perfect name for her,” Muriel added.
Red had heard that Griff called his wife China Doll. Griff never said that in front of anyone. He always called her Mrs. Griffin, real proper and formal-like. But he’d been overheard speaking to her in private, and he’d called her China Doll. The whole town had taken to calling her that.
Red had seen such a doll in a store window when he was a youngster in Indiana. That doll, even to a roughhousing little boy, was so beautiful it always earned a long, careful look. But the white glass face was cold. and her expression serious, rather than giving the poor toy a painted on smile. It was frighteningly fragile. Rather than being fun, Red thought a China doll would be a sad thing to own and, in the end, a burden to keep unbroken and clean. All of those things described Cassandra Griffin right down to the ground. Knowing all of that didn’t stop him from wanting her.
Cassie got to him. She had ever since the first time he’d seen her nearly two years ago. And now she was available. Someone would have to marry her to keep her alive. Women didn’t live without men in the unsettled West. Life was too hard. The only unattached women around worked above the Golden Butte Saloon and, although they survived, Red didn’t consider their sad existence living.
“You’re established on the ranch these days, Red. Your bank account’s healthy.” Muriel crouched down so she was eye level with Red, who was digging himself down fast. “Maybe it’s time you took a wife.”
Red froze and looked up at his friend. Muriel was a motherly woman, though she had no children. And like a mother, she seemed comfortable meddling in his life.
Red realized he was staring and went back to the grave, tempted to toss a shovel full of dirt on Muriel’s wily face. He wouldn’t throw it hard. He just wanted to distract her.
When he was sure his voice would work, he said, “Cassie isn’t for me, Muriel. And it isn’t because of what it would cost to keep her. If she was my wife, she’d live within my means and that would be that.”
Red had already imagined—in his unruly mind—how stern he’d be when she asked for finery. “You’ll have to sew it yourself or go without.” He even pictured himself shaking a scolding finger right under her turned-up nose. She’d mind him.
He’d imagined it many times, many, many times. And long before Griff died, which was so improper Red felt shame. He’d tried to control his willful thoughts. But a man couldn’t stop himself from thinking a thought until he’d started, now could he? So he’d started a thousand times and then he stopped himself. . .mostly. He’d be kind and patient but he wouldn’t bend. He’d say, “Cass honey, you—”
Red jerked his thoughts away from the old, sinful daydream about another man’s wife. Calmly, he answered Muriel, “She isn’t for me because I would never marry a non-believer.”
With a wry smile, Seth caught on and threw in on Muriel’s side—the traitor. “A woman is a mighty scarce critter out here, Red. It don’t make sense to put too many conditions on the ones there are.”
“I know.” Red talked to himself as much as to them. He hung on to right and wrong. He clung to God’s will. “But one point I’ll never compromise on is marrying a woman who doesn’t share my faith.”
“Now, Red,” Muriel chided, “you shouldn’t judge that little girl like that. How do you know she’s not a believer?”
“I’m not judging her, Muriel.” Which Red realized was absolutely not true. “Okay, I don’t know what faith she holds. But I do know that the Griffins have never darkened the doorstep of my church.”
Neither Seth nor Muriel could argue with that, although Muriel had a mulish look that told him she wanted to.
“We’d best get back.” Seth laid a beefy hand on Muriel’s strong shoulder. “I think Mrs. Griffin is going to need some help getting ready for the funeral.”
“She’s in shock, I reckon,” Muriel said. “She hasn’t spoken more’n a dozen words since she rode in yesterday.”
“She was clear enough on what dress I needed to fetch.” Seth shook his head in disgust. “And she knew the reticule she wanted and the shoes and hairpins. I felt like a lady’s maid.”
“I’ve never seen a woman so shaken.” Muriel’s eyes softened. “The bridle was on wrong. She was riding bareback. It’s a wonder she was able to stick on that horse.”
Red didn’t want to hear anymore about how desperately in need of help Cassie was.
Muriel had been teasing him up until now, but suddenly she was dead serious. “You know what the men around here are like, Red. You know the kind of life she’s got ahead of her. There are just some things a decent man can’t let happen to a woman. Libby’s boys are off hauling freight or I’d talk to them. They’d make good husbands.”
Muriel was right, they would be good. Something burned hot and angry inside of Red when he thought of those decent, Christian men claiming Cassie.
It was even worse when Red thought of her marrying one of the rough and ready men who lived in the rugged mountains and valleys around the little town of Divide, which rested up against the great peaks of the Montana Rockies. It was almost more than he could stand to imagine her with one of them.
But, he also knew a sin when he saw it tempting him, and he refused to let Muriel change his mind. She badgered him a while longer but finally gave up.
He was glad when Seth and Muriel left him alone to finish his digging. Until he looked up and saw Cassie as if he’d conjured her with his daydreams.
But this was no sweet, fragile China Doll. She charged straight toward him, her hands fisted, her eyes on fire.
