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by Jac Eddins
Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance/Romance
Description: A Woman, An Outlaw, and A Kiss! Laurie was terrified when she was kidnapped by her financee's brother, the notorious outlaw and murderer, Jay Hunter. But then Jay told her a much different story, in which his brother James' had him declared dead, stole Jay's inheritance, and framed him for murder. As they travel together, Laurie also sees Jay's decency, vulnerability and growing love for her. Soon Laurie finds herself fascinated by the handsome outlaw despite all he is reputed to have done and finds herself irresistibly drawn to him. All it takes is a twilight kiss and the two become lovers. But can their love survive with both the Sheriff and Jay's brother closing in. From here on Laurie and Jay's hearts are in for a rough ride...
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/Sizzler,
eBookwise Release Date: November 2006
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [235 KB]
Reading time: 152-213 min.
"It has to stop!" The man in the expensive Eastern suit spoke with an air of impatience coupled with grim determination.
Sheriff Stone forced his attention back to the pompous jaybird standing before him. He had let his thoughts stray from the business in his office, watching through the window to the parade of life passing on the wooden walkway and in the road beyond. The world outside was far more to his liking. He did have to concede the man had a valid point.
"I agree," he admitted, somewhat reluctantly. "But I don't know what more we can do. I've explained to you that we're doing everything we possibly can." He ran his fingers through his thick mane of sandy hair and gave an exasperated exhalation. "There's just too damned much territory to cover. We can't be everywhere at once and we just don't know where he'll strike next. God knows, we've tried to figure some plan or pattern to these attacks. Bringing in hired guns won't do anything but cause more trouble. We don't need that. Once you get a bunch of young guns in here, drinking on Saturday nights, you know they're going to have to see who's the fastest. The town would become a magnet for every smartass kid who wants to make a name for himself. First thing you know, we'll wind up like some of those trail towns--getting shot up all the time. That happens, all the good folk hereabouts will pull up stakes and move on. Family people don't want to live with that kind of violence. Can't blame them. Is that what you want?"
"I thought you knew me better than that." The dandy's pained look and tone implied he was injured by the Sheriff's question. He paused to brush an invisible speck of dust from his sleeve. "This is my home now. Sure, I want it peaceful. I'm planning on taking a bride and raising my own family here. But, if you don't stop these bandits--soon--I'll have nothing left! Three times! In less than three months! And each time they hit the stage they got my payroll!"
The lawman rose from his chair behind the desk and began to pace, as he always did when he had a weighty problem. The man who had been standing there, hat in hand, was above average height and yet the Sheriff towered inches over him. Stone paused before the visitor and fixed him with a penetrating stare.
"Doesn't it seem strange that you've borne the brunt of all this thievery? None of the other ranchers have suffered the losses you have. It almost seems this outlaw has an axe to grind. Are you sure it isn't someone with a grudge against you? Maybe a hand you fired who thinks you were unfair? Could any of your people be involved--feeding information to the bandits?"
"No. I've checked out all my people. No one's been let go and all my hands have been with me for years. I'd trust any of them with my life. But there is one thing--" His words trailed off and his head bowed. He shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. "I hadn't mentioned it before because it seemed too far-fetched--and--it concerns a matter I hadn't wanted to reopen. It's--well--something that happened in Texarkana some years back."
His hemming and hawing irked the lawman. "Out with it, for Christ's sake! Any information would help if it has a bearing on this."
"That's just it. I'm not sure it does." He met the Sheriff's stare and lowered his eyes. "May I sit down?"
The man sweated profusely, beads of moisture trickling down the side of his forehead, and he looked as if he might fall. At the lawman's nod, the blond dandy dropped heavily into the one chair opposite the Sheriff's desk. With a well manicured hand he drew a linen handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the perspiration away. Absently, he shoved it back in the pocket while the Sheriff continued to stalk about the room like some great, caged jungle cat. The lawman's steely blue-grey eyes never left the fop, measuring him. Sheriff Stone made a great effort to hide his distaste. Why was the man sweating so? It wasn't all that hot.
