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Give Me A Texas Ranger
By Jodi Thomas Linda Broday Phyliss Miranda DeWanna Pace
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTexas April 1870
Annalane Barkley pulled her knees to her chin and lowered her head. Her ruined navy blue hat flopped forward like a gaudy curtain hiding her from the world.
She would give anything if she could go backward in time three weeks to the moment she decided to make the trip to Texas. She should have ripped her brother's letter into tiny pieces and stomped on it. Since the day Devin realized he'd never be as tall as his sister, he'd hated her. Why had Annalane thought two years apart would have changed anything? If he wanted her with him at Camp Supply it was for his benefit, not hers.
She vowed that if she lived through tonight, she'd demand he send her back to Washington, D.C. If she had to, she'd live with their great aunt Fretta, who dripped snuff from the left side of her mouth and had eleven cats, but she'd never come west again.
However, from the looks of things her brother, Devin, wouldn't have to pay for the ticket back. Her chances of surviving the night were growing slimmer by the hour.
Rain pounded on the roof of the one-room hut these Texans called a stagecoach station. Normally she loved the rain, but not this hard, fast downpour that thundered in rage. It shook the dust from the rafters, causing tiny bits of dirt to filter down through the damp air and turn into almost invisible mud balls on her skin.
Annalane raised her head enough to watch the four men trapped inside like her.
The driver of the coach was a little old man with nervous movements and a half-empty bottle sitting next to him for comfort. His bloodshot gaze darted around now and then like a rat waiting for a secret tunnel of escape to open up.
The station manager moved around in the corner that served as a kitchen. He was a beefy German who appeared to be multilingual only when he swore, which had been a constant rumble since their stage pulled in at full speed with outlaws in close pursuit. He'd had a meal of mud-colored stew waiting for them, but no one had ordered food.
The third man-a gambler she guessed-had a dull kind of politeness that was born more of habit than purpose. His dreary brown eyes reflected the look of a man who didn't much care if he lived or died. His collar and cuffs were stained with sweat and dirt, but a polished gold watch-chain hung from his vest. She'd never seen him check his watch, not once since he'd joined the stage at dawn.
What kind of man wears a watch and never looks at it? She smiled to herself, figuring out the riddle. The kind of man who owns only the chain.
Annalane moved slightly so she could study the fourth guest, a Texas Ranger, who'd got them to this shelter alive when the shooting started. He was long and lean, with a thin scar along his left cheek that had ended what once must have been a handsome face. His clothes were worn but well made, and his boots, though mud-covered, looked hand tooled. He had twin Colts strapped to powerful legs. The sun had baked his face until she couldn't tell if he was in his twenties or forties. Not that it mattered; she'd seen more talkative hitching posts.
Annalane sensed things in the way men moved that most people didn't notice. All those in the room knew of hard times, but this one, this Ranger, was battle worn. From the way he folded his muddy gloves into his belt, to the way he watched the window for trouble, hinted to her about his past. He'd fought, and killed, and survived many times.
Now, the Ranger was on guard. The others, including her, were just observers, or maybe future victims. The driver's hands weren't steady enough to fire a weapon. The station manager's apron was still wrapped around his waist, proving he wanted no part of any fight. Neither man could move fast enough to be of any help if trouble barreled through the door. The gambler didn't look like he cared enough even to defend his own life. Only the Ranger seemed ready.
Annalane cut her eyes back to the gambler. A coward, she thought, as she watched him flip cards onto the table. He'd run, or bargain his way through life, but never fight.
She looked back at the Ranger, who'd introduced himself as Wynn McCord when he'd climbed into the coach in Dodge. Like her, he carried a paper allowing him into the Indian Territory. Her letter said "visiting relative at Camp Supply." She had no idea what his said, but she guessed he hadn't come for a visit.
To her surprise, he glanced up and stared at her from across the room, with stormy blue eyes so piercing she had the feeling she'd been touched. His unnerving stare seemed to tell him all he needed to know in seconds. He shifted his attention back to the night beyond the window.
She stood, straightened the pleats of her traveling dress, and walked toward the Ranger.
As she stepped into the square of watery moonlight glowing on the dirt floor, the Ranger's arm shot out toward her. His fingers dug into her waist. He tugged her almost violently toward him and away from the light.
Before she could make a sound, her back hit the solid wall that framed the left side of the window and the Ranger's body held her in place.
"Thinking about suicide, lady?"
Annalane fought for breath.
"You stand in the light for long, a bullet's bound to find you." His voice was so low she doubted the others heard him.
Annalane pushed at his chest. She wasn't used to anyone being so close to her and this man towered over her as few could.
He moved back an inch. She could still feel the heat of his body and the dusty smell of leather and gunpowder that seemed to linger around him.
She straightened, deciding not to yell at him. She needed this Ranger if she planned to stay alive long enough to reach her brother at Camp Supply.
