Seeking vengeance for a tragic past, Tyree Benton joined the Rangers and became a different man—but his brutal actions still twist his conscience. Now he’s found a woman he could love, but she deserves more than a man who makes a living getting shot at. If Ty were honorable, he’d leave her alone. But he can’t seem to stay away....
Orphaned at fourteen, Charlotte Weyland has used her talent for numbers to build enough of a fortune to fund Ty’s dream of owning a ranch…if he’s not too stubborn to accept her help. But when Charlotte’s past catches up to her, she finds herself on one side of the law with Ty on the other. To keep their dreams alive, they’ll have to make compromises, but doing so might cost them everything they have...
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||2 MB|
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1878, three years later
The morning the Texas Rangers rode into Greenbroke, Texas, Charlotte Weyland-or Lottie, as she called herself now-was sweeping the boardwalk in front of Brackett's Market and Grocery. Normally, it was a task she enjoyed since it gave her a chance to leave the stuffy confines of the store and feel the sun on her face. But this early August day was already blistering hot. Not yet ten o'clock, and the air seared her lungs, drying sweat almost as soon as it rose on her skin. By noon, the streets would be empty. Even the two old checker players outside the Western Union office would move inside.
But this morning there were big doings. Strangers were coming through, and the word "Rangers" rushed along the boardwalk as people braved the heat to watch the tight group of men ride down Main Street. Despite a brief growth spurt after the railroad added two more runs on the spur line to Dallas, Greenbroke didn't draw a lot of visitors. And visitors with badges were rarer still.
Brushing a wave of light brown hair out of her eyes, Lottie paused in her sweeping to watch them approach.
They were five in number, led by a grim-faced man with a mustache that stuck out more than his nose and covered both lips. Behind him rode three men abreast, followed by the drag rider, a tall, lean man who looked younger than the others. Except for the man in the middle of the threesome, they were all heavily armed with rifles butted on their thighs and pistols in their holsters. The unarmed rider wore manacles instead.
"The Frontier Battalion," Lottie's friend, Becky Carmichael, whispered, suddenly appearing beside her. "They're the ones that got Sam Bass down in Round Rock last month. Heard the old one in the lead is McNelly's Bulldog, Lt. John Armstrong, himself."
"The bank." Becky held up a canvas pouch with People's Bank of Greenbroke stenciled on the side. "The crab sent me to get change."
The "crab" was Frances Seaforth, Becky's employer and owner of the only dress shop in Greenbroke. Fashions by Fanny-an odd name, Lottie thought. Miss Seaforth was a hard taskmaster, but sometimes Becky needed a firm hand.
Lottie glanced around, hoping none of the others who had come out onto the boardwalk to watch the rangers had overheard. Even though Becky was nineteen and two years older than herself, she didn't always show good sense. "You shouldn't call her that."
"Why not? She is a crab."
"If she hears you, she'll show you the street, that's why." Employment was hard to find in Greenbroke, especially for young women who had no family to watch out for them.
Becky tossed her blond curls. "Then I'll move in with you."
"In the back room at the market? Just you and me and the mice? That'll be cozy." Sometimes Becky's lackadaisical attitude irritated Lottie. They were barely two meals short of starvation as it was. The next stop would be whoring in the saloon or moving on, and despite its slow pace, Lottie liked Greenbroke. There was a welcome hominess to it. Maybe because people had accepted her without questioning why a ragged fourteen-year-old girl would ride into town on her own. Or maybe it was because Greenbroke was the only town she had ever spent time in. Either way, after being here for three years, she felt she belonged.
"That last one's a handsome devil." Brown eyes dancing, Becky puffed out her impressive chest and waved to the young man riding drag.
Handsome? Lottie assessed him over the top of her broom handle as he rode by. A stern, angular face with an unyielding set to his wide mouth. A shadow of beard covering his square chin. Longish dark hair sticking out from beneath his black Stetson. From this distance, she couldn't tell the color of his eyes, but guessed they were more light than dark. Young. Probably barely past twenty. In a few years he might be handsome, once he grew into that jawline and learned to smile a little. But right now, except for the Ranger star pinned to his shirt, he looked like any other big, rawboned farm boy who had yet to flesh out.
Ignoring Becky, he swung his gaze over the other onlookers, then up to the false fronts rising above the overhang along the boardwalk. Looking for what?
