Sweet Mountain Music

by Suzie Johnson

Chloe Williston will make a name for herself…
no matter what beast she must track to achieve it.

Chloe Williston has two goals in life: to make her father proud, and to do it by making a name for herself as a journalist. It seems she has been waiting for years for the perfect opportunity…and when it arrives in her Washington State town in the form of a handsome naturalist in search of the legendary Great North American Ape, she isn’t about to let him go off on an adventure without her.

Ben Kearny has to admit he’s intrigued by the undauntable Miss Chloe Williston…until he learns she’s a journalist. The last thing he needs is a reporter sticking her nose—however, pretty it may be—in his expedition. He has to find the Sasquatch. It’s his only chance at restoring his reputation, and he can’t let anything, even Chloe, get in his way.

But as the expedition sets off with Chloe and her brother in tow, Ben finds the obstacles stacked against him. He not only has to find the illusive beast, he also has to keep Chloe out of the trouble she seems determined to find…all while protecting his heart.

Chapter 1

Cedar Ridge, Washington

Cascade Mountains, 1896

“I think we should have him take off his shirt.”

Several delighted oohs and aahs followed the sugary, yet authoritative voice drifting through the slightly opened window.

Standing below the window, Chloe Jane Williston recognized the voice of Trina Clark. From the sounds of it, every young woman in Cedar Ridge sat inside the town hall.

What could they possibly be up to in there? And why didn’t she know about it? There was a story in the making, she could tell; one that would hopefully sell more copies of The Cedar Ridge Reporter than usual. Chloe stretched up on the tips of her toes and tried to see through the open crack. It was much too narrow. Disappointed, she scrubbed at the window’s filthy panes with the sleeve of her gray and white pinstriped shirtwaist.

Her only success came in dirtying her sleeve.

Chloe frowned and stood back to once again survey the window. She found a clearer spot higher up but wasn’t tall enough to reach it.

Glory be. If only she had something to stand on, she’d be able to see better.

Quickly, pulse jumping, Chloe looked around the wooded area surrounding the meeting hall. Nothing.

Scanning the early summer sky, dusty blue with traces of wispy clouds, she smiled. Thankfully, it wouldn’t be dark for a few more hours. It stayed light so much later here in Washington than it did back in Boston.

Kicking at a bed of last year’s pine needles, Chloe stubbed her toe on a partially buried rock. She stood back and sized it up. Boulder was more like it. It appeared wide enough for her to stand on and yet not so huge she wouldn’t be able to move it. It was worth a try.

At least the town of Cedar Ridge was good for something. There were plenty of rocks, if nothing else. A deep breath filled her lungs with the rich sappy fragrance seeping from the surrounding trees. After prying, tugging, and then kicking at the rock, it finally broke free.

Blood-red worms squirmed forth when she rolled it over. An army of potato bugs scurried every which way. Chloe allowed herself to shudder just once before kicking and rolling the rock toward the meeting hall.

Each direction she looked, snow-tipped mountains and lush fir trees rose to greet her. The Skykomish River, racing down from higher elevations, thundered in the background. Grudgingly, Chloe admitted to herself that Cedar Ridge was more than a pile of rubble and too many trees. The mountains were higher, the sky bluer, and the air headier than any place she’d ever lived.

More than once she’d tried to describe this place on paper but failed. It wasn’t possible to put words to the majesty of her surroundings. Her father had chosen well when he’d moved the family this time.

Life would be almost perfect, if only she had a friend or two. As for the almost part, she didn’t want to think about it right now.

“Just think about it.” Trina’s voice drifted through the window as Chloe chugged the rock into position. She gave a few swipes at the glass, a little harder than earlier, and was rewarded with a somewhat distorted view of Trina flouncing her right hand back and forth at her peers. Chloe couldn’t quite make out the look on Trina’s face, but she was certain it was no less than prissy.

Trina, the self-appointed leader of the Cedar Ridge Young Women’s Guild, was a feisty little blond tornado hurling along a path of destruction, and every young and otherwise sensible lady in town seemed to follow right along behind her.

Except Chloe.

Her presence wasn’t welcomed by this tight-knit group, and hadn’t been from the day she moved to the small mountain town. Whether from her initial shyness upon her family’s arrival, or that her father was a well-to-do newspaper publisher from Boston, Chloe had been ascribed as pretentious—a fact that couldn’t be further from the truth. Chloe’s interests may not reflect those of most young women her age, but she still had the need for friends and acceptance.

“When will you ever be able to have such a delectable time?” Trina’s tone was smooth and manipulative. “I can guarantee you’ll never have the chance again.”

Chloe’s heart raced as she leaned closer. Her earlier suspicions were correct. She had known something was amiss when she first saw Trina headed this way, looking over her shoulder too many times not to be guilty of something. There was a story here.

The rock she stood on tilted to the right, catching Chloe by surprise. She regained her balance, but not before banging her hip against the building.

“Glory be!” Too late, she remembered the women inside. She held her breath, praying they hadn’t heard her. She’d die if they caught her eavesdropping. Not only that, she’d ruin the opportunity for a story the town wasn’t likely to forget anytime soon.

Shaking dirt and pine needles from her skirt, Chloe brushed her hands together then gingerly rubbed her sore backside. Disgusted for almost ruining things, she tiptoed back to the window.

A good reporter maintained control no matter the situation. She’d heard that directly from Nellie Bly’s own mouth, and Nellie Bly was nothing if not a good reporter.

“I’m sick and tired of my Russell spending every Saturday evening in the saloon, watching those girls sing, dance, and shake themselves at him,” Trina said. “If he thinks I’m going to marry him without having a little harmless pleasure like he does, well…I want some merriment, too.” There was one collective, scandalized, in-drawn breath, followed by silence.

Certain even the youngest of the women present must be wearing that sour-faced look, suggesting they’d been sucking lemons all afternoon, Chloe wished she had a clear view of their faces. This story had the potential to be big. Imagine, the mayor’s daughter hiring a man to take off his clothes.

