The scrap of red caught Mason Donnelly’s eye again as his horse reached the base of the chalky Colorado hill.
Out here, where everything under the sky was the same uniform dusty olive color, the flash of scarlet would have grabbed the attention of a blind man.
Not that Mason was laying claim to any great amounts of perceptivity these days. If I didn’t know you better, his editor had written about his last article, I’d suspect you’d never been to that logging camp. There’s an amazing lack of detail.
Mason could have told him the real problem with the story: lack of interest. Instead, he’d asked for a few months off. With his editor’s polite but thin assertion that he was still the best reporter in the West, his request had been granted with embarrassing speed.
Though the bone hunters’ camp lay only fifty yards ahead, Mason heeled his horse into a trot. Maybe the jolting pace would knock these frustrating thoughts out of his head.
The bit of red disappeared again among the gray-green tents of the camp, but now he was close enough to this little oasis of civilization to pick out all kinds of colors, mostly from recently washed clothes hanging on lines strung between the tents. The colors were faded, of course. Nothing stayed bright very long out here in the relentless sun.
Maybe this visit wasn’t the best idea in the world. Additional fading was the last thing he needed. He was only twenty-eight, but lately he felt twice that.
The tent town crouched by a squat ridge that looked like a line of stone vertebrae that had escaped from the spine of the Rockies. When he came within a dozen yards of the outermost tents, Mason turned his horse to circle the camp. The tent of Charles Bertrand Highfill, the expedition’s financial backer, lay on the far side.
“Welcome back, Mr. Donnelly!” A bowlegged man appeared at Mason’s knee, offering a hand.
Mason shook it. “Mr. Dickon.” The other man’s hand was as hard and weathered as a shovel blade. “It’s good to see you again. Highfill been treating you well?”
“Never better. And we’ve been having a great season—the best one I’ve seen. We’ve been shipping box after box back east for the last three months. Good finds. No, I take that back: excellent finds. If you’re looking for a good story, you’ve come to the right place.”
The words would normally send his pulse into a gallop. Instead, interest percolated for an instant, then smoothed back out into apathy. “Maybe you can tell me about it later.”
“I’d be happy to, if you stick around.” Dickon cocked his head. “Highfill expecting you?”
“No. I was in the area, so . . .” Mason lifted one shoulder in a shrug. Hopefully Dickon wouldn’t ask any more questions, because Mason really didn’t have any more answers. Or any answers he wanted to give. The last thing he wanted to talk about was being on leave from the newspaper.
“Well, the old man will be glad to see you, invitation or no.” Dickon picked up the speed of his stride, and Mason nudged his horse to match the man’s pace.
Dickon’s job was to catalogue and pack all the finds. He had worked in Highfill’s Boston offices for two decades, but when his wife’s death left him anchorless a few years earlier, Highfill had persuaded Dickon to go on his first fossil expedition out west. Dickon had been a mainstay of all the expeditions since then.
Mason said, “I wasn’t sure I’d catch Mr. Highfill here, but I was hoping.”
“Oh, the old man’s always here,” Dickon answered, chuckling. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was hiding from a harpy of a wife back east.”
Mason smiled. “If I had a harpy of a wife, I’d be hiding from her, too.”
“How long are you planning on staying?”
“Not sure. No longer than a week.” Assuming, of course, that Highfill let him stay. Mason believed the article he wrote last summer about Highfill’s fossil hunters was fair, but the subjects of his articles often didn’t see their portrayals the same way. He knew his story hadn’t overflowed with flattery the way others about the wealthy businessman did. Heck, that was one reason why Mason had become so popular with readers. They knew he’d give the story to them straight. But stories like that also left him with a goodly number of people who, though not quite enemies, deliberately didn’t remember him in their prayers at night.
He wasn’t sure, then, why he’d come back here. Yet, he’d known he was coming back here as soon as he’d gotten off the train in Denver, his satchel in one hand, his hat in the other, and a million possibilities spread out before him.
“You remember where Mr. Highfill’s tent is?” Dickon asked. “It’s the big one right on the southern edge of town.”
“I’d come with you, but I have a lazy assistant I have to keep a tough eye on.” Dickon winked.
Mason nodded, though he wasn’t sure what the joke was. “I’ll stop by later. Maybe watch your assistant for you so that you can have a break.”
Dickon chortled. “I hope you do. It’s a painful job, that’s for sure.” Still laughing, the man gave Mason a little slap on the knee and disappeared into the maze of gray canvas tents.
