Hellion

Hellion

by Gloria Dale Skinner

Paperback

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Overview

Taught by her three older brothers, Rosellen Lattimer can outride, outshoot, and outsmart any man. Now she wants to follow in her late father's footsteps as sheriff of Poppy, Colorado — and use her badge to tame the rough-and-tumble gold mining town. But when Cason Murdock crosses her path, Rosellen discovers one thing she's never learned: what it means to be a woman.

From their first fiery encounter, Rosellen vows to despise Cason, who has returned to Poppy to destroy her father's name with tales of robbery and murder. But her resistance wears thin in the presence of this man who sparks her deepest emotions....Determined to keep the upper hand in their battle of wills, Rosellen follows Cason to Denver, where they uncover surprising truths about the furious conflict that binds them. For only by revealing the secrets of the past can they forge a future together a destiny of passion as free-spirited as the open frontier.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439154649
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: 12/24/2008
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Gloria Dale Skinner thrills readers with her action-packed romances. She is fast becoming one of the most highly praised authors of Western romances today.

In a career that began in 1990, Gloria has been a Golden Heart finalist in Romance Writers of America's annual contest, nominated for a Holt Medallion, and winner of the coveted Maggie Award that is given by Georgia Romance Writers. Gloria has twelve books to her credit; the critically acclaimed Ransom, Juliana, and Cassandra were published by Pocket Books.

A native Floridian, Gloria lives with her husband in a penthouse condominium overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. She likes flowers, candlelight, sweet smiles, and sunshine.

You can write Gloria Dale Skinner at 2433 Thomas Drive, Suite 181, Panama City Beach, FL 32408.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Poppy, Colorado

Rosellen Latimer stopped outside the batwing doors of the Silver Nugget Saloon and looked down one side of the street and up the other. From where she stood on the boardwalk she could see the length of Main Street and most of its weathered buildings.

Satisfied it was a quiet afternoon in Poppy, Colorado, Rosellen flipped her hat off and let it fall to the back of her neck, then shouldered her way through the batwing doors of the town's most popular watering hole. Afternoon sunshine spilled in behind her. Pausing just inside the doorway for a moment, she let her eyes adjust. The saloon was hot, dark, and quiet. The stifling scent of stale tobacco and rank whiskey hovered like a foggy cloud in the windowless room.

"You're late."

At the sound of the feminine voice, Rosellen's gaze swept the area behind the bar. She recognized the woman who'd spoken as Delta. Rosellen had seen the

soiled dove in town, shopping for fancy fabrics, lace, and scented water at the general store.

She didn't like being reprimanded but decided to hold her tongue until she knew why she'd been summoned to the saloon on this summer afternoon. The only thing Rosellen could think of was that it had to do with her wanting to be the new sheriff of Poppy.

The whole town was in an uproar over it.

"A woman sheriff?" people said. "What in the blue blazes is she thinking?" "A sheriff named Rosellen? What an an outrageous idea!"

"Gayla's other guest has already arrived," Delta said in a slow puffing voice.

Rosellen hid her surprise at hearing she wasn't the only one who'd received the request for a visit with the aging madam.

Movement at the far side of the room caught Rosellen's attention. A tall, powerful-looking man stepped out of the shadows and into a slice of hazy sunlight. All of her senses went on alert.

Sandy brown hair fell loose across his forehead. He stood straight, proud. Slender masculine fingers held a new black Stetson with a fancy braided hatband.

Rosellen made it her business to know everyone in town. A quick assessment told her this man was a stranger, and instinct told her he was no ordinary cowboy. He looked too confident, too much at ease with his surroundings. She stepped closer and watched his dark brown eyes size her up the way a gunfighter might study his opponent before he drew his gun. He was definitely giving her a close once-over.

For a heartbeat, Rosellen's stomach fluttered. But with three older brothers she'd learned the hard way no let any man intimidate her. She squared her shoulders and subjected the powerful-looking stranger to the same intense scrutiny he was giving her.

She couldn't distinguish his features clearly but saw enough to know he would send most women into a swoon. She took note of a clean-shaven face with a strong jawline. The bridge of his nose flared slightly, and his cheekbones were well defined.

He wore black trousers and a white banded-collar shirt. The sleeves were rolled up just past his elbows, showing muscular forearms. His wide-strap gun belt rode low over slim hips. The ivory handle of his revolver looked expensive — and worn.

An uncomfortable feeling skittered up Rosellen's spine, but she tamped it down. If she wanted to be sheriff she couldn't allow herself to be spooked by every dangerous-looking man who rode into town.

She walked farther into the saloon and nodded once to the stranger. He barely returned the greeting, but she refused to be intimidated by his unfriendly manner.

Giving her attention back to Delta, Rosellen said, "I'm here now. Where do we go?"

Delta cut her eyes around to the man and slowly stroked her lips with the tip of her, tongue before saying, "Follow me."

The young woman pushed away from the bar and sashayed toward a door at the back of the room. Her rounded hips swayed suggestively beneath the pink satin robe that clung to her contours.

The heels of Rosellen's new mule-ear boots clicked on the wide-plank floor as she strode past the bar and the unoccupied gaming tables. Rosellen didn't know if it was out of respect for the Lord's day or if the men just wanted to spend more time with their families, but the saloons didn't get much business on Sunday afternoons anymore.