Lottie studied the slumped back of the manacled rider as the troop rode past the telegraph office and on toward the depot where Sheriff Dodson waited on the platform. "Wonder what he did."
"The prisoner?" Becky shrugged. "Something bad if they sent the Frontier Battalion after him. Probably taking him somewhere to stand trial."
Outside the depot, the rangers dismounted. The leader went inside with the sheriff. One ranger positioned himself by the water tower, one stayed with the prisoner, and the young drag rider walked back down the street, his head swiveling as he scanned the buildings they'd just ridden past. Did he expect ambushers? Here, in sleepy little Greenbroke?
In the distance, a train whistle blew.
"Lordy, is that the ten-ten already?" Becky tucked the bank bag under her arm. "Better get back before the crab pinches me. Meet for dinner?"
"Mr. Brackett asked me to look over the week's receipts."
Becky gave her a sour look. "It's your own fault. You shouldn't have told him you could tally."
"I'm not complaining. I like it. Working sums is relaxing. Numbers are so . . . predictable." It seemed all her life Lottie had worried where her next meal was coming from. She was tired of it. She wanted more than a hardscrabble life sweeping boardwalks and emptying potato sacks and listening to mice scurry in the night. She had ambitions and a strong conviction that a better future awaited her if she only knew how to get to it.
The locomotive pulled into view, slowing to a crawl as it neared the water tower. Sooty smoke billowed out of the stack. Brakes squealed. Once the train came to a full stop, the conductor stepped off. Only a few passengers followed after him, crossing from the train into the station. It wouldn't be a busy shopping day in Greenbroke.
Becky's voice took on a wheedling tone. "Any chance you could sneak me a can of beans then?"
"Sneak? You mean steal?" Lottie frowned. "Becky, I dare not. The Bracketts treat me good. I don't want to steal from them."
"You did before."
"Once. I hadn't eaten in two days and they hadn't paid me yet." Honesty lost much of its appeal when survival was at stake. "And anyway, I put money in the till after they paid me."
"But I already ran through last week's pay and there's barely enough leftovers to feed Mrs. Ledbetter." Mrs. Ledbetter was the elderly lady Becky watched over. In exchange for room and board, Becky cooked and did light housekeeping. A good arrangement for both.
"You should be more careful with your money." Lottie regretted the words as soon as she said them. Becky was her friend. She didn't want to run her off. But she owed the Bracketts, too.
At Becky's pleading look, Lottie sighed. She hated begging almost as much as stealing, but she didn't want Becky to go hungry. She had suffered a hollow belly too many times, herself. "The Bracketts always feed me when I work late. I'll try to save something for you."
"Thanks. I knew I could count on you."
Becky's grin was slightly off-kilter because of the scar at the corner of her top lip where her daddy had tried to rearrange her face with his fist before she ran off for good. It marred what would have been real beauty, although the cowboys in the saloon didn't seem to mind.
"Come to the back door." Lottie made a last swipe at a manure smear below the display window, then gave up. "I should be done by nine."
"I'll be there." With a backhand wave, Becky headed down the boardwalk.
Lottie started back inside, then flinched when gunshots rang out.
Becky ducked into the doorway of the newspaper office next to Brackett's Market. Shouts up and down the street. Heavy footfalls thudding on the boardwalk as onlookers scrambled to safety.
Heart pounding, Lottie peered around the doorframe.
One ranger lay twisting on the ground by the station platform. The young drag rider was running back toward the train, gun drawn. A stranger with a kerchief over his face fired wildly as he steered the prisoner toward a masked rider holding two sidestepping horses.
Bullets peppered the dirt by his boots, but the drag rider kept going, his dark Stetson flying off as he ran. The sheriff and older ranger ran out of the station and fired at the fleeing men.
The kerchiefed man fell.
More shots from the ranger by the water tower. The second masked man toppled from the saddle. Horses scattered. The prisoner fell to his knees, hands over his head, screaming, "Don't fire, don't fire," in a panicky voice.
Less than ten seconds. A dozen shots. And as suddenly as it had begun, the shooting stopped.
Silence, except for the exhalations of the idling locomotive.
"Sweet Jesus!" Becky peered at Lottie from the newspaper doorway. "Is it over?"
Through the dust and gun smoke hanging in the air, Lottie saw the drag rider sprawled in the street, a bloody hand pressed to his head.
"Get Doc Helms!" she shouted to Becky and jumped off the boardwalk.
