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West Texas, 1884
Camille Angelique Dupree stood on the boardwalk in San Angelo, watching the drunken stagecoach driver attempt to load the luggage. She winced as he dropped a valise for the third time, prompting an angry exclamation from the owner, Mrs. Watson. Unlike the other passengers and the ticket agent, Camille remained outwardly calm, projecting an image of serenity that came partly by nature and mostly by training. Her dear departed mother's oft-repeated admonition echoed through her mind. Always remember that you are descended from two of the oldest and finest families in Louisiana. You are a lady, and a lady does not display her temper, particularly in front of her inferiors.
Not that Camille considered the stage driver or anyone else as inferior. Life had taught her the lesson her mother had never quite understood -- that being born to wealth and privilege did not make one person better than another. Character mattered far more, especially when one was left with nothing else.
Sighing in resignation, she stepped down to the dusty street, intending to ask a young clerk standing nearby to have her luggage returned to the hotel where she had stayed the past few days. Though anxious to reach Willow Grove, risking her neck to do so was sheer foolishness. There would be another stage in a day or two, with a different driver, she hoped.
"Mama, he'll kill us all!" The shrill voice rose above the argument between the ticket agent and driver.
"Calm down, Joanna." Mrs. Watson rapped her teenage daughter's shoulder with a closed fan. "Going into hysterics will not help."
"But what can we do?"
Camille stopped beside them. "Wait for the next stage."
"Then we'll miss the box supper Saturday night." The girl turned to her with the anguish of a sixteen-year-old about to miss a major social event. "And Bobby's been saving up for a month to buy my supper."
"What's worse, Charlie is the only driver," said her mother.
A horse and rider came down the street at a quick trot, drawing Camille's attention. Slowing as he approached them, he stopped a few doors down from the stage office, and dismounted with the grace of a man accustomed to the saddle. He quickly looped the reins around the hitching post, his angry glare settling on the hapless driver. The cream felt Stetson did little to shadow his scowl as he stormed toward the stagecoach, the lapels of his black suit coat flapping in his self-made breeze. Tall, muscular and handsome, he practically had steam spewing out his ears. "Charlie, you're fired!"
At his bellow, Joanna shrieked. Hiding a smile, Camille put her arm around the girl, drawing her out of the human locomotive's way. "I do believe one part of our dilemma has been solved."
"Oh, thank heavens. It's Mr. McKinnon. I didn't know he was here. He'll take care of everything." Mrs. Watson flipped open her fan and cooled her face. It was unusually warm for the last day of January, but Camille wondered if her reaction was due to the weather or the gentleman towering over the driver. His type set most women's hearts aflutter. She glanced at the sign on the stagecoach door -- McKinnon Stage Lines.
"Hi, boss." The stage driver wobbled a little as he tried to focus on his employer. "Just gettin' ready to leave."
"You aren't going anywhere." McKinnon settled his hands on his hips. Taking a deep breath, he made an obvious effort to control his temper. "You're drunk."
"Naw." Charlie shook his head, losing his balance. McKinnon caught his arm, righting him before he fell flat on his backside. "Just had a few drinks for Flo." Tears welled up in the older man's eyes and rolled down his cheeks. "Yesterday was her birthday. We always had a big to-do on her birthday."
"That was his wife," whispered Mrs. Watson behind her fan. "She died a year or so ago."
McKinnon's expression softened, and he clasped Charlie's shoulder, squeezing gently. "Go on over to the wagon yard and sleep it off. You can come home on the next run." "I'm sorry, boss." The driver sniffed loudly, then wiped his eyes with the edge of his coat sleeve.
"It's all right, Charlie." The man's voice dropped a little deeper, grew quieter. "Next time, let me know if something special is coming up, and I'll find someone to fill in for you."
Mumbling, the driver shuffled off. McKinnon took off his hat, revealing wavy dark-brown hair, and turned to his passengers. "I apologize for the delay and anxiety, ladies. We'll be on our way as soon as everything is loaded."
"Are you going to drive the stage, Mr. McKinnon?" Joanna's expression shifted from youthful worship to wariness so quickly that Camille almost laughed. McKinnon glanced at her, his brown eyes twinkling, before turning his attention to the girl. "Does that worry you, Miss Joanna?"