It might not be the type of story worthy of Nellie Bly, but it was juicy enough to sell papers and grab readers’ interests. And really, wasn’t that the goal of every writer?

“Ladies, it’ll be positively luscious. It’s just a lark, nothing harmful. All he’s going to do is sing for us. It’s not like we’re going to touch him or anything…unseemly…or…” Trina lowered her voice. “Naughty.”

“Truly, Trina, it’s undignified and immoral.” A timid-sounding woman spoke, her voice unnaturally high.

Chloe’s hand flew to her mouth and she stifled a groan. What was her sister-in-law doing here?

Leave it to poor Sarah to have the dubious misfortune of disagreeing with Trina Clark. Chloe was shocked Sarah even spoke up. People disagreed with Trina so rarely, she certainly wouldn’t let it pass without a squabble of some sort. Not when there was an entire group of women looking on.

Chloe stepped down from her rock just long enough to flex the tingles out of her feet before she was up again. When next she looked, Trina was marching toward Sarah, hands on hips, bottom lip pushed out dangerously. Trina stopped when her nose was only half an inch from Sarah’s. Sarah would be lucky to get out of this one with her dignity intact.

“Think about your husband and his little habits, Sarah Williston. Could this be any worse?”

Trina took one hand from her stick-straight hips and shook a finger in Sarah’s face. “I happen to know for a fact, your Charles Jr. is first in line when Pete unlocks the saloon each afternoon.”

Every woman in the room gasped, shocked Trina would dare say such a thing.

Shame washed its ugly truth over Chloe. Her oldest brother, Charles Williston Jr., was a drunk and treated his wife abominably. Poor Sarah. What she must be feeling right now? Humiliated publicly, made a fool in front of all her friends. Chloe’s heart went out to her.

Sarah was infinitely more timid than Chloe could ever dream of being. That Sarah dared speak out against Trina meant she believed resolutely against what the silly girl had planned. Chloe understood. She’d been forced to speak out a time or two, herself. Her stomach churned at the thought of doing it again. Still, Sarah needed rescuing and, much as she didn’t want to be the one to do it, Chloe had to help her.

She reached back, absently rubbed her backside, and winced. She must have banged the wall harder than she thought.

“From the looks of things, it must be mighty interesting in there.” Behind her, a deep male voice came out of nowhere.

Chloe jumped, missed hitting her head on the window sash, and came down crooked, once again struggling to retain her balance.

The man was beside her in an instant, but instead of looking at him, Chloe ducked her head. Heat rushed to her cheeks.

“Are you all right?” His voice was rich, mellow, and vibrated through her senses.

Too flustered to make eye contact, Chloe wished a little band of wood nymphs would appear to whisk her away. Why must she be caught like this? Eavesdropping, rubbing a most delicate area, and then stumbling like an ungainly oaf?

Aunt Jane, whom she admired so much, would’ve opened her mouth and snapped out a retort. Not Chloe. Feeling sheepish, she glanced up into the greenest eyes she’d ever seen. Her voice caught. She doubted if she could get one word out.

In a feeble attempt to look away, Chloe found her gaze riveted on the rich red wool shirt that stretched across his solid chest. Glancing further downward, his long legs were nicely encased in wheat colored trousers.

There was no safe place to look. She squeezed her eyes shut.

“Miss? I asked if you’re all right.”

For one lengthy, embarrassing moment, Chloe couldn’t open her eyes. Finally she did and was struck with a sense of weak-kneed wonder that mortified her. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. His hair, neatly trimmed, was the color of rich, dark honey. Though it was combed back from his sun-bronzed forehead, a handful of springy curls fell forward.

“Miss?”

Glory, why couldn’t she answer him? Tongue-tied, wondering if he thought her an idiot, she could only nod.

“Good. Now maybe you could help me.” His mouth curved in a spirited, playful manner. “When you’re finished looking me up and down, that is.” His smile grew wider, cockier, and her heart began to pound.

Cheeks burning, Chloe tore her gaze from his.

“No.” Humiliated, Chloe could do little more than whisper and started to turn away.

“Please wait.” He reached out to stop her. Firm, big, and warm, his hand encased hers, and a dozen sensations, all pleasant, raced up her arm.

This was foolhardy. She should be frightened but didn’t sense any danger about him. Her heart flittered. Chloe jerked her hand away.

“Let me apologize for my bad manners. I shouldn’t have teased you.” His voice fairly rumbled with sincerity, although his sea-green eyes didn’t reflect the grin on his face.

“I-it’s all right.” Chloe hated that she stammered. Did she sound all breathy and flirty like Trina? Or was it her imagination?

“I’m Benjamin Kearny.” He extended his hand in introduction.

Could he be the new doctor everyone was expecting? Now his sudden appearance made sense. Chloe stared at his outstretched hand, not sure it was wise to touch him again. This man was a far cry from the craggy old physician who had just retired. Cedar Ridge would do itself proud with him as their physician.

For one crazy upside-down moment, Chloe entertained the notion that if she had an injury Dr. Kearny could examine her. What would happen if she suddenly turned her ankle? The blush burned back to her cheeks and she closed her eyes for a brief second. When she opened them again, Dr. Kearny studied her closely as if expecting a response; his hand still extended. Had he read her thoughts?

Her throat suddenly dry, with butterflies flitting in her stomach, Chloe took a steadying breath and ignored his hand.

And wasn’t this just superb? She thought she’d gotten better about this stupid inability to talk with people. Obviously not. She opened her mouth to speak, horrified to find she had to try twice before the words came out in a rush.

“Are you here to set up your practice, doctor?” There. That wasn’t so bad. Except he now stared at her in a funny way and withdrew his hand. She’d spoken too fast. He probably hadn’t a clue as to what she’d said.

“Practice?” He sounded puzzled.

