But when a hostage situation goes awry and an innocent woman is in the middle of the fray, Will knows he must protect her no matter what happens. Even if they risk being killed by his gang or by the lawmen on their trail. Even if the woman he’s risking everything for will never love him back. Even if all he's left with is his faith.
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A Texan's Honor
Book 2 of the Heart of a Hero series
By Shelley Gray
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Shelley Sabga
All rights reserved.
The barrel of a six-shooter was cold against Jamie's temple. As the iron pressed on her skin, a chill raced through her body.
She should've kept her wool cloak on.
She thought it certainly was amazing how in the most dire circumstances, a body resorted to concentrating on the most basic of things. The gunman pressed the barrel harder against her with a shaky hand. Jamie winced and her fear crept up a notch. Closing her eyes, she waited for the inevitable. Tried her best to recite the Lord's Prayer. Surely, that's what God would want her to think about during her last moments on earth.
"Put that gun down, Kent," one of the men ordered from the other side of the train car. "There's no need to start firing on defenseless women."
Her captor wasn't in the mood for advice. "Shut up, McMillan. The boss might think you're somethin' special, but we both know you ain't none better than the rest of us." Reaching out with his free hand—the one not pressing the firearm to her temple—he took hold of Jamie's arm. Wrapped five thick leather-gloved fingers around her elbow and tugged.
Jamie bit her lip so she wouldn't cry out.
Kent noticed and grinned.
Across the aisle on the floor, one of the six men trussed like turkeys looked away.
"I'm just saying we've got no cause to start killing hostages," McMillan said as he stepped closer. His tan duster glided over the planes of his body, accentuating his chest and the pure white of his cotton shirt.
"I ain't killed no one today. Not yet, leastways."
"Don't start now. You heard what Boss said," McMillan said, stepping close enough for Jamie to see faint lines of exhaustion around his eyes.
Jamie found it almost impossible to look away. The man— McMillan—spoke so quietly. So calmly. Like he was speaking of the bitter cold temperatures outside. Or the snow covering the ground. In fact, he looked almost bored, holding his Colt in his right hand and scanning the rest of them with little curiosity.
As though none of them counted.
Jamie blinked back tears as she tried to stay as still as possible. But it was hard, because the train was still moving.
As panic, grief, and a thousand other emotions engulfed her, Jamie wondered why the Lord had placed her on this train with a band of outlaws. Both her parents had succumbed to influenza just two months ago. After selling everything she owned, she boarded the train in Denver and planned to continue traveling east on the Kansas Pacific toward Kansas City. Her future? To go live with her maiden aunts until she and Randall—her aunts' favorite neighbor and her very recent correspondent—decided matrimony was in their future.
However, from the time she'd boarded, the journey had been difficult. She had little extra money, so she was in the second class coach along with everyone else who couldn't afford to travel more privately in first class. No one had needed to tell her that traveling in third class was not an option. Only poor immigrants traveled that way—and it was certainly not safe for a lady traveling alone.
Of course, now it looked like second class wasn't safe either.
When she'd first boarded, she'd noticed that the inside of the car smelled much like the scruffy men surrounding her. However, none of the men had been overtly disrespectful, and soon most ignored her as they fell into brief slumbers.
But somewhere near the border of Kansas and the Colorado Territory, everything changed. When the train had slowed around a bend, a group of men on horses had approached, their guns blazing. The engineer had braked hard, creating a sick feeling of inevitable doom. Moments later, the train screeched to a stop. Passengers in the two front cars were forced off, one by one, onto the frozen expanse of barren landscape.
Jamie had just gotten to her feet when the man who held her grabbed her with a gap-toothed smile. "Oh, no, sweetheart. You're not going anywhere. We're gonna need you."
With another screech, the train had rolled forward, picking up speed. Jamie had been forced to stand by his side as other bandits came in and separated six men from the others like culling calves. Now those six were tied up and pushed to the floorboards.
She was forced to stand in front of them with a gun pressed to her head, pulled into an awkward embrace by the most evil man she'd ever had the misfortune to meet.
The train rocked some more, and Jamie stumbled as her knees locked. Desperately, she reached out to the seat next to her—anything to keep her balance. For a split second, the iron separated from her temple, freeing her from certain death.
Then, with the next sway, her captor slid his arm higher on her taffeta-covered arm, yanking her closer. As her head snapped with the motion, her delicate skin tapped against the ice-cold barrel. She cried out.
"Stay still and stay silent!" Kent yelled.
One of the six hostages gasped and then fell silent as another man cocked his Colt and leveled it on him.
"Easy now, girl," Kent said, his voice laced with triumph as he forced her closer still. Now Jamie was completely pressed against his side, close enough to feel the other six-shooter fastened against his hip jutting into the soft fabric of her black mourning gown—close enough to feel the heat rolling off his body and spy the unmistakable light of anticipation burning in his eyes.
