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By Carolyn Davidson
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. All right reserved. ISBN: 0-373-29263-5
Chapter OneBenning, Texas - 1898
Maxwell McDowell. As if the name on the note she held were written in flame, and the ensuing heat had burned her fingers, Faith dropped the crumpled bit of paper to the ground. A lump rose in her throat as she closed her eyes and viewed the promised wreckage of the life she'd managed to put together over the past three years.
"I'd say it's pretty safe to say you recognize the fella's name."
Her lashes rose, and she was silent. Her visitor's gaze was penetrating, his mouth set in a firm line, and for a moment, Faith was tempted to use his broad chest for a resting place.
She shook her head, both at the notion that had possessed her, and in reply to the sheriff's query. "Who did he say he was looking for?" she asked, aware that her voice trembled.
Brace Caulfield touched her arm, and she sensed the respect he offered in the gesture. "Can I do anything, Miss Faith? I don't want anybody coming around here, trying to upset you or give you a hassle." And then he sighed as she shot him a look that demanded an answer.
"He said he was huntin' for a woman called Faith McDowell. His wife, if my suspicions run true to form. I told him there wasn't anybody hereabouts by that name, but if he'd write it out for me, along with his own, I'd show it around - see if Icould come up with any information for him."
He bent and snagged the crumpled bit of paper between his thumb and index finger, smoothing the wrinkles until the stark, bold lines of her husband's signature, with her name beneath it, were revealed. "You know this fella, don't you?" Brace asked quietly.
Faith shrugged. "Maybe. Let's just say I don't care to see the gentleman, Sheriff. If you feel obliged to tell him my whereabouts, I suppose I'll understand, but I won't like it one little bit."
Her mind raced, one idea after another tumbling about, only to be rejected in rapid succession. Running was the first, closely followed by the urge to hide, to bury her identity and find a new place in which to huddle until the danger was past. But, like all her notions, that one depended on a certain amount of financial security.
She had none. Living in a borrowed home, bartering for her very existence and spending her days and nights in a state of anticipation of just this very thing taking place had not given her any degree of serenity.
Now she faced discovery and found she could not, in all honesty, lie to the lawman who had befriended her over the past three years.
"I left my husband back East a long time ago. My reasons are my own and -"
Brace's upright hand halted her words. "I'm not asking for any explanations, Miss Faith." His eyes held more than a bit of disappointment, she thought. Sheriff Caulfield had been subtle, but his interest in her as a woman was obvious. Her feminine instincts were betting he'd been getting up his nerve to come courting.
The knowledge that she was married had put a damper on that idea.
"Are you afraid of him, ma'am?" the sheriff asked quietly. She thought his spine stiffened, and not for the first time, she was thankful for his watchful care.
"Do I think he'll hurt me?" Faith shook her head. "No, Max isn't a harsh man, at least not to women and children. I wouldn't want to cross him in his business dealings, but as a woman, I'm safe enough in his presence."
"How about as his wife?" Brace asked bluntly. "If he's spent a good bit of time hunting you down, he may not have much patience where you're concerned."
She shrugged, dismissing the idea. "His pride's been damaged, that's all. I doubt he's overly concerned with dragging me back home with him. More likely he's wanting me to sign a bill of divorcement so he can get on with his life."
Brace folded his arms across his chest. "Well, what do you want me to tell him? Shall I give him directions, or do you want to go into town and meet him in my office?"
"Send him out," she said, her shoulders slumping in weariness as she thought of what must come to pass. "I'll handle it, Sheriff."
"A wise choice." The dark, deep tones were familiar to her, and Faith had no need to turn around to determine who spoke. Yet she did, knowing she was better off facing him than giving in to cowardice.
Leading a saddled horse, he stepped from around the side of the house, then halted, his gaze intent on the sheriff. "I followed you," he said, tilting his hat back in a gesture that revealed his face.
"Thought I'd kept a close eye behind me," Brace answered, one hand touching the butt of his revolver. "Didn't take you for a sneaky man, mister."
"I wouldn't call it sneaky," Max McDowell said quietly.
"I had an idea you knew more than you were willing to admit when we spoke this morning. Didn't think it would hurt to tag along."
Brace muttered an oath, his face turning crimson as if he recognized his failure to keep Faith's location a secret from the intruder.
"It's all right," she said hastily when the lawman would have stepped protectively in front of her. "I'll talk to Max. I appreciate your concern, but I'll be fine."
Max nodded, the movement slight. "I think my wife knows me well enough to be assured of her own safety."
Brace cut an inquiring look at Faith. "You're sure?" Obviously dragging his feet, he lifted the reins he'd dropped to the ground. "Should I stop by and talk to Garvey?"
Faith shook her head. "No, there's no point in dragging anyone else in on this."
Brace Caulfield mounted his gelding and swung the horse in a half circle. "I won't stand for any shenanigans, McDowell. Miss Faith is under my protection, so long as she's living in this county."
Max shot him a glittering look from dark eyes that brooked no interference. "I think I heard my wife tell you I was not a harsh man, Sheriff. Isn't that good enough for you?"
"Max ..." The warning was clear, Faith's use of his name drawing his attention and obliging him to nod agreeably.
"Don't worry about the lady," Max said, his voice chilled with contempt. "I've never hurt Faith before. And I'm certainly not about to change my ways." He led his mount forward, and with a quick movement, released the cinch with an ease of motion that surprised Faith. Max had never been an avid horseman, yet had kept a mare in a livery stable, riding for exercise when the burdens of business became weighty and he sought relief in an hour or two outdoors.
Now he repeated his words, emphasizing each one. "I said, don't worry about my wife, Sheriff. She's in no danger."
Brace grudgingly grunted agreement, gave Faith a last, questioning look, and then, at her nod of reassurance, nudged his horse into a trot and headed toward town.
The man she'd married more than six years before had changed a bit, she decided. Max McDowell was beginning to show his age. A scattering of white touched his temples, adding a bit of dignity to his already stalwart appearance. He carried himself well, she thought, as he always had.
Excerpted from Texas Gold by Carolyn Davidson
Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.