She can run from the past, but not from their future...
As Jackson Montgomery heads home after collecting on a particularly difficult bounty, he's looking forward to a good meal, stiff drink, and maybe some female companionship. But when he sees signs of life in a house infamous for its second-rate construction, he can't resist taking a gander at who'd been fool enough to buy the disaster. He expects to find a tenderfoot for sure.
He's not far off.
Mimi Banfield thought she was done for when she fell into a well filled with rattlers, until a man shows up with the golden curls of an angel to rescue her. Jackson has all the survival skills she's missing and he's just the man to show her how to survive out West. As the newly minted guardian of three orphans, she could certainly use a hand. He seamlessly transitions into life with Mimi and the children, not knowing that she has a deadly secret. By the time she confesses, it may just be too late for salvation.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
He’d be damned. Someone had been fool enough to buy the Bentley place after all. Jackson pulled up his horse and studied the betraying plume of smoke that rose above the pine trees in the hollow. Bentley had been trying to unload that place for years to no avail. And no wonder. The place was a living testament to Half-Assed Bentley’s reputation for never completing any job that could be left half done. Heck, his reputation had even stretched the good twenty miles to Jackson’s home of Cattle Crossing, Wyoming. It took a lot to stand out in that town of eccentrics, but Bentley had managed it. So much so, that anytime a body did less than necessary, they earned the nickname of Bentley.
The mare tossed her head in protest. She wanted her oats about as much as Jackson wanted his bed. This last bounty had been grueling. Bucktooth Bart had led him a merry chase through some of the roughest country, but in the end he’d caught him and hauled his ass back to Dover’s sheriff for trial. In retrospect, the bounty didn’t seem near fat enough for the amount of effort he’d expended. But it was always that way. Once he got on a trail, it didn’t matter what the payoff was, only that he got to it. Jackson sighed and patted the money pouch in his shirt pocket. He really needed to work on that too-tight focus. He wasn’t as young as he used to be. Crossing the line to twenty-eight last month had made him introspective in regard to a lot of things. Including the fact that the thrill of the chase wasn’t clinging to his smile the way it used to. Instead of feeling victorious after this last bounty, right now he was just damn tired and looking forward to a couple days’ rest and then getting back to working the McKinnleys’ stock. Something he rarely got to do anymore. For reasons that had more to do with that inner restlessness than lack of time.
Jackson sighed. Truth was, he should be working his own stock on the Lazy M, but the life seemed to leave the place upon his mother’s death. As if it, too, mourned the laughter that once had been the heart of their home. He didn’t blame his father for leaving to chase a new love. Jackson had done his own running. It’d simply been easier to hunt bounties and work the McKinnley ranch than to reshape the Lazy M around the hole left by his parents’ absence. Oh, he paid for someone to care for the house, and did what was needed in basic upkeep when he was in town, but he didn’t stay long. Part of him kept expecting Big Jake to come back and pick up where he’d left off, but lately Jackson was beginning to wonder how much longer he could let the Lazy M languish. There was an impatience gnawing in his gut to take it out of mourning, to separate his stock out of the McKinnleys’ and . . . go home. Really home. If Big Jake had found happiness in California, then Jackson had to make a decision. Sell the Lazy M or follow the lead of his friends and neighbors, the McKinnleys, and return the Lazy M to prosperity.
Patting the mare’s neck, he asked, “What do you think, Little Lady? Would you like to help me make the Lazy M shine again?”
The toss of her head could have meant anything. He chuckled. “As long as you get your ration of oats, you don’t care, do you?”
She dismissed the comment with a dip of her head. Once the thought entered his head, though, it wouldn’t leave.
The McKinnleys were earning quite the reputation for not only having well-trained horses, but also having a knack at turning wild into workable. No small feat with some of the horseflesh that came through. The army had them on retainer, which provided a good job for Jackson when he wasn’t bounty hunting. And, truth be told, there was nothing Jackson liked better than working horses. But he could be doing it for himself. There was enough demand for everyone to make a good living. And before his mother’s death, he’d planned on doing just that.
He pushed a narrow branch out of his face as he urged Lady on and corrected himself. Making love to a woman ranked right up there as a favorite pastime, but right now neither training horses nor loving women was of paramount importance, because he who brought the gossip of Bentley’s fiasco having a new owner was going to be in high demand in Cattle Crossing. Heck, Jackson might just get a free pie at Millie’s restaurant for that tidbit. A man didn’t pass up the opportunity for free pie. Especially one of Millie’s.
The mare tossed her head again when he turned her off the trail. He patted her shoulder. Dust flew up to dance in the late summer sunbeams.
“I know, Little Lady, but there’s no way we can pass up the opportunity to get a gander at the fool who swallowed Bentley’s line of bull.”
Laying the reins against Lady’s neck and pressing in with his right knee, he directed her down into the hollow. The mare snorted, shook her head, and balked, keeping her nose pointed in the direction of home.
“Don’t be temperamental, honey. You know there’s an extra scoop of oats in it for you.”