Though she closed her eyes, his presence surrounded her still—his breath beat a rhythm against her neck, causing chill bumps on her skin.
The train was practically flying along the tracks now, gaining speed as they headed across Kansas. And with it, her hope was fading fast. There was little hope of standing as still as the outlaw wanted her to, and even less of a chance that she would be able to control her fear completely.
She was going to die.
Jamie—Jamilyn Ellis—closed her eyes and tried to pray once more. But this time, the words she searched for were not filled with beautiful poetry passed down from generation to generation.
No, this time her prayer was far more clumsy and desperate. Please Lord, if this is what you have in mind for me, give me a quick death. Would you please? I'm trying really hard to be courageous but I'm just about out of bravery.
With a grunt and a whoosh, the connecting door to the passenger car opened. The fragrant aroma of an expensive cigar filled the car, ultimately bringing a bit of a reprieve from her captor's rank smell. All went still as the door closed behind a well-dressed man as he surveyed the lot of them.
With his expensive turquoise silk vest, neatly trimmed ebony mustache, and slicked-back hair, he had an air about him that spoke of power.
Instinctively, Jamie knew that the gang's boss had just joined them. All the gunslingers around her seemed to take a step back.
When he stood still, taking in the scene with obvious distaste, Kent's grip lost some of its strength. Moisture beaded his brow as his body began to shake. The cool barrel bobbed against her temple, reminding her in no uncertain terms that she was at his mercy—if he had any.
Jamie forced herself to breathe as her captor's tremors increased, and the leader stared at her with the greenest eyes she'd ever seen. She blinked, thinking that the color reminded her of the meadow in early spring, when everything was fresh and new and full of hope.
Time seemed to stop.
"Kent, what are you doing?" the leader asked, his voice as smooth as velvet. "We don't treat ladies like that. Release her. Now."
Her captor's response was instantaneous. However, the moment she'd become free of the man's harsh grip, Jamie felt her knees give way.
At the same time, the train chugged around another bend. She strived to retain her precarious balance, but it was no use. The nearest seat was just out of her reach, and the man standing next to her was not anyone she'd ever willingly touch.
As if in slow motion, she wobbled. Struggled, gasped. The stays on her corset were tight. She was losing precious oxygen. Dizziness engulfed her.
Suddenly, two strong arms and the scent of bay rum and mint surrounded her, the muscles like iron. The touch reassuring and surprisingly gentle. "Easy now. I've got you," the man—McMillan—murmured, so quietly she was sure she'd only imagined such kindness.
Turning her head, she met his gaze, then froze at his impassive expression. His touch might have been light and easy, but there was certainly no sympathy in his expression.
"Sit down," McMillan ordered, this time speaking more loudly.
Awkwardly, she let him guide her to the nearby bench. Didn't struggle as he helped her sit down. She clumsily adjusted her skirts as she'd been taught years ago, the action so familiar and automatic she hardly realized she was doing it.
For a split second, he glanced at her hand on the taffeta, then slowly lifted his gaze, stopping when their eyes met. His ice-blue eyes, lined with gray, were as chilly and disturbing as the deep waters of Cascade Lake.
Shivers claimed her as the last of her hope dissipated into the cold confines of the icy train car.
"Everything all right, McMillan?" the leader asked.
"Everything's fine." McMillan shifted his stance, edging closer, as if he was shielding her with his body.
But surely that couldn't be.
Nerves kicked in again as her pulse raced. Shaking, Jamie attempted to inhale properly, but her body fought the action. She couldn't catch her breath, couldn't grasp any air. Panic overtook her as she tried to sit still, tried to breathe.
Immediately, the gunman turned and took hold of her arm. "Breathe," he commanded. "Settle down and breathe slowly."
But no firm directive was going to be of much assistance. Her lungs felt frozen. Almost immobile. Still panicked, she gripped his arm, attempting to get control.
But instead of a gentle touch, he closed his fingers around her wrist. "Calm yourself or I'm going to strip you here and slice the ribbons of your corset."
His voice was little more than a thin whisper, but Jamie had no doubt that he meant every single word. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on breathing.
When she followed his directives, his lips curved slightly. "Good girl," he whispered.
But surely she'd imagined that softening.
The door opened. Another bandit entered the car, this one dressed completely in black, from his felt Stetson to his denims, to his boots and duster. Even his eyes and hair were dark.
"Everything's under control," he said, his voice gravelly and deep. "The brakeman isn't going to stop until I tell him to."
"That is reassuring," the leader murmured, as formal as if he were dining at the Brown Palace. After checking his gold timepiece, he slipped it back into his vest.
The man in black motioned toward the men tied up. "You want me to deal with them?"
"No. We're going to keep this group here for the time being."
After surveying the lot of them, the man in black nodded and stepped to the side, leaving the rest of them to decipher the boss's meaning.