Her face turned red. "No, sir. It's just…well, you own a general store."
"It's a very big store." One corner of his lips twitched.
"Takes a strong man to haul those crates around." When he smiled at the girl, Camille thought poor Joanna might faint. "Would it reassure you if I said I used to drive for the Ben Ficklin line?"
Joanna nodded, her eyes widening. "Yes, sir."
"Good. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll take care of the bags." He turned to one of Camille's trunks. She took a step toward him. "Careful, it's heavy." Hoisting it to his shoulder with a soft umph, his gaze swept over her, a gleam of masculine appreciation lighting his eyes. With her strawberry-blond hair and light-hazel eyes, Camille had evoked a similar response in most men since she was barely more than a girl. Under her mother's careful tutelage, she had learned either to ignore it or use it to her advantage. At twenty-five, she considered herself immune to such admiration, so the little skip in her heartbeat caught her by surprise.
"I hope you're planning a long visit, ma'am." He lifted the trunk over the side railing onto the top of the coach, stepping up on the wheel hub to shove it into place. "Our social life probably isn't what you're used to. You might not have a chance to wear all these pretty dresses."
He stepped down and picked up her other trunk, hefting it to the top of the stage beside the first one. He strapped them in place, then hopped down. Picking up a smaller case, he carried it around to the back of the stagecoach. "I'm not sure how long I'll stay, although there is a chance I'll settle in Willow Grove."
"Well, now, that's welcome news." He flashed her a grin, efficiently stowing away Mrs. Watson's luggage in the boot. Mrs. Watson had said there was a shortage of eligible women in the new town, which had sprung up a few years back with the arrival of the railroad. Though Camille longed for a loving husband and family, she held no great hope of marriage, at least not to a respectable man. Still, his apparent interest pleased her -- more than it should have. She let his comment pass. "I've heard it's a nice place."
"It is, if you don't mind some rowdiness thrown in. We have a lot of fine folks living there, but when the cowboys come to town, it can get a bit wild, especially on payday."
"Then it shouldn't be boring."
"It seldom is." Taking a rope from a compartment, he deftly wrapped it around the boxes and cases in the boot. He tied a knot in the rope, testing it by pulling against it. Camille glanced back at the Watsons, then moved to his side. "Have you really driven a stage before or were you just trying to calm Joanna?"
He slanted her a glance. "Nervous?"
"Should I be?"
He chuckled softly. "No, ma'am. I may be a little rusty, but it's not something you forget how to do. I drove the route from here to El Paso for two years."
"I've heard that was very dangerous due to the Indians."
"Yep." He straightened, rolling one shoulder. "And after driving this team all day, I'll remember just how dangerous. Took two arrows in the back on my last run. Decided I'd better do something safer for a living."
"Like running a store?"
The twinkle crept back into his eyes. "I became a Texas Ranger."
Camille laughed. "I'm not sure I should tell Joanna. She'll probably swoon."
"I'd be surprised if she doesn't already know. Better keep quiet, just in case," he said with a slightly lopsided grin.
"Can't afford to lose any more time. By the way, I'm Ty McKinnon."
"Camille Dupree." She held out her hand, wondering why she hadn't given him the name she normally used. Perhaps for just a moment, she wanted to be Camille again, not Angelique. "I'm pleased to meet you, sir."
He took her hand in his large one, bowing slightly. "The pleasure is mine. You do realize you may cause a stampede in Willow Grove, don't you? Men, not longhorns."
"I believe you're flattering me, Mr. McKinnon." Camille gently pulled her hand from his.
"Merely speakin' the truth, Miss Dupree." He paused, a tiny frown creasing his brow. "It is miss, isn't it?"
"Good." He glanced up at the driver's seat. "Would you care to ride in the place of honor?"
Riding beside the driver was considered the best seat on the coach, a privilege given to the person of his choosing. Men had been known to beg for the opportunity, but if a young, single, and reasonably attractive female were present, they lost out. For a second, Camille almost accepted his invitation. Then caution wagged a finger in her mind's eye, warning her not to encourage the man too much. She had let down her guard once before, taking the words of a silver-tongued gentleman to heart, and paid a heavy price.