Years ago when her father was first elected sheriff of Poppy, no tune of day or night was respected in the town. The saloons were always open. She'd heard her father say many times that when morality showed up in a mining town, the bawdy houses were the first establishments to shut down.

Out of habit she let her right arm swing loose at her side as she walked, occasionally brushing the carved wooden handle of her old, army-issue Colt. Her father had bought the rare short-barreled gun from a traveling salesman as a gift for Rosellen when she was sixteen.

Delta halted and braced herself against the doorjamb, rolling her back from shoulder to shoulder against the wood while keeping her sights on the stranger.

"Gayla's room is down the hallway. Last door on the right. It's open. Go on in."

Rosellen stopped and turned around, nearly bumping into the stranger. She had to look up at him for their eyes to meet. It surprised her that he had his gaze on her and not on the cleavage Delta proudly displayed for his attention.

His chin was softly rounded with the tiniest hint of a cleft in its center. Full, attractively shaped lips fell slightly parted. The rhythm of Rosellen's heartbeat increased.

"I don't like having a stranger at my back," she snapped, suddenly confused by the way she felt.

A reckless smile flashed across his face. "Name's Cason Murdock. Does that help?"

The name sounded vaguely familiar, but Rosellen couldn't bring anything immediately to mind. She'd probably seen his name and his face on a wanted poster over at the jail. He looked like an outlaw and probably was one. Again forcing down her apprehension about him, she turned and headed for the room.

She'd learned all she could about being a sheriff from her father. Now she had to allow instinct to take over and let her know whether she was just being jumpy or if she truly needed to be cautious.

Rosellen stepped through the doorway, and the heavy mixed scents of sweet perfume and rich tobacco smoke hit her like a blast of tepid air. She saw a pretty woman with gray-streaked strawberry blond hair flowing in soft waves over her shoulders. Long, dark lashes framed big blue eyes that stared with interest at Rosellen.

Gossip in town said Gayla was dying, but if that was true it didn't show on the well-groomed woman. She lay propped up in bed against fluffy satin-covered pillows in varying shades of light purple. A gentle breeze from an open window ruffled lace sheers, which were bracketed by lavender velvet draperies. An oil lamp on the short chest by the bed gave the room a golden glow.

The woman motioned to her. "Come on in. Don't be shy. I won't bite." A soft, husky chuckle floated on the air. "Besides, I feel like I know you, even though we've never been properly introduced."

Everyone knew the owner of the Silver Nugget Saloon. Twenty years ago when Poppy, Colorado, was a lawless boom town Gayla had been the most sought after madam in the area. She was beautiful and refined. She understood men and knew how to treat them. She entertained most of the important men who had cause to visit Poppy.

According to gossip, she considered herself an intimate friend to the wealthy and the powerful as well as grubstaker for needy prospectors. The Silver Nugget had always been the busiest saloon in the small tent city that had eventually become an established mining town.

Gayla hired pretty young girls, and it was said that she never cheated them out of their wages. She forced the girls to save money so that when she decided they were too old for the sporting life they'd be able to start over in another town. Seldom did any of Gayla's girls fall victim to the overuse of opium or whiskey, which had sent more than a few prostitutes to an early grave.

At least once or twice a week Gayla would call for drinks on the house, making her saloon a favorite place for both locals and travelers.

"Come closer. I've seen you in town many times, although we've never spoken," Gayla said.

Rosellen continued on into the room but remained quiet. She was waiting to find out what this invitation was about.

"I can't understand why your father allowed you to run after your brothers like you did or follow him around the streets at night. I always thought it was too dangerous for a young woman to be that free."

"I most certainly could take care of myself then — and now," Rosellen said defensively.

Suddenly the woman drew forward. Her aging face glowed with remembrance as the stranger walked in behind Rosellen. A sweet, sympathetic smile curved her painted lips.

"Cason. I'd know you anywhere." Tears pooled in her eyes, and she sniffed quietly. "I didn't expect you to look so much like your father. Maybe you're a bit taller and stronger, but, oh, he was so handsome. Just like you."

Gayla's voice was husky and deep with emotion. That confused Rosellen. What did this strangerand Gayla's reaction to him have to do with her?

At the mention of the man's father a muscle twitched in the stranger's cheek. His fingers tightened on the brim of his hat. "My father's been dead for fifteen years. I'm not the person you want to talk to."

"Yes, you are. I remember very well the day Frank Murdock was killed. I saw you come running into town, breathless, tears streaming down your face. I wanted to help you, but I didn't know how. And I didn't know the whole story then, either."

"I don't talk about my father with anyone. Cason slammed his hat on his head and turned to walk out.

"Not even someone, who can clear his name?" Gayla asked.

Cason stopped cold in the doorway, then turned to face Gayla.

Frank Murdock. Rosellen knew that name.

No wonder Cason looked like a fast gun to her. His father had been a murdering outlaw. He'd ridden into town in broad daylight, robbed the bank, and killed a teller. As sheriff, her father had hunted Frank Murdock down and shot him dead.

A protective impulse toward the people of Poppy surged inside her Rosellen barged in front of Cason. "What are you doing in my town?"