“Uh. . .hi, Miz Griffin.” He vaulted out of the shoulder-deep hole and faced her. The look on her face was enough to make him want to turn tail and run.
She swept toward him, a low sound coming from her throat that a wildcat might make just before it pounced.
She’d heard it. All of it.
God forgive me for being part of that gossip, hurting her when she’s already so badly hurt.
Whatever she wanted to say, whatever pain she wanted to inflict, he vowed to God that he’d stand here and take it as his due. Her eyes were so alive with fury and focused right on him. How many times had his unruly mind conjured up the image of Cassie focusing on him? But this wasn’t the look he’d imagined in his daydreams. In fact, a tremor of fear ran up his backbone.
His grip tightened on his shovel, not to use as a weapon to defend himself but to keep her from grabbing it and taking a swing.
“Stop it.” Her fists were clenched as if to beat on him. “Stop saying those awful things.” Red saw more life in her eyes than he ever had before. She was always quiet and reserved and distant. “Give him back. I want him back!” She moved so fast toward him that, just as she reached his side, she tripped over her skirt and fell. A terrified shriek cut off her irate words.
“Cassie!” Red dropped the shovel and caught her just as she’d have tumbled into the open grave.
She swung and landed a fist right on his chin.
His head snapped back. She had pretty good power behind her fists for a little thing. Figuring he deserved it, he held on, stepping well away from the hole in the ground. He pulled her against him as she pummeled and emitted short, sharp, frenzied screams of rage. Punching his shoulders, chest, face. He took his beating like a man. He’d earned this by causing her more pain when she’d already been dealt more than she could bear. Of course he’d tried to stop it. But he’d failed now, hadn’t he?
“I’m sorry.” He spoke low, hoping to penetrate her anger. He could barely hear himself over her shouting. “I’m so sorry about Griff, Cassie. And I’m sorry you heard us speaking ill. We were wrong. So wrong. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” His voice kept crooning as he held her, letting her wale away on him until her squeaks and her harmless blows slowed and then ceased, most likely from exhaustion, not because she’d quit hating him.
Her hands dropped suddenly. Her head fell against his chest. Her knees buckled and Red swung her up into his arms.
He looked down at her, wondering if she’d fainted dead away.
In his arms, he held perfection.
She fit against him as if his body and his heart had been created just for her. A soul-deep ache nearly buckled his own knees as he looked at her now-closed eyes. Those lashes so long they’d tangle in a breeze rested on her ashen face, tinged with one bright spot of fury raised red on her cheeks.
“I’m so sorry I hurt you. Please forgive me.” His words were both a prayer to God and a request to poor, sweet Cassie. He held her close, murmuring, apologizing.
At last her eyes fluttered open. The anger was there but not the violence. “Let me go!”
He slowly lowered her feet to the ground, keeping an arm around her waist until he was sure her legs would hold her. She stepped out of his arms as quickly as possible and gave him a look of such hatred it was more painful than the blows she’d landed. Far more painful.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Cassie honey.” Red wanted to kick himself. He shouldn’t have called her such. It was improper.
She didn’t seem to notice he was even alive. Instead, her gaze slid to that grave, that open rectangle waiting to receive Cassie’s husband. . .or what was left of him. And the hatred faded to misery, agony, and worst of all, fear.
A suppressed cry of pain told Red, as if Cassie had spoken aloud, that she wished she could join her husband in that awful hole.
Her head hanging low, her shoulders slumped, both arms wrapped around her rounded belly, she turned and walked back the way she came. Each step seemed to take all her effort as if her feet weighed a hundred pounds each.
Wondering if he should accompany her back to Muriel’s, instead he did nothing but watch. There was nothing really he could do. That worthless husband of hers was dead and he’d left his wife with one nasty mess to clean up. And Red couldn’t be the one to step in and fix it. Not if he wanted to live the life God had planned for him.
She walked into the swaying stand of aspens. They were thin enough that if he moved a bit to the side, he could keep his eye on her. Stepping farther and farther sideways to look around the trees—because he was physically unable to take his eyes off her—he saw her get safely to the store.
Just then his foot slipped off the edge of the grave. He caught himself before he fell headlong into the six feet of missing earth.
Red heard the door of Bates General Store close with a sharp bang, and Cassie went inside and left him alone in the sun and wind with a deep hole to dig and too much time to think. He grabbed his shovel and jumped down, getting back at it.
He knew he was doing the right thing by refusing to marry Cassie Griffin.
A sudden gust caught a shovelful of dirt and blew it in Red’s face. Along with the dirt that now coated him, he caught a strong whiff of the stable he’d cleaned last night. Cassie would think Red and the Western men he wanted to protect her from were one and the same. And she’d be right, up to a point. The dirt and the smell, the humble clothes, and the sod house—this was who he was, and he didn’t apologize for that to any man. . .or any woman.
Red knew there was only one way for him to serve God in this matter. He had to keep clear of Cassie Griffin.
The China Doll wasn’t for him.