As if she understood the crooning reprimand, the little mare pranced, adding a jig to her get-along. It was the spirit in that jig that had caught his attention when she’d been dropped off at Clint McKinnley’s as part of a broken-down remuda. There had been nothing particularly eye-catching about the little bay. She’d looked no better than any of the rest of the poorly cared for horses delivered to Clint as payment on a gambling debt owed by a local cowboy. That was, until the wrangler had tried to use his bigger gelding to shoulder Little Lady into the corral. Then that pretty little head had come up and her tail had swished one disdainful sweep before, neat as a pin, she’d tattooed the bigger horse’s nose with her hooves, driving him back. And then with another toss, she’d pranced right into the corral like a princess. A tattered bit of royalty, for sure, but a princess nonetheless. Jackson had made up his mind to claim her then and there.
The only thing standing between him and his goal had been Clint’s cantankerous nature. Clint was as tough a son of a bitch as his cousin Cougar. Jackson had nothing but respect for both. They were deadly fighters and honest men, and over the years they’d formed a deep friendship, but that friendship was spiced with some good-natured rivalry. Part of that rivalry was seeing who could finagle the best deal out of the other.
Clint hadn’t wanted to sell the spunky mare. He’d planned on breeding her to his blood stallion, but Jackson wasn’t one for giving up on what he wanted. That being the case, when Clint had rejected his initial request, in the form of “Not a prayer in hell,” Jackson had waited Clint out, refusing payment for favors, until the debt had gotten high enough between them to weigh in Jackson’s favor and Clint had gotten tired of hearing the inevitable “So, about that mare . . .”
Jackson’s tactics might have been a bit underhanded, knowing Clint’s bone-deep sense of honor, but Little Lady had been worth the twinge of his conscience. The mare had heart. The kind that wouldn’t quit. The kind that could drag a man out of hell. Jackson patted her neck again, smiling. Now, if he could only find a woman as sweet as Lady with that same spit-in-the-devil’s-eye jig in her step, he’d snatch her right up and to hell with his bachelor status. Fortunately, such a creature didn’t exist. He smiled as he cut through the woods. Being a bachelor had some mighty fine side benefits, like the widow in Cheyenne who enjoyed the sense of danger she claimed clung to him.
The wind blew up from the home site, bringing the stench of smoke with it. Too much smoke. The kind that came from burning green wood. Which didn’t surprise him. Anyone who looked at the Bentley place and saw promise had to be a tenderfoot. Oh, it was a pretty enough spot, but the ground was too rocky for farming, too wooded for grazing, and the house didn’t have a right angle in it. While all of that was bad, it wasn’t the worst of it. What made the Bentley place an unsellable disaster was that it sat square in a wash that took the runoff from the mountains. One big storm in the highlands and the unsuspecting new buyers could wake up one night to find a flood knocking at their door.
Jackson sighed, wondering just how dumb the new owners had to be. One look at the well should have clued them in to the trouble they were buying. It was too shallow to be good water, and making it deeper in the rocky soil was going to take more muscle than most wanted to put into the job. It was certainly more than Bentley had wanted to put into it. The so-called well was only twenty feet deep and was fed more by runoff than from a clean, underground supply. Jackson shook his head and pushed another branch out of his way, shaking it again when his long blond hair got in his line of vision. The best thing that could happen to the new owners was for the well to be dry, because otherwise, they were likely to take seriously sick from any water pulled from it.
He released the branch. It swished back in place behind him, rustling as it collided with another. Reaching into his vest pocket, he pulled out a leather tie. Lady twitched as the knotted reins dropped to her neck. With a quick gather he tied his hair back. He really should cut it. The comment that had started him growing it all those years ago had long since stopped stinging, but amusement could be as inspiring as resentment, he’d found. And he did get a chuckle from the surprise on the faces of the men he laid out who’d thought he was more pretty boy than threat.
The high-pitched sound of panicked children’s voices rode piggyback on the wind and smoke. He grabbed up the reins. What the hell? The fool who’d bought the land had children? Shit. That was going to complicate his get-a-gander-and-run plan. Jackson had a lot of things riding double on his conscience, but leaving kids as sitting ducks for disaster wasn’t one of them. With a curse, he urged Lady forward.
As soon as he cleared the trees, Jackson saw the source of the commotion. Two boys and a very young girl were milling around the rough stone wall above the well. As he watched, the little girl clambered up the side, the clunk of something metal in her hand against the hard rock carrying in the late afternoon quiet as she leaned over the edge. A heartbeat later, the boys were in the same position, peering into the well. No doubt they’d lost a toy down there. Jackson shook his head. They ought to know better than to lean over like that. No telling how stable that wall was. No matter what the prized possession, it wasn’t worth a broken neck. Even if they escaped broken bones, there were other dangers. Snakes loved a dry well, and for sure any well dug by Half-Assed Bentley wouldn’t hold water in the recent drought.
Jackson nudged Lady into a lope. As he did, the boys grabbed the girl by the ankles and, to his utter horror, lowered her over the edge.
