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A Texan's Luck (Wife Lottery #3) : chap 1

CHAPTER 1

Cedar Point

November 1888

LACY FOLDED A FEW DOLLAR BILLS INTO THE

LAST PAY env elope and stuffed it in the bottom drawer of

her desk. She leaned back, breathing in the familiar

smells of the print shop: ink, sawdust, paper, pov erty .

Home.

In the three y ears since she had taken ov er the shop,

she managed to make the pay roll ev ery month but one.

Once she’d taken all the money from the cashbox and

trav eled halfway across Texas to meet her husband. She

shrugged. Once she’d been eighteen and a fool.

As the wind howled outside, Lacy closed her ey es,

remembering how excited she’d been when she learned

that Frank Walker Larson was stationed little more than a

day ’s ride by train and then stage from her. Finally , her

husband would be more than just a name on the marriage

license and a few letters he’d written his father the first

y ear he’d gone into the army .

She’d dreamed of how it would be when they met. He

would be y oung and handsome in his uniform. She’d run

into his arms, and he would tell her ev ery thing was going

to be all right. After the long y ear of taking care of his

father and keeping the shop running, Lacy would cuddle

into her husband’s embrace and forget all her worries.

She opened her ey es to the shadowy world of her

small print shop. The real world. Her husband had been

handsome, she admitted. So tall and important he took

her breath away . But he hadn’t welcomed her. His arms

had folded around her in duty , nothing more. The Frank

Larson she ran to was only a cold captain who preferred to

be called Walker. And their time together had chilled her

heart.Lacy pushed away a tear as she remembered riding

back on the dusty stagecoach that day . Now twenty , she

was old enough to realize what a fool she had made of

herself with Larson. The ride home had only prolonged

her agony . Her body hurt from being used, but the

dreams he killed scarred. The coach had been crowded

with women wearing too much perfume and men

smoking cheap cigars. When Lacy threw up in her

handkerchief, the passengers decided that she would

benefit from more air.

At the first stop, she was encouraged to take the seat

on top of the stage. She’d pulled on her bonnet and gladly

crawled into the chair tied among the luggage. As she

watched the sunset that day , Lacy took the letters from

her bag that Walker had written to his father y ears ago.

She fell in lov e with her husband through reading his

letters of adv enture, memorizing ev ery line as if it were

written to her.

One by one, she watched them blow out of her

hands, drifting in the wind behind the stage like dead

leav es. That day she put away childhood. That day she’d

giv en up on dreams.

Lacy stood in the dimly lit shop and pulled her shawl

around her as if the wool could hug her frame. She

stretched tired muscles. It was late, and tomorrow would

be a busy day . Ev ery Saturday after all the papers were

sold and the fly ers nailed, Lacy rode out to her friends’

farm. There, she could relax for a few hours. She’d play

with Bailee and Carter’s children and remember how

y ears ago when Sarah, Bailee, and she had been kicked off

of a wagon train, they ’d talked about what life would be

like in Texas. Bailee had sworn she’d nev er marry , and

Sarah had thought she wouldn’t liv e to see another

winter. But Lacy , then fifteen, had boasted that she would

marry and hav e so many children she would hav e to

start numbering them because she’d run out of names.

“Fiv e y ears ago,” Lacy whispered to herself as she

climbed the stairs. Fiv e y ears since they came to Texas

half-starv ed, out of money , and out of luck. Bailee found

her man and had three sons with another baby on the

way . Sarah wrote often about her twins.

“And then there is me.” Lacy walked into her small

apartment abov e the shop. “I had a husband for fifteen

minutes, once.”

Her rooms welcomed her with colorful quilts she’d

made and tattered books she’d collected. When she first

mov ed in and began to learn the newspaper business, she

could barely read, but Lacy studied hard. Her father-in-

law nev er tired of helping her learn those first few y ears.

He’d treated her like a treasure, ev en though she’d been

little more than a ragamuffin when he’d paid her bail and

married her to his son by proxy . From the first, he talked

of what a grand jewel she’d be to his son when the boy

finally came home from serv ing in the army .

On ev enings like this, she missed the old man

dearly . She longed for the way he alway s talked about

Walker as if his son were still a boy , and the way he could

quote ev ery article he’d ev er written as though it were

only y esterday and not material from twenty y ears in the

business. He lov ed telling stories of newspapermen who’d

stood their ground in Western towns from Kansas City to

California and had to fight, sometimes ev en die, for what

they wrote. She missed his company .

Before Lacy could heat water for tea, someone tapped

on the back door.

She lifted the old Nav y Colt from the pie safe drawer

and went to answer. No one ev er climbed the stairs to her

back door except Bailee, and she wouldn’t be calling so

late. The minute she saw Sheriff Riley’s stooped outline

through the glass, she relaxed and set the gun aside. He’d

taken a few bullets in a gun battle sev eral y ears ago, and

the limp made it hard for him to stand straight.

