Sanford Colston left his hometown of Saints Roost to hire its school a new teacher—but instead found himself stuck at the Dallas train station, robbed of the clothes off his back. It was clear to Ford that this thief wasn't your ordinary outlaw—and he was right. Hannah was a beautiful woman on the run, desperate for a disguise that would help her escape her dangerous past. But when fate forced their paths to cross again, Ford couldn't let Hannah get away twice.
Ford wanted to help his charming young bandit, but didn't know how—until she had a most exciting idea. Hannah could hide in Saints Roost. Back in the strict little town, Hannah made quite a first impression...and, with Ford at her side, learned that sometimes life offers second chances...
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||753 KB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Praise for National Bestselling
and Award-Winning Author
“Ms. Thomas’s name should be at the top of everyone’s favorite author list.”
—Affaire de Coeur
“Jodi Thomas will render you breathless!”
“Jodi Thomas’s writing is exquisite and often lyrical…a very talented writer.”
THE TEXAN AND THE LADY
The unexpected romance of a lovely young Harvey Girl and the danger-loving lawman who stole her heart…
“The woman who made Texans tender…Jodi Thomas shows us hard-living men with grit and guts, and the determined young women who soften their hearts.”
Bestselling author of Something Shady and Wild Oats
Her most sweeping novel of love and glory in the heart of Texas…and of Maggie and Grayson—whose passion held a power and fury all its own…
“A thoroughly entertaining romance.”
THE TENDER TEXAN
Winner of the Romance Writers of America Best Historical Series Romance Award of 1991
“Excellent…Have the tissues ready; this tender story will tug at your heart. Memorable reading.”
“This marvelous, sensitive, emotional romance is destined to be cherished by readers…a spellbinding love story…filled with the special magic that makes a book a treasure.”
TO TAME A TEXAN’S HEART
Half the folks in America loved reading the gunslinging tales of Granite Westwind. But nobody knew the real story behind the legend: Granite Westwind was a woman…
“Earthy, vibrant, funny and poignant, To Tame a Texan’s Heart is Jodi Thomas at her best…a wonderful, colorful love story.”
And now her latest novel…
Titles by Jodi Thomas
Betting the Rainbow
Can't Stop Believing
Chance of a Lifetime
Just Down the Road
The Comforts of Home
Somewhere Along the Way
Welcome to Harmony
Promise Me Texas
Wild Texas Rose
The Lone Texan
Tall, Dark, and Texan
The Texan's Reward
A Texan's Luck
When a Texan Gambles
The Texan's Wager
To Wed in Texas
To Kiss a Texan
The Tender Texan
The Texan and the Lady
To Tame a Texan's Heart
Forever in Texas
Texas Love Song
Two Texas Hearts
The Texan's Touch
Twilight in Texas
The Texan's Dream
In a Heartbeat
A Husband for Holly
Heart on His Sleeve
Easy on the Heart
Forever in Texas
A special thank you to
for all their help and advice.
HANNAH RANDELL WIPED the mixture of rain and tears from her eyes and stared across the darkness at the depot’s platform twenty yards away. The northbound out of Dallas was being delayed for some reason.
Two men in wet-darkened yellow slickers stood guard at each end of the walkway leading to the train. Hannah’s only hope of living another day was to catch the train, and these two hired guns from the Harwell ranch made that hope slimmer by the minute. Only a ghost could pass them unnoticed. Absently, she opened the carpetbag at her side and stroked the warm fur of her cat, resting within. The old calico was the only living thing who would miss her when Hannah died.
A lone man, draped in a huge greatcoat and wide-brimmed Stetson, jumped from one of the passenger cars and moved in fluid steps away from the train. Lightning flashes made him disappear and reappear every few seconds as he drew closer to Hannah.
“You’d best stay with the others, mister!” the conductor yelled from the shelter of the train steps. “We’ll be pulling out soon as we get a wire saying the tracks are clear up north.”
The tall, lean shadow didn’t slow his pace. “Blow the whistle twice when you’re ready. I’ll hear it!” he shouted back into the rain. “I’ve had all the people I can stomach for one night.”
The conductor waved, as if to say “good riddance,” and melted into the interior of the car while the stranger took the platform steps two at a time. He crossed the street with his hat down against the rain and entered the hotel door only inches from where Hannah stood hidden between buildings.
She glanced at the Harwell men guarding the steps; they’d barely noticed the man. An idea washed through her mind, helping her forget the cold. She lifted the soaked hem of her skirt with one hand and her mother’s worn carpetbag with the other. Trudging into the muddy alley toward the hotel’s back door, she whispered, “I think I’ve got a plan, Sneeze.”
Though the cat didn’t answer, the words of Hannah’s mother from years ago echoed in the young woman’s mind. Survive. Do whatever you have to do, but survive.
Hannah wondered if that might include killing a man before this storm ended.
SANFORD COLSTON STEPPED off the train and turned his collar up against the icy rain. There was no sense getting angry about the delay. It couldn’t be helped. But he was tired of waiting with the others in the crowded passenger car. He needed space and silence, even if he had to brave the storm to get it.
Two men stood on the platform in the rain, as though watching for something or someone. Sanford could see rifles beneath their slickers and wondered what kind of trouble would come riding in on a night like this. It might be snowing farther north, but the freezing downpour in Dallas was enough to keep the devil indoors tonight.
