After shooting a man, the stakes for gambler Logan Devereaux have never been higher. On trial for his life, he's offered a shocking alternate form of restitution marriage to his victim's pregnant sweetheart!
Beautiful Emma O'Toole has sworn vengeance against himand when a newspaper man puts her tragic story to song, the whole nation waits to see what she'll do. Their marriage is the riskiest gamble Logan's ever taken. But he'll put everything he's got on the line for a chance at winning Emma's heart.
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A frigid rain had moved in behind the wind, its patter a dirge in the darkness. Water drizzled off the eaves of the Crystal Queen where Emma huddled in the doorway, watching the undertaker's cart haul Billy John away.
The saloon had shut down on the marshal's orders, but the owner had grudgingly let Emma remain with the body. She'd kept her vigil until the very last.
By now it was well after midnight. Main Street was all but deserted. Raindrops froze in the wagon ruts, forming an icy glaze. Emma shivered, her arms wrapping her body as if to protect the child she carried. Despite the cold, she was reluctant to leave the saloon behind. The Crystal Queen was the last place she had seen Billy John alive. She couldn't stay here, she reminded herself. She needed to get back to the boardinghouse.
Jerking her woolen shawl tight around her, she plunged into the downpour. Vi Clawson, her employer, prided herself in running a respectable place. When Vi learned about the baby, Emma was certain to lose her job. Then where would she go? She couldn't think clearly enough to make a plan. Not when all of her thoughts kept returning to the tragedy that was just a few hours old.
A moan quivered in her throat as she relived the horror of Billy John's death. She remembered his colorless lips, the strings of hair plastered against his white forehead. She remembered the light fading from his sweet blue eyes, the tension easing from his hands
She willed the image away. She'd promised Billy John that Logan Devereaux would pay for his crime. Only when that was done would she feel any peace.
Like fire through a lens, she focused her fury on the handsome gambler. She imagined him drawing his pistol, taking time to aim at a vital spot. She pictured the coldness in those black eyes as he pulled the trigger, the glitter of triumph as Billy John crumpled to the floor.
The emotion that seethed inside her was as close to pure hatred as anything Emma had ever known.
Logan Devereaux was in jail tonight, where he belonged. His trial would be held within the next few days. She would be there when the judge found him guilty and sentenced him to death. She would be there to watch him hang.
And then, what in heaven's name would she do?
The rain was falling harder than ever. As Emma stumbled along the slippery boardwalk, wet hair streaming in her face, a shadowy figure stepped from the lee of a doorway. She heard the sound of footsteps behind her. Then, like magic, an umbrella materialized above her head to shield her from the downpour.
"Allow me to see you home, Miss O'Toole." The speaker had fallen into step beside her. Through the rainstreaked darkness, a short, stocky man with reddish hair and thick, square glasses took shape in Emma's vision. "Hector Armitage of the Park Record. I just wanted to make sure you were all right."
Emma shuddered, clutching the rain-soaked shawl to her body. "What do you think? Would you be all right?"
"Of course not. I think you've been through a very rough time, you poor girl. Here." Balancing the umbrella, he shrugged out of his thick tweed jacket and draped it around her shivering shoulders. Emma huddled into the dry warmth, not caring, for the moment, that the fellow clearly wanted something in exchange for his kindness. She was cold and alone, and she needed someoneanyoneto be with her.
"I understand the young man who died was your sweetheart."
"We were planning to be married. I'd never known Billy John to set foot in a gambling house before." Emma's anger exploded in a burst of anguish. "Oh, why couldn't he have left well enough alone? If only he'd stayed away from that murdering gambler"
"I assume you're talking about Mr. Devereaux."
"Logan Devereaux killed Billy John in cold blood, and I've vowed to see him punished for it!" Emma was walking fast now, her splashing boots punctuating her words. Let the newspaperman ask his questions. This was something she wanted the whole town to know.
"Are you sure about that? I understand your young man was cheating, and that after he was caught, he drew a gun."
The revelation rocked Emma for an instant. Where on earth would he have gotten a gun? As far as she knew, Billy John had never fired one in his life. Then she remembered the rusted Colt .45 she'd seen in Billy John's shack. There was no way that weapon could've been made to fire a bullet. "If he did have a gun, it would have been empty," she declared. "Billy John wouldn't have harmed a soul! And he wouldn't have cheated, either!"