“Ev ening.” She opened the door to a cold blast of air

that almost took her breath away . “Want to come in for a

cup of coffee, Sheriff? It’s cold enough to snow.” The little

porch area at the top of a narrow flight of stairs held no

protection from the night, and lately , the sheriff looked

little more than bone.

Riley shook his head. “Now y ou know I can’t do that.

What would folks say , a lady like y ourself hav ing a male

guest after dark?”

She grinned, knowing no one would think a thing

about the old man coming in from the winter night to sit

a spell, but she wouldn’t spoil his fun. “You know y ou’re

the only gentleman I ask inside. I’d shoot any other man

who came knocking after dark, but I know y ou wouldn’t

be here if y ou didn’t hav e a reason.”

Riley nodded. “I’d hope so. You being a respectable

lady and all. I wouldn’t ev en bother with a trial if I found

a body on this porch.” Though he’d listened to their

confessions of killing a robber on the road to Cedar Point

fiv e y ears ago, Riley had alway s treated Lacy , Sarah, and

Bailee more like daughters than outlaws.

The sheriff, like ev ery one else in town, regarded her

as if her husband had simply left for the day and would be

back any time. Here, she was Mrs. Larson, and there was a

solidness about it, ev en if there was no substance to the

man she married.

Riley shifted into his coat like an aging turtle. “I just

came to tell y ou that I got a telegram a few minutes ago

say ing Zeb Whitaker will be getting out of jail next week. I

promised y ou I’d let y ou know the minute I heard.”

Lacy fought to keep from reaching for the Colt. Big

Zeb Whitaker was an old nightmare she laid aside y ears

ago when he’d finally gone to prison. She could still feel

his hands on her when he’d grabbed her and ripped the

front of her dress open to see if she were woman enough to

kidnap. She thought she killed him once. She would kill

him for real if she had to. He was the first man Bailee,

Sarah, and she met when they came to Texas, and if Zeb

had his way , he would hav e taken their wagon and left

them for dead.

“Lacy ?” Riley said as though he didn’t think she

listened.

“Yes.” She balled her fist to keep her hands from

trembling.

“Rumor is he still thinks one of y ou three women has

his stash of gold. I wouldn’t be surprised if he showed up

around here. I’m not too worried about Bailee way out on

the farm with Carter watching after her, and Sarah

tucked away where Zeb will nev er find her.” Riley ’s face

wrinkled. “But y ou … with y our man gone and all.”

He didn’t need to say more. She knew she was alone.

Her man wasn’t gone; Walker had nev er been here.

Except for the one brief meeting, he was no more than a

name on a piece of paper.

“I think y ou should leav e town, Lacy .” When Riley

met her stare, he added quickly , “Just for a few weeks. Go

see Sarah. Or may be y ou hav e family back East y ou could

v isit. May be if y ou weren’t here, he’d forget about looking

y ou up.”

Lacy wanted to scream, Leave town with what?

There were times ov er the past few y ears when she didn’t

hav e enough money left to buy food. Once she surv iv ed on

a basket of apples Bailee brought in from their farm. The

two friends nev er discussed how Lacy was doing, but

Bailee alway s brought apples and eggs and more from the

farm, claiming she wanted to trade them for a newspaper.

More often then not, Lacy swapped a ten cent paper for a

week’s worth of food.

Lacy didn’t want the sheriff, or any one else in town,

to know how little she had. They all seemed to think her

inv isible husband sent her money regularly . “I’ll be fine

here, Sheriff, don’t worry about me.”

Riley shook his head. I don’t know, Lacy . I’m not as

spry as I used to be. I’m not sure I can face a man like Zeb

Whitaker.”

“He’s aged, too, y ou know. He’s probably barely

getting around. Who knows, he might come back to say

he’s sorry for causing us so much trouble fiv e y ears ago.”

“Mean don’t age well.” The sheriff frowned. “I’d feel a

lot better if y our man were here.”

“Walker’s down on the border fighting cattle

rustlers,” Lacy lied. She’d been using that excuse for

months now; it was time she made up another reason. “I’ll

be all right. I hav e the gun y ou gav e me.”

Mumbling to himself, Riley turned and headed down

the steep stairs. Lacy knew he wasn’t happy about her

stay ing, but this was her home, her only home, and she

needed to run the shop. None of the three men who

worked for her could take ov er her job.

Duncan was almost deaf. Folks coming in to place an

ad had to stand next to his good ear and y ell their order.

Eli’s bones bothered him so much in winter that he stay ed

on his feet most of the day . If he sat for more than a few

minutes, he seemed to rust. And, of course, Jay Boy was

just a kid Lacy paid a man’s wages because he supported

his mother and little sister. He might be learning the

business between errands, but he couldn’t take ov er.

