Texas Redemption(7)

By: Linda Broday


“Nice try. I’d recognize that silky black hair and those violet eyes in the midst of a horde of saints at a church social, the last place I’d expect to find you…even if I wore a blindfold.”

His husky drawl lodged somewhere in the vicinity of her fickle heart. Dear God, for another lifetime, another chance.

“You’re mistaken.”

“And certainly if you spoke.” He brushed aside her denial. “I’ve never heard another with your throaty voice.”

She swallowed the lump. “My name is Laurel James.”

Release of his hold gave false hope, for he merely changed locations. She flinched when he cupped her jaw. Damning the touch that bound without rope or chains, she had no choice but follow where he led. His rebel gaze reflected the futility of her lies. Her stomach twisted into a knot.

“Surprised to find you here. A bit far from St. Louis, aren’t you, darlin’?”

“Please…don’t—”

A loud yell from outside interrupted her desperate plea.

“Hey, you in there! I’m calling you out.”

Jeb Prater. Shenandoah shifted in his seat. A glimmer of disquiet crossed his features before it vanished, replaced by the cold, hard mask of a seasoned warrior.

“Face me now, meddler. I double-dog dare you. I’m gonna show a yellow-bellied, chicken-livered maggot we don’t cotton to your kind here.”

Shenandoah sighed and gave the succulent meat on the plate a longing glance before reaching for his hat. The rattles shook, filling the silent room with foreboding as he settled it on his head. Prater was the worst kind of fool, Laurel decided. And I’m the second, without a doubt.

“Keep this warm.” He towered above her when he rose to full height. “You and me have unfinished business.”

The soft trousers clung to lean thighs. His long stride and easy calm spoke of a man who had no need to prove anything to anyone. He knew who he was and didn’t give a tinker’s damn about the rest. Laurel drank in the sight.

Of all the ones they’d forced her to entertain, he was the only one who gave of himself. He fit into a special class. She thought his caring genuine. In the long nights and wee hours of the mornings she fantasized he’d come for her. What a foolish notion.

He never had.

Until today.

When she least needed rescuing.

Blue blazes. His appearance destroyed the belief he’d died a hero on some battlefield, a preference to the bald truth.

Still, despite fear he’d ruin her new life, she couldn’t help wishing for something that could never be. Crazy but true.

Though she abhorred the practice of gun play, she pressed her nose to the café window. Suppose Jeb got lucky. Suppose Shenandoah’s pistol misfired. Suppose the man she hadn’t been able to forget found his place in the hereafter before her eyes. Her stomach landed in the middle of her throat.

A piece of lead would keep her secret intact. Her heart hammered. A weakness swept over her for allowing thoughts that aroused more panic than did his sudden arrival.

“You don’t have to do this.” Shenandoah’s voice carried through the thick glass. “No way to settle a score.”

The familiar hand hovered over the polished grip of the revolver. Solid and firm, he projected confidence in abilities that could prove most dangerous to a body’s health.

“Scared, mister? Afraid now that I’ve strapped on a six-shooter?”

“It’d take more than a snot-nosed kid. Don’t do anything stupid. Back away and we’ll both win. You draw that iron and one of us will lose. Care to gamble it might be you, boy?”

He presented a powerful argument. For a moment, Jeb wavered, appearing to listen. Shenandoah must’ve shared her thoughts for he turned slightly toward the café. The small motion set the rattles hissing in the quiet street.

“Watch out!” Laurel clutched her apron into a wad. She was afraid to look but found it impossible to turn away.

Before Jeb’s pistol cleared his holster, Shenandoah pulled and fired in a fluid movement. A thick puff of gray smoke enveloped the figure from her past. Prater lay moaning in the dirt, gripping his bloodstained leg, and cursing the men who came to carry him into the saloon. The scene sickened.