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Randall Northam is a gambler. Randall Northam is a killer.
The words pulsed through Marybeth O'Brien's head, keeping time with the clatter of the iron wheels on the railroad track as the train propelled her inescapably toward her prospective husband. Until a few moments ago she'd thought his most notable quality was being the second son of a wealthy Colorado ranching family. But the lively young woman seated across from her had just imparted a vital bit of information Randall Northam's parents had left out when they'd arranged this marriage. And from the enthusiasm brightening Maisie Henshaw's face, Marybeth could see her story wasn't finished.
"Yep, he shot that thieving varmint right in the heart. Why, Rand can outdraw anybody." The red-haired girl elbowed her handsome young husband in the ribs. "Even me."
Dr. Henshaw chuckled indulgently, his expression utterly devoid of censure, but rather, exuding only devotion for his wife. "You may have heard stories about how wild the West is, Miss O'Brien, but you will certainly feel safe with Rand protecting you."
"Just like me protecting you." Maisie chortled in a decidedly unladylike manner.
Her more refined husband nodded his agreement with a grin. "Well, we all have our talents."
Marybeth returned a weak smile while gulping down a terror she'd never felt as she'd made her plans to go to Colorado. She'd had some concern, yes. A great deal of doubt, of course. But never fear. In fact, the farther she'd traveled from Boston and the closer to her destination, she'd actually begun to look forward to meeting her prospective husband. If he turned out to be all that his parents and his own letters stated, she would reconsider her lifelong vow never to marry. But this disclosure about her intended changed everything and reaffirmed her determination never to be trapped in a miserable marriage, as her mother had been. She lifted a silent prayer of thanks for this encounter with the Hen-shaws and for finding out the truth about Mr. Randall Northam before meeting him.
Even as she prayed, guilt teased at the corners of her mind. She'd accepted her train fare from Colonel and Mrs. Northam, arguing with herself that perhaps Randall would turn out to be as kind, handsome and noble as his father, a former Union officer. If so, perhaps she could convince him to postpone the wedding until she found Jimmy. Surely, with two brothers of his own, he would understand her desperate desire to find her only brother who'd fled to Colorado eight long years ago to escape their abusive father. Finding Jimmy would not only reunite her with her only living relative, it would provide a means for her not to marry at all. That was, if Jimmy still had Mam's silver locket. With the key to a great treasure tucked inside, the locket would mean she could repay the Northams for her train fare.
"Don't you think so?" Maisie reached across and patted Marybeth's gloved hand.
"Wha?" Marybeth felt an unaccustomed blush rush to her cheeks. How rude of her not to pay attention to her companions. "Forgive me. Would you repeat the question?"
"Now, Maisie, dear." John Henshaw bent his head toward his wife in a sweet, familiar way. "Miss O'Brien must be tired from her travels. We should give her time to rest so she will be at her best when she meets her future husband."
"Oh, I'm sorry." Maisie's pretty face crinkled with worry. "Would you like a pillow? A blanket?" She nudged her husband and pointed to the bag beneath his seat. "Honey, dig out that pillow I packed."
"Thank you. You're too kind." Marybeth accepted the small cushion, placed it against the window and rested her head, not because she wanted to sleep, but because she needed time to think. Although she hated missing the beautiful mountain scenery as the train descended the western side of La Veta Pass, she closed her eyes to keep Maisie from further talking. Again guilt pinched her conscience. This was no way to treat such kind people.
When they'd first met early this morning, the Hen-shaws had recognized their social duty to an unattached young woman traveling alone, just as several matrons and couples had all the way from Boston. Due to their protecting presence, Marybeth hadn't been accosted by a single man on the entire trip, although one well-dressed man in particular had stared at her rather boldly today when the doctor wasn't looking. He would have been more careful if he'd known Maisie was the one to watch out for. Marybeth wanted to laugh thinking about her new friend being a sharpshooter. If anything, she looked like a perfect lady in her fashionable brown traveling suit and elegant matching hat.
The moment the conductor had escorted her to the seat across from the Henshaws, Marybeth could see they were decent Christian people. Because they lived in the town where she would soon reside, she'd gradually told them more about herself, at last telling them she was Randall Northam's intended bride. Maisie had hooted with joy, announcing she'd known "Rand" all her life, and his sister, Rosamond, was her best friend. As if unfolding a great yarn, she told Marybeth about Rand's shoot-out over a card game in a saloon.
A gambler, a killer and, no doubt, a drunkard. This was the man she was expected to marry? Indeed she would not marry him, not in a hundred years.