When Mason had first visited the previous summer, he’d assumed all the tents housed people, and the size of this practically unknown excavation amazed him. It had taken him three days to realize that he was in the middle of a ghost town: Most of the tents held merely the bones of long-ago inhabitants.
Both embarrassed and annoyed—for the diggers had considered Mason’s assumption of a larger population quite a good gag—he had quickly come up with a way to tell the rubble-filled tents from the human-filled ones. Live humans dried their laundry on their tent ropes; dead prehistoric creatures did not.
Highfill’s tent, the largest in the camp, had no laundry flapping from its guy lines. A very civilized clothesline set between two posts and sagging with shirts and pants was just one of the signs that Mason had reached the tent of the man who ran the expedition. The small hitching post out front and the corner of a woven rug sneaking out from underneath one of the tent walls were others.
Mason swung down from his horse and looped its reins over the hitching post. Two of the tent’s sides had been rolled up to invite in any passing breeze, but etiquette dictated that Mason go to the “door” rather than saunter in through one of the open sides.
“Mr. Highfill,” Mason called through the half-open door flap. “It’s Mason Donnelly, just stopping by on my way through.”
“On your way through to where, boy? Hell?” a loud voice demanded from the depths of the tent. “As far as I know, that’s the only thing on the other side of that dang ridge.” A big gnarled hand swept the flap open all the way, and Highfill beckoned Mason inside. “Come in, come in. Tell me what’s going on in the world. We get the papers, of course, but Dickon is always stealing them away to wrap my bones in before I get a chance to read them.”
A much more enthusiastic welcome than he’d dared to hope for. Shoulders loosening with relief, Mason ducked into the tent.
Over six feet tall, Highfill looked like a snow-topped plinth. A very wealthy snow-topped plinth. His blue eyes focused with youthful intensity, denying the sixty years that his white hair and knobby knuckles signaled. Shaking his hand was like shaking hands with a boulder.
“Sit down.” Highfill gestured toward a folding chair next to a table strewn with so many papers, a stray puff of air would create a small blizzard. Mason sat, careful not to disturb the precariously balanced piles, and stretched out his legs, wincing at the tenderness in his knees. He’d set his saddle’s stirrup leathers too high and had been too lazy to fix them. His knees were now paying the price.
“I read the article you wrote about this operation,” Highfill said, leaning back in his own chair. “My granddaughter clipped it from your paper and mailed it to me, along with a few choice words about you. I didn’t appreciate being called a ‘hands-off financier.’”
“You aren’t out there digging, sir.”
“True, but I’m here, aren’t I? Better than those other fellows at their museums who simply have the bones shipped back to them. I’m here.” He thumped the table with his fist.
One of the paper mountains shivered, spasmed, then avalanched. Mason grabbed at the pile, ending with half the stack clutched to his chest. The other half settled over the top of the desk in a gentle layer of white. Wonderful. Now there wasn’t any spot where he could put the papers he held without launching another disaster. Maybe he could put the papers on another desk or table. He glanced around, but every flat surface in the tent was piled high with books, other papers, or chunks of rocks.
Apparently oblivious to Mason’s predicament, the gentleman said, “Still, I thought it was a fair article. And great publicity, which I always appreciate.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Here to write another one?”
“No, sir. Looking for a few days of relaxation, actually.”
“Hmm. You’re welcome to stay, of course.”
“Thank you. I’d like that.”
“It won’t be relaxing, though. We’re going to get mighty busy soon, as the season’s coming to an end in a few weeks and we still have a lot of territory to excavate. I may even put you to work.” Highfill chuckled. “Not that you’ll stay until the end of the season. What did you tell me last time? Something about never stopping in one place for more than a handful of days?”
The swish of footsteps on carpet sounded behind him. Either someone didn’t understand tent etiquette or felt himself at home enough to ignore it. “I hear this is the reporter fellow,” a male voice said, a Boston accent smoothing the final r’s on his words into ah’s.
Moving quickly without appearing hasty, Mason got to his feet and turned to face the visitor. Too many travels through rough places and one nasty knife fight had left him with a six-inch-long scar on his shoulder blade and the habit of never turning his back on a stranger.
The lean, smartly dressed newcomer fixed Mason with light brown eyes. “Mick Donnelly, correct?”
Highfill said, “Donnelly, this is Cecil St. John. He’s helping Richter oversee everything.”
His arms still full of papers, Mason nodded. “Good to meet you.”
“You, too.” St. John didn’t bother to hold eye contact long enough to look sincere.
Settling into another chair without asking, St. John said, “Work went well today. We won’t know what we’ve got until we sift through the piles, but I’m hopeful that something will turn up.”
