A Texan's Choice (Heart of a Hero Series #3)by Shelley Gray, Shelley Gray
Sometimes heroes are disguised as gunslingers . . . and sometimes the most unlikely dreams really can come true.See more details below
Sometimes heroes are disguised as gunslingers . . . and sometimes the most unlikely dreams really can come true.
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A Texan's Choice
Book 3 of the Heart of a Hero series
By Shelley Gray
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Shelley Sabga
All rights reserved.
They'd been waiting five days for her father to die.
Only a strong sense of duty drove Rosemarie back into the darkened room, where the scents of whiskey and sickness grabbed her the moment she crossed the threshold. When she coughed, in a half-hearted attempt to adjust to the dim, thick air, six faces turned to her in surprise. The seventh occupant was oblivious.
"Sorry," she murmured around yet another cough. "Didn't mean to startle y'all."
"Rosemarie. Hush now," her mother ordered. "You're gonna disturb your pa."
Yet—as much as Rose could tell—Pa continued to lay motionless. The only sign he was still alive was the faint fluttering of the collar on his nightshirt. Though she hadn't been invited to do so, Rosemarie edged closer to the bed.
It wasn't easy to do with too many people packed into a too-small bedroom, and the place had never been much anyway.
Of course, it went without saying that their whole house had never been much. Her father had built it from a slew of cast-off boards from someone else's broken barn. Judging by the gaps in the planks, Rose had always assumed the former owners had known what they were doing when they'd left the wood for scrap before heading back east.
Her family had settled into the fifty-acre farm eight years ago, in the midst of the war. It lay just outside the borders of Broken Promise, a sorry little town if there ever was one.
But it had become home.
Her father had used every cent he had to settle them in and had promptly named the ranch "Bar C." Though the red dirt and loads of dust didn't look like much of anything, Pa had said the land was as good as any.
He was happy to settle and escape the fighting, though Rose had never understood exactly what was wrong with him.
Her mother had slapped her silly the one time she'd asked.
Now, though, her father seemed dwarfed by his past as much as by the old iron bed frame above his head, the pair of oak rocking chairs to his left, and group of bodies surrounding him.
Rosemarie stood in the perimeter, looking in, trying to see her father's face. But all she saw was the jumble of covers covering the majority of his chest. A wide splotch of brownish liquid had soaked into the warring rings making up the quilt. The once pristine white and soothing pink rings looked like faded replicas of what they'd once been, and that was the truth.
His breathing turned labored.
"How is he doing? Any change?" she finally asked, unable to bear the silence anymore. Unable to bear the idea that the waiting would continue. And continue some more after that.
"Ah, Rose." Doc glanced her way over a pair of wirerimmed spectacles. "I'm afraid I have no good news for you. He's about the same."
"His breathing slowed," her mother added somewhat hopefully.
With a weary nod, Pastor Colson nodded. "I believe it has. He'll be with the Lord soon, Rosemarie."
The comment had come from a sense that too much had happened that could never be repaired. They'd known for days now that their father wasn't going to get better, and since they'd begun the deathwatch, the atmosphere among all of them had turned into a helpless sense of inevitability.
Actually, the air in the room was so thick with the mingling of warm bodies, the light so dim, and the smell of sickness and despair so overpowering, Rose knew death would have to be better than the current situation.
But she probably should never have acknowledged that. To her right, her sister Annalise gasped. "Rose, how could you say such a thing?"
Though Rose knew Annalise had probably felt the same way—as did everyone else in the room—she apologized. "I'm sorry. I spoke out of turn."
"You certainly did."
"However, I dare say that heaven is a whole lot better," Rose said, not quite able to hide the irony she was feeling. After all, this place had never been good.
At least not for her.
Since Annalise only blinked, looking determined to pretend that they were in the middle of one of those fancy homes owned by the cattle barons—and the others looked grateful to have something to think about besides her father's labored breaths—Rose continued. "Heaven is supposed to be a wonderful place, right? A whole lot better than this?" When her sister merely continued to look shocked, Rose looked to the preacher for support.
Pastor Colson, however, was praying over his clasped hands.
"You need to learn to keep your thoughts to yourself, daughter," her mother murmured. "No one wants to hear your opinions."
No one ever had ... well, not since her brother, Pete, had died under her watch. "Yes'm."
The atmosphere relaxed a bit as all eyes turned back to Ben Cousins. With bated breath, they continued to watch Pa gasp and struggle to wheeze. No one touched him, not the doctor nor the preacher. Not Annalise. Not even her mother.
Maybe not especially May Cousins. Rose couldn't blame her mother for that, though, because her pa had never been much of a good man. In many ways, he hadn't been a bad one either.
No, more like her father was a study in what could have been. He could have been brighter, smarter, handsomer, or even nicer. Maybe even meaner. Instead, he'd often faded into the woodwork, not doing much of anything.