"Right now I have business with this woman. If you want to talk to me, stand in line." He brushed Rosellen aside with a strong arm and strode over to the bed.

Rosellen's temper flared. She had spent too much time fighting with her brothers to let any man get away with ignoring her, especially one who already had her attention. Moving in between Cason and the bed, Rosellen glared up at him. Most of his face was shadowed by his hat, but she saw annoyance smoldering in his eyes.

"Who the hell do you think you're pushing around?" she asked.

"You. You're in my way. Now, stay out of this."

"Don't talk to me as if I were a child you could order around."

"Then don't act like one by butting in where you don't have any business."

"If I didn't have a reason to be here, Gayla wouldn't have sent for me."

"Stop this!" Gayla cried, beating on her fluffy bedcovers with a round satin pillow. "I brought you two here to listen to me, not to argue with each other like temperamental children."

Cason glared at the woman on the bed. "If you have something to say to me, start talking."

Gayla huffed. "I can see I'm going to have to get right to the point. Very well." She tossed the pillow aside and wiped the corners of her eyes with long, yellow-stained fingers. "I knew and loved both of your fathers."

Rosellen stiffened. The last thing she had expected to hear was anything connecting her father intimately to the town's infamous madam. She backed away. "What's going on? I don't want to hear this. I thought you asked me to come here because you wanted to talk about me running for sheriff."

A scowling wrinkle formed between Gayla's eyes. "You can listen to what I have to say now or later. It doesn't matter to me. I plan to tell this story, and it concerns your father."

Something in the tone of Gayla's voice stopped Rosellen from leaving. Gayla reached over to the chest by her bed and picked up a rolled cigarette from a stack of about fifteen.

The sulfur scent of the lit match floated past Rosellen as Gayla settled back against her pillows and took a deep draw on the cigarette before exhaling. Rosellen had smoked off and on since she was about thirteen, but that was one of the many things she'd given up in order to be a more respectable citizen of the town.

"You should remember everything clearly, Cason. You were thirteen or fourteen years old, but, Rosellen, you were only six at the time."

"Get to the point. I don't have all day," Rosellen said.

Gayla smiled smugly at Rosellen, then turned to Cason. "Your father was innocent, Cason. He had nothing to do with the bank robbery that happened fifteen years ago or with the murder of the bank teller."

Rosellen saw the man beside her tense. His breathing became, shallow, but his expression never changed. Gayla had his attention.

"What the hell do you know that I don't?" he demanded quietly.

Gayla breathed the smoke deep into her lungs. "The whole story."

"What does any of this have to do with me?"

Gayla turned a serious face to Rosellen. "Your father was the bank robber — and the killer."

Rosellen gasped in outrage. How dare this woman tell such a despicable lie? She wanted to jump on the bed and wrestle Gayla to the floor as if the woman were one of her brothers and force her to take back those damning words.

But Rosellen suppressed the urge. For the past year she'd been trying hard to redeem herself. She'd been doing a good job of not settling her differences by cussing or fighting.

"That's a damn lie," she said immediately breaking her vow to stop cussing. "I don't care if you are sick and my elder. I won't allow you to say such things about my father."

"It's God's truth. I swear it is." Gayla stubbed out the cigarette. "Your father admitted to me his involvement in the robbery years ago. He told me that he killed the bank teller too. Frank Murdock was an unexpected scapegoat."

Rosellen shook with fury, clenching her hands so tight her short nails dug into her palms. "You're lying. I don't know why, but I know you are."

"No." Gayla shook her head firmly. "I've lied in my time and been justified in doing it but this time I'm telling the truth."

"If you've known this for years, why haven't you told anyone before now?" Cason demanded.

"How could I? I don't know if I would have had the courage to expose Henry while he was alive. He was the sheriff. No telling what he would have done to me. And I didn't know where you were. You'd vanished a long time before Henry admitted to me what he'd done. But when I heard yesterday that you were back in town it was like heaven giving me a second chance to do something good, to right a terrible wrong before I enter Glory."

"Glory, hell!" Rosellen exclaimed. "I don't give a damn where you go, but you're not going to get to heaven by telling these outrageous lies."

Gayla ignored Rosellen and said to Cason, "I knew I had to see you and tell you the truth."

"What truth?" Rosellen demanded, on the edge of being hysterical for the first time in her life. She wanted to clobber the woman. "You call what you said truth?"

Her brothers had taught her to wrestle and fight with her fists. She could shoot, ride, and tie knots better than most men, but she didn't know how to make this woman stop lying. "Saying these horrible things about my father doesn't make them true."

"What proof do you have?" Cason Asked, brushing Rosellen aside again.

She shoved his arm away, refusing to be left out. "There is no proof," Rosellen shot quickly at him, her head pounding with denial. "There can't be, because what she's saying is a pack of lies. Can't you see this woman is crazy?"

Cason towered over Rosellen. She sensed the power, the raw emotion, he held in check. He stood so close she could feel the heat of his anger.

His gaze drilled into hers. "If you haven't got the guts to hear this, get out. I intend to find out what Gayla has to say."

Rosellen struggled to stay calm. Some force she couldn't control seemed to be closing in on her. She was tall, strong, and smart. She took great pride in

being able to take care of herself. She couldn't match Cason Murdock's strength, but she wouldn't be intimidated by the ruthlessness she saw burning in his eyes.