"Thank you, but I'd better not. I don't want Mrs. Watson to think I'm unsociable. Given that there are only the three of us making the trip, I'm afraid it would seem impolite if I abandoned them."
"True. She's a nice lady, but she still might get her feathers ruffled."
"I want to make friends, not enemies." At least for the duration of the trip.
"You'll do fine, Miss Dupree." He searched her eyes, and Camille had the impression that he was as surprised by their mutual attraction as she was.
Turning abruptly, he went back to the horse and retrieved his saddlebags, arranging with the ticket agent to have someone take the animal back to the livery for him. He tucked his gear away in the boot and fastened the leather cover.
Walking back to the side of the stagecoach, he opened the door and lowered the step. "Mrs. Watson, Miss Joanna, I think we're ready to leave."
"At last." Mrs. Watson smiled at McKinnon as he helped her up the step. "We will make it home tomorrow, won't we?" Camille had been informed earlier that the stage currently didn't travel at night, due to road conditions and the lack of a second driver. They would spend the night as guests at one of the ranches along the route.
"We should. Haven't had any rain in a few weeks, so there won't be any swollen creeks or mud to contend with." He grinned at Joanna. "I'd hate to have to answer to Bobby if I don't get you home in time for a good night's rest before the party." McKinnon took the girl's hand, assisting her into the coach. "He's been working extra at the store while you've been gone. Doesn't want to take the chance of being outbid on your box supper."
Joanna giggled, her cheeks turning pink. "Nobody else wants to eat with me."
"Saturday's payday. There'll be more cowboys in town than minnows in the creek. Some of them are bound to be at the social instead of throwing away their money in the saloons. Anybody with a lick of sense will want to eat with you." Joanna's eyes widened as she settled in the seat. "You really think so?"
"It's a guaranteed natural fact."
Leaving Joanna to discuss the possibilities with her mama, McKinnon turned to Camille, leaning slightly toward her and speaking quietly. "It will be a different story if you're there," he said with a tiny smile. "I might have to take out a bank loan."
Laughing softly, Camille shook her head. "You exaggerate, sir."
"A little." His expression sobered as he captured her gaze. "But I'll be competing with wealthy ranchers, Miss Dupree, not thirty-dollar-a-month cowboys."
She had the distinct impression he was talking about more than the upcoming supper. Mercy, how he set her heart to pounding! She smiled and tried to keep her voice light. "I'm afraid I won't be able to attend, Mr. McKinnon. I can't possibly move into a house by then, so I wouldn't be able to cook." Even if she knew how to.
"Then buy something at the restaurant and stick it in a box." His sudden grin held a great deal of mischief. "Because I intend to have supper with you Saturday night, Miss Dupree, and I expect to raise a pot full of money for the school in the process."
Torn between enjoying his attention and being annoyed at his arrogance, she said crisply, "I have other plans for that evening, Mr. McKinnon." She turned toward the stage door, then stopped, looking up at him. "Are you always this bold, sir?"
Shrugging, a hint of red crept across his tanned face.
He cupped her elbow, warming her skin through the blue calico sleeve, and guided her up the step. She had the sudden urge to bolt from the coach and run for the hills -- except there weren't any close by big enough to hide in. She settled on the seat, and he shut the door, a frown creasing his brow.
"Well, I declare." Mrs. Watson laughed, glancing slyly at her daughter. The coach dipped as McKinnon climbed up to the driver's seat, and she turned her gaze to Camille. "He's quite the catch. The poor man lost his wife in childbirth three years ago. The baby, too."
No wonder he was so kind to the driver, thought Camille.
"He's one of our leading citizens. Filling in as mayor, in fact. He's a fine, God-fearing man who goes to church every Sunday. Besides the store and the stage line, he and his brother own a livery and a large ranch. The man is as wealthy as he is handsome."
Then he must be worth a fortune. "I'm not looking for a husband." She didn't say she didn't want one. Mrs. Watson waved her hand. "Of course you are, my dear. Goodness, such exciting news. I can hardly wait to get home."