The thing was, no one expected him to do much, anyway. Not even to stay fighting in the war.
If Rose had been a betting woman, she'd have pretty much bet all her worth that no one had actually ever liked Ben Cousins, except, perhaps, his momma.
After all, what did you do with a man who clung to dreams like strings from kites and who made promises with the smallest amount of hope possible? Dreams only got you so far in the middle of November when the wind was howling, the fireplace was bare, and there wasn't a thing in the rickety house worth eating.
Once, when Rose was supposed to be sleeping but couldn't because her parents were going at it something fierce, May Cousins let forth a stream of dire words. "You're nothing but a waste and a wastrel, Ben. Day after day I've been waiting for you to go do something of means, but all you do is say that you don't feel well or that you've got plans in town. You're nothing but a worthless mass of bones and skin."
Rose reckoned that to be a pretty fair description.
Pa had been all of that and more. Full of shiny smiles and made-up promises. He was a shell of a man, his pride and confidence as brittle and fragile as one of the eggs the hens laid on a good day.
Now, as he lay dying, he wasn't much better.
Predictably, he was taking forever to meet his maker, holding up a mess of chores and work in the meantime.
Maybe Jesus wasn't in a real hurry to visit with him, neither.
As if reading her mind, May Cousins looked up from her perch next to her husband's side, the damp rag limp in her hand. "Rosemarie, do something to make yourself useful. Fetch more water, would you?"
Rose knocked into the thick door as she hastily walked back out. Her clash with the door's frame rang out a racket, drawing her older sister's scorn. "Can't you even walk right?"
Her sister's impatience was no surprise. Annalise Cousins Petula was only three years older but was comprised of a lifetime of different choices. At twenty-two, she was married, nursing a new baby, and still managed to look fresh and beautiful. Of course, Annalise had always managed to look perfect, even when she'd lived with them.
In contrast, Rosemarie, with her riot of brown curls and murky blue eyes, always seemed to be in need of a mirror.
She'd never had a patient nature, had hardly ever been able to sit still. That was surely why she'd spent the day brewing coffee, frying flatbread, and fetching for everyone else. It was why she'd gotten up early to take care of the chickens and Sam, the pig. It was why her hair was falling out of its hastily pinned bun and her bare feet were dirty.
Even in the chilly month of November.
Knowing that even if she got a pail of water and brought it back without dripping a drop, her mother would still find fault, Rose passed the pump and just kept going. She threw open the rickety back door, raced down the four steps, and welcomed freedom.
Grains of dust, cold and hard and unforgiving, spat up underfoot, mixing with the hem of her calico. A few errant pebbles scattered, flying in her path. One hit the wheel of the doctor's buggy, the sharp sound spurring his horse to lift his ears in annoyance. But no one yelled, and the air smelled clean. It felt so good to be outside.
The sun was setting, bringing with it a riot of color in the otherwise mud-brown horizon. In the distance, an owl hooted, signaling his dismay about the intrusion to the peaceful silence.
Rose didn't care. With eager feet, she passed the doc's buggy and the preacher's mare. She scurried by chicken pens. Around the gate to the garden. Finally with care, she approached the lone fence post. Pa had pounded it in the earth years ago, back when he'd intended to fence in their property. He'd never gotten any farther. It was as good a symbol as any, showing Broken Promise—maybe even the world—that the Cousinses never had much and weren't likely to, neither. Just beyond their land was opportunity. Rose clasped it gratefully.
As the sun continued to set, she spoke, praying and talking. Communicating with the only one who seemed to care about her. "Why's it taking so long, Lord? I'm thinking Pa's suffered enough."
The wind howled, slapping her in the face, bringing her shame for even wishing her Pa would hurry up and do the inevitable.
After all, their neighbors, the Kowalchecks, had crops to tend to. Annalise needed to get on home to her snooty husband. And, well, everyone else just seemed plumb worn out from all the waiting.
Was wishing for death so wrong? Rosemarie wasn't sure. But there had to be hope in death if there wasn't in life, right? And, well, Doc Breane said Pa's condition wasn't going to get better. Ever. Everyone had been on deathwatch for days. Rose couldn't remember for certain the last time her pa had been awake. One week ago? Ten days? Too long, for sure.
So shouldn't they all be hoping that Pa's glorious salvation would come sooner than later?
Life, such as if was, needed to go on.
As the sun sank and darkness flooded the plains, a stillness rose. No moon, or even a star deigned to keep her company. Only the wind, that howling, never- ending factor that was always present. Cool air sank into her bones. Crept in, teasing her with its company. Spurring her to duty, no matter how unpleasant. It was time to go back inside.
But then, in the distance, a shadow appeared. As it got bigger, Rose felt the vibration of horse hooves on the ground. Who now?
Unafraid, Rose watched the rider approach. Was it Mr. Wilson, their neighbor to the north? Russ Parker, the sheriff?