The man standing next to her tensed. "Even the woman?"
Jamie felt the leader's cold gaze settle on her. Forcing herself to keep her gaze fixed firmly on the clasped hands in her lap, she began to pray. Oh, Lord. Please don't let this be my time. Not yet.
"Especially the woman," the leader finally replied. "She might prove useful in the future."
As Jamie processed those words, struggled with the awful images of what the bandit meant by that cryptic remark, one of the men tied on the ground spoke. "Why are you keeping us? Why me? I haven't done a thing to you, and I sure don't have any money."
Kent laughed. Unable to help herself, Jamie glanced his way again. Though he wasn't nearly as muscular as the man standing guard over her, he seemed the most dangerous. There was something in his constantly moving eyes that seemed shifty.
The curly-haired hostage on the ground didn't seem to have any qualms about egging Kent on, however. "Whatever grievance you have can surely be diverted. Violence isn't the answer."
But instead of being cowed, the hostage gained confidence. "Sir, I demand to know what you intend to do with me."
"Demand? You demand?" Kent smiled. Slowly pulling his Colt .45 out from a worn holster on his hip, he ran his thumb lovingly along the silver handle. "You demand to know? Is that a fact?"
Jamie's breath hitched as the hostage sputtered. "I'm only asking ..." Pure fear tainted his voice now.
"Here's a hint," Kent quipped as he raised his gun and pulled the trigger.
The sound reverberated through the train car as a circle of blood formed on the man's chest.
Jamie's eyes filled with tears as she tried not to look at the man's wide, vacant expression frozen in surprise.
Beside her, McMillan cursed under his breath.
Hardly a second passed before the boss stepped forward and slugged Kent—hard. "That was unnecessary," he bit out, as Kent's gun slipped from his hand with a clatter.
Kent tripped backward, finally ending against the wall. As he obviously did his best to remain on two feet, a dazed expression colored his face, mixing with the bead of blood forming on his lip.
Then the man in charge glared their way. "Deal with that."
Without a word, McMillan, the man who'd come to her aid, walked over and picked up the pistol from the floor. Offering the weapon to the boss, handle first, his voice was rough. "Sir?"
He waved a hand at the weapon. "Keep the gun. But dispose of the body."
McMillan pocketed the weapon, and the leader cleared his throat as he faced the remaining five men tied on the ground. "Gentlemen, since you're so curious about your future, perhaps I had better explain your situation. You are now my hostages."
The leader's mouth twitched as similar looks of shock and fear flashed across the restrained men's faces. "I need this train. And I need collateral." He looked around the compartment, taking in each person's features with such cold calculation that Jamie knew he probably never forgot a face.
The oldest of the hostages, an elderly gentleman who looked to be almost seventy, blinked in wonder. "What are you talking about?"
"There's something much more valuable on this train than you all. The first car is loaded with the rewards from the latest silver strike out of Cripple Creek. I mean to keep ahold of it. Unfortunately, the law won't see it that way. So I've sent out a telegram stating the rules to Mr. Sam Edison."
He paused as the name registered with the hostages. Even Jamie knew Sam Edison was the man currently in charge of the U.S. Marshals. It seemed his name was always mentioned in the papers.
With another smile, the leader continued. "I was fairly clear in my instructions. As long as no one tries to blow us up or interfere with our progress, you all get to live. But if the law tries to impede my goals, I'll shoot you myself and order your bodies to be tossed out as evidence of my displeasure." Lowering his voice, he added, "I promise, I will do this without the slightest hesitation."
The elderly man's eyes narrowed. "Who are you?" he asked quietly.
Jamie waited for him to get cuffed for his insolence. But instead, the question seemed to amuse the leader.
"I am James Walton, of course."
As the elderly man's eyes widened in recognition, Mr. Walton flashed a smile. "Please don't tell me you haven't heard of me ... or my business partners."
There was a new awareness in the elderly man's gaze. "I've heard of you. Of course I've heard of you."
Jamie could only be grateful that she was sitting on the bench. The Walton Gang was notoriously dangerous and extremely successful. Yet, for all of their villainy, more than one news rag had painted them—especially their suave, cigarsmoking leader, Mr. James Walton—as heroes of a sort.
In some corners of the area, they were. Everyone knew most lawmen only took the jobs in order to keep three meals in their bellies.
In contrast, some said the Walton Gang took money from the most corrupt and spent their spoils on a whole plethora of things—from their infamous hideout to orphanages.
Word was that no one quite understood them but that everyone knew one thing: they were dangerous and as cold blooded as they wanted to be. They were as unpredictable as a blue norther.
They killed and plundered and they never, ever, looked back with regret.
It was becoming evident that the passengers were all completely at the gang's mercy. And that Jamilyn Ellis was the only woman on the train.
Excerpted from A Texan's Honor by Shelley Gray. Copyright © 2012 Shelley Sabga. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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