Raising the brim of his hat just enough to see the outline of an old hotel across the street, he headed in long strides toward it, needing desperately to be alone. Being trapped in a car with drunks, loud salesmen, chattery old women, and babies continually crying had proven to be too disagreeable an ending to an already horrible day.
Silence was what he needed, Ford thought. It was what he’d always needed. Ford’s father had once told him to stay apart from people, that he’d be better off alone. Though Ford was his only son, his father had preferred to see him only when necessary. So, since childhood, loneliness was Ford’s only traveling companion. People had a way of reminding him of his father’s advice.
The aging desk clerk didn’t even look up as he exchanged a room key for the cash Ford laid on the counter. “Second door to the left of the stairs,” the clerk said with a coloring of Irish in his tone. “Ye’re too late for even coffee from the kitchen, but ye’ve got the floor to yeself tonight. Rain’s drowned out all me profit.”
Without saying a word, Ford climbed the stairs. He’d never spent much time in towns the size of Dallas, but he guessed they were pretty much the same everywhere—quiet, except for Saturday nights and elections. His sister, Gavrila, however, had warned him Dallas and Fort Worth would be full of wickedness. Though he placed little concern in her usual overreaction, as a precaution he’d worn his Colts.
The hallway smelled of mildew, and the lock on his door didn’t work. Not that it mattered, since he was the only one on the floor, yet Ford liked order. Without sparking a light, he removed his gun belt and hung it on the iron bedpost. Guessing the sheets would be less than clean, he took off his coat and stretched his long frame out atop the covers. Since he’d been able to afford it, he’d bought the best quality clothing available from mail-order catalogs, but even these clothes would be wrinkled by morning.
The room was as dark as his mood. He’d failed! The whole town of Saints Roost was depending on him. The council had made it seem so simple. Since Sanford Colston was the only member of the school board who didn’t have a family to care for, he’d been elected to make the trip to Dallas in the middle of one of the worst winters Texans had ever experienced. All Ford had to do was hire a new schoolteacher.
Lightning flashed outside and thunder rattled the thin panes of his room’s only window. Ford closed his eyes, not caring about the storm. “Just as you predicted, Gavrila,” he whispered, remembering his sister’s parting words. “I had as much luck finding a teacher as I’ve had finding a wife.”
He could understand why no woman would want to be married to him. Even Gavrila couldn’t stand to be around him for long. You’re not ugly, exactly, his sister said once as a child, trying to be kind. God just gave you features that don’t quite match. Your nose is too big and your chin too square. You’ve eyes so dark they seem to look right through a person.
Even if a girl could get used to you, she’d still not want to have your children. Sanford, just the way you stand, so still and all, makes chills spread up my spine. And you never say anything. Father always wondered that you learned to talk at all, always hiding out like it wasn’t in your nature to be around people.
Ford let the memories flow in the darkness of this cheap room, as if the walls could no longer hold them out like his foot-thick bricks could at home. He’d been taller than anyone his age in school, yet so thin he didn’t have a chance in a fight. When everyone else would stand around talking, Ford would only watch. Even later, when he was grown and had a ranch of his own, he couldn’t think of more than a few words to say to anyone. Most people were like his sister, who talked at him and never to him.
Until he was twenty, his bones looked like they threatened to break the skin. Folks called him “spider,” and “willow,” and “skeleton.” They laughed at his huge hands and feet, as though they’d paid money to see a freak. When he didn’t respond, they’d look at him with a sadness about them.
Finally, Ford matured. His body filled out with muscles from hard work, and his hands and feet seemed to fit his tall frame. His face, however, never adjusted with age. An aunt had summed it up last July by saying “handsome” was a handle Sanford Colston would never have to worry about having tacked to his back.
Staring up at the water-spotted ceiling during lightning flashes, Ford decided that though he didn’t mind the loneliness, he resented the cruelty he’d suffered in school. He thought serving on the school board might help, but what good could he do if he couldn’t even find a teacher?
Slowly, his mind searched through every applicant’s file he’d studied. Only two had met the qualifications necessary and were willing to take over in the middle of a school year. Before he could interview one, however, she decided to marry, and the other had refused to go to the Texas panhandle. He wished he could have bent the rules and hired one of the remaining applicants, but the school board was adamant in their requirements…eight years of schooling and one year of higher education, plus unmarried, highly principled, well groomed, and of course, Methodist, since Saints Roost was a Methodist town. By the time a woman collected all those qualities, she was either planning a wedding or too set in her ways to travel.
When the door rattled during a sudden roll of thunder, he didn’t bother to look around. The muffled sound of a cat meowing whispered through the blackness. A slight breeze cooled his cheek as the haunting rustle of a gun clearing leather drifted to him.
Moving with swiftness, Ford reached toward the bedpost. Too late. One weapon was missing from its holster. His boots hit the floor with a thud as he stared into the blackness, almost tasting danger in the thick air. The skin stretched tight across his knuckles as Ford once more heard the cry of an angry cat trapped somewhere in the night.
“Don’t move, mister, or I’ll shoot!” a woman ordered. Her voice was high with panic.
Sanford started to stand, but froze at the distinct sound of the hammer being pulled back on a revolver. Again the muffled scratching, fighting sound of a cat echoed Ford’s own frustration.
