Authors: Debra Cowan
“We're fixin' to find out.”
His silky voice did things to her insides that she couldn't recall having ever experienced with her late fiancÃ©. “I don't have a gun. I told you I want to learn how to shoot.”
His gaze slid down her body, then back up to meet her eyes. “Do you want me to search you?”
She gasped. “You wouldn't dare!”
“I will if you don't show me what you've got hidden.”
“What kind of man are you that you would put your hands on me?”
“The kind who wants an answer,” he said hotly. “Now, either show me or I'll get it myself.”
The thrill that shot through her veins told Josie she did not want this man touching her. She instinctively knew she wouldn't forget itâ¦!
“Penning great emotional depth in her characters, Debra Cowan will warm the coldest of winter nights.”
Still the One
“Debra Cowan skillfully brings to vivid life all the complicated feelings of love and guilt when a moment of consolation turns into unexpected passion.”
One Silent Night
“The recurrent humor and vivid depiction of small-town Western life make Debra Cowan's story thoroughly pleasurable.”
#735 THE KING'S MISTRESS
#736 TEXAS LAWMAN
#737 MY LADY ANGEL
Silhouette Intimate Moments
Dare To Remember
The Rescue of Jenna West
One Silent Night
Still the One
To guys in white hats.
West Texas, 1884
oday was the day and Josie Webster's nerves were as twitchy as fat on a hot skillet. In the building September heat, she watched the jail of Whirlwind, Texas, and waited for her chance. Only a minute or so now, and she would have it.
Covered by shadows, she stood across the street from the sheriff's office. The alleyway between the livery stable and saloon was warm, but at least out of the sun. Main Street, wide enough for two wagons to travel at once, bustled as people made their way through town for supplies or business. On the east end of town toward Abilene, a church at the center point of Main and North Street served as the school and had opened its doors to students almost two hours ago. The telegraph and post office as well as the Whirlwind Hotel shared the same side of the street as the jail.
Three doors to her left a thin, older man swept the porch in front of Haskell's General Store. Directly across from her was the blacksmithy. No one paid a lick of attention to her.
Heart hammering in her chest, she patted the scalpel
tucked inside the special sleeve she'd sewn into her bodice. Her doctor father had taught her and her mother how to use the instrument as a weapon after an attack by an old beau had nearly gotten her mother raped. The blade was a reassuring reminder that Josie would never be at the mercy of a killer like the one who sat in the jailhouse across from her.
Nearly two years ago, Ian McDougal had murdered her parents and fiancÃ© in Galveston. Because of a corrupt judge, the outlaw had walked away without spending one night in jail. He and his brothers had resumed their killing spree throughout Texas. When the other three had been killed a few months ago in a shoot-out near Whirlwind, Ian had escaped. He had finally been captured near Austin by a U.S. Marshal. Now he awaited trial in this small town hundreds of miles from Josie's home.
She had arrived the end of August, and in the four days since she had reached this breezy dry town on the other side of the vast state, she constantly felt parched, her throat gravelly. The stark air was quite a contrast to the thick, liquid air of her home on the Gulf.
So far, Whirlwind's sheriff had followed the schedule Josie had observed the past few days. He had already finished his first cup of coffee, taken the prisoner out to relieve himself in the outhouse behind the jail and whittled something. Now it was time for the sheriff to leave his deputy in charge and go over to the Pearl Restaurant for the piece of pie he had every morning at nine-forty-five.
After distracting the deputy, she would be in and out of that jail before the sheriff finished his pie. Then she would finally be able to rest easy for the first time since the cold-blooded murders of her parents and fiancÃ©, William Hill.
As the second hand on her watch clicked into place, the jail door opened and the sheriff stepped out. His fawn-colored cowboy hat didn't hide the rugged lines of his face
or the strong profile. He probably wasn't more than eight or nine years older than Josie's own twenty-one years and he looked like a man who could easily talk a girl out of her drawers. He was handsome in a powerful way with a disarming smile that might be able to tempt her to forget serious things and enjoy herself.
