To keep them safe
Duel McClain has lost everything he’s ever loved: his wife, his son, his sense of self. But when a strange twist of fate—and a poker game he’ll never forget—leaves an innocent little girl in his care, Duel vows to defend his new family to his very last breath. If only he knew a single thing about taking care of babies…
Just as Duel swears his life can’t get any more complicated, a beautiful woman stumbles into the light of his campfire, desperate for help. Jessie Foltry is hungry, tired, and running for her life. She agrees to help Duel care for the child in exchange for his protection, even as she fights to guard her broken heart. But Duel will do whatever it takes to make Jessie see that the Texas plains have more than one kind of knight, and perhaps their salvation is closer than either of them could have dreamed…
Panic set in when Duel returned to camp less than an hour later to find the bedroll empty. Blood pounded in his temples as he scanned the area for Jessie and Marley Rose. Then he heard the faint sound of a child’s happy gurgle.
He suddenly developed four left feet in his haste to find the missing pair. A mesquite branch grabbed his shirt, tearing a long gash. It didn’t matter. Nothing did except finding his baby girl and making sure nothing happened to her. Only one thing stopped him dead in his tracks-—the metallic click of a cocked hammer and a cold warning.
“Stop where you are or you’re a dead man, mister.”
She certainly sounded serious. He mentally kicked himself for not searching for a weapon when Jessie busted in on their camp last evening. The thought of running his hands over those soft curves looking for cold metal increased his sudden need for air.
With some effort, he pulled his thoughts back to the situation at hand. Was the pistol loaded or did she merely hope to bluff? Unfortunately, he had only one way of knowing.
“Ma’am? Miss Jessie? It’s me, Duel.” He inched forward.
“You come a step closer and I’ll blow your head clean off your shoulders.”
“I’m not gonna hurt you. Just want to make sure Marley Rose is all right.” Heedless of the warning, he continued to steal forward, trying to glimpse them through a copse of cottonwood saplings and tangle of brush that grew beside the winding creek.
“I’d feel better if I took her back to camp…” He used his most gentle tone—the one he might use to cajole a wild, scared mustang.
“Hang on to your nightshirt.” She sounded a tad riled.
The time to dance was when the music was playing. With a careful hand, he pushed aside the branches of a sapling to create a small opening. Then he saw them. A half-dressed Jessie sat on a rock holding a six-shooter pointed directly at him, while Marley Rose played happily at her feet.
Lucky for him the brush still hid him from her view or she’d have him doing the hot-water jig.
Early morning sunlight caught the woman’s hair, sending shots of fire through the warm cinnamon curls. Duel held his breath, unable to move at the sight. Though marred by dark bruises, creamy skin peeked from a thin undergarment that dipped low across her bosom. He’d not seen such a vision since Annie died, and the sight stirred a longing in him.
Cautiously, Jessie laid the weapon on the ground and vainly looked for something to cover herself with. Finding nothing, she hauled her wet dress from the creek. He surmised she’d been washing blood from herself and the garment, blood that belonged to someone else, or so she claimed.
Holding the water-soaked clothing to her with one hand and picking up the gun with the other, she directed, “Come and get your baby, mister. But, I’m warning you. Touch me and so help me God I’ll shoot you.”
The crack in her flinty voice struck a cord. Duel ached to take her in his arms and hold her until all the hurt was gone. Until the fear of men had left. Until she could walk confidently in this wild Texas land. He wanted to make her smile again.
Taking care not to startle the woman, he eased his big frame forward with both hands in the air.
“There you are, Marley Rose.” He spoke gently as he scooped the baby into his arms. “I’ll bet you’re ready for some vittles if I can only coax some milk from that ornery goat.”
He stole a quick glance at Jessie. Up close and in the light of day, the severity of the dark bruises made his stomach lurch uncomfortably. Instead of a belly-up armadillo, her face resembled something that had been drug behind a horse—through a cactus patch. His anger bubbled.
The need to speak some words of comfort tied his tongue in knots. What could a man say that would change anything? Sorry that any fellow human could do that to another wouldn’t suffice. Besides, blue fire in the eye that wasn’t swelled shut told him what he could do with any pity he might feel.
“Coffee’s brewing, Miss Jessie ma’am. I’ve got us some rabbits for breakfast when you’re done here. Hope you’re hungry” Maybe she didn’t expect kindness from anyone, or perhaps she didn’t trust herself to speak, for she only nodded.
Marley Rose stuck two fingers in his mouth, finding his teeth of interest. He lowered his gaze and swung on his heels.
Call it curiosity or just plain nosiness, something made him turn for one last look. With her back to him, Jessie had knelt to resume her task.
That’s when he saw it. The bitter taste of bile rose to his throat.
Burned into the smooth whiteness of her left shoulder sat the blackened outline of a diamond with the letter “J” set clearly in the middle.
A cattle brand!
At a young age, Linda Broday discovered a love for storytelling, history, and anything pertaining to the Old West. Cowboys fascinate her. There’s something about Stetsons, boots, and tall rugged cowboys that get her fired up. A New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, Linda has won many awards, including the prestigious National Readers’ Choice Award and the Texas Gold Award. She resides in the Texas Panhandle and is inspired every day.