"Don't be so sure. I talked with more than one witness who said your Billy John was indeed cheating. I was told"
"No! I won't hear it." Emma wheeled to face him. "Billy John Carter is dead. I won't stand for your speaking ill of him. Here!" She yanked the warm tweed jacket off her shoulders and flung it in his face. "Thank you for your offer of company, Mr. Armitage, but I prefer the rain!"
She thought he would turn back. Instead he kept pace with her angry strides, his umbrella still balanced above her head.
"My apologies, Miss O'Toole. I certainly didn't mean to question your young man's character. I only wondered if you were aware of what some people are saying."
"Whatever they're saying, the truth will come out in the trial. And I'll be there to hear every word."
"Don't you have any family to support you?" Armi-tage asked in a sympathetic voice.
"My father died when I was twelve, my mother when I was sixteen. Since then the closest thing I've had to family was Billy John, and now" Emotion choked back her words.
"I was told your mother worked in one of those houses on Silver Creek Road. Is that true?"
The nerve of the man! Emma's temper began to seethe. "My mother was a decent, respectable woman, not a whore. The only work she did on Silver Creek Road was cooking and cleaning and scrubbing laundry to keep a roof over our heads. And she made me promise I'd never make my living up those stairs. I've kept that promise. I make an honest living, and someday I'm going to amount to something. Just you wait and see."
They'd come to the top of Main Street, where the road cut around the hillside, skirting the gulch where the Chinese lived. The odors of joss sticks and human waste wafted upward, assailing Emma's stomach.
"Just one more question, Miss O'Toole." Hector Armi-tage's voice cut through the droning rain. "Is it true that you're expecting a child?"
Emma froze as if she'd just been knifed. Billy John had mentioned the baby where everyone in the Crystal Queen could hear. But that didn't give a stranger the right to ask such an intimate question. Until now, she'd tolerated the reporter's prying. But this time he'd gone too far.
"Did you hear me, Miss O'Toole? Is it true that"
"I heard you, Mr. Armitage!" She whirled on him, indignation bursting like mortar fire in her head. "What kind of rotten, low-down, bloodsucking leech would ask a lady such a question?" Seizing the umbrella, she swung it at him like a club. "Get out of here, you little muck-raker! Leave me alone!"
"Really, Miss O'Toole" Armitage took one step backward, then another. "I didn't mean to"
"Balderdash!" Emma glanced a blow off his shoulder. "You planned this. You were waiting for me to walk home, and you knew just how to play me."
Armitage staggered. Losing his balance, he pitched backward, slid down the muddy slope and crashed into a duck pen. As shrieks and Chinese curses joined the melee of squawking birds, Emma hurled the battered umbrella after him and fled. Her heart hammered her ribs as she plunged up the steep road.
Through the rain she could make out the weathered brown blur of the boardinghouse. With the last of her strength she mounted the steps and crept around to the lean-to where she sank onto the bed and buried her face in her hands. A sob escaped her constricted throat. She gulped it back. It wouldn't do to break down. She had responsibilities and a promise to keep.
Once more Emma forced her mind to conjure up Logan Devereaux. She saw his face, the jet-black eyes, the golden skin, the bitter little quirk at the corner of his mouth as he confessed what he'd done. He'd claimed he was sorry. But the gambler's emotionless gaze had made lies of his words. For all his show of regret, the man's heart was surely as cold as a rattlesnake's.
She could feel her anger welling again, its fire warming her chilled body. She would use that anger, she vowed. She would use its heat to fuel her, to keep her going despite her suffering, her loneliness and her humiliation.
Tomorrow, after her chores were done, she would go to the jail and confront the murdering villain again. She wanted to see how he looked after a night spent behind bars, contemplating his fate. She wanted to see him in pain.
"Brung you some readin', Devereaux." Deputy Chase MacPherson's mouth slid into a lopsided grin as he tossed the folded newspaper through the bars.
Logan let the paper land on the bunk, then ambled across the cell to pick it up. There was no hurry. Even before he opened the Record to the front page, he knew what he would see.
But he hadn't anticipated how bad it would be.
Logan's jaw tensed as he read down the page to the clumsily rendered drawing of Emma O'Toole. The reporter Hector Armitage had played up the dramatics of the story, ignoring most of the facts. The innocent youth, the black-hearted gambler, the bereft, pregnant sweethearthell, it was pure melodrama! Why hadn't the slimy bastard mentioned that young Carter had been caught cheating or that he'd drawn a pistol and threatened to use it? Why hadn't Armitage interviewed the men who'd seen the gun and heard those threats?