“A game of patience, this dig is,” Highfill grunted. “Mason, why are you still standing up? And why are you hugging those drawings?”
Mason looked down. Yes, they were drawings. Drawings of bones. “Who did these? They’re quite detailed.” And far better than those he’d seen when he was here last year.
“Oh, those must be mine,” St. John said, a modest smile touching his mouth. A shock of gingery hair fell across his eye, and he artfully flicked it away with one long finger.
Well, if they were his, then he could have them. Mason stepped forward, ready to dump the drawings into the younger man’s lap, when Highfill said, “No, those are Lily’s.”
Mason stopped. “Lily?”
Highfill jumped to his feet. “Speak of the devil.”
Still clutching the drawings to his heart like they were love letters, Mason turned.
A young woman stood in the tent entrance, the bright sunlight edging her silhouette in copper and making the fitted red jacket and matching scarf she wore wrapped around her hair look as bright as flames.
Aha. Mystery solved.
She stepped deeper into the tent and tugged off the scarf. No longer squinting against the sunlight, Mason could now see her more clearly. In her early twenties, perhaps, she walked toward Highfill with the confidence of a person who knew she’d be welcome. When she tossed a hank of honey-brown hair over her shoulder, she did it with a carelessness that contrasted with St. John’s self-conscious deliberation.
“We’ve found something that Dickon thinks you should look at,” she said to Highfill.
St. John sat up quickly. “What—” He cut himself off, glancing at Mason.
The girl gave Mason an uncertain look, but when no one explained who he was, she continued. “It was in a box of rubble we’d decided to sort through one more time.”
Ah, so this was Dickon’s lazy assistant. She wasn’t a raving beauty, but with her big brown eyes and delicious figure, she was well worth a long look. Mason now understood Dickon’s joke about the painful job of watching her. The sight of her would make any man’s day a little bit brighter.
Whose wife was she? Single young ladies didn’t usually scrabble around for fossils lodged in cliff faces, and Mason doubted Highfill would allow such a pretty distraction on his expedition. Perhaps she was St. John’s wife. Mason frowned. If so, hopefully her natural ease would rub off on him.
“Grandfather . . .” the girl said impatiently, propping one hand on her nicely shaped hip.
Good God, Highfill was her grandfather? She must be rich as a princess. Heck, as rich as four princesses.
A story idea began to form. Boston Heiress Labors in Search for Prehistorical—
“My drawings!” she cried.
Mason shook his head and brought his focus back to the present. The princess was staring at him in horror.
No, not at him. At the papers he held smashed to his chest.
Delicately plucking the drawings from his arms like a farm girl plucking eggs from beneath hens, she made little distressed noises under her breath.
Mason tried to explain. “They were falling off the table—”
“Don’t worry,” St. John cut in. He strode over, nudged her aside, grabbed the papers out of Mason’s arms, and then threw them in a clump onto the table. The mass of drawings already residing on the table trembled but held firm.
At Mason’s elbow, Highfill’s granddaughter sighed with relief.
Then she looked up at him.
She had the roundest eyes he’d ever seen, making her look perpetually astonished. Or perhaps she was simply astonished now at finding him so close.
“Hello,” Mason said.
The princess turned her big eyes on her grandfather.
Ah, the rules of upper-crust society. She was waiting for Mason to be introduced to her. God forbid she actually say hello without knowing exactly who he was, despite the fact that he was standing in her grandfather’s house. Or tent.
A familiar impatience began to simmer. This was why he stayed out of cities—especially eastern cities—as much as possible.
Highfill said, “Mason Donnelly, meet my granddaughter Lily Highfill. My eldest son’s eldest daughter.”
Eldest son’s eldest daughter. Jesus, perhaps she was as wealthy as nine princesses. Though now that he could see her jacket up close, the collar and sleeves looked a little worn.
“Mason Donnelly, the journalist?” she asked.
“Pleased to meet you,” she said, after a slight pause. She didn’t sound pleased, though. Not a surprise, considering that she seemed to think he’d been mauling her drawings when she’d arrived. She narrowed her eyes at him.
He tried to assert his innocence again. “Your drawings were falling off the table, so I grabbed them—somewhat hastily, I admit—and tried to—”
“Lily, never mind about the silly drawings,” St. John interrupted.
Lily stopped giving Mason a suspicious look and arched her eyebrows at St. John. “I beg your pardon?”
“Sorry, darling.” He took her hand and started to lift it to his lips. Then he rubbed his thumb over her fingertips and frowned. “Your hands are getting rough. You’re too delicate to be picking through rocks all day.”
