Bandit Lawman, Texas Bride (Harlequin Historical #995)

Bandit Lawman, Texas Bride (Harlequin Historical #995)

by Carol Finch

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In a daring plan, Marshal Jackson Culpepper and his brothers disguise themselves as bandits and rob the corrupt local bank, hoping to root out the real embezzler. Too bad Cassandra Bixby was depositing her life savings that day...Naturally, Cassie demands an investigation...all the while fighting off her growing attraction to the Texas lawman who, to her

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In a daring plan, Marshal Jackson Culpepper and his brothers disguise themselves as bandits and rob the corrupt local bank, hoping to root out the real embezzler. Too bad Cassandra Bixby was depositing her life savings that day...Naturally, Cassie demands an investigation...all the while fighting off her growing attraction to the Texas lawman who, to her frustration, refuses to take her seriously.Jack is in a bind—he can't very well arrest himself! Was it safe to share his secret with this woman-on-a-mission—the woman he's coming to love?

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Harlequin Historical Series , #995
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Pepperville, Texas, Early 1880s

Cassandra Bixby paused from setting type for the newspaper to glance at the clock hanging over her desk. Pride and excitement bubbled inside her. In a few minutes, the bank would open its doors. She would be there to deposit her life savings into Aunt Louise's account.

Gerald Nash, owner and editor of the Pepperville Times, halted at the door of his private office. He was fortyish with hazel eyes and brown hair that was beginning to recede slightly. He was industrious and energetic, which accounted for his trim build. He had suffered a broken nose sometime in the past. Plus he had a slick red indentation above his left eyebrow and a half-moon scar on the underside of his jaw.

Cassie wondered how he'd come to have them but she'd never asked.

He glanced curiously at Cassie and frowned. "Is something wrong? You've been watching the clock for a half hour."

"No." She pivoted to face him as she wiped the ink off her hands. "Everything is right today. I'm paying off my long-standing debt to Aunt Louise, soon as the bank opens. I've been pinching pennies for years. Since tomorrow is her birthday, it's going to be my gift to her."

"Very commendable," Gerald said approvingly. "But Louise doesn't seem the kind of woman who would expect compensation."

"She isn't, but she made all sorts of personal concessions and sacrifices to fetch me from an unpleasant situation after my parents died. She raised me as her own and paid for my schooling back East. I don't know why she decided to move from Hillsdale to set up another restaurant here, but that had to be another expense. I want to pay her what I owe."

Cassie glanced at the clock again. "I'll take my pouch to the bank but I shouldn't be gone but a few minutes."

"Save me a trip and take my deposits with you," he requested.

While Gerald strode back into his office to retrieve the collected money from newspaper sales, Cassie scooped up her bulging purse. The black cat that had adopted her when she moved to town bounded off the windowsill and hopped onto her desk. He rubbed himself against her arm until she petted him.

"Aunt Louise is definitely going to remember her thirty-seventh birthday," Cassie told Maxwell the tomcat. "Besides repaying my debt, we're having a city-wide surprise party at the restaurant. Not to mention the tribute recognizing her as the only female business owner in town."

Maxwell purred in reply. Cassie, who advocated women's rights and social reform, was proud of her aunt's as-sertiveness and accomplishments. In fact, Aunt Louise's modern philosophies and progressive thinking had molded Cassie into the woman she'd become.

"Here you go." Gerald dropped the hefty pouch in her hand then winked at her. "Thanks to your thought-provoking articles, our circulation has increased. So have profits. I'm glad Louise talked me into hiring you. Best decision I ever made."

Cassie beamed at the compliment as she rubbed Maxwell behind his half-bitten-off ear. She remembered arriving in town six weeks earlier to help Aunt Louise at Bixby Café. When she applied for this job, Gerald hadn't been particularly enthusiastic or receptive.

Cassie had returned to the café, discouraged by Gerald's reply: Give me time to think it over. I'll be in touch when I decide.

Louise Bixby—assertive, grab-the-bull-by-the-horns kind of woman that she was—had marched next door to the newspaper office to plead Cassie's case. She returned thirty minutes later to announce that Gerald had thought it over and decided a female assistant was exactly what he needed.

Cassie hadn't been privy to that conversation but she was thrilled with her new job. That was yet another example of Aunt Louise's dedication to seeing Cassie make a promising start in her chosen career.

Cassie shrugged into her coat to ward off the chill of the windy spring day, then headed for the door. Maxwell trailed along behind her. "I'll finish setting type when I return," she promised Gerald.