“Son of a bitch!” Were they crazy?
There was a cry.
Jackson’s heart leapt into his throat as the girl’s skirt flew over her head, exposing her skinny legs. The boys made desperate grabs for the back of her faded blue dress. Jackson prayed the material held. Something that little shouldn’t tumble that far. Lady charged across the clearing. Jackson leapt from the saddle as soon as he got close, scooping all three of the precariously perched children away from the edge of the well. The tinkle of broken glass followed his roll. He let the boys tumble to the ground, their squeals of surprise ringing in his ears. The little girl he clutched to his chest, protecting her from the brunt of the fall. He braced himself for the little girl’s wail, but instead, unbelievably, she giggled.
He stood, brushing off the seat of his pants with his free hand, keeping a tight hold of the girl with the other. “What the hell were you doing?” he barked.
All three children blinked at him, then the middle child, a boy of about seven or eight, glared at him through a shock of bright red hair. Pushing up onto his elbows, he stuck out his lip. “I’m going to get the soap!”
It took Jackson a minute to figure out what the kid meant. And when he did it took all he had to bite back a smile. “You’ll be wanting to get a bit bigger before you go threatening to wash my mouth out with soap.”
The kid’s belligerence didn’t budge as he got to his feet. The little girl dangling in Jackson’s grip whispered too loudly for a secret, “Mimi will do it.”
The dark-haired boy stepped closer, tension and frustration humming off him. “Hush up, Melinda Sue,” he ordered in a surprisingly deep voice.
“Mimi?” Jackson asked, setting Melinda Sue down. She immediately went to stand by her brothers.
Melinda Sue nodded, her long blond hair a tangle about her face. The smudge of dirt on her cheek only made her eyes seem bluer. He frowned and glanced at her brother. His eyes were green, and the older, quiet one’s, brown. They were a mismatched bunch, for sure.
“She can make anyone do anything,” Melinda Sue declared righteously.
Interesting. “Where is Mimi?” For that matter where were their parents?
All three children looked to the well.
“Mimi is in the well?”
In unison the children nodded. The lower lip of the blond urchin trembled.
“What is she doing in the well?”
“She wanted to see where the water was.”
The water was a good thirty feet further down and likely somewhere else entirely, but Jackson didn’t say that. He studied the area surrounding the well, his mind working on how best to get the child out.
“And she fell in?”
The older boy nodded. His skin and hair were darker than his much fairer siblings. Jackson guessed his age around ten. “What’s your name, son?”
Jackson held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Tony.”
Tony ignored his proffered hand, countering with, “What’s yours?”
Tony cocked his head to the side. “Is that name supposed to mean something to me?”
“Nope.” Not if a body wasn’t from around these parts. Jackson changed the subject back to the relevant. “So, Tony, did Mimi get hurt when she fell into the well?”
The urchin piped up. “She didn’t cry.”
Hell, that could mean anything from she was dead to just terrified. “I guess she’s a brave girl, then.”
The redhead with the pugnacious attitude chimed in, “No one’s braver than Mimi. She dares anything.”
Which was probably why she’d landed in the well. Where the hell were the parents? Feigning nonchalance he didn’t feel, Jackson wiped his hands together. “Well, good, then we shouldn’t have any trouble getting her out.”
Melinda Sue looked him over from head to toe. “You’re going to get her out?”
Damned if he didn’t detect skepticism in the look. “Yup.”
“You’re not very big.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d been told his five foot ten inches of height didn’t measure up.
She cocked her head to the side. “You’ve got pretty hair.”
Was that supposed to make him feel better or worse?
“Thank you. What did you put down the well when I rode up?”
“A lantern so she could see.”
“Where the snakes were.”
“There are snakes down there?”
The little girl nodded and leaned against her older brother. For the life of him, Jackson couldn’t see a family resemblance.
“Really ugly ones.”
“Snakes aren’t ugly,” the middle boy retorted. “You’re just scared of them.”
“Shut up, Kevin,” Tony said without inflection.
Jackson cut Kevin a glance as he headed to where Lady stood waiting patiently for instructions. “Anybody would be smart to be cautious about snakes around here, boy.”
“Mimi hates snakes,” Tony said in a quiet statement devoid of emotion. “We were giving her the lantern so they couldn’t sneak up on her.”
Jackson remembered the sound of broken glass just before he’d scooped up the kids. He glanced again at the well. No smoke billowed out. “You didn’t light it?”
Melinda Sue shook her head. “I’m not allowed to touch sulfurs.”
And a good thing that was, too. Dropping a lit lamp down the hole would have been like tossing raw fire. Everything down there would have burned when the kerosene spread. “Good to know you can follow some rules.”
Tony cut him a glare. He ignored it. Pointing to the off-kilter porch steps, he told the pixie, “Go sit over there.”
Her lip stuck out a bit, but she did move away from the well. One tiny step. He looked to the oldest boy as he took the rope off Little Lady’s saddle. “I’d appreciate it if you took Lady over to the stream and got her a drink.”