Delicate? As delicate as a bowie knife, he’d bet. Mason had to suppress a smile when she shifted her shoulders as if to pull away.
But then Lily looked at her hands clasped in St. John’s. She lifted her gaze to the Bostonian’s, and her indignant expression softened like butter at noontime. “I’ll wear gloves next time.”
Finally kissing her hand, Cecil St. John bestowed a smile on her.
Mason managed to turn away before he rolled his eyes. The mating dance of the wealthy. Few activities were more repulsive.
“Perhaps we should see what this fragile flower of womanhood has come to tell us about, eh?” Highfill suggested to St. John, his voice containing the barest hint of mockery. “Lily, sweetheart, while we’re talking to Dickon, would you show Mr. Donnelly around and find him a spare tent?”
Her face fell, though whether at the chore of attending to him, at being excluded from examination of the discovery, or at being banished from the side of her precious St. John, Mason couldn’t tell.
“I can find an empty tent for myself,” Mason said.
“No, no,” St. John said. “Lily should be acting like a hostess instead of a rock picker.”
For the barest moment, Mason thought she was going to object. She didn’t, but she didn’t agree with St. John’s statement, either, instead turning to the drawings on the table and shuffling them into some sort of order.
“Supper’s an hour before dusk,” Highfill said to Mason, then slapped his hat on his head and exited.
St. John began to follow, but paused. “Lily has never been west of the Rockies,” he told Mason with a smugness that proclaimed that he himself had. “Perhaps you can tell her of the wild sights you’ve seen. Lily adores stories of adventure.”
“Sure,” Mason drawled. “I’ll show her a good time.”
Mistrust flickered over the Bostonian’s face. He nodded once, then ducked through the tent opening.
Mason watched as the girl’s gaze tracked St. John until he was out of sight. Lovesickness had obviously turned her brain if she found St. John’s condescension attractive.
Finally she turned her big dark eyes on him. “Shall we go?” she asked. Without her grandfather or St. John talking over her, Mason could hear how her voice sometimes rose into a squeak. It was strangely endearing. He suddenly had the urge to pat her on the head, as if she were a kitten.
“Lead the way,” he said, sweeping his arm out.
She pivoted and headed for the tent flap.
Mason’s mouth went dry. Without a doubt, she possessed the finest rear end he had ever had the luck to lay eyes on. Somehow both luscious and pert, it made his pulse hammer in his ears.
Disquiet crept through him as he forced his feet to move. The next few days were going to be awkward if he couldn’t avoid swiveling his head to follow her every movement. Highfill was apparently happy to have him stay, but his hospitality would not stretch to ignoring Mason ogling his granddaughter’s backside.
He might do it when only St. John was around, though. It was obvious the man considered Lily his personal property. And St. John’s smooth feathers could use a good ruffling.
Speeding his steps, Mason caught up to Lily outside the tent. If he wanted to conduct any sort of coherent conversation, it would be better to walk beside her instead of behind her.
“Since you’re going to be here overnight, we should turn your horse into the corral,” Lily said, undoing his horse’s reins from the hitching post. She kept hold of them as they walked to the corral, leaving Mason with nothing to do and feeling rather useless.
Well, he could tell her stories, as St. John had suggested. He used to be rather good at it. “What sort of stories do you want to hear?” he asked. “Railroad towns, Indian raids, deadly blizzards, gold strikes—”
“I’m twenty-two years old, Mr. Donnelly, not twelve. I’ve lived in Denver for the past eight years, so I’ve heard plenty of stories of that sort and lived through my share of blizzards. What I would like to hear about is why you’ve come back here after writing such an article about my grandfather.”
So the big-eyed kitten knew how to use her pretty white teeth. Good—this was going to be more interesting than telling blizzard stories. “What do you mean, ‘such an article’?” Hopefully she wouldn’t notice that he hadn’t answered her question about why he was there.
She turned her head to look at him fully, and her red scarf fluttered with the movement. She frowned. “You made him sound selfish.”
“I did?” Mason cast his thoughts back. He’d written the article nearly a year ago, and perhaps twenty others since, so his recollection of his exact words was unclear. “Before you arrived, your grandfather told me that he thought the story fair.”
The girl let out a very unprincess-like snort. “I love him dearly, but Grandfather can be overly generous.”
They entered the corral, and Mason didn’t have to answer for the next several minutes. He unsaddled the beast and removed his blanket roll and saddlebags. Swinging the saddlebags over his shoulder, he ushered Lily through the corral gate and got another eyeful of her backside. God, just lovely. He rolled his tongue back up into his mouth and resumed his position at her side as they weaved their way into the tent settlement.
