Read an Excerpt
November 1892 Knotty Pine, Texas
The reedy voice coming from inside Wylie's Livery and Bridle Shop thrummed with outrage. "You can't take those horses 'til you settle up with Joe."
Ryland Lassiter halted outside the entry and swallowed an oath. Sounded as if a disagreement was brewing inside.
The last thing he needed was another delay. This trip had already taken too long. He wasn't about to sit cooling his heels, waiting for the railroad tracks to be cleared—not when he was this close.
Ry reached into his coat and fingered Belle's letter. There'd been an air of desperation in her plea to see him, a sense of urgency that gnawed at him. And the closer he drew to Foxberry, the stronger that feeling grew.
Pushing back the worry, he tugged on his shirt cuffs. Might as well wade in and do what he could to help settle matters. The quicker he could get going again, the sooner he could find out what was going on with Belle.
A burst of rough laughter from inside the stable added impetus to his decision. That first voice had been a boy's, but these sounded older and about as friendly as cornered badgers.
In the space between one heartbeat and the next, Ry stood inside the wide doorway. His jaw tightened as he spied a boy of ten or so squaring off against a pair of sneering thugs, looking for all the world like David before Goliath.
Unfortunately, this would-be giant-slayer didn't have so much as a sling to do battle with.
The larger of the two men, a barrel-chested brute with a scraggly mustache, shoved past the boy. "Outta my way, kid. Those are our horses and we aim to get 'em."
The man's heavy-handed move forced the boy back a step, but the youngster kept his balance and gamely thrust out his jaw. "You can't take them until you settle your bill," he insisted, hands fisting at his sides.
Ry silently applauded the boy's pluck.
But the pair of philistines didn't share his admiration. The second oaf, whose crooked nose and scarred cheek gave him a more villainous appearance than his partner, scowled. "Like we already said, we settled up with Joe this morning." The man's voice rasped like a dull saw on a stubborn log.
The boy crossed his arms. "Joe didn't say nothin' about it."
Mustache stopped in the act of opening a stall gate. "You calling us liars?" He swiveled toward the boy, jabbing his fist into his palm with a forceful thwack.
That did it. Ry couldn't abide bullies. And he was pretty sure the good Lord hadn't put him here at this particular moment just so he could stand by and watch.
Clearing his throat he strolled forward, casually nabbing a pitchfork from a pile of straw. "Good day, gentlemen. Is there a problem?"
The pair froze, then turned to eye him suspiciously. Ry held his genial smile as he mentally gauged his options.
As he'd expected, once they got a good look at his tailored clothes and "citified" appearance, their cocky grins reappeared. Better men than these had mistakenly equated polish with softness. His years at law school had added the polish, but he was still a born and bred Texan, able to stand with the best of them.
"No problem," Scarcheek finally answered. "The boy's confused is all. You just stay out of the way, and we'll be done in a minute."
Not likely. Another three unhurried steps placed Ry between the youth and the two men. He pulled out his pocket watch and flicked it open with his thumb.
As expected, both men's gazes latched onto the gold-cased timepiece with a covetous gleam.
"I don't know." Ry glanced down, then closed the heirloom with a snap. "It appears this is taking a good deal longer than a minute, and I've already wasted more time in Knotty Pine than I cared to."
Scarcheek met Ry's relaxed opposition with a lowered brow. "Unless you want to get them fancy duds and that pretty-boy face of yours messed up, you'd best stay out of matters that don't concern you."
Ry flashed a self-deprecating smile. "Well, now, that could be difficult. You see, it's an unfortunate failing of mine that I find there are so many matters that do concern me."
Scarcheek drew his pistol and pointed it at Ry's chest. "Don't know where you come from, Mister, but around here that's not a very healthy attitude."
Ry's smile never wavered as he coolly calculated his next step. Using the pitchfork to knock Scarcheek's gun out of his hand would be an easy maneuver. Handling Mustache, who was just out of reach, was a bit trickier. He'd hoped the sight of his watch would tempt the bully to step closer. Still, a few agile moves and a bit of finesse just might help him avoid a bullet while he disarmed the man.
He hoped to handle this without drawing his pocket pistol— the fewer bullets zipping around, the less chance of the boy getting caught in the crossfire.