The boy didn’t move, just stared at the mare. “We don’t have a horse.”
How the hell did anyone not have a horse out here?
“Well, I’m sure Lady will enjoy being the center of attention.” Jackson held out the reins. He was trying to keep from looking in that well as long as possible. He hated snakes, too. The boy came forward. For all the excitement in his face, he was cautious taking the reins. Inexperience with horses or a bad experience? Jackson guessed it didn’t matter. The boy would have to conquer that fear. A man was dead out here without his horse.
“Don’t worry. She doesn’t bite. As a matter of fact, if you scratch the spot above her nose she’ll be your friend for life.”
“Will she be my friend, too?” Melinda Sue asked.
“Don’t answer that unless you want her bothering your horse all the time,” Tony warned.
Jackson looked at the little girl. She personified knee high to a grasshopper. And he most certainly didn’t want her anywhere near the horse without him there. Little Lady was gentle, but any horse could spook. “Well, now, if you let me introduce you, I imagine she will like you just fine, but until you grow a bit, you’ll only be able to pet her when I’m around.”
She immediately nodded her head. “All right.”
He didn’t buy that ready agreement for a second. First chance she got, Melinda Sue would be over at Lady’s side. Jackson reached in his pocket and pulled out a thick stick of peppermint. It was his last one, but sometimes, a man had to make sacrifices and this was one of them. “Why don’t you take this and go sit on the porch.”
Her eyes grew big as dollars. “That’s candy from in the jars!”
Had she never had penny candy before? “Yup.”
She all but snatched it from his hands. Before she could pop it in her mouth, Tony said, “You mind your manners, Melinda Sue, and say thank you.”
His eyes lingered on the candy in her hand, but he didn’t ask for himself. Jackson felt the heel. The kids’ clothes were threadbare and whoever was taking care of them had fallen, hook, line, and sinker, for Bentley’s pitch, which didn’t speak well for their business sense. The family had likely never had a penny to spare. Hell, had any of them ever had penny candy?
Melinda Sue frowned at her brother, took the candy between her fists, and grunted. Only half paying attention, Jackson tied a hitch in the end of the rope. With a huff, Melinda poked him in the arm and shoved the candy at him.
“You don’t want it?”
She frowned at him. “Want you to break it.”
He didn’t have time for this.
“Just suck on one end.”
She folded her arms across her chest. “Can’t.”
He had even less time to argue. He took the candy. “How many pieces?”
The older brother looked uncomfortable, the middle one hopeful, and the little girl determined.
“Two will do,” the oldest said.
The middle kid’s lip came out. “Three’s fair.”
Jackson approved of the elder child’s sense of sacrifice and of the middle’s sense of fair play. Whoever had raised these children was doing a heck of a job. “Three it is.”
He broke the stick into three pieces, which was a good thing because the study the little girl gave him was nothing compared to the study she gave those pieces. He had a feeling he’d have been in for a lecture if they hadn’t come out roughly equal. “What about Mimi?”
The little girl shook her head. “She doesn’t like candy.”
There wasn’t a body alive that didn’t like candy.
Was she the oldest, then?
“Fine, then. Go sit on the steps there and eat that while I get Mimi out of the well.”
As if he’d tugged her chain, the little girl’s lip quivered. The stick of peppermint caught in the corner, smearing her cheek with red. “It’s a long way down.”
“But I’m a grown man with a long reach.”
It was a measure of her age that she fell for that nonsense. She plopped down on the steps and smiled at him.
The oldest boy called from the stream, “You’re not that big.”
“You got a last name, kid?” Jackson asked, heading over to a suitably thick maple.
Instead of a surname he got a shake of the boy’s head. Not an unusual response out here. Lots of people moved west to hide their past and a man respected that. But most of them had a few more years on them than this boy.
“Well, Tony, you’re right.” He looped one end of the rope around the trunk and tied it. “Size isn’t everything, but you back it with a bit of smarts and a pile of muscle and I’ve found you can accomplish just about anything.”
“Even getting Mimi out of the well?”
He checked the knot. A man could accomplish anything with a bit of applied intelligence and brawn. The trick was not to get fancy. “Yes,” he said, heading for the too-quiet well, playing the rope out behind him, a sick feeling in his gut. “Even getting Mimi out of the well.”
He just hoped to hell the child was still alive.
Leaning over the rough stone wall surrounding the hole, he looked down. The well was shallow enough that a little light reached the bottom. He could barely make out a shadowy form huddled to one side.
Silence greeted his call.
“You don’t need to be afraid, Mimi.”
Still no answer.
“Mimi doesn’t like strangers,” Kevin offered.
Well, she was damn well going to have to like him. At least for the length of time it took for him to get her out. He uncoiled the last of the rope and called down, “I know I’m a stranger, but I’m here with the rope and the muscle to haul you out.”
“I’d appreciate it more if you had a gun and a knife.”
The voice was shaky, but unmistakably feminine. Mature. That was no child in the well. An inner sigh of relief went through him.