"I'd like to ask you a few questions." There was no need to do more than whisper. The man still stood so close she wouldn't have been surprised if he could read her thoughts.
As if she weren't there, he went back on watch. "I'm all out of answers. Ask someone else."
"I'm asking you." She knew she didn't have to voice the questions. He knew what she wanted to know. "And I want the truth," she added in her head-nurse tone, just to let him know he wasn't dealing with a frightened girl.
He looked at her then and smiled. "All right. The truth. Proper ladies like yourself should stay back East, where it's safe and your husband can take care of you just by locking the door at night."
He glanced at the broken parasol by the door, which she'd thought would protect her from the rain, then at her very proper shoes now muddy and ruined.
She jerked off her worthless hat before he had time to glare at it and thought of telling him that she'd used most of her savings to buy this outfit. She wanted to make a good impression when she arrived at the camp that would soon become a fort.
When she'd dressed this morning she'd thought she would be meeting her brother by nightfall. He'd written that they would have dinner with the fort's officers. She had hoped to look more than just presentable. She wanted to look, if not pretty, at least able to fit the definition of "a fine woman." But obviously, even in this Ranger's eyes, she hadn't measured up.
This morning she'd thought she was still in a civilized world. Tonight she knew different. If anyone in this territory had an ounce of brains, they'd give the horrible place to the Indians and leave. If they did need a camp to keep some kind of order, they should have crossed the Red River and set it up in Texas.
She told herself she didn't care what Ranger Wynn McCord thought of her or her clothes; he'd been nothing but rude to her all day. When the firing started he'd shoved her to the muddy floor of the coach and demanded she stay there. When they'd pulled up at the station, he'd almost ripped her arm off, jerking her from the stage and telling her to run. When she'd turned to grab her small carpetbag, she swore she had heard him growl at her.
As Annalane opened her mouth to finally point out a few of his faults, she froze, seeing only cold steel across the depth of his winter blue eyes, and she knew he wouldn't care. For one second, she wished he'd let down his guard and she could see what was inside this hard shell of a man. Surely something lay beneath.
Had he ever wanted to belong somewhere, just for one moment in time? Wanted it so badly he would believe a lie to think he was needed? Wanted it so desperately that he tried to mold himself into something he wasn't?
For one blink, she thought she recognized a loneliness that matched her own, but she doubted he had the hunger to belong somewhere as she'd had for ten years. The need to belong to someone ached in her sometimes like an open wound, but need and dreams had no place in her life.
She'd held to a dream once, then it had been shattered by one bullet. Annalane guessed this Ranger had never known love, not even for one minute. McCord had probably been born to this land and hard times. She'd not reach him with sentiment and crying.
Honesty was her only weapon and she prayed it would work.
"I have no husband to lock the door at night. I was married once for an hour before he left for the war. When he returned, his body was nailed into a box. I joined the army of nurses needed, and for four years moved between hospitals and battlegrounds." She knew she was rattling on, but she had to reach McCord. "I was baptized into battle medicine at First Bull Run, Virginia, in '61 and was there at the last in Bentonville, North Carolina in '65. There were dozens of other places where blood soaked the earth. Until last month, I worked at theArmory Square Hospital."
Something changed in the Ranger. He shifted. "I was at First Bull Run with Terry's Rangers. Hell of a battle."
She almost commented that a few of the bullets she dug out of Northern soldiers were probably his, but she remained silent. The war was over, had been for five years, even if the nightmares still remained.
"What do you want to know?" His voice was as low as the rumble of thunder outside.
"What are our chances? What options?"
The corner of his mouth lifted slightly and she had the feeling he hadn't smiled in a long time. "Spoken like a soldier."
She accepted the compliment. "One thing, remember." She held his stare. "The truth."
"I'm not in the habit of lying, Mrs. Barkley."
"No sugarcoating. Nothing left out." She'd been lied to enough to last two lifetimes. Even as she'd packed, she'd known her brother wanted her help for something other than to set up his medical practice. The silver lining in her predicament was that she'd spoiled whatever plan he had for her tonight by being late.
"Fair enough." She felt the Ranger's words against her cheek more than heard them. "I guess for what you did during the war and afterward, you deserve my respect. I saw nurses handling chaos that would bring most men to their knees. One angel in blue stopped by me in the shadows of a battle once. She wrapped my leg tight and whispered for me to hold on." The side of his mouth twitched in almost a smile. "I'm not sure I would have made it if that woman hadn't been so determined I would."
He looked at her and raised one eyebrow, as if wondering if she could have been that angel.
Annalane didn't answer. She'd done such a thing many times, as had all the other nurses. When they moved among the blood of battle they didn't think of sides, only of helping.
McCord shrugged. "I don't guess it matters now. You wore blue and I wore gray, but I figure we were in the same hell. You'll have your whole truth and my help if you want it."
She nodded, accepting his offer.