"Better your nimble fingers than mine." Gerald propped his shoulder against the office door then wiggled the two stiff fingers on his right hand—she hadn't asked how he'd come by that injury, either. "You're twice as fast as I am. Another reason why I should have hired you without a moment's hesitation." He smiled guiltily. "But I made the mistake of thinking that as young and attractive as you are, you couldn't possibly…"

When his voice trailed off Cassie arched a blond brow. "Couldn't possibly have a brain in my head? I swear, that is the very attitude my kindred spirits are trying to dispel while crusading for the right to vote so we can have a voice in the legislature."

Gerald chuckled as he flung up both hands in supplication. "No need to lecture me. I've seen the error of my ways. Now I support women's suffrage wholeheartedly. Your aunt would pound me over the head with a rolling pin if I didn't."

"I suspect you're right." She frowned pensively as she studied her distinguished-looking but battle-scarred boss. He and Aunt Louise seemed to be friends, besides owning businesses that stood side-by-side. She wondered…

Gerald flicked his wrist dismissively. "When you look at me like that, it makes me nervous. You're making a monumental trip to the bank. Remember? Get to it, Cassie."

Cassie snapped to attention and discarded her thoughts of a budding romance between her boss and her aunt. She buttoned her coat and strode outside to cross town square. Which was, in actuality, a circle. An octagonal-shaped courthouse sat in the middle of the surrounding lawn. Nearby, steam rose from the hot mineral spring that gurgled from the rocky hillside, one of the many springs found in the area.

Local businesses encircled the park. Streets jutted off like spokes on a wagon wheel. Cassie wasn't sure why the founding family of Pepperville had laid out the town lots in peculiar shapes, but it made the town unique.

Her thoughts trailed off as she passed a whiskered old man—Wilbur Knox was his name. He sat on a bench beside the steaming springs, soaking both feet in a small tub.

"Mornin', Mizz Bixby," he mumbled as he readjusted his tattered clothing.

"Good morning to you, sir. Your gout and arthritis must be bothering you today," she replied. "Sorry to see that."

"Read your newspaper article about that Morris woman stirring up trouble in Wyoming—"

"She wasn't making trouble—" Cassie tried to interrupt but Wilbur talked over her.

"—by giving women the right to vote. Don't sound like a good idea to me," he said candidly.

Cassie watched Wilbur limp over to the steamy spring to heat up his basin of mineral water. "If you were a woman you might think it was a grand idea."

"Well, the legislature voted it down in '76 so that's that. Besides, you're too darn pretty to bother with suffrage campaigns. You need a man to support you instead of working at the newspaper office. Don't know what Gerald was thinking when he hired a woman."

Cassie gnashed her teeth and reminded herself that scads of small-minded males from the older generation resisted the thought of women gaining equality. In Cassie's opinion, the Western frontier was fertile ground for modern thinking and social reform. Here, women could hold jobs that were frowned upon and considered men's work in the East. The frontier lifestyle demanded men and women work together to establish farms, ranches and businesses.

Single women and widows could own property but married women were denied ownership in many states. Because of Spanish influence, women in Texas retained more rights than in the East where English tradition reigned supreme. But Texas had yet to grant women voting privileges that allowed them a voice to improve their lives and establish social reform.

Cassie frowned thoughtfully, wondering if Aunt Louise had settled in Texas so she could acquire the property for her two-year-old restaurant and the café she'd opened in Hillsdale before starting her business in Pepperville.

As for Cassie, she'd had difficulty getting her foot in the journalistic door after she'd finished her education in Boston. If her boss at the magazine office hadn't taken ill with influenza—he had required a month of bed rest to recuperate—she might not have had a chance to step into his shoes and subsequently be recognized as a serious journalist.

When Cassie discarded her wandering thoughts, she heard Wilbur make another comment about women staying in their proper places at home. She considered telling the hidebound old coot to soak his head instead of his feet in the mineral springs, but she clamped down on her tongue. She refused to let Wilbur spoil her grand mood. Starting today, she was free of the burden of obligation she felt to her aunt. Louise would have a tidy nest egg and Cassie could begin saving to purchase her own home rather than living at the boardinghouse.

With Maxwell beside her, she hiked across the park encircle by a hotel, butcher shop, general store, opera house, bakery, the Bixby Café and several other thriving businesses. Excitement built inside her as she approached the bank. Forcing Max to wait outside, she took her place in line behind two men who were dressed like the trail drovers who passed through in the spring and fall, delivering cattle herds to the railhead in Dodge City.