“Who are you?” His voice sounded harsh even to himself. “What do you want? I’ve little money, if you’ve come to rob me.”
His eyes focused enough to see her outline. She was tall, very tall for a woman. He could smell sweat, and mud…and blood. He could just make out her form before him, her carpetbag in one hand and his gun in the other. The tingle of her bracelets chimed in the thick air as her hand shook slightly with the weight of the gun.
“I don’t want your money,” she answered sharply. “Take off your clothes!”
“What!” He’d never heard such a ridiculous demand in his life. “I most certainly will not!”
“Look, mister, I don’t want to have to kill you, but I will if need be.”
“But you’d hang.”
“I’ll be dead before morning anyway if you don’t give me those clothes. Now, you can take them off, or I’ll remove them from your corpse.”
“You’d kill me for my clothes?” Ford realized he sounded like a child. The woman was dangerous, maybe even insane. What other kind of person would sneak into a man’s room, point a gun at him, then demand he disrobe?
“Don’t push me, mister, or I swear I’ll make you coffin heavy. Now stop asking questions and start stripping.”
Ford pulled off his vest and began unbuttoning his shirt. “I’ve clean clothes in my bag. You’re welcome to them.”
“No!” she shouted above the storm. “I need what you had on when you left the train.”
After pulling out his shirttail, he unbuckled his belt. Curiosity far outweighed fear in his mind as he continued. He’d lived his life in what dime novels called “the Wild West” and never been robbed. Now he had a real live villain before him.
“Hurry up!” she snapped. “I have to be long gone by sunup. Put your clothes on the bed and back up into the corner.”
“Do you want my drawers, too?” His thumb pushed into the waistband of his underwear.
“No!” she answered. “And you should wear an undershirt in this weather. You’ll catch your death.”
“A mothering robber—how unusual.” Ford tried hard to see her face.
“Hurry up!” she answered. “Back up.”
He did as ordered, thinking if he lived through this adventure, he’d finally have something to tell around the cracker barrel at the general store.
Moving into the far corner of the room, he folded his powerful arms over his bare chest and watched her outline. She carefully placed his gun only an inch from her reach as she started removing her own clothes.
“Make a move toward me, mister, and I swear I’ll shoot. Don’t get any ideas about jumping for the gun. You may be fast, but you wouldn’t want to bet your life on it.”
Ford smiled. He must be mad. He was almost enjoying this. No one back home would ever believe such a thing could happen to him. Not to Sanford Colston, the man everyone seemed to speak to only long enough to be polite.
“Mind my asking, why me?” He watched her in the blinks of lightning as she pulled off her skirt. The material hit the floor in a wet plop.
“You were the only one getting off the train.”
Light flashed again as she pulled her shirt over her hand. Ford sucked in a quick breath as he saw her body clearly for a second. She was beautiful. Tall and willowy with full breasts pushing up from a plain camisole. Ebony hair tumbled past rounded hips.
Her beauty washed over him with a sudden flash of fire. “You’re lovely,” he whispered.
She grabbed his shirt from the bed and pulled it on. “Well, take a good look, mister, ’cause you’ll never be seeing me again. If you’re smart, you’ll forget you saw me now. Anyone who knows me dies.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing you,” he answered honestly.
Pulling on his pants, she laughed. “You sound like you’ve never seen a woman undress. I didn’t get a good look at you back there on the street, but I didn’t think you were a boy.” His belt circled her waist twice. “What are you, some kind of priest…or virgin?”
Ford’s hard jaw turned to granite. “I’m not a priest.” He wasn’t about to discuss his personal life with the thief stealing his clothes. She’d hardly be interested in how few single girls there were in his town compared to the endless number of men.
At twenty-five, everyone assumed a man had been with several women, even a man like Sanford. He had never admitted or denied anything about his knowledge of women. But this robber in the shadows had asked a question no one else had ever dared. He watched as she picked up his gun and moved toward him.
“Lie on the bed, facedown, with your hands behind you,” she ordered in a voice that shook with fear.
He moved slowly, knowing he could fight for the gun when she started to tie his hands. But to do so, he’d have to frighten her more, or maybe even hurt her. “Is this how every guest of the hotel is greeted? Are you the desk clerk’s woman?”
She pulled his wrist behind him with her free hand. “I’m nobody’s woman, mister. Nobody’s.”
The cold imprint of the revolver pressed into the center of his back as she tied his hands with a rope she’d been using as her belt. “Thanks for cooperating. I really didn’t want to shoot you.”
He twisted slightly so he could see her shadow. “Would you have?”
“All my life I’ve been doing what I had to. I reckon I’d kill you if need be. You’re about my last hope. Before I saw you get off that train I had nowhere to turn.” Something about the darkness made it easy to be honest. “Just once I wish someone would…” She didn’t finish.
Ford knew how she felt. He’d felt that way every time a woman turned him down for something as harmless as a Sunday walk. “I hope someday someone will do whatever it is you wish for,” he whispered as he watched her open her bag and pull a huge calico cat from the folds.
“You brought your cat on a robbery!” Ford couldn’t hide his smile.
“I had nowhere else to leave him.” The woman removed several metal bracelets from her wrists and dropped them into the bag, then fought the calico to get him back inside.