As Logan's memory blundered once more through the nightmare of events, he saw himself bent over the dying youth, pillowing the boy's head with his own jacket. He remembered the reporter's freckled face thrusting into his vision, heard the annoying prattle of the man identifying himself and then pelting Logan with questions.
He'd sworn at Armitage and shoved him so hard that the little man had fallen against a spittoon and knocked it over. Only now did Logan realize what a dangerous enemy he'd made. With this story, it was clear that Hector Armitage was intent on turning the whole town against him.
"You got a visitor, gamblin' man." As the deputy sidled into view again, Logan's heart convulsed with hope. It could be the lawyer he'd been demanding since dawn, or
"Right purty thing she is, too," the deputy added with a suggestive wink.
Logan sagged onto the bunk, his spirits blackening. He only knew one she in this miserable town, and it was a good bet she hadn't come here to bring him chicken and dumplings. In fact, he couldn't figure out why Emma O'Toole would come at all unless it was to vent more anger on him. He was sorry for her loss, but it was hard to feel much sympathy when her story in the newspaper was, without a doubt, turning the town against him. The young lady had him right where she wanted him, and the way things were going, she'd probably get her wish to see him hang.
Feigning indifference, Logan opened the newspaper to page two and pretended to read. He could hear the light tread of footsteps approaching his cell, but even as they stopped, he didn't look up. Emma O'Toole had sworn to see him punished. He would show her how blasted little he cared.
"Mr. Devereaux." Her voice quivered with defiance. Logan didn't move.
"Hey, gambler, you got a lady friend here!" The deputy seized a bar of the door and shook it until the lock rattled. "If'n you don't want her, I'll be happy to"
"All right." Logan's rapier glare cut him short. "I'll speak with Miss O'Toole, but not with you hanging over her shoulder, MacPherson. Get out of here."
"But the marshal said for me to"
"Go on now, Mr. MacPherson." Emma O'Toole's voice was diamond-cool, diamond-hard. "Your prisoner can hardly do me any harm when he's locked behind bars."
Do me any harm!
Logan bit back a curse. The woman was speaking as if he were some kind of wild animal who might leap out and have his way with her. Was that the next story she'd share with that little worm of a reporter?
But what did it matter? She was here. And this, he realized, was his chance to make sure that she finally heard him out. Emma O'Toole was not getting away until he'd told her the whole miserable story.
Logan stared down at the open newspaper, biding his time as the deputy's footsteps faded away. In the stillness that remained, he could feel Emma O'Toole's presence. He could feel her gaze like fire on his skin and hear her shallow, agitated breathing. Even without looking at her, Logan could sense how much she hated him.
He let the seconds tick past, stalling as he would in a card game, forcing her to wait. He was in charge now, and he wanted her to know it. Otherwise she might not listen.
And making her listen could make the difference between life and death.
Only when he sensed she was nearing the end of her patience did Logan untangle his feet, rise from the bunk and look directly at her. Even then, with so long to prepare for it, the sight of Emma O'Toole stopped his breath for an instant.
She was standing rigidly outside the cell, wearing an ugly, starched gray frock that had clearly been made for someone else. Her dark honey hair was pulled tightly back from her face, accentuating her bloodshot, blue-green eyes. She looked pale and drawn and haggard, but for all that, Logan couldn't tear his gaze from her. Last night in the dimly lit saloon, his vision had caught little more than the flash of her anger. But now he knew that that exquisitely powerful face, with its tragic beauty, would haunt him to the end of his days.
Her lips parted as their eyes met. The awareness dawned on him that he'd slept in his clothes, that his heavy black whiskers needed a shave, and that the chamber pot under his bunk hadn't been emptied since last night. He looked like a derelict and probably smelled worse, but there was little he could do about that now. The only important thing was that she hear what he had to say, and that she believe him. If there was a spark of understanding in her, and if he could touch it
But this was no time to lower his guard, Logan reminded himself. The woman wanted him dead. She had said so to his face, and again in that cursed news article. The fact that she was young and vulnerable didn't make her any less his enemy.
He cleared his throat and forced himself to speak. "I'm glad you came, Miss O'Toole. You and I need to get some facts straight."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I really enjoyed this book because it had a twists. The characters were engaging and the story line interesting.