“Yes, your medical practice.” Was he daft?

“Oh. I see. You think I’m…” His voice trailed off and he gave her another trace of his devastating smile. “I’m not a doctor.”

“You’re not?”

“You sound disappointed.”

“Not disappointed, I just assumed…” She felt like a fool. “We don’t get many strang—um, visitors, and we are expecting a new doctor soon.”

“I’m a scientist, actually. An ethologist. I do field work, studying animals in their natural environment.” The smile grew broader and made him seem warm and somehow very inviting. Obviously he loved his work.

This would be a great interview. Once the stray thought burst into her mind, she knew she had to muster up the nerve to ask him for one. It would make a most interesting story for The Reporter, much more interesting than anything to do with Trina Clark.

“Do you know everyone around here?” He raised his honey colored eyebrows with the question, and Chloe found her gaze drawn to the dark blond curls that kissed their feathery tips.

“Yes.” She swallowed hard. She didn’t want to tell him it was because the town was so small. “Are you looking for someone?” Even before he spoke, Chloe had a sickening hunch what his answer would be.

“A young woman”—don’t say it, don’t say her name!—“by the name of Trina”—she knew it—“Clark.” Trina had all the luck. How, where, when did Trina meet this man?

“Well?” Ben stared at her, obviously curious as to why she took so long to answer. Only then did Chloe realize her mouth hung open like a blowfish.

Humiliated at the impression she must be making, she could only whisper. “I know Trina. She’s in there.” Chloe nodded at the building behind them.

“Ah, good. I’m supposed to meet her at the town hall and wondered if this was the right place.”

There was only one building in their small town large enough to hold an assembly of any sort. Surely a scientist like Benjamin Kearny was bright enough to see that. Then the import of what he’d said dawned on her, and she gasped.

You’re the one they’re all in a dither over?”

No wonder Trina was so determined to have her way over this man taking off his shirt. She couldn’t believe it. The pea-brained women of this town had actually hired a man to entertain them for the evening, and he turned out to be the only man ever to set her heart a-flutter.

“What do you mean, ‘all in a dither’ over me?” His lips quirked in the most appealing way.

Hmmph. “As if you didn’t know. I can’t believe you’re going to take your shirt off for them.”

“Take my shirt off?” He sounded offended as well as horrified. “That infuriating Clark girl and her silly notions. No, I’m not—” He muttered a few words that would have had her mother racing for a cake of lye soap. He broke off suddenly and stared at the ground for a second before glancing up. “Sorry.”

At least he had the good graces to realize his language left little to be desired. Not that she was offended by his choice of words—she had two brothers. But it was nice to see Benjamin Kearny had some manners.

Chloe nodded, accepting his apology. “I’m glad you’re not planning to be their afternoon entertainment.” Though she wasn’t sure she actually meant it. The heat threatened her cheeks once again.

“Yes, well, unfortunately I am. I’m going to sing for them.” His voice hardened along with the muscles in his face.

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask why he would sing for them since he so obviously didn’t want to. Instead she said, “I have to go.”

“Wait. You haven’t told me your name yet. Are you sure you won’t stay?”

“I wasn’t invited.”

“Oh.” He blinked, obviously surprised. “I was certain Mayor Clark said every young woman in town was invited to his daughter’s birthday celebration.”

“Not me.” Chloe stared at the ground, hating to admit she was the only one not welcome. Bitten by curiosity, she battled with herself, dying to know but still frightened to speak. Curiosity won out. “Are you a relative?”

“No. Her father is a friend of a friend, and I’m sort of stuck in the middle. Between you, me, and that rock you were standing on, I’d just as soon not be here. I was more or less coerced. Business type favors, and all that. You understand?”

“Um…right.” He didn’t look the type to allow himself to be coerced into anything. “I’d really better go now.” She looked up into his eyes, wanting one last look before she left.

“I thought I heard voices out here.”

Chloe turned, dismayed to find Trina on the steps with a dozen other women crowded behind her. They all stared. She wasn’t surprised in the least when Trina tossed back her blond head, gathered her skirts, and tiptoed daintily down the steps.

“Why, Ben.” Trina batted her eyelashes a few times. “Ladies, this is the man I told you about. Benjamin Christopher Kearny.”

“Ben will do fine.”

Trina blinked, clearly pleased. “Oh, yes. Ben. At any rate, I’m so glad you’ve arrived. I was ever so fearful you may have changed your mind.”

I’ll just bet you were. Chloe thought briefly about uttering her sarcastic comment out loud, but refrained. Her mere presence was usually enough to incense Trina Clark.

Ben Kearny. Benjamin Kearny. Benjamin Christopher Kearny. Chloe rolled the names over in her mind. She peeked up at him. He seemed larger than life. Yes, the name Ben fit him perfectly.

Ben stepped toward Trina, who watched him with the look of a woman ready to devour a dish of berries covered with the richest cream. Feeling suddenly possessive and not quite knowing why, Chloe shoved back her intimidation and stepped right along with him. Besides, there was still the matter of helping Sarah out of a tough situation. Shamefully, she almost forgot about her sister-in-law. Perhaps with Ben beside her, she’d have the courage to speak up for Sarah’s sake.

Before she realized what happened, Chloe found her hand caught up in his.

The impropriety of his action caught her off-guard, and she froze. He watched her, his spirited smile still there. The fact that it didn’t reach his eyes tugged at her heartstrings. Chloe lowered her gaze. Staring hard at the pinecones on the ground, she tried to extract her hand from his. He wouldn’t let go, and she started to look at him again but knew if she did she’d be lost. One more look into those eyes and Chloe suspected she would end up making an even greater fool of herself. She had to concentrate on other matters, like helping Sarah.

Determined, Chloe took a deep breath and stepped forward. When they stopped at the stairs of the building, she mustered her courage. “Trina Clark.” There. That wasn’t so bad. Her voice didn’t squeak. It only sounded a little higher than usual. She swallowed hard. Ben squeezed her hand.