Annalise's husband? No doubt he would be looking for his dinner and his wife.
But as the shadow formed, Rose sensed he was a stranger. She knew of no man who sat a horse so perfectly. And she'd certainly not seen a black stallion of that size and strength.
He came closer.
Rose noticed his boots were black. The horse's bridle had a bit of silver. His duster was long and black and worn.
Who was he? Fear rose inside her.
His horse slowed as he approached, then finally came to a stop a good four feet away. Under the brim of the hat, pale blue eyes met her own.
For the first time in her life, Rose was afraid to speak. This man looked powerful and strong. Vaguely threatening.
"Ma'am?" His voice sounded scratchy, like he wasn't used to talking. Very slowly he tipped the rim of his black hat.
After swallowing hard, she found her voice. "What do you want?"
Before he could answer, a scream tore through the night, spooking the horses, even the stranger's. After the man gained control, he glanced at the window, then looked at her in concern. "What just happened?"
Rose knew. She knew as sure as if she'd been asked to stand by the bed, been allowed to hold her pa's hand. Loosening her right hand's death grip on the post, she pointed behind her. "I do believe my pa just died."
The sound of crying curled through the loose planks of their home, then dissipated into night air. To her surprise, Rose found she was not immune. Tears trekked down her cheeks—though maybe her eyes were watering from the cold that had suddenly engulfed her.
In front of her, still mounted on his very fine, very tall horse, the man in the black Stetson cursed under his breath. Finally, he spoke again, his voice low and husky. "Now, don't that beat all? My timing never was worth beans."
"Mister, who are you?"
After a lengthy pause, he spit out the words. "My name is Scout Proffitt."
Even someone as isolated as Rose knew the name. "You're an outlaw." Dime store novels told his tales. He'd killed before. Whispers hinted that he'd done worse.
All the novels also claimed that he wore only black. And this man, well, he certainly fit the bill.
"An outlaw? That's putting things a little harsh, don't you think?"
She thought it suited him just fine. "Why are you here?" Rose gripped the post as if her very livelihood depended on it.
"To claim my property ... if this is indeed the Bar C."
She heard the hint of sarcasm. The mess of boards and barbed wire in the middle of nowhere certainly didn't look in need of a name. "This is the Bar C. But it isn't your property. It's ours."
"It is now." A drop of humor and something else entered his eyes. As he leaned back in his saddle, he almost smiled. Almost. "Your pa bet this place and lost."
Rose struggled to grasp what he was saying. "My pa bet our home? Our land?"
"He did. Last time he came through Shawnee." His voice drifted off as he scanned the area. With one pass, he seemed to take in everything. The scraggly mesquite trees in the distance. The weed-filled garden. The planks in the house with the strangely beautiful door. The sorry state of the barn. The red dust that covered it all. "Though, by the looks of things, I reckon I might have come up as the loser after all."
As the crying continued in the distance, and the hens squawked their discomfort, as Rose heard her mother call for help and felt the burst of wind blow yet another curl loose from its pins, Rose had a feeling that he might be right.
"Rose? Rose! Where are you, girl?"
The gunslinger's mouth twitched. "Is that you? Rose?"
Wearily, she nodded.
With a look of sympathy, the outlaw pushed back his hat. "I guess you're needed. Go on now. Don't worry, I'll still be here when you come back."
She figured he would. After all, he'd come to claim her home.
As Rose turned and ran, she wasn't sure if she was afraid of that or very, very glad.
One more time, her sister yelled her name. "Rose, get in here!"
"I'm a-comin'!" she yelled, back to the house where she'd always wished she'd never been. Back to the home she'd always wished she'd never known.CHAPTER 2
After Rose had gone into the house—such that it was—Scout threw his leg over the horn and slid to the ground. Figuring the lone post was as good as anywhere, he tethered Rio to it. And then took a good look around.
The house was made of planks, sprinkled liberally with mud. The windows were glass, but dirtier than the depths of a murky pond stained with silt, making his view of the inhabitants hazy at best.
The house was a sad and ugly thing. Not near as pretty or large as the house he'd grown up in with his brother and sister.
It was even smaller than the house he'd lived in with Corrine during the war, back when it had been basically just the two of them since Clayton was off fighting Yankees as soon as he'd been able.
But one thing that the house did have going for it was a curiously attractive door. It looked to be solid oak. A master carpenter had carved an arch on the top, making the panel curved and pretty. But the nicest thing about the door was that it was painted a bright shiny red.
The door reminded him of some of the city houses he'd seen out in St. Louis. The door looked stately and high class and so completely out of place that it seemed like a bandit must have stolen the thing and attached it to this grandiose shack.
Just for kicks.
Excerpted from A Texan's Choice by Shelley Gray. Copyright © 2012 Shelley Sabga. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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