“Maybe you should think a little harder about this life of crime you’re in. I have no love for cats, and I’ve never known a bandit, but I don’t think they usually travel with pets.”
“You’d love Sneeze if you got to know him better,” she defended the cat as she locked the animal back into the bag. “Which you won’t, since I’ll never see you again.”
“I wish you luck, Miss Nobody’s Woman,” he mumbled as he watched her braid her hair and twist it into his hat. Anyone who could love a cat couldn’t be all that bad.
She knelt by the bed, only a few inches from his face. Her ribs rested lightly against his shoulder. “Thanks, mister.” Her hand touched his back. She spread her fingers wide as she moved across his muscles to the gun.
“You’re no boy,” she added, turning her hand over, allowing her knuckles to brush against the warmth of his flesh. “These muscles came from years of hard work, I’d guess.”
Ford closed his eyes, memorizing the way a woman’s touch felt on his bare skin. Her fingers were light, almost caressing, as though she were stealing this feel of him while she had the opportunity.
“I have to gag you.” She pulled away slowly, replacing his weapon in the holster on the bedpost.
“I won’t yell out.” Ford hated the thought of having a rag shoved into his mouth. “If you’ll forget the gag, I’ll give you till first light.”
Her words brushed his face as she moved near again with silent swiftness. “But why?”
He didn’t answer. She was so close, he could feel the warmth of her even through his thick cotton shirt, which she now wore.
“Why should you help me?” She moved slightly, until the warm cotton touched his arm. “Why should I trust you?”
“Because,” he said, his words raw with honesty, “I’ve never lied.” He had no answer to give her to the first question. Reason told him to go to the sheriff as soon as she left, but he knew he wouldn’t.
Lightly, she brushed the hair from his brow. “I think I believe you. I wish I could see your face. You’re quite a gentleman, mister. Maybe the first one I’ve ever met.”
“I’m glad you can’t see my face,” he responded. “You might understand why I live a priest’s life.” He felt her breathe as the shirt she wore pressed against his side.
“If you stay quiet till dawn, I’ll always remember you as the handsome man I kissed one night while I robbed him.”
“Kissed?” Even as he said the word, she lowered her lips to his. At first the touch was light, almost timid. As though he were a breed apart from all she’d ever known and she had to touch him once before she left. But when his mouth parted in welcome, she moved closer, cupping the sides of his face with her hands.
A storm spread through Ford’s body. All his senses seemed magnified at once. He felt the warmth of her fingers against his day’s growth of beard. The softness of her breast pushed against his arm. She tasted sweeter than honey and brown sugar, with a flavor of wildness he’d never known. He treasured the taste of her like a connoisseur must value priceless wine.
As if she’d longed to be kissed with such tenderness, she responded willingly, moving her fingers into the thickness of his hair, pressing her mouth harder against his. She might steal his clothes, but not his kiss. That he gave willingly.
Her head lowered beside his and her body leaned across his shoulder. His strained muscles tightened even more with the feel of her softness washing over him as their kiss deepened.
When he strained suddenly against the ties binding his hands, she moved away with a sigh of regret. There was no need for words; they both knew he struggled not to free himself, but to be able to hold her.
Silently, she slipped into his huge coat.
He wanted to yell “don’t go!”, but a man doesn’t call back a thief. As she buttoned the coat, he saw her outline against the window. Dressed in his clothes, her silhouette became his in the shadowy light.
“Good-bye, stranger,” she whispered as she moved toward the door with her carpetbag in one hand. “And as my Gypsy mother used to say, ‘may the angels bless your days and the fairies enchant your dreams.’”
“Good-bye, Nobody’s Woman.”
In a blink, she disappeared into the night.
Ford lay still for a long time, then slowly twisted his hands until the binding loosened. He sat up in bed and stared out at the rain.
I’ve been bewitched, he thought, still feeling the pressure of her lips on his mouth, the touch of her fingers over his back. Part of him wanted to look for her, another part wished she’d been a dream, for he had no room for a woman like her in his life.
Dawn crept into the room in watery shades of blue. Though the hotel was every bit as dirty as he’d thought it might be, Ford barely noticed. His mind was focused on the memory of a figure he’d seen only in shadow.
She was the embodiment of every vice he’d fought all his life: dishonest, criminal, wild. But he couldn’t push her image from his mind. He’d fought hard to never do anything wrong, and now with his silence he’d helped a robber escape.
Lifting her discarded clothes into the light, he saw the patches and mending on thread-thin cloth. A beggar’s rags. But there was nothing poor about the woman he’d seen in the night. She’d been rich with life, richer maybe than he’d ever be.
A tap sounded on his door, rattling Ford from his thoughts.
“Train’s leaving!” the desk clerk’s voice yelled, as if in a hurry to be rid of the hotel’s only guest.
Ford reached for his hand-tooled leather bag. He’d been so hypnotized, he hadn’t even heard the whistle. In only a few minutes he was dressed and running for the station. He was at the platform before he remembered his ticket was in the breast pocket of his coat.
Hurriedly, he rummaged in his bag for enough money to buy another ticket and jumped aboard the last passenger car as the train pulled away. Now he hardly noticed the crowds, the smells, the voices, for his thoughts were filled with a beautiful thief he’d never see again.