“They got you surrounded, huh?”
“Yes.” The soft syllable shook with fear.
“Well, rest easy, I’m packing both.”
“Thank God.” Another harshly indrawn breath quickly followed the exclamations. Jackson didn’t speculate on what inspired that gasp. His imagination already had enough of a leap. In his experience, just focusing on the immediate facts kept a man on course better than looking ahead. “You hurt?”
“Not really, although my foot seems to be quite attractive to the residents here.”
Shit. “Can you elaborate on that ‘not really’?”
“My arm. I don’t know how badly.”
With his luck, it was probably broken.
He could see the remnants of the wood ladder leaning against the side of the well. The sides were riddled with rot. Only a greenhorn would have thought that was sturdy. More to keep her distracted than from a need to know, he asked, “The ladder break when you stepped on it?”
“Yes.” Then, “Hurry.”
It might be his imagination adding color to the moment, but that much fear added up to more than one snake down there. As if to prove his point, the rattles started, first one and then another until they rose from the depths in nerve-jarring chorus. He slipped the noose he’d tied in the end of the rope over his head and shoulders. For once he was glad Bentley’s well-digging skills were so half-assed. He had enough rope to reach the bottom.
“Don’t move. I’m coming down.”
Jackson looked to the kids as he swung a leg over the wall, putting as much threat as he could in the glare, because damn it, there was something about the way they watched that made him nervous. “No matter what, don’t you try to come down here. Stay over there.”
As one they nodded, but the jangle in his gut didn’t settle. “I mean it.”
“We hear you.”
Tony’s flat agreement didn’t settle his nerves at all. “Good.”
As he went over the side, his last impression was of all three children moving forward. So much for his threatening manner.
“I told you to stay put,” he hollered up.
Only one of the children bothered to reply. In a voice as sweet as the candy he’d handed her, Melinda Sue called back. “You have very pretty hair.”
Damn it, that settled it, as soon as he got home, he was visiting the barber. He lowered himself hand over hand into the darkness, skin crawling as the light faded and the dank smell of mold grew right along with the sibilant warning rattles. Maybe then he could strike terror into the hearts of three helpless kids.
About six feet down, he wrapped the rope around his wrist and carefully braced his feet against the wooden wall. Dirt slid down into the depths behind the flimsy barrier. The rattles took up the staccato tempo that every living creature instinctively recognized as a warning.
A hushed “Be careful” snapped out of the darkness.
He injected a bit of calm amusement into his voice. “I’m always careful, honey.”
The next sound could have been a snort. He wasn’t sure, but the possibility amused him.
“If that were the case, you wouldn’t be dangling over a snake pit.”
“That might have more to do with my mental state than my cautious nature.”
The next sound was definitely a snort, followed just as quickly by a gasp. “Snakes getting feisty?” he asked.
Definitely time to get the woman out of there. He continued lowering himself. “Well, hold tight, help is on the way.”
He was trying. A glance down revealed nothing. His shadow blocked whatever light there was. Which meant Mimi had better have Tony’s stable temperament because he was going to need her cooperation.
“Let me know when my feet are just above your head.”
Her “How?” was shaky. He pretended he didn’t notice, just kept his voice quiet and steady as the dank smell of the well surrounded him.
“Did the kids throw you any matches?”
“I don’t know where they landed.”
That might have been a blessing, considering the broken lamp. “Not a problem.”
He went deeper, hoping against hope the lamp hadn’t been kerosene fueled. “Very carefully put your good arm above your head.”
“I’m getting to that.” He stopped when he’d judged he should be just above her. The odor of old lard penetrated the musty stench of the well. He never thought he’d be grateful for Bentley’s cheap ways, but lard wasn’t as flammable as kerosene. That was a blessing. They could strike a match. He stuck his foot out in the direction of her voice.
“Is your hand up?”
“Good. Now, I want you to feel around, very carefully, above your head for my boot.”
He heard the rustle of cloth as she shifted position. It was accompanied by a raucous renewal of rattles.
It took everything he had to keep his voice calm when he wanted to curse and retreat. Fucking snakes. “Don’t move anything but your arm.”
“I can’t feel anything.”
He lowered himself a little more. “Try again.”
This time, he felt a tug on his foot. The pull was to the right.
“Good. Just hold on, now, and don’t let go until I tell you to.”
“Not a problem.”
He smiled at the feminine imitation of his own dry response. “Where am I in relation to you?”
“Out and to the left a bit.”
Roughly where he’d estimated. “Well, that’s just about perfect.”
“For a game of catch.”
“Insanity isn’t what I prayed for when I prayed for rescue,” Mimi muttered so low he bet he wasn’t supposed to hear.
“Now, that’s a shame, because I do some of my best work in my less stable moments.”
“As if you’d be in any condition to judge.”
She had a quick mind. He liked that. “You can judge for yourself in a minute.”
Her grip on his shoe tightened. “You’re joining me?”
