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The Last Honorable Man
By Vickie Taylor
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMine honour is my life; both grow in one;
Take honour from me, and my life is done.
- Shakespeare, King Richard II Act 1, sc. 1
Silence gathered in the wake of gunfire.
Sergeant Del Cooper straightened from his shooting crouch, tugged his Stetson low on his forehead to block the glare of the August sun and hitched the stock of his shotgun up tight under his damp armpit.
So much for Sunday being the day of peace.
Squaring his shoulders, he rose from behind the old Buick he'd used as cover. One by one the others appeared from the shadows of shallow doorways and behind the stoops of dull gray industrial buildings, stepping into sunlight so bright their silhouettes blurred in a hazy glow. The four of them met in the middle of the road and strode forward together, their booted heels scuffing the long shadows cast on the blacktop in front of them. A crimson stain slashed across Hayes's sleeve, but at least they were all on their feet. Del doubted the men in the warehouse at the other end of the road could say the same.
Overhead, an outraged shriek broke the quiet. Del tipped his head back. Squinting against the sun's brilliance, he watched a blackbird circle between the crisp, blue sky and the pewter clouds of gun smoke hanging low over the street, their sulfurous fumes burning his nose and throat. The bird offered another raucous challenge, swooping to defend his territory.
"Sorry, fella," Del said. "The fightin's all over."
A bead of sweat squeezed past his hatband and rolled toward the corner of his eye. He wiped it away with the sleeve of his duster. The cowboy coat's long hem swished and swirled around his calves. It was too hot for any kind of jacket this time of year in Dallas, but the long coat covered the shotgun when Del snugged the barrel up against his thigh, and Del hadn't wanted the weapon to draw attention to himself or his teammates.
Huh. As if anyone with half a mind wouldn't take one look at them and see trouble coming.
From his position on the end, he glanced down the line at the others. At an imposing six foot four and nearly two hundred lean pounds, Captain "Bull" Matheson set the pace from the right-center spot in the row, his left hand resting on the butt of the Colt holstered at his hip. To the captain's right, with handgun still drawn, dangling loose but ready at his side, wiry-bodied Clint Hayes kept pace, somber faced and silent. Only Solomon, the diminutive new kid next to Del, with her six-shooter stretched in front of her in a white-knuckled grip, had the wild-eyed look of the untried.
"Some of 'em got away," she said, breathless.
He spared her a glance. Katherine "Kat" Solomon's eyes were bright, jumpy. "Some of 'em didn't."
"You got one."
"Yeah." He shifted the Remington twelve-gauge so that the barrel rested in the crook of his arm and concentrated on keeping his legs steady beneath him. All of a sudden his knees felt as if they had more joints than they ought. "I got one."
It was days like this - days when the adrenaline rushed through his veins like a swollen river one moment, then dried up like bones in a desert the next, leaving him shaky and perspiring - that he felt the full weight of the badge on his chest. The silver circle and star carried a responsibility. A tradition. A code of honor that demanded he right wrongs, defend the defenseless. And sometimes that he take a life.
But never that he take satisfaction in it.
He knew the kid hadn't meant anything. She just hadn't learned yet that they didn't talk about it afterward. Those demons were to be faced later, in private. It was part of the code. Besides, this wasn't over yet; they still had to clear that warehouse.
They'd nearly reached the front of the building, and still no sign of life. Del doubted there would be. A loose piece of tin on the roof creaked in the hot breeze. A scrap of litter kicked up from the street, swirled and danced in front of them, then skittered out of their path.
Captain Matheson motioned to Hayes. "Side entrance." Then he looked at Del. "Back door."
"I'll take the back door," Solomon chirped, her voice tight as a high wire.
She was already moving when Matheson scowled and called her back. "Hold on there, Johnette Wayne. You're on the front, with me."
Solomon's expression soured to downright mutinous, but she didn't argue. At least not out loud.
Del watched curiously as the two of them measured each other. "Bull" Matheson was always hard on the new kids at first, but Solomon had been with them nearly a month now, and the sparks between her and the Bull showed no signs of letting up. If Del didn't know better, he'd think it was something personal between them.
Matheson turned to Del. "Take the big gun to the back door," he said. "We'll flush, you catch."
Unlike Solomon, Del didn't even think about arguing. Hefting the shotgun to his shoulder, he trotted around the building, careful to stay low and out of the line of fire from the windows. He didn't think anything - anyone - was still alive in there, but it never hurt to be cautious, especially since the angle of the sun on this side of the building cast a glare on the grimy glass, making it more difficult to spot movement inside.
He'd taken position behind a stack of wooden pallets at the rear of the warehouse when he caught a flash of color behind him and to his right. He wasn't sure what it was, but it shouldn't be there.
His throat dried up as another shot of adrenaline hit his system. He needed to focus on what might be coming out that back door, but he didn't like the thought of one of them behind him. He caught another flash of movement among the stacks of pallets. Just a shadow this time, but something nonetheless - and coming his way.
With a glance at the warehouse, seeing nothing moving inside, he made his decision. Matheson might have his hide for leaving his position, but if one of the shooters was out here, Del couldn't let him get away.
He crept along the concrete walls of the docks, searching. Listening. He was crouching beneath a rusted iron staircase, about to poke his head up and look around when a whirlwind descended on him from above. Caught in a vortex of colors - vibrant red and orange, warm brown and stormy blue - he thrashed. Gauzy fabric snarled around him, hemmed him in, and he rolled, trying to get free and hold onto the shotgun at the same time.
He twisted for better leverage, his body molded around a warm and solid human form, struggling mightily. He turned again until he was on top of the bucking body, and his hands let go of the gauze and twisted in something long and soft before he opened his eyes -
- and found himself staring down at one of the most naturally beautiful women he'd ever seen. Earthy, yet exotic, her complexion was the color of toasted almond, smooth and perfect, except for charcoal smudges under her lashes that said it had been too long since she'd slept. Perfectly pitched eyebrows arched over eyes the color of sweet, dark chocolate and her hair ... It was long and smooth and black as coffee - a rich, Colombian roast - and felt like pure silk wrapped in his fists.
He jerked his hands away.
Excerpted from The Last Honorable Man by Vickie Taylor Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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