As she neared, the ranger tried to rise up, the gun wobbling in his right hand. Blood coated the fingers pressed to the left side of his face and ran down his neck to turn the banded collar of his shirt bright red.
"Lay back!" Lottie knelt beside him. "You've been shot."
He rolled toward her, the gun swinging up.
"No!" She grabbed his thick wrist with both hands. "Stop! It's over! You're safe!"
With a groan, he slumped back, the pistol sliding from his grip.
Lottie pulled his left hand from the wound. Blood matted the dark hair, welling from a long furrow stretching from his eyebrow, past his temple, and back along the side of his head. Not serious, despite all the blood.
"I can't . . . see . . ." He lifted his left hand.
Lottie pushed it away. "Be still." Pulling a hanky from her skirt pocket, she tried to mop up the blood so she could see the wound. "Help is on the way." Starting to panic, she looked around, hoping she was right.
Down the street, the mustachioed leader tied a kerchief around the leg of the other wounded ranger, while the fourth ranger lashed the prisoner to one of the legs of the water tower. The sheriff bent over the would-be rescuers. Both lay motionless in the dirt.
Where was the doctor?
The young ranger groaned. "Why is . . . everything so . . . blurry . . ."
"A bullet grazed your head. You should be fine."
"The others . . ." Breath hissed through clenched teeth as he shoved the hanky away and struggled up onto one elbow. "Have to . . . go . . ."
"No, you don't." She put a staying hand on his shoulder. "They're fine. The shooting has stopped. It's over."
For a moment, he looked around, his gaze unfocused until it settled on her. He looked startled to see her. "Who . . . are you?"
"Lottie. Now lie back until the doctor comes."
His eyes were blue. The bluest she had ever seen. Not as light-colored as a robin's egg or as dark as hill country bluebonnets. More like the glowing blue of a candle flame near the wick where the fire burns hottest. And like all flames, they drew the eye. Only when she heard motion behind her could Lottie look away.
Lottie stumbled to her feet as the old ranger shoved in beside her. "Ty, can you hear me, son?"
Before he got an answer, Doc Helms and Sheriff Dodson rushed up. Several onlookers crowded behind them, brave now that the shooting had stopped. Lottie found herself pushed back until she lost sight of the young ranger beneath the growing crowd.
"He hurt bad?" Becky moved up beside her, moneybag clutched to her chest. She gaped at Lottie's skirt. "Lordy! You got blood all over yourself. He's dying?"
Lottie wiped her hands on her ruined work skirt, but the blood was already tacky in the dry heat. It stank like hot metal. "I don't think so." At least she hoped not. Something about the farm-boy-ranger had struck a chord with her. A connection. Almost like she knew him already even though she had never seen him before. Probably his youth. He looked only a few years older than she, and that was too young to die.
But Becky was right about one thing. With those eyes, he would be a striking man someday. If he lived that long.
By dark, two new mounds graced the little cemetery outside of town. The manacled prisoner was under double guard in one of Sheriff Dodson's cells, the two wounded rangers were resting in the back room at Doc's house, and the saloon was crowded with men anxious to give their accounts of the 'Great Greenbroke Shoot-out'. The two unharmed rangers listened from a corner table, accepting congratulations with crooked smiles and cynical eyes.
Or so Becky said that night when she came to the back door of the market for the stew and cornbread Lottie had saved for her.
"What were you doing at the saloon again?" Lottie asked her. "That's no place for a good girl."
Becky grinned through a mouthful of cornbread. "I ain't that good. Besides, like I told you a dozen times already, Juno wouldn't let anything happen to me. He likes me."
Juno was the owner of the Spotted Dog Saloon, which also served as the town's gambling house and only brothel. Lottie had never spoken to him but had seen him around town. He made her uneasy. Stern and unsmiling, he volunteered nothing-not even his full name-and had dark, watchful eyes that seemed to cut right through a person's skull to expose all the secrets hidden within. Lottie had the eerie feeling he somehow knew about Grandpa and what she had done, but he never did more than give her a polite nod when he came into the store or saw her on the street. "What Juno likes is the idea of you working for him upstairs."
Becky gave a dismissive wave with her fork. "That'll never happen. I've pinned my sights on marriage and he knows it." Setting her empty plate on the floor beside the crate she used as a stool, she gave Lottie a wink. "Maybe I'll get me one of them rangers."