Bracing himself, Ry shifted his weight and tightened his hold on the pitchfork. No time for doubts. But, as his mother had liked to say, there was always time for prayer.
Lord, I know I don't say it often, but Your help is always welcome, and right about now would be a good time to provide a distraction.
No sooner had Ry formed that thought than the metallic click of a cocked rifle sliced through the tense quiet of the livery. "What's going on here?"
"Joe!" The boy's shout signaled both relief and warning.
Then everything happened at once.
Scarcheek spun around, gun raised, just as the boy started toward the newcomer, putting himself directly in the line of fire.
Fueled by concern over the boy's safety, Ry swung the pitchfork with a speed and force that surprised even him. The blow connected with Scarcheek's wrist, drawing a yelp and string of curses from the man as the gun went flying.
Before the gun hit the floor, Ry dropped the pitchfork and dove for the boy, tackling him to the ground. Covering the boy's back with his own body, he left the newcomer's line of fire clear to take care of Mustache if need be.
"Hands where I can see them." The rifle-wielding local's command carried the cold hardness of a marble slab.
With the sunlight at their rescuer's back, Ry couldn't make out many of his features. All he got was the general impression that this Joe fellow was a wiry young man who radiated a give-no-ground toughness.
Deciding it was safe to let the squirming stableboy up, Ry stood, though he kept a restraining hand on the lad's shoulder. Now that everything seemed under control, he was actually feeling a bit proud of the way he'd handled himself. He still had it in him, it seemed.
Joe's gaze shifted briefly toward the two of them. "You okay, Danny?"
"I am now." The boy rubbed an elbow as he glowered at Mustache and Scarcheek. "They was fixing to take off without paying what they owe."
"Is that right?" The inquisitor turned back to the surly pair, tightening his hold on the rifle. "You two planning to leave town without settling your bill?"
"Look here, no need to get all riled up." Scarcheek cradled his wrist against his chest. "Clete and I were just pulling the kid's leg a bit." He shot Ry a hot-for-vengeance look. "Before this stranger stuck his nose in, we was about to pay up."
Danny stiffened. "Hey! That's not—"
Ry squeezed the boy's shoulder, cutting off the rest of his protest. Joe was obviously in charge of the livery and it would be best to let him control the stage for now. Ry did, however, slip his free hand into his coat, palming his pistol. Wouldn't hurt to be ready if things turned ugly again.
He felt rather than saw Joe's gaze flicker his way. Apparently his movement hadn't been as subtle as he'd thought.
Then the livery operator's focus returned to Scarcheek and Mustache. "Well, you can hand over the cash now or decide which horse you're going to leave as payment."
Scarcheek scowled, then called over his shoulder. "Pay up, Clete."
Mustache reached into his pocket and pulled out some crumpled bills. He took a step forward, but halted when Joe shifted the rifle, pointing it dead center at his chest.
"Just set it on that barrel." There was a flash of teeth as Joe gave a wolfish grin. "Being as you two are such reliable souls, I'll trust it's all there."
Confident and cautious. Ry's assessment of the man raised another notch.
"Now, get your horses and gear, and move on." Joe lowered the rifle, but Ry doubted anyone in the stable thought he'd lowered his guard. "And don't plan on doing business here again."
With dark looks and muttered oaths, the men complied, and in short order were leading their horses into the street. The look Mustache shot Ry as he brushed by was pure venom.
Ry released his hold on Danny and the boy bolted to Joe's side.
The livery operator dropped an arm around the lad's shoulder never taking his gaze from the unsavory pair as they rode off.
Retrieving his hat, Ry brushed at the brim. He'd give them another minute to reassure themselves, then maybe he could finally get down to the business of renting a rig. Now that the little melodrama was over, he was more anxious than ever to be on his way. While Novembers in Texas weren't nearly as cold as those in Philadelphia, the days were every bit as short. He needed to make good use of what daylight was left.
Belle had said in her letter that he was her last hope—an ominous statement coming from the down-to-earth girl he remembered. She'd been like a sister to him back when they were growing up and he still felt that old tug to look out for her.