The German station manager passed around cups and offered coffee. The stage driver doctored his with whiskey. The gambler stared into the empty cup as if inspecting it for bugs before he allowed the station manager to pour coffee.
"Our chances?" Annalane whispered.
"The men waiting out there for this rain to let up before they attack are a mixture of the worst men in Texas, led by a devil who calls himself Randolph Thorn. I've been chasing them for four months. I got a tip that they planned to rob the stage for the mailbag. They think there's something in it worth crossing into Indian Territory and risking their lives for."
He hesitated, then, as if remembering his promise, answered, "Yes, but I wouldn't be worried about that if I were you. The problem you face is that Thorn and his men tend not to leave witnesses."
She saw his jaw tighten, but he forced out the truth. "If you got a gun with you and they get past me, you might want to use it. I've seen the way this gang treats women. If they find you here, you'll be wishing you were dead long before they kill you. Someone told me once that he heard Thorn brag that he kept a woman alive for four days just to hear her scream. When she was finally too weak to react no matter what he did, he left her bleeding and helpless for the coyotes."
The Ranger's hand brushed her waist to steady her.
"Options?" she whispered, forcing her back to stiffen.
"If we could put a gunman at each window, the firing would keep them away, maybe even kill enough that they'd leave."
She looked across the room. Not one of the others looked like he could protect himself, much less her.
He read her mind. "Can you handle a gun?"
"A rifle fairly well, but I've dedicated my life to saving others, not killing them."
He set his cup down and gripped her shoulder hard. "I need to know, Mrs. Barkley. Can you handle a rifle and fire to kill if you have to? Not to protect some mailbag, but to protect yourself."
All the hundreds of men she'd bandaged and held while they cried for their mothers or wives before they died filled her mind. All the men left broken and amputated who'd stared at her with hollow eyes, as if wishing she'd left them to die in battle.
She wasn't a coward. She faced the Ranger directly when she whispered, "I'm not sure."
She'd expected to see disappointment in his eyes, but instead she saw understanding.
As Annalane had all her life, she made up her mind and acted. "Whatever you plan, I'm going with you."
"It won't be safe. I could travel faster alone, maybe bring back help."
"It isn't safe here." She glanced at the other men. None of the three looked like they would hesitate to use her as a shield. "I won't slow you down. I promise."
The Ranger nodded once. "One condition. You follow orders."
"Agreed." She saw something in his gaze. "What else? What have you not told me?"
He bit the corner of his mouth, hesitating, then leaned so close his chin brushed her hair. With his breath against her ear, he whispered, "I think one of the men in this room usually rides with the outlaws. Problem is, I don't know which one."
Annalane would have fallen if his lean body hadn't shifted slightly to hold her up.
Chapter TwoRanger Wynn McCord tried to tell himself he was just helping the lady out-being polite, that was all-but he knew the truth. From the moment he'd seen her in the coach, all prim and proper, he'd thought about what she'd feel like to touch. He didn't want to just help her; he wanted to hold her close. It had been a long time since he'd felt that way about any woman. He'd probably lost the ability to even talk to a woman like this one, but that didn't stop him from thinking about what they might do besides talk.
Now she was pressed against him from knee to chin and he didn't want to step back. She had that never-been-touched look about her and he wondered if, beneath all those pleats and buttons, a man had ever thrown a rope around her. She said she'd been married for an hour before her husband left. It would take a great deal longer than that to convince her she was desired.
He'd watched her all day while the others thought he slept. There was a grace about her that fascinated him. She'd talked to the gambler a few times after Frank Sanders told her he'd lived in Washington, D.C., but mostly she read from a little book she kept in her purse. Since she was careful not to turn it where anyone could see the cover, McCord guessed it was one of those adventure/romance dime novels he'd seen around, written for people who wanted to experience the Wild West secondhand.
"Mr. McCord." Annalane Barkley's hand pushed against his chest, making him very much aware of just how close they were. "I'll have to ask you to . . ."
"If you're going with me, we need a reason to step outside, Mrs. Barkley. Time's running out," he whispered without giving an inch. "So, shall we give them that reason, that we might need a little privacy?"
He moved his hand against the back of her head and pulled her to him. "Make it look like you can't keep your hands off me." Grinning, he had no doubt the proper Mrs. Barkley wouldn't have a clue about what to do. "We need to make it to the barn before the moon's free of clouds again."
She let out a tiny cry of surprise as his mouth lowered to hers. A moment later, her hand stopped trying to shove him away. She was frozen stiff in his arms, but she didn't break the kiss.
McCord had meant only to brush her lips. They were in far too much danger to take time for a real kiss, but he couldn't pull away. Her bottom lip quivered slightly as he parted her lips and deepened the kiss. She tasted far better than he'd let himself imagine in the hours he'd spent daydreaming about her.
Excerpted from Give Me A Texas Ranger by Jodi Thomas Linda Broday Phyliss Miranda DeWanna Pace Copyright © 2010 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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