ICY RAIN PINGED on the top of the passenger cars and melted down the windows, distorting the view of a weak sunrise. Passengers, too tired to even pretend to sleep, grumbled and wiggled on benches they’d once thought of as comfortable. The train whistle sounded in one long, determined blow.
Hannah squared her shoulders and kept her hat low as the conductor punched her ticket. She was relieved when he made no attempt at conversation and simply moved to the next passenger. The screams of a crying baby in the seat behind Hannah drowned out Sneeze’s meows from the carpetbag.
This just might work, Hannah thought as she slid her hand into the bag to calm her cat. He was a great deal of trouble and increased her chances of getting caught, but she couldn’t leave him behind. Sneeze was all she owned, besides the carpetbag and her mother’s thin gold bracelets, which had been hand tooled by a Gypsy grandfather.
As the cars jerked into action, a piece of bread rolled against Hannah’s boot. She glanced around. Several lunch boxes, probably bought through the windows of the train at the last stop, now cluttered the car’s floor. A graying bite of meat hung out like a tongue from the half-eaten roll at her feet. Hannah hesitantly reached toward the bread, noticing how dirty her hands were, with their broken nails and scratches marked in dried blood. She pulled the meat from the bread and lowered it into the bag for Sneeze. For a long moment she looked at the roll, trying to remember when she’d eaten last.
Slowly, she lowered the bread back to the floor, shoving it with her boot in the direction of the other trash. The mice would eat tonight, but she’d not finish another’s meal.
Sneeze relaxed as he ate the meat without any such scruples. Hannah tried to plan her next move, but she couldn’t keep her thoughts off the man she’d left tied up in the hotel room. He’d been calm when she’d robbed him. Now, wrapped in his clothes, she could smell the warm, clean scent of him. The stranger could spare the garments, she figured, and judging from their quality, he must have plenty of money. But she disliked thinking about him heading north without a hat or heavy coat. He’d been a gentleman. He hadn’t sworn or threatened her when she’d robbed him.
The stranger had been soft-spoken. A type she’d known little of in her life. Until she and her mother settled in Fort Worth, they hadn’t stayed anywhere long enough to get to know anyone.
Her mother said it was because they had Gypsy blood and were therefore wandering souls. But Hannah knew it was more because her mother worried about Hannah’s father coming after them. Dana Randell told Hannah she’d bundled her up when Hannah was only a month old and escaped from a man who’d refused to marry her and threatened their lives if anyone ever found out about Hannah being his child.
When Hannah was eight, Dana decided Fort Worth would be as far as they’d run. She found a job cooking in a little café/saloon, where most of the men were rough drifters just looking for a cheap meal and a few drinks before moving on. An old confederate officer named Hickory Wilson owned the place on the outskirts of Fort Worth. He was good enough to give them a room in the back and wages, and unlike some of the men Dana Randell tried to work for, he asked nothing more from his employee. Dana died of a fever when Hannah was twelve; Hickory hardly seemed to notice when the child took over her mother’s chores. Most of the time he asked only to be left alone with his bottle, his memories, and his wounds.
No matter how much Hannah scrubbed the café area, it always smelled as the train did now—of spoiling food and unwashed bodies. She thought of trying one of the other cars, but guessed they’d be just as dirty and crowded.
Hannah suddenly wished she were back at the café, that she’d never met Jude Davis…that the killing had never happened. But there was no going back. Ever. Her life was forever changed. Even to the point of committing a crime tonight, something Hannah had never done before. But Jude Davis had been the one evil Hickory Wilson’s old shotgun couldn’t protect her from. Because of him, she’d have to leave Texas as soon as possible and never return.
She felt bad about robbing the stranger, but it was the only way she’d been able to step on the train without detection. Hannah had merely inconvenienced the man, while his clothing might save her life. She’d seen the yellow slickers on the gunmen and knew her time had run out.
Snuggling deep into the coat, she realized all her life she’d watched her mother look around corners and step into the shadows when anyone unknown walked near. Now she would do the same thing. Her mother had feared Hannah’s father might find them, but Hannah’s hunters were nameless gunmen Jude had told her worked for the Harwell ranch. He’d said they would make him a great deal of money fast, but all they did was kill him, and Hannah didn’t even know why.
Two weeks ago, she’d accepted Jude Davis’s proposal, thinking her life would be peaceful if she married. He had a spread east of Fort Worth and needed a wife to help with the place. Hannah needed somewhere to belong. But each night of their engagement, he’d proven himself less kind and more demanding. The night before they were to marry, he’d hurt her with his roughness. When she’d tried to call off the wedding, he’d laughed and slapped her hard as a promise of what was to come.
She’d cried most of the night, knowing she had no one to protect her against Jude. Hickory Wilson had ignored Hannah’s screams, and she guessed he wouldn’t stop Jude from taking her even if she was fighting. She had no money, no horse, no one to help her, but the bruises told her she couldn’t marry Jude Davis.
She’d planned to walk away at dawn with nothing but her mother’s old bag and her cat. But when she’d crossed the café, Jude and Hickory were at the bar, drinking and congratulating one another on something they’d done. When Jude saw her, it took him a moment to realize what she planned. He knocked her halfway across the room with his first blow.