The softly whispered exclamation pricked his conscience. He reached into his pocket. “I’m going to toss you some sulfurs.”
“And upset the snakes?” she gasped.
“Well, the way we’re going to do this, we’re not going to disturb a rattle on their scaly posteriors.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m going to toss these sulfurs in your lap.”
“But the snakes . . .”
“Are going to sleep right through the whole thing.”
“I don’t see how.”
Obviously. “That’s because you think you have to do something.”
“And don’t I?”
“Nope, you just need to sit there pretty as a picture while I toss the sulfurs in your lap.”
“You can see?”
“Then how do you know I’m pretty?”
“The same way I’m going to know where to toss these sulfurs. From your voice.”
“My voice could be the only pretty thing about me.”
“Well, now, finding out that truth is going to be my inspiration.” He shook the tin. “You ready?”
Her hand on his boot jerked with her fear. He had to admire her ability to fake calm. There wasn’t even a quiver in her when she ordered, “Don’t miss.”
“I never miss.”
“Well, don’t make this the first time.”
His chuckle caught him by surprise, as did the spurt of interest her sass inspired. “Wouldn’t dream of it. Now, just hold still and let me drop these. If I miss, don’t grab for them.”
“You said you never miss!”
He lobbed the sulfurs down. “I don’t.”
He had to give her credit. It had to be damn hard to sit in the dark with snakes slithering around and not grab wildly for those sulfurs.
“Do you have them?”
“Told you I never miss.”
“It’s impolite to brag.”
“So I’ve heard, but if I don’t blow my own horn, who will?”
“If you get me out of here, I will. For the next fifty years, at least.”
“Well, then, for sure I’m getting you out.” The sulfurs rattled in their tin as she picked them up. Bracing his feet against the wall so he’d have a good view of the situation when the match flared, he ordered, “Now, I want you to carefully strike one and hold it up high. Away from my foot,” he added quickly. The last thing he needed was for his pants to catch fire.
There was a scratch and a hiss and the hole was flooded with a weak light. What it revealed wasn’t pretty. Five snakes coiled nervously on the ground around a young woman. Obviously, rattlers, and all of a size that one bite could probably kill off a man his size. For sure they could take out the fine-boned woman who stared up at him with big eyes and a stubborn set to her delicate jaw. He wondered what color her eyes were. The flickers of light from the match danced across her features, giving an illusion of impermanence. A chill went down his spine. Forget that. He wasn’t letting her die.
“Well, hello, Miss . . . ?”
She blinked. “Banfield. Mimi Banfield.”
“Nice to meet you, Miss Banfield.”
“Call me Mimi.”
He scanned the space. It was tight. So much so that there was no way he could lower himself further without creating chaos. Those were some mighty nervous serpents. He glanced at Mimi. “You can call me Jackson.”
It was an airy, wispy nod to propriety. She was as nervous as the serpents. One wrong twitch and snake and woman looked ready to launch. That could not happen.
He noted her left arm rested awkwardly against her side, obviously injured. He added that complication to the threat of the snakes, the distance back to the top, and the match’s dying sputter. Getting her out wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d hoped.
“You’ve got yourself in a bit of a tight spot here, Mimi,” he started conversationally.
That extra shimmer in her eyes might be tears.
“Lucky for you, I’m good in tight spots.”
Her smile wavered along with the match flame. “Lucky me.”
“Yes. Is your arm broken?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Good.” But it was likely going to slow her down. He nodded to the near-burned-down match. “Blow that out and light another.”
He didn’t need to tell her to be careful. The warning rattle of the nearest snake did that for him. For a few seconds the well was plunged back in darkness, leaving Jackson with nothing to focus on but the memory of her face and the harsh reality of her breathing. For sure her voice wasn’t the only attractive thing about her. She had a pretty face, oval in shape with a cute nose, a slight pout to her lips, and beautiful round, expressive eyes. He’d bet those eyes would be even prettier when not full of worry. The match flared. She was still holding herself together. Admiration cozied up to interest.
He kept his voice easy as he said, “I’ve got some bad news for you.”
Her chin dropped a notch. There was a long silence. She looked at the nearest snake. “You can’t get me out.”
Hell, she thought he’d leave her? “Oh, I’ll get you out, but I need to leave you for a second to do it.”
She licked her lips, looked up to the daylight shining so far above, and then back at him, her gaze traveling down until it settled on the knife sheathed in his boot.
“Leave me the knife at least.”
“I am coming back, Mimi.”
The sulfur was burning dangerously close to her fingertips. She didn’t blow it out. It was as clear as day she didn’t believe him.
“First, blow that match out and light another.”
She hesitated. He knew why. There weren’t that many sulfurs in the tin. “Damn it, woman, I swear to God I’m coming back down and dragging your ass out of here.”
A trio of gasps filtered down from above. Did no one follow orders?
“I told you kids to stay back!”
“But—” Kevin protested.
“Do as you’re told!” Mimi snapped.