"I'm not surprised you're lapping up everything she has to say. She's absolving a cold-blooded killer — your father — and accusing an innocent man." Rosellen

shook with anger and frustration.

His hard, cold gaze stayed on her face. "You're in my way."

Cason's tone was threatening, but she didn't care. "My father was sheriff of this town for twenty years, and no one ever breathed a bad word about him. Now this whore is vying to ruin his good name. He's not here to defend himself, but I am, and I won't stand for this."

"You don't have to," Cason said, glaring down at her. "You can hightail it. It's time somebody told the truth about what happened fifteen years ago, and I intend to get the real story."

Inwardly Rosellen trembled, but she couldn't back down. "By all means, you stay and listen to her horse dung, because that's exactly what her story is."

"I don't have any proof to offer either of you," Gayla said in a voice husky from years of smoking. Her eyes watered generously with more tears. "I'm

only trying to do what I should have done years ago. I swear I'm not lying."

"The hell you're not."

"Your father pretended to go out of town for the day, but instead he rode to an abandoned mine and met his partner. He left his horse and his badge there, and he dressed up in pelts and fur like an old trapper thinking no one would recognize him. Then he and his partner rode quietly into town so they wouldn't draw anyone's attention. They only meant to rob the bank. Henry didn't mean to kill the teller, but the young man recognized him, and Henry pulled the trigger before he realized what he was doing."

"You're lying," Rosellen insisted, but Gayla kept talking.

"Your father was foolish to think he could rob the bank in the town where he was sheriff and not be recognized, no matter the disguise."

"Stop this," Rosellen whispered.

"It was the gold and silver fever that ruined Henry Lattimer. He wasn't the only man who went bad because of greed. It happened all the time. Every time there was a big strike hundreds of men went crazy."

A faraway look shone in Gayla's glistening eyes, and her expression softened once again. "Everybody around here was getting rich. Poor Henry couldn't be content with what little the town paid him to keep the peace. It was a hard job. Dangerous, too. There were times when my girls were weighing in more gold dust in a single day than Henry was making in wages the whole month. It was hard for him to see such prosperity and not have a pinch of it for his own, so he decided to take what he thought he rightly deserved from the town."

"That's a ridiculous story. I never heard my father complain about the amount of money he earned."

A derisive smile lifted the corners of Gayla's painted lips. "Honey, that's what men have whores for. We hear a lot of complaints the wives and children never hear."

"You're a bitch!" Rosellen exclaimed at the unexpected slight.

"Sometimes." Gayla smiled. "But I'm not lying."

"How does my father fit into this story? And why was he killed?" Cason asked.

Gayla turned her attention to Cason. "Henry felt terrible about killing your father."

"Them why did he?" Cason's voice was cold. His eyes had hardened.

"You father was panning near the mine where Henry had left his clothes and horse. Back then a man could find a nugget or two of gold or silver from an abandoned placer if he had the patience. When Frank saw the two trappers come riding up he walked over to let them know he'd already staked a claim on the mine. Henry knew he couldn't get his horse and change his clothes without Frank wondering why he'd been in disguise."

"Henry knew he was caught," Cason muttered.

Gayla nodded. "He couldn't leave a witness. He had no choice but to shoot Frank and take him in as one of the robbers."

"How did the sheriff convince the townspeople that my father was involved?" Cason asked.

"It didn't take much. Your family hadn't lived in Poppy long. No one knew Frank that well. Henry said that as he was returning to town he rode up on two men changing their clothes. He claimed that they started shooting at him. When they saw who he was and that he killed one and the other got away with the money. I don't think anyone asked too many questions about details."

"He made himself a goddamn hero. That bastard," Cason swore.

"No!" Rosellen shouted and grabbed hold of Cason's arm. "Can't you see that this woman's words are as worthless as fool's gold? You didn't know my father. He would never have done anything like that."

Cason's fingers closed around her wrist and tightened. She gasped with shock as his touch sent a shiver of intense warmth sparking through her.

He jerked her hand away from his arm and flung it aside. "Save your praises for the church. I don't want to hear you sing anymore. What your father did killed my mother, too. I won't forgive your old man, and I can't forget what he did."

Rosellen felt as if she'd been slapped. Now he was trying to blame her father for his mother's death, too? This man had incredible gall.

"You are a damned fool if you believe anything that whore says." Rosellen was at the breaking point. She couldn't listen to any more. "Her lies have gone too far. My father never killed a woman, and he never killed a man who didn't deserve it."

His eyes flashed with a new challenge. "I'm going to make you eat those words."

"We'll see about that," she countered.

Cason swung back to Gayla. With a dangerous edge to his voice, he said, "Who was the other man with Lattimer, and where is he now?"

"I don't know where he is. He was Henry's cousin," Gayla said, continuing her story as if she'd never been interrupted. "Henry said they were as close as brothers when they were boys. I know his name was Dodge, and he had a wide, jagged scar on the back of his left hand. Henry said that. Dodge kept his promise for years, sending him money each month as his part of the take. He didn't want it all showing up at one time. He thought someone might get suspicious."

"Stop this." Rosellen tried again to cut off the woman's words.