She opened her mouth again. “I can’t believe you’re contemplating such a thing. What are you thinking, hiring a man to entertain a gaggle of women in the town meeting hall?” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “The very same hall where we worship the Lord every Sunday morning, in case you’ve forgotten.”

After a lengthy glance at the rest of the women staring at her from the wide double doors, aware of Ben so close to her—watching her, holding her hand—Chloe’s voice stuck in her throat and she could say no more. She caught her sister-in-law’s horrified eye. Sarah, bless her heart, looked like an under-ripe raspberry.

Trina slapped one hand to her hip. “Save your moralizing for someone who cares, Chloe.” Twisted in self-righteousness, Trina’s face was no longer sweet. “You know very well you’re not concerned with what we’re planning this evening. You’re just upset because we didn’t invite you.”

That part was true, though not for the reasons Trina might think. She’d long ago given up any hope of having friends in Cedar Ridge. She was upset over the lost chance for an interesting story.

She sighed. Caleb would be out of luck on this edition unless she came up with something new. Somehow she’d lost control of the entire situation. Even more, she’d lost the nerve to say anything further to Trina.

She cast one last glance at the growing crowd of young women and furrowed her brow. A young, waif-like woman stood back near the door.

Felicity Jepson. Married to the meanest man in town, Felicity often wore her husband’s wrath on her jaw or upper check.

Despite being stared at, despite wishing the earth would swallow her up, Chloe extracted her hand from Ben’s and hurried to the girl’s side. “Felicity.” Chloe spoke softly. “Why don’t you leave with me? When Josiah finds out you were a part of this, he’ll be most upset.”

Felicity’s plain face transformed into a cloud burst. Clearly, she hadn’t thought her presence here could well put her in jeopardy.

“Don’t worry.” Chloe gave Felicity’s hand a gentle squeeze. “If you leave now, you won’t have done anything wrong, and he’ll have no reason to be angry.”

Trina quickly rushed over and seized Felicity by the arm. “Josiah won’t know a thing about this. No one will if you don’t tell them, Chloe.” She spoke so rudely, Chloe wondered if somehow Trina knew what she’d been about.

No one knew Chloe wrote the newspaper articles and her younger brother submitted them. Especially not their father, the publisher and editor. The word anger couldn’t even begin to describe what would happen if he found out.

It wasn’t as if they lied, really. Chloe didn’t actually put Caleb’s name on the articles. She signed them C. J. Williston. Her father just assumed this was Caleb’s pen name, and she and her brother were happy to leave it that way.

“Besides,” Trina continued in that sugary tone of hers. “We’re sick and tired of our men thinking they can run off to Pete’s whenever they want; drinking and eyeballing every entertainer who happens along. It’s high time we get even with them. If we have a little fun while we’re at it, so what?” Trina shrugged then walked over to Ben and held out her hand. “Coming Mr. Kearny?”

From where she still stood next to Felicity, Chloe looked at Ben. He searched her face, his expression shaking her to the core. He seemed almost…interested. It had to be her imagination. Then he stepped toward her, reached out, and squeezed her hand. His mouth curved slightly.

“Good night, Chloe.” Her name was a whisper on his lips. He released her then, and for a second, the imprint remained against her palm—warm, firm, and comfortable. Then it was gone, an emptiness left in its place. Chloe felt abandoned as she watched him walk up the steps with Trina, though pleased he hadn’t taken Trina’s hand. He glanced back long enough to flash a grin before he stepped through the door.

Sarah. She’d quite forgotten about Sarah. Chloe raced up the steps only to have Trina slam the door right in her face. She tried to work up the courage to bang it down. Instead she opened it wide enough to poke her head inside. Maybe she could get Sarah’s attention quietly.

Before she could even glance around, Trina appeared. “You’d better not breathe a word of this, Chloe Williston. If you do I’ll be having a talk with that father of yours. And you can be sure he won’t like what I’ll have to say.”

That only confirmed what Chloe feared. Somehow Trina found out about C. J. Williston. Before she could reply the door slammed again.

In a huff, Chloe stomped down the steps and searched for something sturdier than the rock to stand on. She found an empty bucket—admittedly a little rusty, but the bottom was wide enough to stand on comfortably. She placed it beneath the window and climbed up.

The first words to drift through the window set Chloe’s senses reeling.

“We want you to take your shirt off, Mr. Kearny.”

Chloe couldn’t wait.

Chapter 2

Ben coughed, startled by the shocking request, still trying to understand why these women didn’t like Chloe. She seemed nice enough, intelligent. She hadn’t blinked an eye when he’d said he was an ethologist. “Wh-what did you say?”

“We want—”

“I heard what you said. That isn’t what I meant. The answer is no!” He didn’t like the fact that he had to sing for them in the first place. By no means would he take off his shirt.

He wouldn’t even be in this predicament if Trina’s father hadn’t been such a good friend of the colonel’s. Colonel Wilkes had hired Ben to lead the hunt of a lifetime. There was such an exorbitant amount of money at stake that when Wilkes asked Ben and his team to stop and look up his old cavalry pal, Jase Clark, Ben could hardly refuse. He certainly never intended to end up singing for the man’s flirtatious daughter’s birthday gathering.

Ben set his jaw angrily. This was no birthday party. He’d been duped, and this new request was certainly not one he’d expected. Neither was Chloe, he thought suddenly. Her determined attitude and wide, curious eyes caught him totally off-guard.

“But Mr. Kearny…” Trina’s whine grated on his nerves.

“No!”

Trina flinched, but he didn’t care. Every woman in the place watched him expectantly. If they thought he was going to strut around with a swelled chest like some peacock, they could just think again.

“But you agreed!” Trina’s bottom lip stuck out in a way that suggested she was used to getting what she asked for. Not this time. Not with him. He never gave in to anyone, and he wouldn’t start now.