A snake hissed. Another gasp, then the faint thuds of retreating footsteps filtered down as the match blew out. Darkness returned in an oppressive blanket. Jackson untied the knife sheath from around his calf as the next match flared. Mimi’s anxious gaze met his. He nodded toward her lap. “Just like we did with the matches. Let me drop the knife to you. It’s going to be heavy. Whatever you do, don’t jump.”
He dropped the sheathed knife in the center of her skirt. She squeaked as it landed, but she didn’t jump. The slither of a snake over loose rock sounded unnaturally loud in the tense silence.
“Don’t use it unless you have to,” he warned. “You’re a bit outnumbered.”
She clutched the knife in her hand and nodded.
“I’ll be back in five minutes, then we’ll get you out of here.”
“On my mother’s grave. Now, stay calm and start counting.”
Her “To what?” pulled him up short.
She wanted something concrete to hold on to. He glanced up and did some quick calculations. “To a thousand.”
“Fine, but you’d better be back by the time I get to nine hundred and ninety-nine.”
He smiled at the threat and started back up the rope. “Or what?”
“Be late and find out.”
He grinned. A sweet little thing like her didn’t have much to back up a threat, but he bet she’d be inventive in the trying. “You do tempt a man, honey.”
Smiling at her groan, he started back up. He’d made it only halfway when another rattle, too close to be just an echo, sounded. He stopped. The dark made it impossible to tell where it originated, but it was a pretty safe bet there was a ledge nearby and there was a rattler coiled up on it pissed at having its afternoon nap disturbed. Shit.
Mimi called from below. “Are you all right?”
As right as anyone expecting a snakebite could be. “Right as rain.”
Taking a breath, he kept climbing, expecting to feel a lethal bite any second. It didn’t come. With a lunge he cleared the last foot and dragged himself over the edge. He collapsed on the ground, fear and relief roiling in his stomach.
The kids jumped him before he could take a breath. “Where’s Mimi?”
“Waiting on me.”
“You didn’t get her out,” Tony stated flatly.
Jackson pushed himself to his feet. “My original plan needs adjusting.”
“You said you’d get her out,” Melinda Sue accused, her lower lip wobbling. Beside her Kevin stood, his expression stony with the effort not to cry.
“And I am.” Going to the tree, Jackson untied the rope. He motioned to Tony. “Bring Lady over here.”
Tony didn’t hesitate. As he handed Jackson the reins, he said, “You will save her.”
It wasn’t phrased as a question and Jackson didn’t take it as one. “Yes, and Lady is going to help me.”
He tugged the rope over his shoulders. The other end he tied off at the saddle horn. He tested it twice, putting all his weight behind it. Mimi and he were both buzzard food if the knots or the chest strap gave. When he was satisfied, he patted Lady’s neck and handed the reins to Tony.
“This is very important, Tony. When I yell go, I want you to walk her away from the well, slow and steady. No stopping for anything. Just keep a steady, even walk. Think you can do that?”
He motioned to Kevin. “Come here, son.”
He liked the way the boy didn’t hesitate. “Stand right there by the well. When I say go, I want you to make sure to tell Tony to pull. If I say stop, fast as lightning you’re going to tell Tony to stop. All right?”
Both boys nodded solemnly.
The pixie piped up. “What about me?”
“You, I want to watch and make noise if anyone comes.”
The little girl nodded. He didn’t trust her for an instant.
“It’s very important that you stand up on the porch and watch for help. Just in case we need it.”
She nodded with the same determination as her brothers and sprinted for the porch. He should have thought of giving her a job sooner. Lady turned her head and snorted at him. He scratched her nose just above the bridle. “A good time to show me that sass would be when I tell you to pull.” Rubbing her velvety nose, thinking of Mimi sitting amidst those snakes, he muttered, “This is too important for you to be contrary.”
Lady tossed her head and did the prancing thing she did with her feet when she was feeling good. Tony jumped.
“Don’t worry, kid. That just means she’s set to go.”
Tony didn’t look convinced.
Jackson ignored his uncertainty. “Everybody ready?”
From their respective positions, they nodded. Jackson clapped Tony on the shoulder.
“Then let’s get Mimi out.”
The weight of the children’s expectations followed him as he eased the loose rope back over the edge and then swung a leg over the wall. He hoped like hell the stone wall didn’t crumble, the snakes didn’t bite, and the rope didn’t break. As if sensing his doubt, Kevin asked, “Are you sure this will work?”
He forced a smile as he grabbed the rope and lowered himself in. “Yep. Got it all planned out.”
Jackson held the smile until he couldn’t see Kevin’s face anymore and then he let it go, his skin crawling anew. He hated snakes, and hated small spaces, and here he was facing both, all because he’d gone and got curious.
“Not smart, Jackson,” he muttered to himself, lowering himself hand over hand. “Not smart at all.”
He made it past the point where he’d assumed the ledge was without a single warning rattle going off. Maybe it had been an echo after all.
“You still sitting pretty down there, Mimi?” he called softly.
Her “You came back” was a breathy expulsion of air.
“Told you I would.”
