Authors: Shirl Henke
Her simple declaration stirred emotions he had buried for years. "You always wondered about my stubbornness . . . my insistence that you couldn't fit in my life or me in yours . . ."
When he hesitated, she caressed his cheek and prompted, "It happened in North Africa, didn't it?"
He took a deep breath and began. "Her name was Monique Dupres, and she was my commanding officer's daughter. They were some sort of land-poor minor French nobility. She was blonde and pretty—at least as much as I can remember now. It was so long ago. I was barely eighteen, but I'd been in the desert campaigns against the Tuaregs for over a year when I met her."
"You were dark and dangerous, exotic to her, and she was fascinated with you." She began to understand.
"Yes. Until Monique, all I'd ever sampled were a few Mexican and Indian girls here and some Algerian whores. She seemed like a goddess to me." He chuckled mirthlessly, but he could feel that the bite of old bitterness was gone. "As I look back on it now, I realize she seduced me."
He raised one eyebrow at Lissa.
She met his gaze. "I may have teased a little . . ."
"A little? Anyway, we became lovers. She said I was her first. Now knowing what I've learned about fine white virgins, I know she lied," he said, gently tracing his fingertip along the curve of her cheek as she blushed. "But I believed her then and spun a lot of foolish daydreams. Saved all my pay to buy a fancy engagement ring. The night I was going to give it to her, the fort was approached by the rebel chieftains under a flag of truce.
"I was telling Monique about my grand plans for returning to Texas when her father interrupted us. He'd come to make certain she was hidden while the Tuaregs were inside the fort. He picked a bad time, since we'd just finished making love. He caught us in her bed. She jumped away from me and began screaming and crying that I'd forced her. I grabbed the ring from the bedside and told him I intended to do the honorable thing and marry his daughter.
"He laughed. Said he'd already made the arrangements for her to marry some fellow officer—a white man with a fancy title and lots of money. She knew all about it. In fact, she was leaving for Algiers the very next month to prepare for the wedding. I was just a diversion for her while she was bored, stuck in the desert."
For a man of his pride, Lissa could well imagine how devastating that must have been. She held him tightly as he continued.
"He would've had me quietly executed on some trumped-up charge just to keep her involvement with a
quiet. I was no more to the colonel or his daughter than any despised desert tribesman. But the Tuaregs had played Dupres for a fool. Their truce flag was a ruse to get inside the fort. They picked that time to blow the arsenal. Things happened pretty fast after that. Dupres lost over half his command and his own life before it was over."
"Whatever happened to Monique?" Lissa asked.
"She survived the massacre. The next week, when reinforcements came, she rode off to Algiers to marry her betrothed. I sold the ring and sent the money to my mother. The next time we had a liberty in Algiers, I deserted. Took a ship to Majorca and from there to New Orleans and home."
"And so you became a gunman," she said, understanding it all now, hurting for the boy whose dreams had died so young.
He looked down at Lissa with a wistful smile on his face. "For years I replayed that scene in Monique's bedroom, remembering her lies to her father, the way she called me a
, a boy she would never marry. I heard the colonel's disgusted laughter. I knew the gulf that separated people like me from white society, and it ate at me."
"And now it's over at last. What you said about my running away from those I loved—it was true. I've spent my whole life running one way or the other. But no more, Lissa. I don't have to live by my gun. I don't have to prove anything. I won't ever run away again."
"At last, home," she whispered as she kissed him, content and secure in his love. The specters of the past were vanquished forever. "Tomorrow we'll have to go and collect Johnny and Cormac and Tate and Jonah."
"That's tomorrow. Now, about those brothers and sisters for Johnny . . ." he whispered low.
She rolled into his arms, eager to begin the new project.
About the Author
SHIRL HENKE lives in St. Louis, where she enjoys gardening in her yard and greenhouse, cooking holiday dinners for her family and listening to jazz.
In addition to helping brainstorm and research her books, her husband Jim is “lion tamer” for their two wild young tomcats, Pewter and Sooty, geniuses at pillage and destruction.
Shirl has been a RITA finalist twice, and has won three Career Achievement Awards, an Industry Award and three Reviewer’s Choice Awards from
“I wrote my first twenty-two novels in longhand with a ballpoint pen—it’s hard to get good quills these days,” she says.
Dragged into the twenty-first century by her son Matt, a telecommunication specialist, Shirl now uses two of those “devil machines.”
Another troglodyte bites the dust.
Please visit her at