Well, he corrected himself wryly. He had given in to Trina’s father. But he laid the blame squarely at the feet of one person—Gus. Father figure, mentor, fellow scientist, and blabber-mouth extraordinaire.

Once Gus mentioned Ben’s musical talent, the man insisted Ben sing for his daughter’s birthday party. When he refused, Clark threatened to send a telegram to his good pal the colonel. Ben had visions of all funds for this project disappearing, and this project meant more to him than anything ever could, so he finally gave in. When Ben finished here and returned to the hotel, he planned to cheerfully wring Gus’s neck.

“The agreement was for me to sing, nothing more. The shirt stays on. Now if you want to hear some music, I suggest you all take your places and be quiet.”

He looked at the sea of faces and wished Chloe hadn’t left. If he had to sing for anyone, he’d rather it be her. If he had to look into a stranger’s eyes, he’d prefer they were hers. Chloe’s eyes were a deep, rich blue, a shade which he’d only seen once before—on a fleeting bird he’d been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of in South America.

Could that be why she kept creeping to the forefront of his mind? Or was it her hair? Thick and wavy, it was a vibrant golden-brown, not unlike the grizzly bears that inhabited these very mountains.

“Do you have some songs prepared, Mr. Kearny?”

“I write my own music. I have the sheets right here. If your pianist feels she can play them, I’ll go ahead and sing.” He leveled Trina Clark with a stare so fierce, wild animals had backed down from it. “But I’m not taking off my shirt!”

Trina pursed her lips, plucked the papers out of his hand, and strutted to the front of the room. “Follow me. We have an organ Mr. Kearny, not a piano. I hope you don’t mind.” She turned and fluttered her eyelashes in a way that could rival any young woman from Florida. “I am the organist.”

“I’m not surprised.” Ben grumbled under his breath as he followed Trina, wishing for a moment that he’d never heard of Cedar Ridge, Washington, or the Cascade Mountains. He was used to singing for people, an audience. He often sang for other scientists when they were out in the field for months at a time on various projects. But he’d never sung for a group of women who looked hungry enough to devour him.

Trina struck the first chords on the organ, sour and very off-key. Ben winced then opened his mouth to sing.

Haunted. That’s what she was. Haunted.

The moment Ben began to sing, any hope Chloe had of fabricating a new article for the paper disappeared. Her brain turned to mush.

She stood on the rusted bucket, her face plastered to the window. Chloe, along with every woman inside the building, was mesmerized. She didn’t know it was possible for a man to sing like that. She didn’t even know if the law permitted it.

Ben’s voice, low and devastatingly alluring, seemed to roll over each woman, touching them, sending tingles up their spines, darn near causing them to swoon. It must have affected them that way. That’s what happened to her when he started singing about his lonely heart and begging her to look into his eyes. Of course she knew, logically, he wasn’t telling her to look into his eyes. He wasn’t really singing to her at all. He didn’t even know she had herself stuck to the window, panting for breath, in an attempt to see every move he made and hear every word he sang.

Not that she could see him all that clearly through the window. It didn’t matter. The minute Ben opened his mouth and began to sing, Chloe became the only woman on earth and the walls between them faded.

It was just her, Ben, and the lonely heart he sang about. She wanted to reach out to him and make his world right, make his loneliness disappear.

He sang to her, begging her to soothe his troubled soul. She ached to do just that.

He needed her. No one could help him but her.

She floated on a cloud.

An instant later, Chloe saw stars.

Somehow her foot broke through the bucket and she crashed to the ground. She gasped and struggled to regain her breath. Then, slowly, breathing raggedly, she sat up.

The haunting sound of Ben’s voice tantalized her ears.

Chloe cradled her head and tried to shut out the sound. She must be sensible about this situation. She couldn’t become distracted by such a man. She had work to do; an article to write for Caleb so their father wouldn’t be angry with him.

Devastating voice or no, Chloe had to put Ben Kearny out of her mind.

“I’m telling you, Gus, it was the most bizarre thing.” Ben tipped his head back, drained the mug, set it on the sticky table, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The hotel’s dining area was closed, and this dimly lit saloon was the only place in town where he and Gus could sit down and talk strategy. “If not for Clark’s threat to our project, I would have walked away without a backward glance.”

To his dismay, Gus had been asleep when he’d arrived back at the hotel last night. By morning, Ben’s anger had faded and he could see the humor in the situation. Well…maybe just a little humor. At any rate, the desire to wring Gus’s neck had faded.

“Thanks to you, I felt I had no choice but to entertain that screeching woman and her friends.”

Gus, an elderly gentleman with a shock of white hair and eyes the color of weak tea, guffawed loud enough to draw stares from the other patrons in Pete’s Saloon.

“So?” Gus raised one silver eyebrow. “Did you take off your shirt?”

“You raised me better than that, old man.” Ben looked at his friend affectionately. Gus Pieper had stepped in and raised him when his parents stepped out. “I think I learned what a saloon singer must feel like, what with all the leers and comments.”

Gus laughed again and slapped the table.

Ben drew his eyebrows together, slightly annoyed. “It’s really not that funny, Gus.”

“What did you think Clark would do if you refused to sing for that so-called birthday party? Send a wire to Wilkes and tell him to stop the funds before we ever get started?”

“That’s exactly what he said he’d do.”

Gus considered the thought for a moment. “Do you think he really meant it?”

Ben shrugged. “Probably not, but Clark talks a good game. I just don’t want a confrontation.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d bet you did it for the attention.” Gus grinned then gulped down the rest of his ale.

Ben swore under his breath. “Gus if you weren’t so old, I swear I’d—”

“You’d just better hope Clark’s little girl doesn’t decide she wants more of you than your singing.”

“It won’t matter because tomorrow we’re heading up the mountain, and we’ll never set eyes on Clark or his princess again.” Nor would he likely set eyes on the comely Chloe.

“Hey! Why do you look so cow-eyed all of sudden? Are you going to miss that Clark girl?”