Lacy closed the back door and locked it. She had to

stay . If Whitaker came, she’d fight, may be ev en die, but

she wouldn’t run.

She almost wanted to laugh at the way the legend of

Whitaker’s gold had spread ov er the y ears. The

night he’d tried to steal their wagon, they ’d left him in

the mud, his saddlebags heav y beside him, but with each

y ear folks came up with theories of what might hav e

happened to the gold. Some thought the women had it and

were waiting until Whitaker died to spend it. Some

decided Whitaker buried it because if he’d been caught

with it, he’d serv e more jail time. Ev en a few believ ed

there had been no gold that rainy sunrise.

Lacy had decided a few y ears ago to stop try ing to

tell the story and just let people believ e what they wanted

to. They would any way .

For the next few day s she carefully locked ev ery door

and made sure the old Colt was not far from her hand. She

caught herself jumping at the jingle of the front bell and

waking each night when the wind rapped at her upstairs

windows. As the day s passed, she calmed, telling herself

she was in the middle of town and had nothing to fear

from an old buffalo hunter like Zeb Whitaker.

If he did come to town, he would need but one look at

her shop to see that she couldn’t hav e stolen the gold he

said weighed down his saddlebags that morning. Lacy

remembered seeing coins spilling out of the bags after

she’d clubbed him, but she hadn’t taken a single one.

One week went by , then another. Winter settled in,

turning the usual mud holes in the streets to ice and

frosting the air. Lacy worked in the shop by day and

quilted by candlelight late into the night. She hated

winter, for she nev er felt warm. Ev en standing in front of

her small fire, only one side warmed, the other chilled.

She tried to use the stov e upstairs only when needed and

conserv e her wood to heat the downstairs. But winter

settled in for a long stay , and the nights seemed endless as

she made herself work long after dark.

Around midnight, she gav e up try ing to quilt. While

she dressed for bed, thin bricks heated by the fire. In her

gown, Lacy carefully wrapped each brick and stuffed it

beneath the cov ers near the bottom of her bed. Then she

jumped in bed, laughing at her own attempts to keep

warm.

The wind rattled the windows along the back of the

apartment ev en more than usual, with a promise of snow.

Lacy poked her head out from beneath the quilts.

She listened. The alley behind her shop sometimes

sounded like a wind tunnel, dragging a howling winter

into the shadows. The wooden frame of the shop below

groaned. Somewhere boards popped as they shifted.

She slipped back under the blankets, hoping her

breath would warm the space between the sheets.

Just as her icy toes thawed, thanks to the hot bricks,

the back door rattled. The sound was muffled by a towel

she’d placed to keep out the draft, but she thought she

heard the creak of the door handle.

Lacy hesitated, weighing fear against being cold.

The Colt rested on the dresser not three feet away , but the

journey would cost her the little body heat she’d managed

to trap beneath the cov ers.

She told herself no one would try to break in tonight.

It was too cold. In the y ears she’d liv ed alone abov e the

shop, no one had ev er tried to break in. Once a drunk fell

into the front windows downstairs, but he hadn’t intended

to enter. This was a quiet little town most of the time

where folks felt safe. Crime rarely paid a call.

But what better time than tonight, with the wind

blowing and no one brav e enough to inv estigate a

scream?

At the third rattle of the door, Lacy jumped from the

bed and ran for the Colt. As her hand touched the handle

of the gun, a cold wind barreled through her apartment.

The back door swung wide open, clamoring against the

wall. Lacy held the weapon in both hands and faced the

wind. She might freeze, but she’d protect to the death

what was hers.

A tall figure in a dark wool coat stood before her

wearing a hat low, blocking his face from v iew. He filled

the opening. The short cape of his coat flapped in the wind

like a flag.

She raised the gun and tightened her finger around

the trigger.

The stranger stomped into her kitchen as if he had a

right to be there. Swearing at the storm, he raised a

glov ed hand to shov e the door closed. The dov e-colored

gauntlet shone pale in the moonlight.

Lev eling the gun to his chest, she stepped forward.

Only the y ellow braiding of his hat cords kept her from

firing.“Cavalry,” she whispered, remembering that only

army cav alry wore y ellow on their uniforms. “Infantry

wear blue, artillery wear scarlet,” she repeated her facts

as if writing an article and not facing an intruder.

The trespasser glanced up. Icy blue ey es stared from

beneath the shade of his wide-brimmed hat.

“Walker!” She almost didn’t recognize him. His chin

was cov ered by a short, black beard, but ev en in the

shadow of his hat, she would nev er forget those ey es. Cold,

heartless ey es, that asked nothing and gav e ev en less.