And what did his niece, Laurie, see in this poor excuse for a man? Why she encouraged him was a mystery to the Sheriff. The lawman sighed inwardly. It was probably his brother's scatter-brained wife who was responsible, trying to convince the girl of what a great catch this dandy would make. Mattie had always been impressed by the wrong things. As a lawman, Stone had learned to care more about the man inside the suit; Mattie's only interest was in how much it cost and how well it looked on him. If the Sheriff had to be honest, and he always was, even with himself, he supposed he'd have to admit a woman might find the man attractive. Handsome. Almost pretty. And slick--that was the word he'd use to describe it. Sheriff Robert L. Stone had a number of unwritten rules. One was: Never trust a man impeccably groomed. To his mind it spelled conceit, self-absorption and a false front. This man, James Strickland, had sharp, aristocratic features, but his chin was weak. Soft. He had the look of a petulant, spoiled brat. And that damned silly, pencil-line mustache! If Laurie ever did consider this jaybird seriously, he would personally escort her to the woodshed and tan her bottom with his belt until she developed better sense.... This from the uncle who had indulged her in every way since infancy and never raised a hand to her!
The visitor took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "Since I've been calling on your niece, I've told your family a good deal about myself. Things of a personal nature." He kept his gaze on the floor as he spoke. "I--I haven't been completely honest."
"Would you care to explain?" the big lawman asked as mildly as his rapidly waning patience would allow.
"I did tell you I had been married once."
"And that your wife died."
"No, Sheriff. I let you make that assumption. She didn't die. She was murdered."
The tall man halted in mid-stride and fixed the other with a baleful glare. "You?"
Bright crimson suffused the man's pale complexion as he grasped the lawman's question. "No! Oh, God, no! Not me! Her killer was seen and identified. There were half a dozen witnesses. A reward is still posted and there's a warrant for the killer's arrest."
"I see. A robbery?" Sheriff Stone frowned.
Strickland leaned back, his eyes raised to the ceiling. He exhaled and then took a deep breath, as if to calm himself and gather courage. "I wish to God it had been!" He must have realized how that sounded and lowered his gaze to meet the Sheriff's. "-Not that I ever wanted her dead! In spite of what she did, I loved her. Maybe you'll understand better when I tell you--It was her lover who shot her."
Strickland bent forward and buried his face in his hands. He spoke without looking up. "It's a hard thing for a man to admit, that his wife would turn from him and climb into someone else's bed. That's why I never wanted to talk about it. When I first found out she was cheating, I was sick. I confronted her and she broke down in tears and confessed. She begged my forgiveness, pleaded with me and said she'd learned a horrible lesson. You see, I had been East for several months and she got lonely. This--drifter--took advantage of that, of her weakness. She wanted to break off with him, but he was big and violent. She feared what he might do. To me--as well as to her."
After a moment's pause Strickland straightened, but his shoulders remained stooped, as if he carried a heavy burden. He mopped his face again with the linen cloth. "I told her I would take her back if she'd swear never to see her lover again. She promised, but she didn't keep her word. I'd like to believe she went to that cheap hotel to meet him and to tell him it was over. I'll never really know. The hotel people said there had been fighting in the room. Loud argument. The manager even went to warn them about the noise, but he didn't get there soon enough. He heard the shots fired. He--and several other people who heard them--went running to see what happened. They saw the man run from her room. I suppose it could have been an accident. But he ran."
The Sheriff watched Strickland closely while the man told his story. Stone considered quietly, one hand running along his jawline. The bristly stubble reminded him he hadn't shaved that morning. He also made note of the fact that Strickland, while he wrung his hands with appropriate nervousness and emotion, gave his account of the tragedy smoothly, as if it were well rehearsed. "You say this happened in Texarkana?"
The blond man nodded. "Six--nearly seven years ago. Before it actually was a town officially. That's where I lived until a year ago, when I came here to take over my father's property. The killing was shortly after the war ended. I haven't been serious about a woman again until now. I've been looking for a girl like Laurie, one with upbringing and morals. I couldn't face the hurt and humiliation of a faithless wife. Not again." His dark eyes clouded. "There's a point to all I'm telling you. The description of this bandit fits that of the man who killed my wife. I've come to wonder if, in some perverse way, he might hold me responsible."