“Not likely.” But Ben wouldn’t have minded spending a little more time with Chloe. He didn’t even know her last name.

“Then wipe that frown off your face. The next time Wilkes asks you to look up an old friend, I’ll bet you’ll think twice about it.”

“There won’t be a next time, Gus. Wilkes doesn’t have long to live. That’s why we’re here. He’s too frail to go after it himself. I’m not happy he’s dying, but I am glad he chose me to lead the hunt.”

Ben studied Gus’s weathered face a moment, knowing he was the same age as Wilkes. He couldn’t imagine Gus frail and dying like the colonel. He shrugged the image away. “I can only hope we get it back to him before that happens.”

Gus hooted. “That old codger has had one foot in the grave for as long as I can remember. He’s just too lazy to go a-hunting himself.”

“I don’t know. He seemed pretty sickly to me. Whatever the reason, we’re here. If we succeed, it can only mean bigger and better things for us. Maybe even a sponsorship for my snow gorilla project.”

The bartender, a balding man with a salt-and-pepper mustache, stopped wiping mugs and tucked the bar rag in his apron pocket. He approached the table with a quizzical expression. “You fellows with the railroad?”

“The railroad? Not a chance.” The instant Gus spoke, Ben kicked him in the shin. He didn’t want to arouse curiosity amongst the townsfolk. The less people knew, the less chance this expedition had of turning into a poodle act in a three-ring circus.

“We’re here on a special mission.” Gus clearly ignored Ben’s warning. “We’re going on a hunt.”

Ben scowled in frustration, knowing it wouldn’t take much encouragement from the bartender for Gus to talk about their plans.

“A hunt?” The bartender’s blue eyes grew wide.

“Gus.” Ben’s tone was low, serious.

Gus merely winked at Ben. “Sit down and I’ll tell you all about it.”

The barman took a quick glance around the room to make sure no one was waiting for a refill. Satisfied, he grinned from ear to ear, showing off the town’s lack of dentistry.

Gus waited while the man took a seat. “Are you Pete?”

“That’s me.” Pete stuck his hand out, and Gus pumped it up and down a few times.

“I’m Dr. Cygnus Pieper, Gus to you.”

“Doc? Hey, listen.” Pete placed a hand on his lower back. “I’ve been meaning to talk to someone about this crick I’ve got here—”

“No, no,” Gus interrupted before Pete could list off a bunch of ailments. “Not that kind of doctor. I study animals. Not like a veterinarian, either. I’m a scientist.” Gus beamed and chuckled. “So, like I said, call me Gus. And this here’s Ben Kearny. You can ignore his frowning face. He looks like that all the time.”

Ben scowled harder. Why couldn’t Gus ever keep his mouth shut? And why did he have to be so impossibly good-natured? While Gus aggravated the dickens out of him more times than not, Ben still loved the old coot.

The two older men bent toward each other over the tabletop–Gus’s preferred position for filling someone’s head with malarkey. Ben drummed his fingers on the table, restraining himself from his sudden urge to knock their heads together.

Gus made a poor attempt to whisper. “Now you can’t breathe a word of this.”

“Neither can you.” Ben itched to clap his hand over Gus’s mouth and drag him from the saloon.

Delight twinkled in Gus’s eyes and Ben turned away with a grumble. It wouldn’t matter what he said, Gus wouldn’t put a lid on his enthusiasm.

Though he was exasperated with him and could pull rank since he was the one in charge this time, Ben wouldn’t. To do so would hurt and humiliate the man he loved like a father. Besides, he thought with a painful reminder that never seemed to leave him, he was single-handedly responsible for the ruination of Gus’s career.

“So what’s this hunt you fellows are talking about? You hunting for silver?” Pete cradled his chin in his hand, his blue eyes bright, expectant. “There are a lot of silver mines around these parts. Lots of fellows have made a fortune and moved on.”

“Yeah, and I’m sure lots of them have gone home without the shirt on their back, too. Mining’s for sissies. We’ve got more important things to find.” Gus’s face positively glowed with anticipation, a look that warmed Ben inside but did nothing to ease the guilt. Was there really any harm in the guy talking about his adventures?

“Naw. Get outta here. What’s going to make you richer than hitting a vein of silver or gold?”

“Pete, my friend.” Gus slapped him across the shoulders. “There are things of this world that are of far greater worth than money. Far greater.”

“Get outta here.” Pete laughed as he repeated himself. “If you believe that, you’re the first folks crazy enough to declare it around here.”

“Just sit back, my friend. I’ll tell you all about it.” Gus looked at Ben and grinned. The corners of Ben’s mouth twitched and his mood perked up just a bit. “It’s not what’s under the mountain that we’re interested in, it’s what’s on top. We’re going hunting.”

“Hunting? For what? Grizzlies? You’d best be careful.” Pete’s expression changed from interest to fright.

“Grizzlies?” Gus fairly cackled. “Ha! What we’re after will make your grizzlies look like a bunch of pussy cats.”

The excitement rose. Ben couldn’t help it. Talking about their upcoming adventure started his blood racing and, like Gus, he was eager for the hunt to begin. He could no longer keep quiet. Ben also loved sharing tales.

“I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of a gorilla?”

Pete looked at Ben, clearly surprised he’d spoken up. “Can’t say’s I have.”

Ben didn’t doubt it. It amazed him, the number of people he’d come across who, after thirty years, still hadn’t heard of or seen pictures of the fearsome gorilla. “Let’s just say my gorilla can out do your grizzly any day.” Ben looked at Gus and grinned.

Pete looked doubtful. “Where do you find this grilly creature?”

“Gorilla.” Ben couldn’t help correcting him. “Africa.”

The barman’s blue eyes widened. “Africa? You’ve been all the way to Africa?”

“Yes.” Ben took a last swig from his mug. “Gus and I went on an expedition there several years ago. We were lucky enough to be with a party whose leader was there when they discovered the gorilla back in fifty-six.”