"Henry said he told his wife it was an inheritance from a distant relative that a lawyer was sending. She didn't have any reason to doubt him. When the money stopped coming, Henry went to Denver to check on Dodge but couldn't find a trace of him anywhere. Henry came back depressed and spent a whole night drinking some of my best whiskey. That's when he told me the whole story."

"What else can you tell me about this man?" Cason asked.

Gayla looked down at her trembling hands. "He lived in Denver. That's about all I know."

Livid with anger, which she could no longer control, Rosellen turned on Cason Murdock. "I've had enough of this. If I hear one word of these outrageous lies on anyone's lips in this town, I'm coming after you. I don't care if you're old and sick or wearing a six-shooter strapped to your hip. I'm coming after you, and when I find you my gun will be loaded."

Copyright © 1998 by Gloria Dale Skinner

First Chapter

Chapter 1

Rosellen Latimer stopped outside the batwing doors of the Silver Nugget Saloon and looked down one side of the street and up the other. From where she stood on the boardwalk she could see the length of Main Street and most of its weathered buildings.

Satisfied it was a quiet afternoon in Poppy, Colorado, Rosellen flipped her hat off and let it fall to the back of her neck, then shouldered her way through the batwing doors of the town's most popular watering hole. Afternoon sunshine spilled in behind her. Pausing just inside the doorway for a moment, she let her eyes adjust. The saloon was hot, dark, and quiet. The stifling scent of stale tobacco and rank whiskey hovered like a foggy cloud in the windowless room.

"You're late."

At the sound of the feminine voice, Rosellen's gaze swept the area behind the bar. She recognized the woman who'd spoken as Delta. Rosellen had seen the soiled dove in town, shopping for fancy fabrics, lace, and scented water at the general store.

She didn't like being reprimanded but decided to hold her tongue until she knew why she'd been summoned to the saloon on this summer afternoon. The only thing Rosellen could think of was that it had to do with her wanting to be the new sheriff of Poppy.

The whole town was in an uproar over it.

"A woman sheriff?" people said. "What in the blue blazes is she thinking?" "A sheriff named Rosellen? What an an outrageous idea!"

"Gayla's other guest has already arrived," Delta said in a slow puffing voice.

Rosellen hid her surprise at hearing she wasn't the only one who'd received the request for a visit with the aging madam.

Movement at the far side of the room caught Rosellen's attention. A tall, powerful-looking man stepped out of the shadows and into a slice of hazy sunlight. All of her senses went on alert.

Sandy brown hair fell loose across his forehead. He stood straight, proud. Slender masculine fingers held a new black Stetson with a fancy braided hatband.

Rosellen made it her business to know everyone in town. A quick assessment told her this man was a stranger, and instinct told her he was no ordinary cowboy. He looked too confident, too much at ease with his surroundings. She stepped closer and watched his dark brown eyes size her up the way a gunfighter might study his opponent before he drew his gun. He was definitely giving her a close once-over.

For a heartbeat, Rosellen's stomach fluttered. But with three older brothers she'd learned the hard way no let any man intimidate her. She squared her shoulders and subjected the powerful-looking stranger to the same intense scrutiny he was giving her.

She couldn't distinguish his features clearly but saw enough to know he would send most women into a swoon. She took note of a clean-shaven face with a strong jawline. The bridge of his nose flared slightly, and his cheekbones were well defined.

He wore black trousers and a white banded-collar shirt. The sleeves were rolled up just past his elbows, showing muscular forearms. His wide-strap gun belt rode low over slim hips. The ivory handle of his revolver looked expensive -- and worn.

An uncomfortable feeling skittered up Rosellen's spine, but she tamped it down. If she wanted to be sheriff she couldn't allow herself to be spooked by every dangerous-looking man who rode into town.

She walked farther into the saloon and nodded once to the stranger. He barely returned the greeting, but she refused to be intimidated by his unfriendly manner.

Giving her attention back to Delta, Rosellen said, "I'm here now. Where do we go?"

Delta cut her eyes around to the man and slowly stroked her lips with the tip of her, tongue before saying, "Follow me."

The young woman pushed away from the bar and sashayed toward a door at the back of the room. Her rounded hips swayed suggestively beneath the pink satin robe that clung to her contours.

The heels of Rosellen's new mule-ear boots clicked on the wide-plank floor as she strode past the bar and the unoccupied gaming tables. Rosellen didn't know if it was out of respect for the Lord's day or if the men just wanted to spend more time with their families, but the saloons didn't get much business on Sunday afternoons anymore.

Years ago when her father was first elected sheriff of Poppy, no tune of day or night was respected in the town. The saloons were always open. She'd heard her father say many times that when morality showed up in a mining town, the bawdy houses were the first establishments to shut down.

Out of habit she let her right arm swing loose at her side as she walked, occasionally brushing the carved wooden handle of her old, army-issue Colt. Her father had bought the rare short-barreled gun from a traveling salesman as a gift for Rosellen when she was sixteen.

Delta halted and braced herself against the doorjamb, rolling her back from shoulder to shoulder against the wood while keeping her sights on the stranger. "Gayla's room is down the hallway. Last door on the right. It's open. Go on in."

Rosellen stopped and turned around, nearly bumping into the stranger. She had to look up at him for their eyes to meet. It surprised her that he had his gaze on her and not on the cleavage Delta proudly displayed for his attention.