"You said he was identified. Do you recall the name?"
"How could I forget? Hunter. Jay Hunter."
The lawman crossed to a small table set against the far wall of the sparsely furnished room, the heels of his boots on the pine floor sending a hollow echo through the silence that followed. Several posters had been tacked to the wooden walls, but those were all current fugitive notices. On the table a stack of 'wanted' posters from previous months awaited his attention. He began sorting through them.
"I--er--I hesitate to mention--" Strickland stammered, ill at ease. "And meaning no disrespect, you're a damned good Sheriff, but you might not be a match for this hombre."
An angry spark lit in the lawman's steel eyes. "Is that a fact? Any particular reason?"
"He's fast. Three bounty hunters caught up with him, about three years back. He threw down on the three of them. The one that lived said his draw was like lightning, like nothing he'd ever seen."
A gunfighter! The bane of every man who pinned on a star. That was all he needed! Bob Stone knew he was good, accurate. He wasn't the fastest. A majority of gunslingers were young--it wasn't a profession with a long life expectancy--and jittery--because they knew it. They tended to draw fast and shoot wild. Those the Sheriff could best. He might take a bullet, but he'd live. The outlaw wouldn't.
Stone learned about gunfights a long time past. And he had a good teacher, a man he owed his life. The men in their outfit called the brash young lieutenant 'Captain' back in Virginia, during the war. The rank had been honorary then, bestowed in affection on the youthful Texan who'd come to fight along with them under Jackson. They had been part of the stand at the Battle of Manassas, what the Yankees called 'Bull Run'. While the Confederates fled, routed, Jackson's brigade held the high ground. Rebel General Bee pointed them out. "Look at Jackson's brigade!" he shouted. "It stands there like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!" And rally they had, turning the tide of that battle and handing the Union its first, stunning defeat. The 'Captain' had saved a good many of their asses that day, and on many days afterward. One ass, in particular, belonged to a green soldier named Robert L. Stone. The officer might have been much younger than he, fresh from the academy, but he knew his stuff! They'd seen action together after that, on all too many occasions. Stone had heard that the young officer earned his commission as Captain in reality, in the field, but that was after Mechanicsville. Mechanicsville was the battle where the war ended for Stone.
Something tugged at the back of the Sheriff's mind. He'd thought a lot about the Captain of late.
The well dressed man was looking at him with an odd expression, interrupting his thoughts and bringing him back to the here and now. "May I call you 'Bob'?--Seeing as we may well be family soon, when your niece gives me her answer."
The Sheriff couldn't hold back his frown. "Laurie's awfully young. Only eighteen."
"She'll be nineteen next week. Most girls are married and have a child at nineteen. But you needn't worry. I'll be good to her. I'm a wealthy man and I can give her anything and everything she'd ever want."
Not everything, Stone thought. Laurie needed a real man. She was pampered and spoiled rotten. Hell, he'd been responsible for a good part of that himself! She was impulsive, headstrong. The man for her shouldn't look like a healthy belt of red-eye or a hot piece of tail would kill him! She was going to take a strong man, a man who could handle her and keep her respect. The Sheriff nodded agreeably, despite his misgivings; being civil to people he disliked was part of his job.
The dandy shook his head, turning back to the more serious concern of the moment. "I want you to know, Bob, that I'll back you any way I can. But get that outlaw! If you need more deputies, I'll foot the bill. Whatever it takes. The sooner this is cleared up, the sooner I can settle down."
Stone frowned again, staring down at the paper on his desk where he'd jotted some notes earlier. All at once it connected. No wonder--"Strickland," he muttered. His gaze lifted and he fixed the man with a piercing stare. "Your name is James Strickland!"
"Yes," the man replied, confused. For the past several months he had been courting Laurie; how could Stone not know his name?
"Is Strickland a common name in these parts?"
"Not so much here. It's far more common in Virginia, where my father came from originally."
"Any relation to a Jesse Strickland?"
The man paled visibly and the knuckles clutching the arm of his chair went white with the force of his grip. "Jesse? He--I had a brother."