Camille barely stifled a groan. Well, this will put a new wrinkle in the usual gossip. The coach lurched as the horses sprang forward. When the motion smoothed out, she sank against the back of the seat, trying to relax.
The speculative whispers would change to scandalized murmurs when they learned that Angelique Dupree's stock in trade was a pack of cards, a deft hand and a keen mind. She had been seventeen when her sick father relinquished his seat at the card table to her. She had quickly proven to be an astute gambler.
After her father passed away, she stayed in New Orleans at the high-class gambling establishment. Eventually, restlessness took her to San Antonio, and now it had brought her out to the last vestige of the Wild West. For years, men had come from miles around to sit at the Angel's table and stare at her beauty while she took their money. She expected it would be no different in Willow Grove.
In the deepest, sheltered corner of her heart, she wished it could be. A sudden memory sprang to mind, one she hadn't known existed. She couldn't have been more than three or four at the time. Her mother, young and carefree, laughing as she slipped a lovely white camellia beneath the green ribbon on a hatbox wrapped in shimmering pink silk. She had winked at Camille. "Now, your father will know to bid on it, so we can eat together." After giving her daughter a kiss, she picked up the box containing their supper and glided down the wide steps of their beautiful plantation home to her husband and the carriage.
Tears misted Camille's eyes as she turned to the window, oblivious of the passing countryside. Her heart ached for what she had lost and for what she could never have…the simple pleasure of going to a box supper with a man like Ty McKinnon.
Two days later, Ty stood on his back porch and took a sip of coffee, watching the first blush of dawn tint the sky above a distant mesa. He expected the cool morning to give way to another pleasant afternoon.
Business was thriving, both in the store and at the brand new livery. Despite the fiasco with Charlie and the occasional interruption from ongoing road improvements, the stage line did a brisk business. The ranch was doing well, and most folks approved of Ty's performance as acting mayor. By rights, he should have been a happy man. He supposed he was -- when heartache and loneliness didn't close in on him like a suffocating fog.
He looked up toward the heavens, picturing his beloved Amanda's face, speaking softly. "You'd be proud of Willow Grove, honey. It's grown a lot in the last three years. We have four churches now." He smiled wryly. "And about twelve saloons. New one opened last week."
Ty figured if anybody heard him talking to his wife, they'd think he was plumb loco. Maybe he was, but he didn't care. He only hoped his voice floated up through the windows of heaven.
Normally, when the memories grew too painful, he would ride out on the range and spend a few days by himself. There, he could think out loud and talk to his sweet wife as much as he wanted to without worrying about somebody hearing him. But now he had too much to do. The things he used as a distraction had become a trap.
Leaning against a post, Ty set the cup down on the railing. Streaks of purple and gold spread across the sky. "Harvey Miller is running against me for mayor. He seems bent on slinging mud if he finds any. I sure could use your advice on how to deal with him." Tears stung his eyes. Amanda always had a knack for seeing right to the heart of a problem. More often than not, she worked out the solution, too. But the night their baby was born, there had been problems no one could solve. Not the good doctor, who fought with every bit of his skill to save her. Not Ty, though he pleaded with God from the depths of his soul to spare his wife and child. Nor Amanda, though she held on as long as she could, promising to love him for all eternity.
"Why did you take her and little William, God?" Ty's voice broke as he whispered the words. "Was heaven so empty that you needed their love to fill it?"
He tried so hard not to blame God for the hollowness in his soul, going about his work with a cheerful attitude and ready smile. He attended church every Sunday, read a little from the Bible every day and prayed often. Then he wondered if God heard his prayers at all when there was such anger and bitterness in his heart.
He put on a good front, hiding his sorrow from everyone except his brother. Cade saw through the facade and knew that when he went off to be alone, the pain had become too great to bear. Ty suspected that Cade prayed for him even more when he was gone. Sometimes, he swore he could feel his brother's love wrapped around him. Or was it Jesus reaching out to him? Probably both.