“What does this here grilly look like?”

Ben loved this; the telling of a tale, sharing his adventures, describing a find. “First off they walk on two legs like we do. But they’re huge. Bigger than you can imagine. Some are taller than most men and, like the monkey, covered with hair—lots of hair. And they’re completely fearless. Their eyes flash like fire when they’re scared, and they like to beat their chests with huge fists.” Here, Ben couldn’t help himself. His fingers curled into his palms, and he pounded his chest a couple of times. “They have a roar that’ll curl your toes.”

Pete drew his eyebrows together, listening, watching intently. “Sounds mighty fearsome. Were you scared?”

“No. I walked right up to him.” Truth be told, they were one of the most beautiful creatures Ben had ever seen.

“And he didn’t hurt you?” Pete sounded skeptical.

“Not at all. He grabbed some branches from my hand. He was really rather playful. I think he thought I was just another animal from the lowlands.”

Pete let out a low whistle. “You don’t say?”

“Ben here has also tangled with a Bengal tiger and wrestled with an anaconda.” Gus pulled his shoulders back with pride.

Ben didn’t bother to tell Pete he was scared spit-less both times.

“Your bear isn’t likely to scare me.” Not exactly true. Ben considered himself to be a sane man. But as an experienced tracker, he knew how to conduct himself in the wilderness areas. If he happened across anything dangerous, he’d know how to handle it.

Pete pulled thoughtfully on his chin. “It appears to me you’re a couple of pretty well-traveled fellows. You’ve seen a lot more interesting places than our Cascades here. These mountains are going to seem mighty boring in comparison.”

“Oh, but you’re wrong.” They wouldn’t be boring at all. Ben knew what they’d find up the mountain, and it was far from boring. “I’m sure they’ll prove very interesting indeed.”

“Well, I’d think twice about going up there if I was you.” Pete’s eyes lost their twinkle of anticipation, and Ben heard the fear enter his voice. “There’s a wild creature up there. Sounds kind of like your grilly. I hear tell he’s half-man, half-animal. He’s a gigantic creature covered with hair. Has the face of a man and walks upright on two legs.” Pete pressed his lips together and shook his head. “One other thing. He’s got the biggest footprints you ever did see.”

Gus grinned. “You’ve seen the prints yourself?”

“Sure have. Why, the prints were so big, I could almost lay down in one of ’em.”

Ben knew that to be an exaggeration, but of course that was to be expected with a legend. The stories just grew and grew. He almost laughed out loud with joy. It wasn’t enough just to be here. Hearing Pete’s words, hearing it confirmed by yet another human being, stirred the excitement.

“Sasquatch.” Ben let the name roll off his tongue, savoring it, unable to keep the smile from breaking across his face. “That’s his name. Sasquatch. And that’s why we’re here, Pete, to find your Sasquatch creature.”

Never take your eyes off the goal. If you take your eyes off the goal for even a second, you won’t reach it.

I love you, sweet pea. You can do it.

Always, Aunt Jane

 Chloe carefully folded the well-worn letter and tucked it into the hem of her sleeve. Though her aunt was gone from her life, Chloe still drew courage from her words.

She stood on the wooden sidewalk just outside the open door of Pete’s Saloon where she’d been seeking her brother Charles Jr. She wanted to speak with him about the abominable way he treated Sarah. Even though he would probably yell at her, Chloe felt the need to stand up for her sister-in-law.

Realizing Charles Jr. wasn’t there, she’d been about to leave when she recognized the deep rumble of Ben’s voice. Yesterday evening, his voice found a permanent place in her memory. Now, hearing him mention the name Sasquatch, her reporter’s ear became instantly alert.

Sasquatch! Ben was looking for the giant creature rumored to roam the deepest forest area.

Tales of the horrid half-man, half-animal creature had terrified residents of the North Cascades for years. Only a handful of people claimed to have seen him. He was legend among natives all across the country, with more names than she could count. It impressed Chloe to hear Ben call him Sasquatch. Not many even knew the creature by that name. She’d learned the native name from a Salish man—whom her father met shortly after they’d moved to Cedar Ridge—and immediately wrote an article about it. As C. J. Williston, of course. Her father liked the article so well he even sent it to the newspaper in Boston, where it was reprinted.

Chloe’s fingers tingled, and a familiar sensation sizzled through her veins. She knew a story when she heard one. This was most definitely a story. Bigger than any story that had to do with Trina Clark. An interview with Ben now seemed much more urgent.

Running a finger under her sleeve, she traced her aunt’s letter. Could she double the courage she’d drawn to confront Charles Jr. and ask Ben for one?

“Well, hello again.”

Ben’s resonating voice pulled Chloe out of her thoughts. She straightened and smoothed her sleeves. She looked at his feet first, handsomely encased in tan hiking boots. Faded denim trousers covered his long legs, and she recognized the red wool shirt he had on yesterday. Finally lifting her eyes to his face, Chloe swallowed hard. Ben towered over her by at least a foot. Amusement touched his lips, and fine lines crinkled the corners of his eyes.

A fascinating man—a fascinating mission—the story would make a great read.

Usually, once Chloe got started with an interview, she relaxed enough to talk comfortably. She thought perhaps it was because she tried so hard to put the other person at ease, she ended up forgetting about her own self-consciousness.

Gazing up at Ben, Chloe didn’t think she’d ever have enough nerve to ask him for an interview, let alone ask any questions. Still, she must try.

For the story.

To be a reporter of the same calibre as Aunt Jane and Nellie Bly, to make her father realize women reporters could be every bit as good as men, she had to remember the goal. She had to concentrate on the story, not on what Ben might be thinking while she spoke.

“Why, Mr. Kearny. Imagine meeting you here.”