His chin was softly rounded with the tiniest hint of a cleft in its center. Full, attractively shaped lips fell slightly parted. The rhythm of Rosellen's heartbeat increased.

"I don't like having a stranger at my back," she snapped, suddenly confused by the way she felt.

A reckless smile flashed across his face. "Name's Cason Murdock. Does that help?"

The name sounded vaguely familiar, but Rosellen couldn't bring anything immediately to mind. She'd probably seen his name and his face on a wanted poster over at the jail. He looked like an outlaw and probably was one. Again forcing down her apprehension about him, she turned and headed for the room.

She'd learned all she could about being a sheriff from her father. Now she had to allow instinct to take over and let her know whether she was just being jumpy or if she truly needed to be cautious.

Rosellen stepped through the doorway, and the heavy mixed scents of sweet perfume and rich tobacco smoke hit her like a blast of tepid air. She saw a pretty woman with gray-streaked strawberry blond hair flowing in soft waves over her shoulders. Long, dark lashes framed big blue eyes that stared with interest at Rosellen.

Gossip in town said Gayla was dying, but if that was true it didn't show on the well-groomed woman. She lay propped up in bed against fluffy satin-covered pillows in varying shades of light purple. A gentle breeze from an open window ruffled lace sheers, which were bracketed by lavender velvet draperies. An oil lamp on the short chest by the bed gave the room a golden glow.

The woman motioned to her. "Come on in. Don't be shy. I won't bite." A soft, husky chuckle floated on the air. "Besides, I feel like I know you, even though we've never been properly introduced."

Everyone knew the owner of the Silver Nugget Saloon. Twenty years ago when Poppy, Colorado, was a lawless boom town Gayla had been the most sought after madam in the area. She was beautiful and refined. She understood men and knew how to treat them. She entertained most of the important men who had cause to visit Poppy.

According to gossip, she considered herself an intimate friend to the wealthy and the powerful as well as grubstaker for needy prospectors. The Silver Nugget had always been the busiest saloon in the small tent city that had eventually become an established mining town.

Gayla hired pretty young girls, and it was said that she never cheated them out of their wages. She forced the girls to save money so that when she decided they were too old for the sporting life they'd be able to start over in another town. Seldom did any of Gayla's girls fall victim to the overuse of opium or whiskey, which had sent more than a few prostitutes to an early grave.

At least once or twice a week Gayla would call for drinks on the house, making her saloon a favorite place for both locals and travelers.

"Come closer. I've seen you in town many times, although we've never spoken," Gayla said.

Rosellen continued on into the room but remained quiet. She was waiting to find out what this invitation was about.

"I can't understand why your father allowed you to run after your brothers like you did or follow him around the streets at night. I always thought it was too dangerous for a young woman to be that free."

"I most certainly could take care of myself then -- and now," Rosellen said defensively.

Suddenly the woman drew forward. Her aging face glowed with remembrance as the stranger walked in behind Rosellen. A sweet, sympathetic smile curved her painted lips.

"Cason. I'd know you anywhere." Tears pooled in her eyes, and she sniffed quietly. "I didn't expect you to look so much like your father. Maybe you're a bit taller and stronger, but, oh, he was so handsome. Just like you."

Gayla's voice was husky and deep with emotion. That confused Rosellen. What did this strangerand Gayla's reaction to him have to do with her?

At the mention of the man's father a muscle twitched in the stranger's cheek. His fingers tightened on the brim of his hat. "My father's been dead for fifteen years. I'm not the person you want to talk to."

"Yes, you are. I remember very well the day Frank Murdock was killed. I saw you come running into town, breathless, tears streaming down your face. I wanted to help you, but I didn't know how. And I didn't know the whole story then, either."

"I don't talk about my father with anyone. Cason slammed his hat on his head and turned to walk out.

"Not even someone, who can clear his name?" Gayla asked.

Cason stopped cold in the doorway, then turned to face Gayla.

Frank Murdock. Rosellen knew that name.

No wonder Cason looked like a fast gun to her. His father had been a murdering outlaw. He'd ridden into town in broad daylight, robbed the bank, and killed a teller. As sheriff, her father had hunted Frank Murdock down and shot him dead.

A protective impulse toward the people of Poppy surged inside her Rosellen barged in front of Cason. "What are you doing in my town?"

"Right now I have business with this woman. If you want to talk to me, stand in line." He brushed Rosellen aside with a strong arm and strode over to the bed.

Rosellen's temper flared. She had spent too much time fighting with her brothers to let any man get away with ignoring her, especially one who already had her attention. Moving in between Cason and the bed, Rosellen glared up at him. Most of his face was shadowed by his hat, but she saw annoyance smoldering in his eyes.

"Who the hell do you think you're pushing around?" she asked.

"You. You're in my way. Now, stay out of this."

"Don't talk to me as if I were a child you could order around."

"Then don't act like one by butting in where you don't have any business."

"If I didn't have a reason to be here, Gayla wouldn't have sent for me."

"Stop this!" Gayla cried, beating on her fluffy bedcovers with a round satin pillow. "I brought you two here to listen to me, not to argue with each other like temperamental children."

Cason glared at the woman on the bed. "If you have something to say to me, start talking."