"If it's the same Jesse. As I said, Strickland is a common name in some places, and so is the name 'Jesse'. My brother fought under Jackson and then Lee, in the Army of Northern Virginia. He--fell--in the Battle of the Wilderness."
Stone felt as if he had just taken a bullet in his gut. Jess, the Captain, was the one who pulled him from the field the day he was hit. If it hadn't been for Jess, he'd have lost his leg for sure, if not his life. The old wound still pained him at times, when the weather was bad. No wonder the name kept echoing in the back of his mind! But Jess dead? "Are you certain?"
"Oh, yes. Positive. I brought his body home for burial. It was one of those that weren't burned when the woods caught fire." Strickland appeared troubled. "Did you know him?"
This couldn't be! Not the Captain! It was no more possible Jess was dead than it was that this preening poppin-jay could be his brother. Stone didn't want to talk about his old friend, not with this dandy. It was easier to fudge the truth. "I was a foot soldier in the same army. He was an officer. I heard a lot about him, though, in the short time I served with them. Before I was wounded."
Strickland had moved forward to the edge of his chair. "Then--you didn't know him on sight?"
"My recollections are vague," the Sheriff answered warily. What was the man so upset about? "That was years ago. Most all I can recall are the stories. He was a legend in the regiment. I wish I'd known him. You must be proud."
"I am." Strickland relaxed back into his seat. "It was a shame. He died so young. I was told he was quite a hero. There's a monument out at the old house. I had it built over his grave. Something to tell my children about."
Stone heard the words as if they were spoken at a great distance, his mind following the paths of memory. Strange how fate played her tricks! When the war ended, he and his brother, Joel, had come west to start anew, away from the ruin and reminders of loss and death. They were two of six sons who had fought the lost cause. His brother, Joshua, Laurie's father, had fallen at Gettysburg, with so many of Pickett's men. The girl's mother died shortly after her birth. Bob and Joel were all she had left. Their property, the farm, had all been destroyed. All that remained in Virginia were bitter memories. Bob had been impressed with the Captain's stories of Texas and he suggested it to Joel as their new home. Mattie, Joel's wife, finally agreed and they all headed westward, taking the little girl with them to raise.
Bob had often thought he might run into Jess again one day, out here. Now, by a weird quirk, he had become Sheriff in the country Jess so often spoke of. James Strickland's place must be the very one where Jess lived his boyhood years. The whole thing was unreal; nightmarish. The Sheriff had finally found the friend he owed so much, too late. That must have been what was nagging at him, that name.
The Sheriff still didn't like this brother of Jesse's, but, if they were going to live in the same area, it paid him to be polite. "If it'd be all right with you, I'd like to ride out one day, to pay my respects to a fellow soldier."
"You're welcome. Anytime." James smiled like a snake-oil salesman who'd found himself a sucker. "Be sure you let my men know who you are, though. Right off. Since this trouble started, I've got the place well guarded. If it is the killer, and it's me he's after, I don't want to wake up in the middle of the night and find the house burning down around my ears. My men tend to shoot first and ask later. Just in case."
No law prevented a man from defending himself or his property. It was unusual to take it to such lengths. Stone got the distinct impression James Strickland was scared.
The dapper blond gentleman rose to his feet, once again the picture of sartorial excellence and elegant poise. He offered his hand as he took his leave. "I really must get to my meeting at the bank. It was good talking to you. I feel confident this will soon be done with and our lives can revert to normal. Will I see you this evening? Laurie has invited me for dinner."
"Probably not. Lots of work to catch up," the Sheriff alibied. He didn't need his stomach soured by watching James shine up to Laurie, or seeing Strickland further ingratiating himself with Joel's fawning wife. Stone decided to grab a steak at the hotel dining room and then see what he could find among the posters. As tempting as he found the idea of letting James get shot by the outlaw--and out of his niece's life--it was his job to see it didn't happen. And he always did his job.
Deep inside, Stone couldn't shake the feeling something didn't sit right. It stuck in his craw and he wasn't at all sure it was from his overprotective attitude toward Laurie. One thing he was certain of; he didn't like, or trust, James Strickland.