“Yes, imagine.” His tone told Chloe he suspected her of eavesdropping again. Twice caught, twice embarrassed. She closed her eyes and tried to unjumble the words she wanted to speak aloud. When she opened them again, she found him staring most intently. She hushed the annoying voice in her head, the one telling her to shut up because nothing she had to say was of importance.

“Uh…Mr. Kearny, I’d like to talk to you if you’d so kindly give me a moment of your time.”

The words came out so rushed, she was sure he didn’t catch any of what she said. He continued to study her face, which brought the nerves raging back to life. Her heart pounded in her ears. She averted her eyes then smoothed the front of her sky-blue skirt, taking one slow, steady breath after another.

Never one to be fashion-conscious—though her father could afford it—Chloe wished she’d worn her cranberry skirt and jacket. Its tailored look was much more professional than this everyday skirt and shirtwaist. She smoothed her skirt one more time and paced her breathing back to normal, which finally helped lessen the thrumming in her ears.

“I’m sorry you couldn’t stay for my performance last night.” His honey-rich voice set off tingles of awareness, unnerving her, and her gaze was drawn back to his face.

“Oh, but I…” Oops. Chloe looked at the ground, heat warming her cheeks. She spoke quietly, but loudly enough, she hoped, for Ben to hear. “I mean, I am too. I’m not very welcome there, as you obviously saw. But that’s not why I want to talk to you. There’s another matter we need to discuss.”

“Why aren’t you welcome there, Chloe?” Ben spoke softly, and Chloe looked up into his questioning gaze.

She tried to see into the depths of his green eyes, to see if there was a hint of the loneliness she’d heard in his voice when he sang. Her breath caught in her throat. It might not be loneliness, but she imagined there was some hidden emotion there, and it tugged at her heart. Unable to help herself, she stepped closer.

“I—they don’t like me very well.”

“Any particular reason why?”

Why? Because words choke in my throat, and they think I perceive them as beneath me. “It’s not important.” The goal. She had to focus on the goal and ask for an interview before her nerve disappeared altogether. “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with Pete and the other fellow. I’m interested in the Sasquatch creature also. I…” Chloe stopped and took a breath. Please, please, please let it come out right.

“I wonder if you would do me the kindness of granting me an interview.”

She hoped the tremble in her voice wasn’t as noticeable as the trembling in her hands. Her heart pounded in her ears while she waited for his answer. And though she wanted to find a safe haven by looking at the ground again, she held his gaze, scarcely breathing while she willed him to say yes.

Ben raised his brow. “You want to interview me? Surely you’re not serious.”

Was that amusement she saw at the corners of his mouth?

Chloe blinked and clenched her fists, fighting to keep her expression passive. She couldn’t let him know his attitude bothered her. Why couldn’t men ever take women seriously? Why did they think women belonged in a kitchen baking bread, or sweating over a wash pan of smelly socks?

“Yes, I’m serious.” She wasn’t looking for a laugh. With a story like this, she would finally gain some respect in this town. Or at the very least, prove something to her antiquated father.

“No.” Ben shook his head, his friendly tone gone. A brooding look clouded his face.

No? Did he, like her father, think women incapable of writing a decent article?

“But Mr. Kearny, my father owns a newspaper office. The readers—”

“Will all be stomping around the woods ruining our chances of finding the creature once your article goes to press. The answer is no. No interview, no article, no mention of Sasquatch. I warned Gus not to say anything.”

He turned to go, and Chloe saw her big chance slipping away.

Her heart thudded. She had to speak up, but the words lodged in her throat. Her dream was about to die.

“Mr. Kearny, wait.”

He stopped and looked back at her. She hated to beg. Worse, she hated to sound like a whining ninny. “Please reconsider. I promise, I won’t even submit the article until after you and your party have left Cedar Ridge. And I won’t say where you’re headed.”

“Why are you so interested in this?”

“I’ve been interested in the Sasquatch since I first heard about it.” She explained about her father’s Salish friend and the article she wrote. He listened with interest, and the more she talked about the article, the more comfortable she felt. “It’s an important story, one people know relatively nothing about. Educating the public, being able to capture their attention with my words…it means everything to me.”

He considered her for a moment with his startling green gaze. Then he shook his head. “I really do have to go.”

She couldn’t let him leave without agreeing to the article. “How much do you need?”

“Excuse me?”

“Money.” Surely he needed some. Scientists always needed money. “How much do you need?”

“None.”

“Mr. Kearny, if you give me the opportunity to be the first reporter with proof of the Sasquatch, I’ll pay you however much you ask. I’ll even supply you with a train ticket home. Wherever home is.”

“Florida.” He drew his eyebrows together in a scowl. “You’re certainly persistent, aren’t you?”

“Is it a deal then?” Her excitement brimmed, and her mind worked furiously to figure out how to get the money from her father.

Ben exhaled in a huff and looked away. The spirit seeped right out of her. Chloe knew what that meant. Defeat. Plain simple defeat.

“I don’t want your money, Chloe.” Ben’s tone was quiet, final, and very clear. “I’m not doing an interview.”

Chloe swallowed back her disappointment, wishing she could disappear from sight. Nellie Bly would never give up. Aunt Jane would never have given up. Neither would she.

“I’m sorry you feel that way. My article could have gained you all sorts of publicity. I’ll bet there’s not a single person in this town who knows what an ethologist is or does. I would think you’d want all the publicity you could get.”

“That’s exactly what I don’t need.” He stomped away without looking back.

Feeling incompetent, Chloe stared after him, angry for making a muddle of the chance of a lifetime. Why did she always say the wrong things? Why couldn’t she be well spoken like her father?

Or better yet, like Aunt Jane? She would have had Ben Kearny begging to be interviewed, or whatever else she wanted him to do. Chloe failed to understand why she could express herself through her writing so much better than she could with her speech.

As if it mattered to Ben whether or not Chloe was a babbling idiot. Once he left Cedar Ridge, he’d never think of her again. Not that he had reason to now. He probably forgot her the moment he walked away.

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