"God, I'm grateful for the ways You've blessed me -- the ranch, good businesses and being mayor. I know it's by Your grace that we've done so well. But, Lord, I'm so tired of being alone. There are times I'd just as soon burn this house down as spend another empty night here."
Ty stood there a few minutes longer, wiping away the tears as they rolled down his cheeks. Gradually the pain eased, and he took a deep breath. Thinking of the beautiful sunrise, a passage from Psalms came to mind, encouraging him.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me. "Help me to make wise decisions today, Lord. Hold me close to You."
His thoughts turned to the day ahead. Since it was Saturday, Cade and his family would be coming to town from the ranch. He glanced toward the house next door with a smile. Jessie had a grand time decorating it. The ranch house was comfortable. Their town home was fancy. Cade hadn't built her a mansion, but it was two stories with plenty of room in case the family grew bigger. He'd bought her fine furniture and carpets and drapes -- basically anything that caught her eye. Now they stayed in their own place when they came to town instead of with him. He missed them taking over his house. At least they'd brought life to it.
He went inside and rinsed out the coffee cup, washed his face and slipped on his suit coat. Taking his Stetson from the rack by the front door, he glanced around the room. As usual, everything was neat and tidy, just as Mrs. Johnson had left it on Monday. It would have been the same even if he had been in town all week. Without Cade and his family scattering things a bit, his cleaning lady had started lecturing him about finding a wife.
For an instant, anger boiled to the surface, and he jammed his hat on his head. "I have a wife."
But you can't hold a memory.
The thought surprised him, but not nearly as much as the one that followed -- Camille Dupree's lovely face and smile. His heart skipped a beat, and Ty drew a shaky breath.
He hadn't seen her since the previous evening when he'd stopped the stagecoach in front of the Barton Hotel and unloaded her trunks. Despite his attraction to the lovely Miss Dupree -- or perhaps because of it -- he had been careful on the trip from San Angelo not to pay any more attention to her than he did to Mrs. Watson or Joanna. At least when anyone was watching. When they weren't, he'd found himself staring at her time and again.
A sharp pang of guilt stabbed him. "I'll always love you, Amanda," he whispered. "Just like I promised."
But his precious wife had asked for something more.
"Don't spend your life mourning me," she'd whispered as she'd lifted a feeble hand and laid it lightly against his chest. "You have a loving heart, Ty. Enough room for me and another. Find someone to share your life and to love little William, to care for him."
He could only bring himself to tell her that he would find someone to love their baby and to care for him. Within hours, William was gone, too.
In the years since, Ty could have had his pick of any eligible women in Willow Grove and a few other towns, too. Eventually, he'd grown to enjoy the attention, but no one had ever been interesting enough for him to do more than flirt a little. No one had ever lingered in his thoughts -- except Camille Dupree.
The short walk downtown and the exchange of cheerful greetings with neighbors and other businessmen cleared his mind. He and Cade were partners in all their business ventures, but his brother ran the ranch while he handled things in town.
As the largest general merchandise store within a hundred miles, McKinnon Brothers supplied provisions to many of the ranches across several counties as well as the townspeople of Willow Grove. He took pride in carrying the best merchandise possible at a reasonable price. If a customer wanted something they didn't have -- and he knew of no one else in town who had it -- he would make every effort to order it for them. Ty and Cade were noted for their integrity, both personally and in business. They worked diligently to keep that reputation.
Four doors down from his store, Ty absently glanced through the window of the White Buffalo Saloon -- and came to a dead stop. He turned slowly and looked again. Standing at the bar with all the regal grace of a true Southern belle was none other than Camille Dupree. Ty shook his head, unable to believe his eyes. It was an unwritten rule that women did not enter the saloons in downtown Willow Grove. They did not come there to drink, nor to ply their trade. The dance halls and saloons where soiled doves catered to men's baser needs were just outside the city limits in the unofficial red light district. For the most part, those women stayed in that area, rarely venturing into the more respectable part of town. Deep disappointment swept through him, followed by anger that he had been so easily duped. Two long strides took him through the open door and inside the saloon. Though he knew it wasn't officially open for business until ten o'clock, he was relieved to see that no one else had wandered in. He closed the door.
Copyright © 2004 Sharon Gillenwater