He jerked his hat off and tossed it on the kitchen

table. “Shoot me, Lacy , if that’s what y ou plan to do, or

put that old cannon away . I’m in no mood to waste time

being threatened by my own wife.”

Lacy blinked as if he might disappear.

Walker unbuttoned his coat and hung it on a peg

behind the door as though he knew it would be there

waiting for him.

He was slightly thicker, she thought. Ten pounds,

may be twenty . His hair was longer, curling ov er the stiff

collar of his uniform jacket. But he was no less handsome,

no less frightening.

“What are y ou doing here?” she asked without

lowering the gun.

He glanced at the Colt, then faced her directly . “Let’s

get something straight right now, dear wife. I hav e no

desire to be in this town. In fact, if I had my way , I’d nev er

step foot within a hundred miles of Cedar Point.”

He pulled off his glov es and tossed them atop his hat.

“But it seems Sheriff Riley knows someone who is

acquainted with my superior officer. He sent a letter two

weeks ago demanding I come home to protect my wife

from a man she has apparently confessed to killing once.”

Lacy wasn’t sure if she were more upset that he

came home unwillingly to protect her, or that Sheriff

Riley had interfered. At this point, if she had only one

bullet, it would be a toss-up which one to shoot. “I didn’t

ask him to hav e y ou come. I can take care of my self.”

Walker looked at the gun. “I can see that.”

She lowered the Colt. “You’v e no need to stay . You

can return to y our post, wherev er that is. I’ll be fine.”

The deep frown didn’t lift. “Would that I could,” he

answered as if arguing with her. “But it seems I’v e been

giv en thirty day s’ leav e and was forced to take it.”

“Thirty day s,” Lacy echoed. Thirty day s with

Walker would be an eternity . The few minutes she’d spent

with him two y ears ago had taken her months to recov er

from. He hurt her. He humiliated her. And worst of all,

he’d done exactly what she’d asked of him. He’d made her

his wife in more than name.

“Don’t look so terrified. I spent three day s getting

here, and it will take me the same amount of hard riding

to return, so y ou’v e only twenty -four day s of the hell of

my company .”

“You can’t stay here!” Lacy looked around her little

apartment crowded with her things. With her life.

“I can’t stay any where else.” His gaze followed hers.

He didn’t look any happier to be here than she was to hav e

him. “What kind of guard would be posted outside the

perimeter? Plus, if I remember this town, within hours

ev ery one will know I’v e arriv ed, and it would look strange

for a husband to stay at the boardinghouse when his wife

sleeps alone.”

The little warmth in her body turned to ice. “You’re

not sleeping with me!”

For the first time, his frown spread into a smile. “I

don’t remember y our being of such a mind the last time

we were together. If memory serv es, y ou were the one

who insisted on sharing my quarters.”

“The only time we were together,” Lacy corrected.

“The only time we will ev er be together. You don’t want a

wife, remember?”

“I remember.” He watched her carefully .

“May be we are div orced,” she added. “May be I’v e

told ev ery one y ou died.”

“You hav en’t,” he answered too matter-of-factly to

be guessing. “And stop shiv ering with fright. I’m not here

to attack y ou, Lacy . I’m here to protect y ou.”

CHAPTER 2

LACY WRAPPED A QUILT AROUND HER as Walker

brought in his supplies. The midnight wind blew through

the open doorway , the chill no more welcome than him.

Other than the saddle and two leather bags that took

up half her kitchen floor, he brought two Winchesters, a

gun belt, two Colts, and sev eral boxes of shells. Shov ing

aside the glass birds Lacy kept on the windowsill, Walker

stacked extra rounds for the guns on the ledge. He fully

loaded each rifle and positioned one near the back door

and the other a few feet from the opening in the liv ing

area that led down to the shop below.

“These rooms were used for storage when I was a

kid.” Walker talked as he worked. “My brother and I used

to play up here. If I remember right, no one can get up the

front stairs from the shop without boards creaking. It’s the

back that will need guarding.”

Lacy really didn’t care what the captain figured, but

it surprised her to learn Walker had a brother. The boy

must hav e died in childhood, for her father-in-law had

nev er mentioned him.

Watching Walker closely , she tried to stay as far

away from him as the tiny rooms allowed. She didn’t need

her usually inv isible husband to play the part of

protector. If Zeb Whitaker was dumb enough to show his

face in town, the locks on both doors would keep him out,

the old weapon the sheriff had giv en her would be

accurate enough to shoot the huge buffalo hunter.

Her little kitchen took on the look of a fortress. The

weapons should hav e calmed her, made her feel safer, but

panic climbed across Lacy ’s spine. Walker was a man she

hardly knew, a man she had to fight to keep from hating.

