Texas in the 1880s is a wild and lawless land, where a woman fending for herself is a rare breed. Andrea Jackson is just that. A woman who went against the grain by writing bestselling novels instead of marrying and staying at home. But with her muse, and her money dried up, she’s in desperate need of a hero. And Sheriff Matthew Knight has just the right material.
Only He Can Give . . .
Matthew doesn’t know what to make of the sassy, bright-eyed, temptress who insists on following him around. He’s nobody’s hero, and he doesn’t believe in fairy tales. What he is, is a man. With a man’s needs. And there’s something about the feisty, determined, vixen, he just can’t seem to shake . . .
Previously published in My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys
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The Reluctant Hero
By Lorraine Heath
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2006 Jan Nowasky
All rights reserved.
He rode in from the west, a tin star on his chest, a six-gun at his hip, and the promise of justice smoldering in his dark eyes.
—From Tex Knight Tames the Town by Andrea Jackson
Gallant, Texas, May 1884
"I'm in desperate need of a hero."
With his thumb, Matthew Knight slowly tipped up the brim of his black Stetson and stared at the lady standing before him. Her unexpected pronouncement had awakened him from a pleasant afternoon nap. As a rule he didn't tolerate rudeness well, but he thought for her, he might make an exception.
He recognized her only because he'd seen her arrive on the noon stage. He'd been sitting right there, on the worn wooden bench outside his office, watching the comin's and goin's, thinking it was a fine day to be alive, praying nothing would happen to change his opinion on the matter.
The warmer weather was still a month or two away. He hadn't even been bothered by the spiraling clouds of dust stirred along Main Street by all the wagons, horses, and people going about their business. Then the stagecoach had barreled in, causing the dust to thicken. The coach had rolled to a stop in front of the only hotel in town. Its owner, Lester Anderson, sadly lacking in imagination, had named the place Hotel, which to Matt's way of thinking was as bad as calling your horse "Horse" or your dog "Dog." With a poorly painted sign, Lester proudly boasted that his hotel had twenty-eight rooms—which seemed to be twenty-seven rooms too many. Matt had never noticed the vacancy sign come down, and he tended to notice everything. It was his job to notice.
The woman had caught his eye the second she'd stepped out of the stagecoach, like some princess arriving at her castle, expecting her minions to see to her bidding, her dark green outfit clearly belonging to a woman who'd never done without.
She had city gal written all over her, from her fancy, frilly hat to her polished black button-up shoes. Spoiled city gal, at that.
He'd watched as the driver and the guard who rode shotgun had struggled to get her trunk down from the roof of the stagecoach, then carried it into the hotel. She'd been issuing directions he couldn't hear, moving her hands wildly toward them and back again as though she thought they were going to drop her precious petticoats; she wanted to be ready to catch the trunk if need be.
As soon as she'd disappeared into the hotel and the entertainment was over, Matt had tugged his hat down lower, settled back, and drifted off to sleep.
And now she was standing before him, disturbing his peace, as though she thought he'd be only too glad to jump up and do her bidding as well, do whatever she demanded of him. Be the hero that she claimed to need so desperately.
He didn't jump, but he did extend his manners, unfolding his body until he reached his full height. Some people found his height imposing, but she didn't seem to. Maybe because she was tall for a woman; the top of her head would tuck up neatly beneath his chin. The green of her hat with its bows, ribbons, and lace matched the green of the dress that matched the green of her eyes. Eyes the color of summer clover and hair the shade of golden wheat. He wondered what it would take to get her to unpin that hair for him, so he could fill his hands with it. She was slender, with soft, lily-white hands. No, not soft. Smooth. Except for that little bump on the side of the middle finger of her right hand, as though she'd spent a lifetime pressing something up against it until it had formed a callus to protect itself.
He swept his hat from his head in a gallant gesture he seldom used, because women were a rarity in these parts. "Ma'am, if you're looking for a hero, you're looking in the wrong place."
She angled her chin as though that small action was needed to ignite her courage. Her steadfast gaze dipped to his chest, and he refrained from taking a deep breath to make it appear broader, stronger. What did he care if she found him lacking?
"You're wearing the tin star, so you must be the sheriff," she said.
Now that he was fully awake, he found her voice to be the sort that a man carried with him into his dreams—where he could be a hero, even if only until the sun came up.
"You're observant," he responded dryly.
"Sheriff Matthew Knight?"
"Yes, ma'am," he acknowledged warily. It was one thing for her to be searching for the sheriff, another entirely if she was searching for him specifically. Others had searched for him, but been unable to find him, and as far as he knew none had been a woman.
"Then I'm definitely looking in the right place for a hero, Sheriff." She smiled triumphantly as though she'd accomplished an impossible goal. "Perhaps you've heard of me. Andrea Jackson?"