Pepperville was close enough to the Chisholm Trail to accommodate drovers and cowboys who restocked supplies and wet their whistles at the local saloons on the northwest side of town—away from the more respectable businesses that lined the circular park. The cowboys also paid visits to the red-light district that Cassie would like to close down.

She'd wanted to write several scathing editorials about the brothels, but the city council was in favor of keeping them open. Gerald had suggested that she pick her battles and begin with the enlightenment of women. He insisted that trying to shut down the saloons and brothels would be as bad as stirring up a nest of angry wasps. That, he said, would be bad for her health and for his business and livelihood.

"What do you mean I can't withdraw cash?" the drover at the front of the line demanded, jostling Cassie from her pensive musings. "This is a bank, isn't it? I put money in here last fall when I brought my herd through. Now I need to restock supplies."

The scrawny teller in his late thirties, whose pointy nose and shifty eyes always reminded Cassie of a rodent, stared at the man through his thick wire-rimmed glasses. "I'm sorry, sir, but withdrawals that size take at least a day. If you could return tomorrow—"

"I plan to stock the wagons and be on the trail tomorrow," the drover interrupted gruffly. He shook his finger in Millard Stewart's face. "The money better be here bright and early in the morning. Otherwise, the bank owner and I are going to butt heads!"

The agitated customer lurched around and stamped off.

The second trail drover heard the same story from the teller and he issued a few threats of his own before he stalked out. A cold draft swept through the bank before he slammed the door with enough force to rattle the pane-glass windows.

Cassie waited impatiently while Gladys Truman, a plump elderly widow with a face like a wrinkled peach, deposited a small amount of money into her account. Cassie knew the white-haired woman had difficulty making ends meet and took in mending for extra money. Cassie and Aunt Louise took their clothing to Gladys, even if they could have tended the tasks themselves. Other kindhearted citizens did the same.

"You keep up those editorials to encourage women to speak out for their rights," Gladys said as she turned away from the teller's window. "My husband, God save his close-minded soul, considered me his servant and his property. You wouldn't believe how many times I was tempted to stitch his mouth shut so I could tell him, without interruption, what I thought of his backward ideas. This state has given black males the right to vote. Why not women, too?"

"I couldn't agree more," Cassie replied with a smile.

She liked Gladys Truman. A lot. She seemed to be enjoying her independence and widowhood more than her confining marriage. According to Aunt Louise, there had been no love lost between the Trumans. Their families had arranged the union and the couple simply tolerated each other.

In Cassie's opinion, marriage benefited men more than women and love rarely entered into the equation. Her parents were the exception. They had cared for and respected each other. Unlike the bickering that went on while Cassie lived with her mother's sister and her family for five endless years after her parents' tragic death in a carriage accident.

Five years of hell and the loss of her inheritance, Cassie mused bitterly. There was no telling what would have become of her if Aunt Louise—her father's younger sister—hadn't stormed in to retrieve her, despite the personal risk of traveling north during the war between the states. She had whisked Cassie off to Texas to care and provide for her.

"May I help you, Mizz Bixby?" the teller asked, drawing her from her wandering thoughts.

Cassie retrieved her pouch from her purse and set it on the counter. "I want to deposit these banknotes in Louise Bixby's account." She set Gerald's leather poke beside the heaping pouch. "This money goes in the newspaper account—"

Her voice dried up when a gust of cold air blasted through the bank. The door crashed against the wall and a collective gasp of alarm erupted behind her. Cassie glanced over her shoulder to see two men, dressed in long canvas dusters and sombreros, toting double-barrel shotguns.

They had covered their heads with black hoods. Cheesecloth inserts concealed the color of their eyes and shapes of their mouths. Both men towered over the customers like burly giants. They must have weighed at least three hundred pounds each. The chink of the large rowels on their silver spurs sounded like a death knell in the grim silence.

They motioned with the barrels of their shotguns, forcing customers to line up against the wall and raise their hands over their heads.

"That goes for you, too, señorita," the nearest bank robber said in a muffled voice.

Everything inside Cassie rebelled against the terse command delivered with the heavy Spanish accent. No! No! No! This was her big day. She was repaying her loan so she'd feel truly independent for the first time in her life! She had scrimped and sacrificed to collect this money. Plus, she was responsible for the profits Gerald had asked her to deposit in his account.

"Señorita…" The hombre's gruff voice held dangerous warning. He loomed over her like a thundercloud. "Do not cross us. My compadre is trigger-happy."

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