Yet suddenly he seemed to think he belonged in her quiet

world.She wanted to remind him there was no room for

him in her apartment, but he didn’t look as if he planned

to leav e. In fact, he mov ed about, rearranging things,

shov ing her quilting frames into corners, clearing papers

off tables, checking the locks on windows. Despite both

their names on a marriage license and the few minutes

they ’d once spent together, he could be any one. He could

ev en be worse than Zeb Whitaker for all she knew.

Pulling the blanket tighter around her as if the

material could somehow protect her, Lacy thought she

knew all she needed to know about Captain

Larson.

She knew she wanted him gone.

Two y ears ago when they ’d met, she’d been an

eighteen-y ear-old, frightened and alone. Now, at twenty ,

she was a businesswoman used to making her own way ,

used to protecting herself.

The only thing she didn’t know was how to make

him leav e. Fear of Zeb Whitaker seemed preferable to

hav ing Captain Walker liv ing with her. The old buffalo

hunter who had been released from jail and was believ ed

to be heading in her direction seemed only an old

nightmare she could thrust into a corner of her thoughts.

But the captain, all six feet of him, was here, rearranging

her life.

He grabbed a pile of papers containing all the

articles she’d written ov er the past three months and

dropped them near the kitchen stov e as though he

planned to use them to light the fire.

“Don’t mov e those.” She circled behind him,

correcting the damage. “I’m sav ing those.”

Walker glanced around. “Appears y ou sav e pretty

much ev ery thing, wife. This place wouldn’t seem so small

if it were cleared out.”

Lacy slammed the papers back in their original

place. She wanted to tell him to go away . That he was one

thing in her life she would lov e to clear out. “Don’t touch

my things,” was all that anger would allow past her lips.

He glanced at her, his cold, blue ey es narrowing

slightly as he studied her. “Don’t worry , Lacy . If y ou’re

lucky , Whitaker will kill me and make y ou a widow.”

“I don’t want…” she whispered. She couldn’t finish;

he’d almost read her thoughts.

His laughter didn’t ring true. “Don’t wish me dead

then, dear wife?”

“No, it’s not that.” She met his stare. “I wouldn’t

mind being a widow, but I don’t like the thought of Zeb

Whitaker getting close enough to me to hav e to step ov er

y ou.”“Thanks for the consideration, but I’m not that easy

to kill.” Walker reached around the door and retriev ed the

last of his gear from the landing. The small bag looked like

the old leather pouches Lacy had seen pony express riders

carry y ears ago. The case might hold a few books, but it

was too small to replace a saddlebag. One adv antage of the

heav y leather though might be that it looked waterproof.

She couldn’t help but wonder what this last bag

might hold.

When he finally closed the door, he dropped it beside

the saddle and faced her. He looked more tired than

angry .

“Hav e y ou got any thing to eat? I know it’s late, but I

hav en’t had food since I broke camp before dawn.”

“You want me to cook for y ou at this hour?” Lacy

answered before she thought about how ridiculous her

question sounded. Of course he’d want food and, after all,

she was his wife, and that is what wiv es did for their

husbands. They cooked … among other things.

Lacy closed her ey es. She had already done the

“among other things” two y ears ago when she demanded

he bed her before she would leav e his office. But once for

“among other things” was enough. Nev er again.

She opened one ey e. Her not-so-lov ing husband was

still there and waiting for food. If he knew her cooking

skills, he might decide to go to bed hungry . She thought of

telling him she was probably the worst cook in the

county , but he’d find out soon enough.

Walker looked like he might y ell at her to step liv ely ,

as if she were one of his troops. He might be cold and tired,

may be a little worried, but he was not an easy man to feel

sorry for. There didn’t appear to be an ounce of softness in

him. She wished he’d disappear as quickly as he’d walked

into her life.

Without waiting for an answer, he knelt ov er one of

his saddlebags and pulled out a bag of coffee. He mov ed to

the sink and tried to pump water.

Lacy took pity on him. “The pipes may already be

frozen, but there’s water in the coffeepot.” She’d learned

the first winter that if she wanted coffee at dawn, she’d

better make sure she had water drawn before sundown.

The thought crossed her mind to help, but there didn’t

seem enough room in the kitchen for two. She slipped into

the only chair at the table, her chair, and watched him.

Walker banged around in the space until he had the

fire built up and coffee on, then he pulled out her supply of

food from the small cool box: four eggs and a half loaf of

bread. Glancing at her, he raised an ey ebrow silently ,

asking if she minded.

Lacy shook her head, then watched as he cooked the

eggs with far more skill than she could hav e. He drank

her half jar of milk while he worked, and when he set the

plate of food on the table, he silently offered her a cup of

coffee.She took the cup, careful not to touch his fingers.

He lifted the other chair from the wall and sat across

the table from her.