“Yes, you did.”
“I always keep my word.”
“I’ll remember that.”
“Good.” He lowered himself a few feet more. “Let me know when I’m just above your head.”
A minute later, he felt a tap on his boot. “Stop.”
“I want you to light another sulfur for me, honey.” She did. Putting his weight in the loop he’d set in the rope, he ordered, “Now hold it up high.”
The faint light revealed two big rattlers too close for comfort and the others a few feet away.
“Is that high enough?”
He drew his revolver from its holster. “That’s just perfect.”
He pulled back the hammer. “For the next couple seconds, I’d suggest not moving.”
Her eyes grew huge. “What are you doing?”
He took aim at the snake on the other side of her. “I’m going to take out a few of these creatures. It’s going to be loud. Real loud.”
“You could shoot me instead!”
That brought a chuckle. “I’ve missed a time or two in my life, but I don’t feel like today’s going to be one of those times.”
“Oh, my heavens!”
“Pray all you want, but whatever you do, don’t drop that sulfur and don’t you jump.”
He fired. She screamed. The rattler’s head exploded. Mimi screamed again. A second snake struck. He blew its head off right before it bit. Its tail whipped in a death spasm, filling the well with an unholy rattle. The rope jerked, tossing him to the right.
“Hold, God damn it!” he hollered up the well.
A second later, through the ringing in his ears he heard Kevin echo, “Hold, God damn it!”
The rope lurched once more and steadied. Snakes slithered in a panic, bodies slipping over bodies as they bit and fought, looking for the enemy. As if death wasn’t all around, Jackson smiled at Mimi. “See, honey? Easy as pie.”
Mimi looked at him blankly and then motioned to her ears. “I can’t hear you.”
She didn’t need to hear to know what it meant when he held out his hand. She placed hers in it with the quiet dignity he’d noticed before. Her hand was dainty and feminine, without a callus, but there were a few bumps he bet were blisters.
“Ready to go?” he mouthed, drawing her to her feet.
Watching the snakes nervously, she nodded.
“Put your arms—arm—around my neck.”
She hesitated. The snakes were taking advantage of the hesitation to fill the empty space around them. It was only a matter of seconds before they attacked.
“Will it hold both of us?”
“I don’t see why not.” If he discounted their combined weight, and the roughness of the wall rubbing against it, they were clear. And if he ignored the possibility of a snake sitting on a ledge halfway up ready to take a bite, they might make it out of here. Shaping the words clearly, he ordered, “Now, put your foot on mine and let’s leave these snakes to their fun.”
Her foot topped his and her good arm went around his neck. She smelled of honeysuckle, of all things. Not giving her a chance to change her mind, he locked his arm around her waist and called, “Go, Tony.”
The order was repeated. The rope lurched. They swung. Snakes struck. He felt their fangs hit his thick boots before they fell harmlessly back. Jackson used his free leg to bounce them off the wall. The rope slid a little faster. Time limped as they were hauled up, leaving him nothing to do but hope. Hope the rope wasn’t being too chewed up by the wall. Hope that damn snake halfway up had only been an echo. Just the thought of those fangs sinking into Mimi’s soft flesh made him sick. She’d never survive. He wrapped his arms around her, tucking his shoulders in, shielding her as best he could. If God was paying attention, there wouldn’t be a snake.
A minute later, he knew God wasn’t paying attention. The biggest snake he’d ever seen was perched eye level a foot from his face on a ledge too small for its thick coils. A deeper shadow amidst the shadow. And it didn’t look happy. Slowly, it pulled into a tight coil.
“What is it?” Mimi asked, stretching up.
“Grab the rope above my head with your good arm, and for God’s sake, don’t let go.”
She did as he said, and the move brought her face even with his. In spite of the danger, he couldn’t help but notice she had very kissable lips. Keeping his eye on the snake, he yelled, “Fast, Kevin. Tell Tony, fast.”
“But you said slow.”
The snake coiled tighter, head poised, tail shaking so fast the rattle sounded like a steady roar. And they were sitting ducks.
The rope lurched as they were yanked up level with the snake and then just stopped. Shit! Jackson saw the rattler’s intent a second before it struck. Kicking off the wall, he spun them so his back whipped toward the snake.
In that second, that split second in which time slowed to a morbid crawl and his focus narrowed to the dirt-scuffed cheeks of the soft woman with the pouting red lips and pure sass attitude, Jackson realized he didn’t want to go out with his boots on and a heroic devil-take-the-hindmost smile. No, he decided as Mimi’s eyes widened and her full lips parted in a gasp as she looked over his shoulder. He didn’t want that at all. Not when he could finagle a reality sweeter than his unfulfilled dreams. Mimi’s eyes flashed to his. Blue. Her eyes were a deep summer sky blue.
The snake struck. It was hard to sort the first impact from the second. Jackson didn’t even try. Accepting his fate, he leaned in and stole his last kiss.
Excerpted from "Promises Decide"
Copyright © 2018 Sarah McCarty.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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