Rand checked his pocket watch and then glanced down the railroad line toward Alamosa searching for the telltale black cloud of smoke from the Denver and Rio Grande engine. The wind was up today, so maybe tumbleweed or sand had blown over the tracks, slowing the train. Maybe a tree had fallen somewhere up on La Veta Pass and they'd had to stop to remove it before proceeding down into the San Luis Valley.
Rand chewed his lip and paced the boardwalk outside the small station, his boots thudding against the wood in time with his pounding heart. How much longer must he wait before the train arrived? Before his bride arrived?
He glanced down at his new black boots, dismayed at the unavoidable dust covering the toes. Hoping to look his best for his new bride, he brushed each boot over the back of the opposite pant leg and then wiped a hand over the gray marks that ill-advised action left. So much for looking his best. Where was that train anyway?
"Settle down, Rand." His younger brother, Tolley, half reclined on the bench set against the station's dull yellow outside wall. "If the train's going to be late, Charlie'll let you know." He jutted his chin toward the open window above him. Inside, Charlie Williams manned the telegraph, but at the moment no syncopated clickety-click indicated an incoming message. Tolley shook his head and smirked. "Man, if this is what it's like to get married, I don't want any part of it. Where's my cocksure brother today?" He patted the gun strapped to his side, clearly referencing the worst day of Rand's life.
"Could you just keep quiet about that?" He shot Tolley a cross look. After three years his brother still wouldn't let him forget the time Rand had been forced to kill a horse thief. Instead of understanding how guilty Rand felt about the incident, Tolley idolized him, even wanted to emulate his gun-fighting skills. "Don't say anything to Miss O'Brien except 'how do you do' and 'welcome to Esperanza.' Let me take care of the rest, understand?"
"Yes, boss." Tolley touched his hat in a mock salute. He glanced down the tracks. "Looks like your wait is over."
Rand followed his gaze. Sure enough, there came the massive Denver and Rio Grande engine, its black smoke almost invisible in the crosswinds, its cars tucked in a row behind it. Now his pulse pounded in his chest and ears, and his mouth became dry, just as it had before that fateful gunfight. Cocksure? Not in the least. Just able to hide his emotions under stress better than most people. At least most of the time. Today he couldn't quite subdue his nerves.
The engine chugged to a stop and sent out a blast of gray-white steam from its undercarriage. Porters jumped out, set stools in front of the doors and gave a hand to the disembarking passengers.
"Rand! Hey, Rand." Emerging from the second passenger car, Maisie Henshaw ignored the porter, practically leaped from the last step and ran toward him. Behind her, Doc Henshaw, toting a valise and his black doctoring bag, stretched out his long legs to keep up with his bride. Rand would never understand how these two very different people had gotten together, but it sure wasn't any of his business. Besides, anybody could see how happy they were.
Rand hoped his own imminent marriage would be just as happy. That would be an extra blessing on his road to redeeming his past. For three years he'd worked hard to live a perfect life by following every order, every wish of his parents, and taking on more than his share of chores to gain his older brother's respect. Now, if Miss O'Brien would have him, he would be marrying the young lady his parents had chosen for him. It made him feel as if he'd almost arrived at redemption. Almost.
Maisie dashed up and gave him a sisterly hug. "My, you're looking handsome. Any special reason you're all gussied up and out here waiting for the train?" She elbowed Doc in the ribs and chortled.
"Now, honey." His hands full, Doc gently bumped her shoulder with his own. "Let the man be."
"All right, all right." Maisie sniffed in mock annoyance. "But I'm in no hurry to go home." She marched over to the bench and plunked herself down beside Tol-ley. "Move over, kid."
Doc just chuckled at her antics. "Hello, Rand. It's good to see you." He sat next to Maisie.
Rand had only a moment to give his impromptu audience a scowl of irritation before their eyes all turned toward the train car. Maisie giggled and Tolley let out a low whistle. Rand followed their gaze. And nearly fell onto the bench beside them.
Slender and of medium height, the young lady had thick auburn hair piled high on her head, with a cute little brown-and-blue hat perched at the summit. Her sandy-colored dresswell, more suit than dress, and trimmed with dark blue bits of ribbon and suchhugged well-formed curves that he wouldn't let himself dwell on until after they were married. But it was her face that held his attention. Like a classical Roman statue of Venus he'd once seen in a magazine, her elegant beauty was flawless and her porcelain cheeks glowed with a hint of roses. He couldn't make out the color of her eyes, but she'd said in a letter that they were hazel.
Oh, mercy, she's even more beautiful than her picture. What did I ever do to deserve this prize? Nothing, that's what. It was all a matter of grace.
Thank You, Lord, for sending me such a lovely bride.
That was, if Miss O'Brien would have him once he told her the truth about his past.