Lacy had taken the chair down a hundred times

when people v isited or during the months her father-in-

law stay ed with her. But she still remembered the day

she’d hammered nails in the wall and told her friend,

Bailee, that someday her husband would come home and

take the chair down; until then, she’d eat alone. She’d

been fifteen when she married him by proxy . Young

enough to believ e in dreams of lov e.

The silence closed in around her. “I didn’t know y ou

had a brother. I can’t remember y our father ev er talking

of him.”

“More likely , he nev er talked about me,” Walker

said between bites. “My brother was the one Dad thought

would take ov er the business. I heard he died in a gunfight

in Abilene y ears ago.” Walker spoke without emotion, as

though he barely remembered him.

When he said no more, Lacy couldn’t think of

any thing to add. She knew little of this man and wanted

to know ev en less than she did.

Lacy curled her feet into the chair and hugged the

blanket around her as she studied Walker Larson and

tried to figure out this husband of hers who acted as if he

belonged in her world.

Hard, she decided. A man molded of stone. His body

looked all muscle and bone, his ey es colder than the north

wind. She tried to think of the boy his father had told her

about before the old man died, but the stories had dulled

with time. And many , she recalled the old man’s words,

were simply about “my boy ,” so they could hav e been

about Walker’s brother.

It bothered her that the pieces of Walker’s childhood

she thought she knew might be about another. For she

had so few real memories of this man she’d been married

to for almost fiv e y ears. And now she guessed ev en some of

them were not true.

All she could remember was the way he’d spread

atop her and entered her body without one word of

kindness or lov e. The memory of his cold belt buckle

scraping against her stomach as her cheeks burned with

fear and embarrassment. The anger in his words when

he’d ordered her to dress and be on the stage as soon as

possible.

“Stop looking at me like that, Lacy .” His v oice

snapped in the air like a whip.

She caught herself before she shrank away and

disappeared into the quilt. She would not be afraid of him.

She feared too many things in her life already . “Like

what?” Lacy spoke her thoughts. “Like a woman looking

at a man who raped her?”

Walker stood suddenly and tossed his empty plate

into the sink. “I didn’t rape y ou.”

“It couldn’t be called making lov e, Captain.” She’d

called him Captain in her mind since the day they ’d been

together. Somehow that made what they ’d done less

personal. He no longer had a name.

Walker spread his arms out, gripping the counter.

He lowered his head for a moment. His strong shoulders

looked as if they bore a heav y weight.

Lacy wondered if she’d stepped too far. She didn’t

know him well enough to push, but he might as well learn

now that she was not the dreamer she’d been the only

time they ’d met.

When he faced her, he was once more in complete

control. Only his blue ey es reflected the sparks of anger

her words had caused. “All right, Lacy , if that’s how it’s

going to be, let’s get it out in the open tonight. I hoped

y ou’d wait till morning, but bad news nev er ages well.”

He hadn’t bothered to tell her how tired he was; she

could see it in his gaze. He probably thought she wouldn’t

care any more about that than she did about him being

hungry , and he’d be right. Except his last words caught

her off guard. His father used to say the same thing about

bad news.

She looked for a hint of the old man in the captain

but could see none. The kindness of the father hadn’t been

inherited.

Lacy stood, tripping on the corners of her blanket.

“You’re right. We can wait till morning.” She would just

as soon wait forev er. She wasn’t sure she could tell him

how humiliated she’d been that day he’d taken her so

coldly in the back room of his office. If she told him, she’d

hav e to reliv e something she’d spent two y ears try ing to

forget.

Quickly , she mov ed to the tiny main room. “You can

sleep in here.” She pointed to the small couch by the

room’s only window. “Or the rug is comfortable. I slept

there when y our father was too ill to liv e at the

boardinghouse and mov ed in with me.”

He followed her. “You should hav e written me about

my father.”

When she faced him once more, he lowered his v oice

and added, “I didn’t know how he died. Sheriff Riley sent

word about how y ou took care of him those last months,

nursing him and running the paper. I thank y ou for

that.”“There is no need.” She backed toward her bedroom

door. “I lov ed him. He was like a real father to me.”

Walker probably couldn’t understand how close

she’d felt to the old man who’d paid her way out of jail and

adopted her as his daughter-in-law. He’d treated her like a

jewel, and she’d lov ed him for alway s being so kind.

Staring at the son he’d alway s talked about, she wondered

how the old man could hav e been so wrong about his

child. He’d said his son would cherish her.

Walker took a step toward her room but stopped

when she raised her hand as though to block any

adv ance.

He growled for a second. “I only planned to make

sure the window was locked,” he snapped.

“I can do it.” She turned away .

“Lacy ?”

She looked back at him, her knuckles whitening as

she gripped the door to her bedroom.

“We will talk about what happened between us in the

morning.”

Disappearing into her bedroom, she stood against the

door for a moment as if preparing to brace for an attack.