Something about the name teased at his memory. He didn't think he'd find her name on a wanted poster tacked on the wall behind his desk. Outlaws weren't usually in the habit of introducing themselves to the local law. She was too old to be his kid, too young to be his mother, too slender to be growing his kid in her belly. Although, considering how long he'd gone without the close company of a woman, any kid of his would be walking by now. Not that he truly thought he had any children wandering around. He took what precautions he could to prevent that from happening.
If he'd ever crossed paths with this lady, he would have remembered. Not that she had an unforgettable face, but her spirit intrigued him. Not many women stood before him as boldly as she did. The doc said it was Matt's perpetual scowl that kept them away. He tended to think it was his reputation for being a man without feelings, emotions, or dreams. It was easier to face dying if a man wasn't fond of anything he stood to lose.
He slowly shook his head. "Can't say as I have."
"I'm a writer of dime novels, sir. Lone Star Lily and the Treacherous Cattle Drive?"
Her voice ended on a rising ring of hope as though she expected her words to mean something significant to him. He simply shook his head. He wasn't known as a kind man, but he figured she'd prefer a shake over "Never heard of it."
"Lone Star Lily and the Notorious Outlaw?"
Her face fell, and it occurred to him that maybe her features weren't as forgettable as he'd first surmised. She wasn't a great beauty, not by any means, but her expressive eyes were enough to hold a man's attention, her nose small enough not to get in the way when he kissed her, her lips plump enough to provide a comfortable cushion for a man's questing mouth.
"Do you read, Sheriff?" she asked pointedly.
And he wondered if she'd gauged the direction of his thoughts and was seeking to put him on another path.
"Dime novels? Or are you one of these unenlightened people who consider them frivolous trash?"
Her green eyes held a spark of anger, hurt, resentment, and he thought if he answered wrong, judging by the determined set of her jaw, he might actually be on the losing end of a fight for the first time in his life. Now, wouldn't that be interesting?
"I read them on occasion," he admitted. Every night before he went to bed, but he didn't want to encourage her to linger by offering up a topic of conversation that might interest her. Not if she was searching for a hero.
"Which one is your favorite?"
"Ma'am, I just read the stories to pass the time."
"But you enjoy them?"
He nodded. "They're usually entertaining."
Her smile returned, a smile that could darn near blind a man, a smile that spoke of intimate pleasures. Oh, she was definitely not forgettable.
"I want you to be the hero of my next story," she announced.
His gut clenched; his mouth and throat were suddenly parched as though he'd reached down, grabbed a handful of dust from the street, and swallowed it. Breathing deeply, he shook his head. "Sorry, ma'am, but I'm not interested in having a story written about me."
"You're a little late in making that clear, Sheriff." She reached into her reticule and pulled out a scrap of newsprint. "An article appeared already in the Fort Worth Daily Standard when you delivered the Ace in the Hole Gang to the Tarrant County courthouse."
"Did that piece happen to mention that I delivered them in pine boxes?"
"Of course. It also explained that it was your daring actions that resulted in the trio needing those very same coffins."
"There was nothing daring about any of it. And I didn't take them to the courthouse so people could sing my praises. I took them so I could collect the reward money, and that's it. Money for corpses. Nothing heroic in that."
"Perhaps not in that particular aspect of your adventure—"
He lowered his head until his nose was even with hers, until he could see tiny black specks in the green of her eyes. "It wasn't an adventure. I killed three men."
"Who left death and destruction in their wake. Sam Jenkins had a five-hundred-dollar bounty on his head, his cohorts a hundred each. No one can argue that they didn't deserve to die. The newspaper wrote about your exploits and how you faced the gang alone—"
Matt grimaced. He didn't want to hear any of this. He didn't want his role in the events of that day to be scrutinized any more closely than they'd already been. "If my exploits have already been written about, then I don't see the reason for you to write anything further."
"On the contrary, Sheriff, I believe you'll make a wonderful hero for my next series of dime novels."
"Series?" His voice sounded as though the dust had taken up permanent residence in his throat.
"Yes. It seems that readers love to read about the same characters over and over. They become emotionally invested in them. Lone Star Lily did well for me, but not nearly as well as the stories written by others that featured heroes like Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Jesse James—"
"I don't consider Jesse James a hero."
"Well, neither do I, actually, but stories that involve him sell like wildfire. So I decided that I should begin a new series. Texas Knight." She gave him a gamine smile. "A little play on your name: Matthew Knight. When I'm finished you'll be as famous as all the others."
She looked at him as though she thought she was doing him some sort of tremendous favor, rather than presenting him with an opportunity to destroy his life.
"That's a right kind offer, ma'am, but I don't want to be famous."
"Look, Sheriff Knight—"
"No, ma'am, you look. I don't mean to be rude, but I've got no interest whatsoever in being the hero of any dime novel."
"Why not? Your name, your likeness will be on the cover. And I swear to you that I will do your reputation justice."
"Not if you're painting me to be a hero."
She released a short burst of air. "This is unbelievable. I can't fathom ..." She looked out in the street as though she'd find an answer there.