Foolishly putting off the inevitable, Marybeth had offered a silly excuse to the Henshaws for not following them right away. Maisie had teased about her shyness but hadn't forced the issue. The last passenger in the car, Marybeth had slowly moved toward the door where the conductor had given her a patient smile.
At last she emerged from the darkness, shielding her eyes from both the sun and the wind. A porter offered a hand and helped her to the ground. She pressed a dimeher last oneinto his hand for the services he'd so diligently rendered during the trip. "Thank you."
As he bowed to her, a sharp whistle split the air. She located Maisie seated by the train station and pointing enthusiastically at a tall, broad-shouldered cowboy. He was dressed in a dark green plaid shirt, spotless black trousers and shiny black boots. While she couldn't see his face due to the broad brim of his light brown hat, his physique was certainly attractive, the sort that girls at her school always gushed over when the matrons weren't in the room.
Her gaze lit on the gun strapped to his belt and a shudder went through her. In traveling across the country, she'd noticed more than one cowboy wearing a gun. Another traveler had told her the weapons were necessary because of wild animals and maybe even train robbers. Yet how many of those cowboys had killed a man, as this one had?
He strode toward her with a firm gait and her heart pounded with fear
and a very odd thrill. What was wrong with her? She'd never been one to court danger. Indeed, she avoided confrontation at all cost.
"Miss O'Brien?" He tipped his hat to her.
Now she could see his face and her breath left her. When he hadn't sent a picture, she'd wondered if his looks were not particularly appealing. That was far from the case. In all of her twenty years, she had never seen a more handsome man, from his bright green eyes to his tanned, well-formed cheekbones and slender nose to his attractive, slightly crooked smile that revealed even white teeth. He even smelled good; a woody fragrance she couldn't quite identify. But it was those eyes, emerald green and reflecting the darker shade of his shirt, that held her attention, that mesmerized her.
"Yes, I'm Marybeth O'Brien." Her voice squeaked, but he had the good manners not to laugh. "Mr.
"Yes, ma'am." He reached out to take her gloved hand. "Please call me Rand. We mostly go by first names out here. That is, if it's all right with you."
At his touch, a hot spark shot up her arm, turning to ice as it reached her neck. She couldn't stop a shudder, but again he didn't react. "Yes, that's fine." Somehow she managed to say the words. Somehow she managed to keep her knees from buckling.
For countless seconds they stood staring at each other. Marybeth tried to reconcile the idea of this young, incredibly handsome man being a killer, a gambler, a man exactly like her father. That thought shook her loose from her hypnotic state. Hadn't Da looked every bit the gentleman when he was sober? For the first time in her life she understood how Mam had been swept off her feet and right into a tragic, abusive marriage.
"Well" She broke away from Rand's hold. "I have a trunk someplace." She looked around and spied it being unloaded from the baggage car. "There it is. Shall we?" She took a step in that direction.
"Yes, ma'am." Rand nonetheless gently touched her upper arm to stop her. "I brought my brother along to take care of that." He motioned to a younger version of himself. "Tolley, get yourself over here and meet Miss O'Brien
Marybeth, this is my brother Tolley."
The brothers' good relationship was evident in the boy's teasing smirk and overly polite address to her. "How do you do, Miss O'Brien? Welcome to Esperanza." From his singsong tone, she guessed he'd been coached.
"Very well, thank you, Tolley. I understand first names are the rule here, so please call me Marybeth." For some reason she felt no fear of him, despite the gun he wore. Did his easy smile and wide-eyed innocence hide a murderous spirit, too?
"Yes, ma'am." He shot a look at Rand almost as if seeking approval. "I'll take care of that trunk and see you later."
"Oh." Marybeth's heart sank as he strode away. She'd hoped the boy's presence would serve as a buffer between her and Rand. She looked up at Rand. "II was thinking."
Again he touched her upper arm. Again a shiver raced up to her neck. "If you don't mind, I'd like for us to go over to Mrs. Williams's café for a bite to eat before I take you to your lodgings. That way we can start getting acquainted."
Marybeth's stomach answered for her with a slight rumbling. Heat flooded her cheeks. "Oh, dear. I guess you have your answer."
His smile held no censure. "Good. She has the reputation of being the best cook in Esperanza."
Marybeth accepted his offered armhis very muscular armand they began their trek down the rutted street toward the center of town. Maybe this was best. She could break with him in public rather than in private. That way, if he was like Da, he wouldn't dare strike her. Da had always kept the abuse to the privacy of their shabby house so no one would see his true nature. Her only dilemma would be finding a place to stay afterward. Maybe that Mrs. Williams would help her. Maybe someone would. One thing was certain. Dr. and Mrs. Henshaw would be no help. From the admiring looks on their faces, it was obvious they thought Rand was nothing short of a hero.