Her screams were drowned out by three men storming the saloon. They wore new canvas slickers unlike any she’d ever seen and carried huge rifles beneath the folds. They fired off several rounds while yelling questions at Jude and Hickory. She rolled beneath a table as they circled the two men and laughingly demanded answers from the corpses.
While the bullets flew, no one noticed Hannah. She wrapped her arms around her knees and hid her head as though she could disappear completely. The gunfire echoed off the walls and filled the room with smoke.
Hannah moaned above the train’s rattle as she remembered the sight of Jude tumbling to the floor in a splattering of his own blood.
“You say something?” an old soldier beside her asked. He still wore his twenty-year-old confederate hat as though the war had just ended. “I don’t hear too good. Been riding these trains too long, I reckon.”
“No.” Hannah made her voice low. “I didn’t say anything.”
The old fellow nodded, then turned to the two cowhands next to him and began a long rendition of what this country had been like just after the war. The story was too polished not to have been told many times.
Hannah drifted into sleep remembering the way the stranger’s lips had tasted when she’d kissed them. She’d been foolish to kiss him, but there was something so good about the man. A kind of goodness she’d never been near. What had he said…that he never lied?
Her dreams came slowly, like dark-winged creatures drifting on a silent cloud of nightmares. Dreams of being alone, of fighting battles where winning awarded only momentary safety and losing brought pain too great for tears. Memories of growing through her teens with no one to help celebrate each year’s passing.
The winter sun was long past noon when Hannah reopened her eyes, but the aging reb was still talking. Now his tale was of the buffalo wars fought hard across the top parts of Texas.
As the train signaled a stop ahead, the man turned from historian to tour guide. “You fellows don’t want to stop in that little settlement up by the caprock. Folks call the place Saints Roost, ’cause most of the town feels they’ve come to bring religion to the lawless West. Ain’t no drinking, gambling, or anything else fun going on in that place. Heard tell even the railroad isn’t planning to go near there.”
Though the train was slowing, the old man continued, “See that fellow waiting with a wagon? I’d bet ya two bits he’s come to pick up one of them upstanding saints. I’ve seen him before. Hauls supplies mostly, but meets the train regularly to save folks the cost of the stage. Even talked to a man from Saints Roost a few days ago who made the trip down to Dallas same time as I did. Colston was his name, as I recall. He was hoping to find a schoolteacher, but I don’t reckon he’s had any luck. No woman in her right mind would want to get stuck in a little nowhere town like that with nothing but Bible-thumping Methodists to talk to.”
As the train heaved to a stop, Hannah watched a lone man jump from the steps of the car in front of them. He carried a finely tooled leather bag, but had no hat or coat to guard against the thin mist of snow that whirled in the air.
She couldn’t pull her gaze from him. Taller than most men, with powerful muscles beneath his cotton shirt and plain wool pants, he moved like a wild animal, sleek and purposeful. He had to be the man she’d kissed in the hotel, for even now the memory of the way his back had felt warmed her palm. His face was deeply tanned and set hard against the weather, with sharp angles that looked as if they’d been carved out of a wood that wouldn’t give to rounding easily.
“That’s the fellow I was telling y’all about. The one looking for a schoolteacher for Saints Roost,” the old soldier beside her told his companions. “I knew he’d be heading back alone, probably with that teacher contract still in his pocket.”
Hannah felt the folds of a single page of paper in the breast pocket of her stolen coat. It had been behind the ticket she’d found, but she hadn’t taken the time to read the paper.
With only a moment’s hesitation, she jumped from her seat, grabbed her bag, and ran. Hannah could see the tiny window of escape she’d been hoping for opening, and the only thing that stood in her way was one man. If she could be brave enough to try the impossible, maybe she’d be safe.
“Afternoon, Smith,” Ford said as he tossed his bag into the covered wagon and unstrapped his gun belt for a more comfortable ride home. “Good of you to meet the train. I’d hate waiting another day for the stage.”
Smith was a little man with reddish hair and cheeks so full they seemed to saddlebag his face. “Welcome home, Brother Colston.” Smith wiped his nose with the back of his first finger. “I hope your trip proved fruitful.”
Before Ford could answer, a woman stepped to his side and linked her hand through his arm. “I’m sorry I was late, Mr. Colston.” She’d removed the hat, and her hair hung in one long braid down her back.
Her hesitation at pronouncing his name was so slight Ford knew Smith wouldn’t have noticed. The wind lost all chill as Ford realized the woman beside him was wearing his clothes. Her hair was liquid midnight, her eyes dark blue.
She continued without giving him a chance to find his voice. “I had to talk with the conductor about having my trunk shipped.” She looked at Smith and smiled shyly. “Mr. Colston was kind enough to lend me his coat when mine was soaked in mud.”
She looked so embarrassed Ford almost felt sorry for her. Her clothes had been soaked in mud, but he doubted that had much to do with why she’d robbed him.
Handing Sanford Colston his own hat and her bag, she climbed onto the bench beside Smith. “And to make matters worse, my trunk was accidentally put on the southbound train this morning, so I have nothing to change into. If Mr. Colston hadn’t been with me, I don’t know what I’d have done.”
Smith smiled at her, taking in every word she said as gospel.