He found himself gazing at her profile, the side of her long, slender throat. He imagined trailing his mouth over that sensitive skin. He'd really gone too long without a woman when he was showing any interest at all in one who could prove to be his downfall.
She whirled back around, and he felt his cheeks burning, as though she might have known what he was thinking.
"All right, Sheriff. I won't use your name or identify you in any way. But I would still like to use you as my inspiration. If I could spend some time with you—"
"No," he barked. "You're writing fiction. Make it all up. You don't need me."
"Unfortunately, Sheriff, I do need you, desperately." Her eyes held a sadness, and he felt as though he'd just kicked a puppy.
"I don't see how I can be of any service," he muttered.
"Can we sit? I'm getting a crick in my neck looking up at you."
"Andrea. Or Andi." She sat down as though he'd invited her to stay.
Obstinate, stubborn woman. He ought to just go into his office, leave her out here alone. But he found himself sitting, drawn by the appeal in her eyes. She was much closer to him sitting on the bench than she'd been standing on the boardwalk. He caught a whiff of her fragrance, a flowery scent that he couldn't place. He hadn't spent much of his life sniffing flowers and memorizing their scents, but he recognized sweetness when he smelled it.
She'd clasped her hands in her lap, and that knobby little knot on her finger was more visible. Now he knew how it had come to be. Pressing pencil to paper to write stories.
"Sheriff, do you know what a muse is?" she asked.
She sighed. "It comes from Greek mythology. Supposedly, there are nine sisters, known as muses, who preside over an artist's ability to paint or a writer's to write. A muse is intangible, but a writer is always aware of it lurking in the corners of the mind, helping us to create our stories." She shook her head. "I'm not explaining this well, and I'm not sure if anyone other than a writer can truly understand. But basically my muse has ... deserted me. I try to write, and no words come forth, no story evolves. I see nothing except a yawning abyss of emptiness. For a writer it's terrifying, to have nothing inside me except a void where I once had stories."
Sighing, he settled his hat back on his head. "Then don't write."
She laughed, a sad sort of laugh. "I have to write, Sheriff. It's who I am."
She smiled at him, a dangerous thing. A man could start to think about doing whatever was necessary to keep that smile visible.
"And being paid for the writing doesn't hurt either," she continued. "You deserved the reward money for those outlaws, and you shouldn't feel guilty that you hauled them to the courthouse so you could get paid."
So they were back to the outlaws now, were they?
Something must have shown on his face, because she shook her head. "I'm just explaining my situation in a manner that would make sense to someone who isn't intimately familiar with the muse. If you can't understand the creative side, you can at least understand the practical side. I need the money ... desperately. I thought if I came here and spent a few days observing you, experiencing the various duties that are involved in doing your job, then inspiration might strike; my muse would return. The words would once again flow. I know my request may sound frivolous, but trust me, Sheriff, I truly need your help. Be my hero. Please."
Damnation. He averted his gaze because he found himself staring too deeply into her eyes, mesmerized, actually considering the pleasant ramifications of having her near, until he almost forgot what the end result would be: the destruction of a life he'd worked so hard to build.
"I'm not a hero," he said quietly. "I don't want to be seen as one or portrayed as one."
"As I said, Sheriff, I can use another name for your character."
He dared to look back at her. "You're looking for a hero. I'm not him. You're gonna have to look elsewhere."
He heard hurried footsteps on the boardwalk. Turning his head, he saw a woman rushing toward him, two small boys in tow. He came to his feet.
Andrea Jackson did as well. "Is that trouble coming, do you think?" she asked, and he heard the excitement laced in her voice at the prospect of witnessing him doing his job.
He ignored her.
The woman who was approaching him smiled. Lanetta Logan. Her husband had been a teller in the bank before the Ace in the Hole Gang arrived. Now he was merely a marker in the cemetery.
Matt removed his hat as Lanetta stopped in front of him, still clutching the hands of her sons. Matt had been the one who'd had the unenviable task of telling her that her husband was dead and she was now a widow.
"The stagecoach will be leaving soon," she said. "The boys and I are getting on it. I'm going to my parents' house for a while." She released her sons, who immediately wrapped their arms around her legs. One was three, the other five. Matt had never noticed before how much they resembled their father, even at their young ages. It was the eyes, he thought. The shape of the chin.
Lanetta handed him a piece of paper. "Here is where we'll be staying if you need me for anything. I don't know how long we'll be away, but I was hoping you'd keep an eye on the house, maybe tend the livestock. There's just the cow and a few chickens. I've boarded the horses."
Excerpted from The Reluctant Hero by Lorraine Heath. Copyright © 2006 Jan Nowasky. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
For the amount i paid, and its only 68 pages!!!!!
Nothing much to comment - just an ordinary book. Moved to slow in some parts and to fast at the end.
It was time for a new book!! Enjoyed it very much!! When is the next one?