Gayla huffed. "I can see I'm going to have to get right to the point. Very well." She tossed the pillow aside and wiped the corners of her eyes with long, yellow-stained fingers. "I knew and loved both of your fathers."

Rosellen stiffened. The last thing she had expected to hear was anything connecting her father intimately to the town's infamous madam. She backed away. "What's going on? I don't want to hear this. I thought you asked me to come here because you wanted to talk about me running for sheriff."

A scowling wrinkle formed between Gayla's eyes. "You can listen to what I have to say now or later. It doesn't matter to me. I plan to tell this story, and it concerns your father."

Something in the tone of Gayla's voice stopped Rosellen from leaving. Gayla reached over to the chest by her bed and picked up a rolled cigarette from a stack of about fifteen.

The sulfur scent of the lit match floated past Rosellen as Gayla settled back against her pillows and took a deep draw on the cigarette before exhaling. Rosellen had smoked off and on since she was about thirteen, but that was one of the many things she'd given up in order to be a more respectable citizen of the town.

"You should remember everything clearly, Cason. You were thirteen or fourteen years old, but, Rosellen, you were only six at the time."

"Get to the point. I don't have all day," Rosellen said.

Gayla smiled smugly at Rosellen, then turned to Cason. "Your father was innocent, Cason. He had nothing to do with the bank robbery that happened fifteen years ago or with the murder of the bank teller."

Rosellen saw the man beside her tense. His breathing became, shallow, but his expression never changed. Gayla had his attention.

"What the hell do you know that I don't?" he demanded quietly.

Gayla breathed the smoke deep into her lungs. "The whole story."

"What does any of this have to do with me?"

Gayla turned a serious face to Rosellen. "Your father was the bank robber -- and the killer."

Rosellen gasped in outrage. How dare this woman tell such a despicable lie? She wanted to jump on the bed and wrestle Gayla to the floor as if the woman were one of her brothers and force her to take back those damning words.

But Rosellen suppressed the urge. For the past year she'd been trying hard to redeem herself. She'd been doing a good job of not settling her differences by cussing or fighting.

"That's a damn lie," she said immediately breaking her vow to stop cussing. "I don't care if you are sick and my elder. I won't allow you to say such things about my father."

"It's God's truth. I swear it is." Gayla stubbed out the cigarette. "Your father admitted to me his involvement in the robbery years ago. He told me that he killed the bank teller too. Frank Murdock was an unexpected scapegoat."

Rosellen shook with fury, clenching her hands so tight her short nails dug into her palms. "You're lying. I don't know why, but I know you are."

"No." Gayla shook her head firmly. "I've lied in my time and been justified in doing it but this time I'm telling the truth."

"If you've known this for years, why haven't you told anyone before now?" Cason demanded.

"How could I? I don't know if I would have had the courage to expose Henry while he was alive. He was the sheriff. No telling what he would have done to me. And I didn't know where you were. You'd vanished a long time before Henry admitted to me what he'd done. But when I heard yesterday that you were back in town it was like heaven giving me a second chance to do something good, to right a terrible wrong before I enter Glory."

"Glory, hell!" Rosellen exclaimed. "I don't give a damn where you go, but you're not going to get to heaven by telling these outrageous lies."

Gayla ignored Rosellen and said to Cason, "I knew I had to see you and tell you the truth."

"What truth?" Rosellen demanded, on the edge of being hysterical for the first time in her life. She wanted to clobber the woman. "You call what you said truth?"

Her brothers had taught her to wrestle and fight with her fists. She could shoot, ride, and tie knots better than most men, but she didn't know how to make this woman stop lying. "Saying these horrible things about my father doesn't make them true."

"What proof do you have?" Cason Asked, brushing Rosellen aside again.

She shoved his arm away, refusing to be left out. "There is no proof," Rosellen shot quickly at him, her head pounding with denial. "There can't be, because what she's saying is a pack of lies. Can't you see this woman is crazy?"

Cason towered over Rosellen. She sensed the power, the raw emotion, he held in check. He stood so close she could feel the heat of his anger.

His gaze drilled into hers. "If you haven't got the guts to hear this, get out. I intend to find out what Gayla has to say."

Rosellen struggled to stay calm. Some force she couldn't control seemed to be closing in on her. She was tall, strong, and smart. She took great pride in being able to take care of herself. She couldn't match Cason Murdock's strength, but she wouldn't be intimidated by the ruthlessness she saw burning in his eyes.

"I'm not surprised you're lapping up everything she has to say. She's absolving a cold-blooded killer -- your father -- and accusing an innocent man." Rosellen shook with anger and frustration.

His hard, cold gaze stayed on her face. "You're in my way."

Cason's tone was threatening, but she didn't care. "My father was sheriff of this town for twenty years, and no one ever breathed a bad word about him. Now this whore is vying to ruin his good name. He's not here to defend himself, but I am, and I won't stand for this."

"You don't have to," Cason said, glaring down at her. "You can hightail it. It's time somebody told the truth about what happened fifteen years ago, and I intend to get the real story."

Inwardly Rosellen trembled, but she couldn't back down. "By all means, you stay and listen to her horse dung, because that's exactly what her story is."

"I don't have any proof to offer either of you," Gayla said in a voice husky from years of smoking. Her eyes watered generously with more tears. "I'm only trying to do what I should have done years ago. I swear I'm not lying."