Thank goodness she
tempted. All she cared about was the lower-than-snake-spit murderer inside Whirlwind's jail. For the past four days, she had seethed as the sheriff took a leisurely stroll after his morning break before going back to his office. Impatience prodded at her, but she wanted to do this right. McDougal was in jail just waiting for her and he wouldn't have to wait much longer.
The lanky sheriff sauntered down the steps, his boots finally touching dirt. A breath eased out of Josie, releasing some of the pressure squeezing her chest. The man paused, one thumb hooked in the waistband of his denims, one resting on the butt end of a gun strapped to his lean hips.
Go. Go on,
she urged silently, her pulse spiking. She still had to get past the deputy, but that wouldn't be hard.
The sheriff adjusted his hat, lifted a hand in greeting to the giant black man hammering an anvil at the smithy next door to the jail then turned toward the restaurant at his right.
But he didn't head for the Pearl as she had expected. Instead he went the other way and started across the wide main streetâ¦straight for her!
His gaze narrowed on her like a gun sight. Her breath backed up in her throat. She would have run, but he had already seen her. Hightailing it out of there would only make him suspicious. She had no idea what she was about to do, but she had better come up with something.
When had he spotted her? This morning or before? She had thought herself well concealed and inconspicuous in the shadowy alley.
As the sheriff neared, she pasted a smile on her face. Her stomach shriveled into a knot.
“Howdy, ma'am.” He stopped inches away.
Her gaze crept up from dusty boots over long,
legs, lean hips and a massive chest to blue eyes. She hoped she was still smiling. “Hello.”
“I couldn't help but notice you over here.” Davis Lee Holt tipped his hat, keeping his tone easy even though his senses were on full alert. That wasn't due strictly to the petite beauty in front of him. Or the stunning green eyes studying him so warily. “Is everything okay?”
“Yes, fine. I'mâ¦new in town.”
He recalled seeing her get off the stage four days ago. He had waited and watched to see what she was up to, but he wasn't waiting anymore. Last night, Ian McDougal had tried to escape.
The man had tuberculosis. Davis Lee had known of the condition even before Catherine Donnelly, now his cousin-in-law, had been forced several months ago by the oldest McDougal to use her nursing skills to ease Ian's discomfort. Last night, the outlaw, the only living gang member, had been seized by a coughing fit. When Davis Lee's sometime-deputy, Cody Tillman, had seen blood and gone inside the cell to help him, McDougal tried to overpower the man. The prisoner was too weak and Cody had subdued him soon enough, but the attempt had immediately made Davis Lee's thoughts go to the brunette who had started skulking around town four days ago.
He flicked a glance at the swinging doors of Pete Carter's saloon, which now also served as the stage stop. “Are you waitin' on Pete?”
Her accent was thick and honey-sweet. “He owns the saloon. Thought you might have business with him.”
“Lands, no. I'm a dressmaker.”
A dressmaker? That wasn't in the least threatening, so why were his nerves twanging like new barbed wire? Why was she standing next to the saloon for the fourth day in a row?
He couldn't ignore the pinch in his gut that told him the woman had some connection to Ian McDougal. His sweetheart maybe? Sister or some other relative? Davis Lee thumbed back his hat and asked pleasantly, “You just passin' through, or are you thinkin' about stayin'? Whirlwind could use a dressmaker. We don't have one right now.”
“I suppose you know everyone in town.” She worried her lower lip.
“Yes, ma'am. And I watch the stage every day so I'll know who might need a hand. I saw you get off the stage four days ago.”
Her eyes widened and he thought he saw a flicker of concern. Why? Had he interfered with something she planned to do?
“You remember seeing me get off the stage? That's quite a memory, Sheriff.”
“It's part of my job.” The fact was a man didn't forget a face as pretty as hers. Especially a man who'd been made a fool of by a pretty face.
Her figure drew attention, too. She was small and perfectly proportioned. He had always favored a fuller bosom on a woman, but he found himself reconsidering that. Her pale green daydress fit just right, the square-necked bodice smoothing over small, high breasts and sleeking down a taut waist. His palms suddenly itched to touch and he tugged at his hat.
In the two years since he had been run out of Rock River and returned home, Davis Lee had taken to watching every passenger on every stage. He wouldn't be taken unaware again.