As he watched the man and boy, something about their pose niggled at him, like a faintly off-key passage in an otherwise flawless aria. What was it…
He shook his head, letting go of the puzzle. He was not going to get diverted again.
They turned and stepped into a pool of light, giving him his first clear look at the rifle-toting, overall-wearing, hard-mannered livery operator.
Ry stiffened and felt his world tilt slightly off-kilter.
It couldn't be.
But the proof was there, standing right in front of him— barely perceptible curves under masculine attire, long lashes over flashing green eyes, ruddy but smooth cheeks that a razor had obviously never touched. And if he needed further proof he got it when Joe's hat came off, releasing a long, thick braid.
No, not "Joe," but "Jo."
He'd let a woman face down two brutes while he just stood by and watched.
Josephine Wylie marched back inside the livery, still madder than a dunked cat. If those two mangy curs had done anything to hurt Danny—
Her eyes lit on the fancily-dressed stranger, and she suddenly had a target for her anger.
He stood staring at her with a dazed look—like he'd just swallowed a gnat. But then he smiled and stepped forward. "I believe introductions are in order. I'm Ryland Lassiter."
She ignored the hand. "You're also a flea-brained fool. What in Sam Hill did you think you were doing?"
He stiffened, slowly lowering his hand. "I was coming to the aid of that stalwart young man at your side."
Hah! Did he think he was going to win her over with his highfalutin talk and that toe-tingly deep voice of his? She planted her fists on her hips. "By going up against two gun-toting varmints with nothing but a pitchfork?"
"Now see here—"
She didn't give him a chance to finish his protest. "Mister, you might be the biggest toad in the pond where you come from, but that don't mean beans around here. If you want to risk your own hide, that's your business, but your blamed fool actions put Danny in danger, too. That's either pebble-brained stupidity or grizzly-sized disregard for others, neither of which I can stomach."
"Nor can I." The man's words were controlled but she didn't miss the flash of temper in his storm-gray eyes. "I also can't abide bullies. When I arrived, Danny was already trying to face them down. I only—"
"What!" Jo's heartbeat kicked up a notch as she swung around. "Daniel Edward Atkins, is that true?"
Danny's face reddened even as he thrust out his jaw. "They owed us for a week's feed and stabling. With Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up, we need that money."
This was her fault. She shouldn' t have left him alone knowing those two polecats had mounts stabled here. He could handle a lot of the work right enough, but at eleven he just wasn't old enough to understand all the consequences of his actions. If anything had happened to him while she was at the feed store…
Jo leaned forward, baring the full force of her frown on the unrepentant boy. "I've told you before, nothing's worth getting shot over. If someone gives you this kind of trouble, let it go and we'll get Sheriff Hammond to handle it afterward."
The boy kicked at a clod of dirt. "I'm big enough to hold my own."
Jo blew the stray hair off her forehead with an exasperated huff. If only that were true. Someday, Danny would be old enough to take over and she'd finally be free to go her own way. But today's actions only proved how far away that day was.
Offering up a quick prayer for patience, she placed a hand on his shoulder. "Danny, I got to know you're going to mind what I tell you when I leave you in charge."
He gave a reluctant nod, then glanced past her, reminding Jo they weren't alone.
And that she had some crow to eat.
Someday, Lord, I'm going to learn to get all the facts before flying off the handle. Your teaching about thinking twice before speaking once is a sure-enough tough one for me to learn.
Squaring her shoulders, she turned to the gent who'd introduced himself as Ryland Lassiter. "Looks like I owe you an apology, Mister. And a big thank-you to boot." She thrust out her hand, not sure if he'd take it after the way she'd lit into him.
But he seemed willing to let it go. Taking her hand, he gave a short bow before releasing it. Well, wasn't he a fancy-mannered gent.
"Apology accepted. And there's no need for thanks. It's you who actually saved the day. Miss…" He cocked his head to one side with a questioning smile.
"Wylie. Josephine Wylie. But everyone just calls me Jo."
"Well, Miss Wylie, I'm glad I could be of service."
Miss Wylie—she couldn't remember the last time someone had called her that. Certainly not since her pa died and she took over the livery.
She was suddenly very aware of just how unladylike she looked in her overalls and boots. Certainly not like any of the prim-and-proper misses a fancy gent like him must be used to.