Staring at the ragged carpetbag, Ford could feel the cat twisting inside, trying to fight his way out. Maybe the lady was still playing games, but her pet seemed ready to call it quits. Carefully, he placed her bag behind the bench and opened the latch a few inches so the animal could breathe.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Smith.” She glanced at Ford still standing beside the wagon. He swore he saw her wink before adding, “Mr. Colston didn’t have a chance to introduce me.” She held out her hand to Smith. “I’m Hannah R—”
Ford again noticed a hesitation so slight it wouldn’t even measure up to a pause.
“—Wright. I’m the new schoolteacher. Got the contract tucked away in my pocket.”
Smith bit off his right glove and took her fingers in his large, dirt-encrusted hand, as if he’d been bestowed a great privilege. “Just call me Smith, Miss Wright. Folks called me that for so long I’ve forgotten if it’s my first or last name. It’s a mighty great honor I have to be taking you to Saints Roost.”
Never, never in Sanford’s life had anything like this happened! He forced himself to breathe. He couldn’t let this woman, this thief, just step in and lie about being the new teacher…but what should he say? For once, Smith looked sober. He might remember some of the story. Usually when Smith ventured to the depot, he drank all he could while waiting for the train, and whoever arrived would find him dead drunk atop the supplies in the back of the covered wagon.
Judging from the way Smith stared at the woman, Ford didn’t want to even guess which one of them the redheaded farmer would believe if Ford tried to tell his side of the story. Plus, it was starting to snow heavily, and they couldn’t very well stand here and argue.
Ford glanced at the carpetbag, hoping the cat might bolt and then she’d have to follow. But no such luck. The carpetbag didn’t even twitch.
Reluctantly, Ford climbed onto the seat beside Hannah, feeling like a fool forced to act in a play for which he’d never seen a script. Not that Smith was behaving like himself, either. Without warning, the little man pulled out a quilt he’d never shared with anyone and offered it to Hannah. He even apologized for the weather, as if he would’ve personally tried for a better day if he’d known she was coming.
She thanked him sweetly and insisted on spreading the quilt over all three of their laps.
Smith slapped the horses into action without even commenting on why the woman wore pants. Even though she was dressed in a wool coat down to her ankles, Smith seemed to have realized she was a lady. His speech slowed, as though he were choosing every word carefully.
Running a huge hand through his damp hair, Ford paused only a moment before silently offering her the hat. After all, it seemed to go with the coat, and if he was going to get snowed on, the little that missed his head wouldn’t make much difference.
She accepted his offer, her fingers brushing the side of his hand during the exchange. The woman took his breath away with the slight touch, and he wondered how long it would be before all common sense failed him.
Suddenly deciding he couldn’t allow this charade to continue any longer, Ford cleared his throat. Did this bandit think she could just jump in a wagon and claim to be the teacher he’d been sent to Dallas to find? Last night had been something that involved only him, but fooling an entire community was quite different and he wouldn’t allow it.
Just as Ford opened his mouth to tell Smith they’d better stop by the sheriff’s office, Hannah’s hand found his beneath the blanket. She held on tightly with trembling fingers as she asked Smith how long it would take them to get to Saints Roost.
Ford couldn’t remain indifferent. Though her voice was soft and conversational, her grip was a cry for help that touched his soul. Slowly, gently, he closed his massive hand around hers and stilled her icy fingers with his warmth. This lovely woman was in trouble and she’d reached out to him for help—something no one had ever done. What harm could a few hours’ protection do?
Hannah felt his hand wrap around hers and knew he’d remain silent. She’d found his weakness: he was a good man. He couldn’t turn away from someone in need, no matter how wrong her actions. Her heart almost wished she’d be around long enough to understand him, but her mind knew she was somehow putting him in danger by asking for only a few more hours. The men who killed Jude seemed determined not to stop until they killed her also. She’d seen someone following her dozens of times since she’d left Fort Worth, but she’d somehow always managed to stay ahead of them.
With each mile the storm grew worse, but Ford barely noticed the cold. At some point, he’d placed his arm around Hannah’s back to help brace her, and she’d cuddled against him. Smith was forced to concentrate on the driving while Ford held Hannah. The road was poor traveling on dry days, in snow it became treacherous.
Finally, after endless hours, Smith pulled up the reins. “I better get off here, Brother Colston, as we pass my place. I’d planned on taking you all the way in and returning with the horses after I unloaded, but I think I’ll pick up the rig later if you’ll just leave it in the barn. My bones need warming and the missus will be looking for me.”
Ford nodded. The snow had gotten so bad that he could hardly see the dugout Smith and his pack of six lived in. No wonder Smith and his family always looked like moles. Their home was more burrow than house.
Taking the reins, Ford yelled above the wind, “Get inside and warm up!”
“Good-bye, Smith.” Hannah waved. “Thanks for picking me up.”
Smith smiled at her. The red stalks of his hair sticking out from beneath his hat were white with ice, but his smile was warm. “Mighty glad to have you here, Miss Hannah. It’s an honor, it is, to have a fine lady like you to teach our children.”
Slapping the horses, Ford moved forward. He wanted to shout back that the farmer wouldn’t be seeing Hannah again because she’d be on the first train leaving after the storm. But he held his tongue, thinking of what he’d say to her as soon as they were out of the weather and face-to-face. In some unbalanced way he felt responsible.