"The hell you're not."

"Your father pretended to go out of town for the day, but instead he rode to an abandoned mine and met his partner. He left his horse and his badge there, and he dressed up in pelts and fur like an old trapper thinking no one would recognize him. Then he and his partner rode quietly into town so they wouldn't draw anyone's attention. They only meant to rob the bank. Henry didn't mean to kill the teller, but the young man recognized him, and Henry pulled the trigger before he realized what he was doing."

"You're lying," Rosellen insisted, but Gayla kept talking.

"Your father was foolish to think he could rob the bank in the town where he was sheriff and not be recognized, no matter the disguise."

"Stop this," Rosellen whispered.

"It was the gold and silver fever that ruined Henry Lattimer. He wasn't the only man who went bad because of greed. It happened all the time. Every time there was a big strike hundreds of men went crazy."

A faraway look shone in Gayla's glistening eyes, and her expression softened once again. "Everybody around here was getting rich. Poor Henry couldn't be content with what little the town paid him to keep the peace. It was a hard job. Dangerous, too. There were times when my girls were weighing in more gold dust in a single day than Henry was making in wages the whole month. It was hard for him to see such prosperity and not have a pinch of it for his own, so he decided to take what he thought he rightly deserved from the town."

"That's a ridiculous story. I never heard my father complain about the amount of money he earned."

A derisive smile lifted the corners of Gayla's painted lips. "Honey, that's what men have whores for. We hear a lot of complaints the wives and children never hear."

"You're a bitch!" Rosellen exclaimed at the unexpected slight.

"Sometimes." Gayla smiled. "But I'm not lying."

"How does my father fit into this story? And why was he killed?" Cason asked.

Gayla turned her attention to Cason. "Henry felt terrible about killing your father."

"Them why did he?" Cason's voice was cold. His eyes had hardened.

"You father was panning near the mine where Henry had left his clothes and horse. Back then a man could find a nugget or two of gold or silver from an abandoned placer if he had the patience. When Frank saw the two trappers come riding up he walked over to let them know he'd already staked a claim on the mine. Henry knew he couldn't get his horse and change his clothes without Frank wondering why he'd been in disguise."

"Henry knew he was caught," Cason muttered.

Gayla nodded. "He couldn't leave a witness. He had no choice but to shoot Frank and take him in as one of the robbers."

"How did the sheriff convince the townspeople that my father was involved?" Cason asked.

"It didn't take much. Your family hadn't lived in Poppy long. No one knew Frank that well. Henry said that as he was returning to town he rode up on two men changing their clothes. He claimed that they started shooting at him. When they saw who he was and that he killed one and the other got away with the money. I don't think anyone asked too many questions about details."

"He made himself a goddamn hero. That bastard," Cason swore.

"No!" Rosellen shouted and grabbed hold of Cason's arm. "Can't you see that this woman's words are as worthless as fool's gold? You didn't know my father. He would never have done anything like that."

Cason's fingers closed around her wrist and tightened. She gasped with shock as his touch sent a shiver of intense warmth sparking through her.

He jerked her hand away from his arm and flung it aside. "Save your praises for the church. I don't want to hear you sing anymore. What your father did killed my mother, too. I won't forgive your old man, and I can't forget what he did."

Rosellen felt as if she'd been slapped. Now he was trying to blame her father for his mother's death, too? This man had incredible gall.

"You are a damned fool if you believe anything that whore says." Rosellen was at the breaking point. She couldn't listen to any more. "Her lies have gone too far. My father never killed a woman, and he never killed a man who didn't deserve it."

His eyes flashed with a new challenge. "I'm going to make you eat those words."

"We'll see about that," she countered.

Cason swung back to Gayla. With a dangerous edge to his voice, he said, "Who was the other man with Lattimer, and where is he now?"

"I don't know where he is. He was Henry's cousin," Gayla said, continuing her story as if she'd never been interrupted. "Henry said they were as close as brothers when they were boys. I know his name was Dodge, and he had a wide, jagged scar on the back of his left hand. Henry said that. Dodge kept his promise for years, sending him money each month as his part of the take. He didn't want it all showing up at one time. He thought someone might get suspicious."

"Stop this." Rosellen tried again to cut off the woman's words.

"Henry said he told his wife it was an inheritance from a distant relative that a lawyer was sending. She didn't have any reason to doubt him. When the money stopped coming, Henry went to Denver to check on Dodge but couldn't find a trace of him anywhere. Henry came back depressed and spent a whole night drinking some of my best whiskey. That's when he told me the whole story."

"What else can you tell me about this man?" Cason asked.

Gayla looked down at her trembling hands. "He lived in Denver. That's about all I know."

Livid with anger, which she could no longer control, Rosellen turned on Cason Murdock. "I've had enough of this. If I hear one word of these outrageous lies on anyone's lips in this town, I'm coming after you. I don't care if you're old and sick or wearing a six-shooter strapped to your hip. I'm coming after you, and when I find you my gun will be loaded."

Copyright © 1998 by Gloria Dale Skinner

What People are Saying About This

Joan Johnston

Gloria Dale Skinner is a fabulous storyteller -- her characters leap off the page. -- Author of The Bodyguard

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