Ever since that unfortunate incident in his last town,
Davis Lee erred on the side of caution. He would've noticed this woman anyway because of her slender curves and air of confidence, but now he had a reason to keep an eye on her.
Maybe she had come to break McDougal out of jail or to provide a distraction while one of McDougal's cronies sawed the bars from his cell window and helped him escape.
Davis Lee knew all about distractions, and he wasn't falling for this one, no matter that she looked sweeter than fresh cream and smelled as tempting as rain. Her skin flushed in a way that made him wonder if she turned that delicious shade of pink all over in the right circumstances.
Annoyed at his line of thinking, he removed his hat and offered his hand. “I'm Davis Lee Holt.”
“Josie. Webster.” Though she accepted his handshake, she seemed to give the information reluctantly.
The name she gave was the same one she used at the Whirlwind Hotel. Davis Lee had already been there and checked the register on the sly so the clerk wouldn't know. The last thing he needed was Penn Wavers blabbing. The near-deaf man was as big a gossip as any old woman. “You stayin' at the Whirlwind?”
“For now. I'm thinking about opening a shop, but I heard about the outlaws around here.”
Her lips curved in an innocent, blinding smile and Davis Lee felt like he'd been kicked in the head. He slid his hat back on. “Is your family with you?”
Which told him nothing. Her short, light-colored gloves prevented him from seeing if she wore a wedding ring. Was she married? Did she have children? Usually any small prod for information caused people to talk, especially women. Those who didn't have anything to hide anyway.
She gave a small curtsy and stepped around him so that she now stood out in the open.
The mid-morning sun brought out a red tint in her brown hair, which she wore pulled away from her face with a ribbon so that the thick wavy mass tumbled down her back. Her velvety-looking skin had a slight golden cast; a bunch of freckles were scattered across the bridge of her nose.
She was the prettiest baggage he'd seen in a good long while. Since Betsyâor whatever her real name wasâin Rock River, truth be told. The memory of the woman who'd stolen Davis Lee's heart and half the townspeople's money squashed the interest sparked by Josie Webster.
She eyed the street. “I thought I should find out for myself if this town is safe.”
“I take my job very seriously.” He wondered what secrets she hid behind those pretty green eyes, because he was sure she had some. “I can't provide individual protection for everyone, but my deputy and I do a pretty good job. We had some trouble a while back with the McDougals, but that's over now.”
Thanks to a U.S. Marshal named Waterson Calhoun, Ian McDougal had been captured near Austin and now sat in jail waiting to get what was coming to him. Since Davis Lee didn't know if Miz Webster had told the truth about why she was in Whirlwind, he saw no reason to tell her that the sole survivor of the outlaw gang was locked up snug across the street.
“Yourâ¦diligence is reassuring,” she said without meeting his gaze. “I do like what I've seen of the town so far. If I decide to stay, I'd want to feel safe.”
“We all do, ma'am. Three of the McDougals are dead, but I heard the last one has been locked up somewhere.”
“That makes me feel better.”
He carefully searched her face for some sign that she knew the outlaw, that she had more than a passing interest in the man. “You said you were from Austin?”
“No, Galveston,” she replied easily.
She hadn't said at all, but Davis Lee knew from the automatic way she'd responded that she was probably telling the truth. He also noticed the irritation that flared in her eyes when she gave the information.
“Thank you, Sheriff. You've put my mind at ease.”
Funny, he thought she acted a trifle vexed. “If you need anything, don't hesitate to call on me. Like I said, Whirlwind could use a seamstress. Hope you stay.”
She nodded, her gaze flicking past him to the jail for just a moment.
Was she afraid? Or was she trying to figure out how she could get inside to see Ian McDougal? If she were, she'd have to go through Davis Lee first. “I don't think you'll have anything to worry about in Whirlwind.”
“Thank you.” She bid him good day and stepped up on the saloon's landing, making her way down the walk toward Haskell's General Store.
Watching the inviting sway of her hips, he stroked his chin. Maybe Miz Josie Webster's only concern truly was about moving to Whirlwind. Maybe she
been watching the town to reassure herself about its safety.
His eyes narrowed. Yessir, and cows had wings.