If he’d stopped the robbery, she wouldn’t have lied to Smith. It didn’t reason out, but somehow he owed her at least a chance.
Hannah spread the blanket over them and kept her head low. The snow fell in huge patches now, blocking all scenery. They moved in silence through a blur of white.
Several minutes later, Ford directed the team beneath an iron archway that joined with a circle C brand at center. He urged the horses up a short lane that led to a house with a barn in back.
“I’ll take care of the horses!” he yelled above the wind. “You wait inside.”
He climbed down from the wagon and swung her over the snow-packed steps and onto the porch. She was lighter than he’d thought she’d be. “Start a fire if one’s not already going,” he ordered as he handed her the wiggling carpetbag.
Hannah didn’t say a word. She’d felt the power of his grip on her waist and, for the first time, feared what he might do when they were alone.
She’d been nothing but a nuisance. Hickory Wilson used to say that Hannah was a blue-eyed Gypsy and born to trouble. She guessed Mr. Colston would probably agree with Hickory fully.
Opening the unlocked door, she stepped inside and glanced from corner to corner as she’d seen her mother do a thousand times. The house smelled of fresh pine and lemon oil. Finely laced doilies sat atop polished tables and needlepoint seemed everywhere from rugs to pictures.
For a long minute, Hannah remained stone still. She was almost afraid to venture into a room so perfect. A tall clock chimed against one wall, and a fine china tea service reflected the last light of day from a small bay window.
Slowly, Hannah removed the overcoat and hung it beside another jacket in the hallway. She placed the hat on a peg of polished brass and removed her shoes before walking to the fireplace. Her socks were damp but she didn’t dare track anything into the house.
When she opened Sneeze’s prison, he looked up at her as if she were bothering him and made no effort to climb out of the warm carpetbag. Hannah carefully placed the bag near the hearth.
Though the room was bitter cold, fresh logs were already stacked in a fireplace that had been swept clean of past ashes. Polished mantel, spotless glass, shining hardwood floors—everything was in place, as if no one lived in this dwelling, but merely inspected it from time to time.
Hannah had only seen houses like this through windows as her mother and she walked some summer evenings years ago. There was an order to everything, a beauty she’d never be able to afford. She remembered thinking when Jude asked her to marry him that she’d take the last of her wages and buy a checkered tablecloth and maybe curtains. Gingham would look pretty shabby in this room of lace and china.
As she struck the match, she heard him come in from somewhere in the back. If she leaned away from the fireplace she could see both the back and front doors. She fought the urge to yell “Don’t track in snow!” and then felt like a fool. Just because she’d never been inside a house so neat didn’t mean he was foreign to it.
She glanced over her shoulder at each piece of furniture, all stately, finely carved, almost delicate. This wasn’t his house! She’d bet on it. He was a big man, and this was a woman’s house. Either he’d allowed his wife to decorate it, or he’d brought her to someone else’s home.
“You get the fire going?” he asked as he moved into the room. “I filled a kettle with water and thought we’d have tea while we try to figure out this mess.”
She’d expected him to yell at her, call her names and threaten to beat her for all the trouble she’d caused him. But the man simply knelt and hung a small teapot on a hook over the logs.
His shirt was wet from the snow, and his hair hung damp across his forehead. Absently, she moved closer and ran her hand across the width of his shoulders, as though she could dust the damp away. If ever God made a man to be touched it was this one, she thought as she whispered, “You’d better get into dry clothes.”
Strong muscles tightened, but he didn’t move. There was a silence about this man, almost as if he’d spent his life completely alone.
The fire was fully ablaze when he turned toward her. He didn’t look as though he’d ever been cold. His winter blue eyes watched her and she felt the sense of being really noticed by someone.
“I’ll watch the tea while you change,” she added, more to slice the silence than offer help.
Slowly he raised his gaze to her face, then glanced back at the garments she wore. “The only spare clothing I travel with is being used at the moment.”
“But can’t you go upstairs? Isn’t this your house?”
He straightened to his full height. “Well, yes and no. Yes, I own the house. It was my father’s before he and my stepmother died, and no, I don’t live here. My sister does. She’d planned to rent the spare bedroom out to the new schoolteacher.”
“Your sister?” Hannah glanced around as if they’d somehow overlooked her in the shadows.
Ford chuckled, a quick stilted sound that comes to men who have laughed little. “No, you didn’t miss her. She’s small, but never silent enough to be skipped. If you met her, you’d understand why I live several miles out of town.”
“Does she mother you?” Hannah could only imagine how much a man like him might hate being mothered.
“No one’s ever mothered me.” His words were simply said, without emotion. “Gavrila sees herself as the center of the universe, and since my birth a year after hers, I have no doubt she’s viewed me as a disturbance in her otherwise perfect world.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Jodi Thomas and her novels
“Compelling and beautifully written.”—Debbie Macomber, #1 New York Times bestselling author
“A masterful storyteller.”—Catherine Anderson, New York Times bestselling author
“Thomas sketches a slow, sweet surrender.”—Publishers Weekly
“A large helping of suspense, vibrant (if eccentric) characters, and Texas humor to spice it up.”—Booklist
“Tender, realistic, and insightful.”—Library Journal
“[Thomas’s] often beautiful turn of phrase and eloquent writing impart truths we spend lifetimes gleaning for ourselves.”—All About Romance