“Do you have a copy of the article?” he asked. “I’d like to see it again, refresh my memory.”
“It’s in my room,” she replied.
“In your tent?”
“No, in Milton, the town a few miles to the west.”
Mason stared at her. “You stay in town, not here?”
For a moment, her feisty defense of her grandfather had sparked admiration in him. But this new revelation squashed that admiration pretty fast. “The accommodations are better there?” he asked, careful to keep his voice expressionless.
She nodded again. “Hot water whenever I want it and a lovely breakfast. Grandfather—and St. John—prefer that I stay at the hotel. Some nights I stay here, though.”
At St. John’s preference as well? Mason wanted to ask. But he bit down on the caustic question. Her infatuation with the man was none of his concern. That was her grandfather’s headache to deal with.
Still, he couldn’t resist seeing how much Highfill and St. John coddled her. “Do you ride back and forth alone, or does someone escort you?” A seasoned woman would not give a thought to riding a few miles alone.
“I have an escort.”
She must have caught something revealing in his expression, for her big eyes narrowed. “Do you consider me ridiculous as well, Mr. Donnelly?”
Mason met her gaze directly. “I don’t consider your grandfather ridiculous, Miss Highfill. I respect him, in fact, and what he’s doing here. I hope tomorrow you and I will have the chance to look at the article I wrote, and I hope that I conveyed that respect in the article, not an opinion of ridiculousness.” He rubbed his hand over his chin. “As for you . . .”
He paused, savoring the sudden uncertainty in her eyes.
“I haven’t made up my mind,” he concluded abruptly. “First impressions are never the whole story.”
Not only was that true, but if she actually thought about it, it might leave her wondering exactly what his first impressions of her were.
The princess pressed her lips together. “I see.”
And she probably did, too. She wasn’t an idiot—even if she allowed Cecil St. John to treat her like one.
A stray breeze caught the tail of her red scarf, sending it streaming toward him, tickling his cheek with a silken kiss. She swept it back into place with an impatient hand just as he reached up to flick the material away. Their knuckles collided.
She yelped. Instinctively Mason cupped her assaulted hand in his own. Lifting her hand closer to his face, he tried to examine it for any damage.
“Mr. Donnelly,” she said in a dangerous voice, “if you attempt to kiss my hand, I will likely punch you in the nose.”
Mason dropped her hand. She wasn’t a princess; she was a porcupine. “The thought never crossed my mind. I wanted to see how rough your delicate hands really are.”
“My hands are still smooth,” she said, but she hid them behind her back.
He wanted to laugh. If he were here to write an article, he’d be sure to include her in it: the Highfill heiress with rough hands who threatened to brawl with him like a miner.
She halted abruptly. “This tent is empty. Good evening, Mr. Donnelly.”
“You aren’t coming to supper tonight?”
“You’ll be there?” She smiled sweetly. “Suddenly my appetite is off.”
This time he did laugh. The smug St. John was going to have his hands full with this one. “Good night, Miss Highfill.”
As she turned away, sunlight spotlighted her red jacket and scarf again. He’d seen all sorts of reds during his travels crisscrossing this sprawling country: the dusky red of rocks in Utah Territory; the bright red that Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco considered lucky; the lurid purplish red of a sunset after a summer thunderstorm had strode across the wide Wyoming sky, leaving tattered clouds crumpled in its wake . . .
Yes, he’d seen plenty of reds. But this one was a color that he couldn’t quite define or compare to anything else.
A little bit like the girl who wore it, maybe.
Her chin high and her back straight as a railroad tie, she marched away, the picture of righteous indignation. Then a breeze off the hills smoothed her skirt against her lovely backside.
Mason’s smile widened. She didn’t like him. Ah, well. At least that would leave him with the frequent pleasure of watching her stalk off.
Lily Highfill has spent eight years in Colorado, exiled from her wealthy, high-society Boston family. With a long-awaited invitation to return home finally in hand, she’s doing all she can to secure her betrothal to a charming and cultured gentleman. But with just a few weeks left at her grandfather’s fossil expedition, a rugged and handsome stranger rides in on horseback, stirring up trouble . . . and excavating a place for himself in her heart. Free-spirited journalist Mason Donnelly came to the frontier to cure his writers’ block, unaware the badlands offered such tempting distractions. Lily is as breathtaking as a Western sunset. But she’s also as delicate as a bowie knife. The more Mason digs up about the suspicious bone-hunters she works for, the more the feisty heiress derails his plans. If he exposes the priceless secrets hidden deep in the desert, will he lose his only chance with the sensuous diamond in the rough?