She wasn’t sure if his words were a promise or a threat.

Slowly , she made her fingers relax from the fists

they ’d curled into. If the captain wanted to come into her

bedroom, there would be no way to stop him, but from the

sounds bey ond the door, he appeared more interested in

sleep.She smiled suddenly as she drew the heavy curtains

ov er the window and checked the lock on a window she

nev er opened. Any intruder who could jump the fifteen

feet to the window might prov e to be more than ev en

Captain Larson could handle.

After shov ing the dresser against the door, Lacy

crawled beneath the cov ers and tried to stop shiv ering

long enough to fall asleep. But the coffee and the

excitement wouldn’t let her relax. She liked her quiet life.

She lov ed running the paper and sewing at night. Why

did he hav e to come home and ruin ev ery thing?

Home, she thought. This was her home, not his.

She’d nev er had a place she felt she belonged, but she

planned to fight for this one. She’d been mov ing and

running most of her life, but here she’d make a stand. Not

ev en Zeb Whitaker would frighten her away .

The echoes of a song children had made up about her

drifted through her mind: “Lacy , Lacy , pretty and poor.

Nobody ’s daughter any more. Lacy , Lacy dirty and wild.

Just an orphan, nobody ’s child.” She’d been passed around

between neighbors so much as a child, when folks asked

where she was from she alway s thought of say ing, “The

back of a wagon.”

Closing her ey es, she drifted to sleep.

Walker stomped around in the tiny liv ing room

telling himself she might appreciate him being quiet, but

that was probably all the ungrateful woman would

appreciate. She hadn’t bothered to thank him for riding

three day s to get to her.

He tugged off his wet boots and mov ed them close

enough to the fire to dry by morning. She’d looked like

she’d gladly kill him when he entered, and then she

hadn’t said three words to him before she accused him of

rape. This wasn’t going to be an easy assignment.

The tiny cooking stov e in the kitchen was the only

heat, and it hardly warmed the liv ing space. He could

guess how cold her bedroom must be with its northern

exposure. Not that he cared, he reminded himself. He was

here to keep her aliv e. No harm would come to her on his

watch. He’d told her two y ears ago he had no room in his

life for a wife, and nothing had changed.

“Nothing,” he mumbled as he unpacked. Except that

he couldn’t forget the way she’d felt, or smelled … or how

she’d fought back tears when he’d made her his wife in

more than name only . She’d haunted him like a plague

through waking and dreaming since that day . May be

spending a few weeks with her would finally clear his

mind of the memory of the way she’d felt beneath him.

He sat on what he thought was one of the chairs

cov ered by a colorful quilt and tumbled to the floor.

Rolling quickly back to his feet, he lifted the material and

found only a wooden box beneath quilts pinned to look like

arms of a chair. He examined the other furnishings. With

the quilts they both looked like chairs, but they were

simply frames and not ev en sturdy ones.

Marching to the couch, he lifted the lay ers of

patchwork quilts and found only boxes stacked up

beneath. They did look strong enough to hold his weight,

but little more.

Except for the kitchen table and chairs, and a stool,

it appeared all the furniture was make-believ e.

How fitting, he thought, fake furniture in a fake

marriage.

Spreading out his bedroll on the rug, Walker tried to

relax and get some sleep, but the knowledge that she

probably shiv ered behind the closed door bothered him.

Other things also worried him. He’d been sending her half

of his salary since he’d learned they were married, but

there was a sparseness about the way she liv ed that ev en

the colorful quilts couldn’t hide. The little food in the

cupboard, the lack of firewood, the absence of furnishings.

She was barely surv iv ing when she should hav e been able

to liv e comfortably on his money plus the amount the

paper brought in.

A cat crawled out from beneath the stool and stared

at him.

“Great,” Walker mumbled and rolled ov er. “On top

of ev ery thing else, she has a cat!”

Another pair of feline ey es stared at him from a

shelf, watching him as if considering him little more than

prey .“I hate cats,” he mumbled and pulled his army-issue

blanket ov er his head.

CHAPTER 3

LACY AWOKE TO THE SOUND OF A DOOR

CLOSING. She pulled her blanket down just enough to see

that she’d ov erslept. Not that it mattered. Duncan and

Jay Boy would pick up the papers and start selling them

without her help. Eli, because his joints hurt too badly to

go outside in the weather, would hopefully be downstairs

in time to open if any one needed to place an ad for next

week. She didn’t hav e to be in the shop early ; they all

knew about the hidden key .

Holding on to as much of the cov ers as she could, she

stood, shuffled to the window, and pulled back the heav y

curtain. Nev er a morning person, Lacy usually had to let

the sun slap her hard to pull her from sleep. She hated

mornings, feeling she could easily go the rest of her life

without ev er seeing the sun rise.

A full day greeted her, pushing the memory of her

dreams aside. From the number of people milling about, it

had to be past eight. Clouds still blocked any brightness

from the sun, but the threat of snow didn’t keep the folks

of Cedar Point from Saturday morning activ ities. Sev eral

farmers were already setting up their wagons in the

empty space between the saloon and the sheriff’s office.

Unless Sheriff Riley posted notice of a hanging, ev ery one

agreed that Saturday was trading day .

This late in the season, farmers brought in mostly

v egetables from their root cellars and canned goods along

with eggs and salted hams. Usually the Church Women’s

League had a table of handmade items for sale: crocheted

pot holders and bits of lace women had donated as part of

their dues. Crocheted Bible cov ers had been a hot seller

last spring, but now the leftov ers were beginning to

y ellow. Another month, and the lacy Christmas angels

would replace the cov ers on the table.

The merchants on Main Street, from the saloon to

the blacksmith, hauled their wares outside for display .

Miss Julie Stauffer’s small table by the hotel was already

stacked with fresh cinnamon-raisin rolls. She was the

hotel owner’s daughter and a beauty . Though her rolls

weren’t the best, single men lined up ev ery Saturday to

buy them and v isit. More than one cowhand had gotten

sick eating too many .

Lacy grinned. Only the undertaker seemed left out

of the trading. Ev en the barber had been known to take a

chicken in exchange for a whole family ’s haircuts.

Another hour, and ev ery one for miles around would be in

town exchanging and talking. Lacy hurried to the chest of

drawers and dressed as fast as she could.

Saturday excitement alway s tickled her. Today

she’d sell her papers and find the news she’d need for next

week’s space. If she were lucky , sev eral folks would be in to

place small ads.

As she pulled her dress ov er her head, a noise came

from the other room. For a second, she thought one of her

cats had knocked something off one of the shelv es he

alway s crowded onto. Probably Andy . He was alway s

climbing into small spaces between books and along

windowsills.

Then she remembered she had company . How could

she hav e forgotten?

Walker! Last night’s nightmare apparently still

lurked bey ond the door.

A cat y elped suddenly in pain.

Without thinking of how she must look, Lacy pushed

the dresser aside and ran out of her bedroom. If he’d hurt

one of her cats, she’d kill him straight out and explain her

actions later.

She almost collided with a wall of wool uniform

before she brought herself to a sudden stop. He stood just

bey ond her door, his fist raised to the lev el of her face. For

a moment, they both stared, truly surprised to see the

other so close.

Lacy , recov ering first, stepped back. “What are y ou

doing? Hav e y ou hurt my cats?”

Walker looked frustrated, which she was beginning

to think must be his natural expression. “I was about to

knock on y our door to see if y ou were up, but I

accidentally stepped on a mangy excuse for an animal

and the thing responded like a doorbell.”

Lacy noticed Andy sev eral feet away , licking his

tail. “Try not to kill my cats while you’re here protecting

me.” She lifted her chin and stepped back, attempting to

put more space between them.

The back of her head hit the doorjamb.

Walker mov ed closer, but Lacy stopped him. “Don’t,”

she said with one hand raised while the other rubbed the

back of her head.

“I was only —”

She stood her ground. “Don’t touch me.”

He retreated a safe distance. “I didn’t plan to hurt

y ou,” he said. “And as for that cat, he looks like a few

freight wagons hav e already run ov er him.”

She glanced at Andy . Half his tail was missing along

with one ear. His short fur was a mixture of black and

brown, making him look muddy . She held out her arms to

him, but the cat showed no interest in needing comfort

from her.

“Is y our head all right? May be y ou should sit down.”

He glanced at the furniture and looked like he was

reconsidering his offer.

For the first time, she noticed he was fully dressed in

his uniform, with boots newly polished. He made a

striking figure in dark blue, but she knew better than

any one else that no heart beat beneath the uniform.

She stopped rubbing her sore head and tried to pull

her hair into some kind of order. “You’re leav ing?” It was

a hope more than a question.

“No. I alway s get up an hour before dawn.” His v oice

lowered as he talked, as if once more pulling himself into

complete control. “Since I consumed y our store of food last

night, I went down and restocked y our supply .” When she

didn’t thank him, he added, “I also made breakfast.”

“You cooked?”

He pointed to the kitchen and waited for her to lead

the way . “It’s a necessary skill I learned y ears ago.”

Lacy tiptoed into the kitchen, aware that he

followed. She smelled coffee and Julie Stauffer’s rolls. Food

cov ered the tiny kitchen table. Bacon, eggs, pancakes,

bread, and sev eral jars of canned fruit.

“I didn’t know what y ou liked.” His words were

matter-of-fact. “So, I picked up a little of ev ery thing as the

farmers set up on the street.” He pulled out her chair and

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