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Texas Ranger, Wyatt Donovan comes to Topeka, Kansas, to face his past heartaches. When he meets his childhood friend’s sister after thirteen years, he’s more than ready to become the hero she sees in him.
Josette Allen was always an odd girl, but as a woman, her inquisitive mind makes the town believe she’s insane. When her childhood crush saunters into town, stirring up old feelings, Josie is ready to catch his eye. Unfortunately, the only thing she’s good at catching is mayhem.
Will she ever be the reason he has stars in his eyes… or will she always be the thorn in his side?
Texas 8th Cavalry Encampment—Middle Tennessee
Bone-weary after yet another hard day’s ride, Sergeant Wyatt Donovan collapsed onto his bedroll before the crackling orange flames. The warm glow did little to ease the chill from his bones.
“How are those beans coming along, James?” Wyatt’s best friend stooped over the fire as he stirred a spoon in the pot, grinning like a cat with cream. James had acquired a small stash of beans – a rare commodity in the south these days. “Just where did you find the beans?”
James lifted the pot from the grate over the flames and poured the steaming cooked beans into two separate mugs. “You really don’t want to know.”
Wyatt gave James a nod. No doubt he’d traded with some Yankee.
Wyatt took his first bite of beans in over a year and sighed. Pure bliss. At the moment he didn’t particularly care if the devil himself provided the gift. He relaxed against the bedroll propped next to the saddle, resting his head, and let the hot food warm him from the inside out. He took another bite and reached into his saddlebag, withdrawing the battered letter he’d received that morning. Mail was just as scarce as beans and he wanted to savor the irony of having both at once.
“Is the letter from that pretty little wife of yours?” James plunked down beside him with a suggestive wink.
Wyatt turned the letter over in his hand. “It’s from your father actually. I haven’t found a moment to read it, until now.”
“My father?” Deftly James snatched the letter from his hand. “Why is he writing you?”
“I don’t know. Give it back and we’ll find out.” Wyatt yanked the envelope back.
James’ question was on Wyatt’s mind, too. Why would Dr. Allen write to him? Quickly Wyatt slipped a thumb beneath the folds and opened the missive. “It’s dated August 18th.” He shook his head, tossing a sidelong glance to James. “What is today’s date?”
“I don’t know.” James shrugged. “Christmas was… what? Three days ago? So, it’s the twenty-eighth.”
“Your father sent the letter over four months ago,” he scoffed.
“Who cares? Even old news is still news. Would you just read it to ease both of our minds?”
“All right, all right.” Wyatt shifted his gaze down the page. “Dear Wyatt.” He paused for dramatic effect, purely to torment his friend, and grinned.
James slugged him in the arm. “Read it!”
Wyatt grinned. His friend’s curiosity was as great as his was. “It is with a heavy heart and deepest regrets that I write to inform you—” Wyatt stopped short, eyes riveted to the doctor’s impossible scrawl as he continued to read in silence – of the unfortunate and untimely death of your wife. She’d traveled from Missouri to visit us for a spell, but just yesterday Marjorie was found in the woods, dead. Unfortunately, nothing could be done, and I determined the cause of death was murder. I believe she was poisoned, but I cannot prove it. I realize you are a man who likes answers, but I fear I’m unable to offer any at this time. To my best estimation, Marjorie died very early in the morning after someone had taken her to the wooded area and poisoned her. Rest assured, we have contacted her family and they will plan the gravesite service for your wife here in Tokepa, Kansas. Yours in friendship, Dr. John Allen
Numb, Wyatt flicked his gaze back over the words. No! It couldn’t be true. He read the missive a third time. His stomach clenched, and the page trembled in his grasp.
Come back to me, Wyatt… Marjorie’s lilting voice rang through his mind as clearly as if she were standing beside him. He could more than hear her, he could smell the exact scent of lilac in her hair and see the amber of her eyes.
Numbness gave way to denial.
She wasn’t dead. She couldn’t be. Not for four months. If Marjorie was truly gone, he would feel it. She was a part of his soul. If she died, a piece of him went with her. But he was still whole… wasn’t he?
“No, God. Please, no!” Denial dissolved into anguish. He was the one fighting a war. He was supposed to die. Not Marjorie. Never Marjorie.
“Wyatt?” James rested a hand on his shoulder. “What happened? What’s wrong?”
Fiery red-hot anger burned within him, twisting and contorting until the sliver of his soul belonging to Marjorie and no other broke off and slipped away, leaving nothing but pain in its wake. The collar of his butternut jacket tightened, and he couldn’t breathe.
Shaking with rage, Wyatt stood, wadding the miserable missive. The hot beans spilled down the front of his trousers. He didn’t care.
James wrenched the crumpled paper from his fingers, smoothed out the wrinkles and skimmed the paper. His face turned pale and tears gathered in his eyes.
“Wyatt, I… I’m so sorry,” he murmured after a few moments in a shaky voice. “I don’t know what to say.” Gently he refolded the letter, handing it back to Wyatt.
“Burn it.” Wyatt met his friend’s tearful gaze. “I never want to see those words again.”
With a nod, James threw the crumpled note into the fire. Instantly the flames licked the edges of the paper, obliterating all evidence. Unfortunately, the truth was not so easily banished and as the last ashes disappeared, so did every hope and dream he’d nurtured for his marriage.
Wyatt vowed never to fall in love again. The pain of losing someone was too unbearable.
September 7, 1875
Stepping off the train, Wyatt Donovan’s cold heart refused to make him feel anything about his hometown. Releasing a deep sigh, Wyatt slowly scanned his gaze down Main Street. Topeka was still as dusty as he remembered. Then again, some things never change.
However, one thing was different. The large two-storied hotel that was about ready to fall apart when he’d left town all those years ago, appeared to have been remodeled into a new hotel. The Brody Hotel. He was impressed with the changes, and he especially liked the updated wrap-around porch in front.
Wyatt gripped his satchel and continued moving toward the hotel. He shifted his attention to Main Street. The shops lining both sides of the road were busier than when he lived here as a young boy, and many people were hurrying from one place to the other. As usual, old widows and spinsters gathered in front of the milliner’s shop, twittering about anything and anyone. Young men perched along the front of the Silver Dollar Saloon with one foot propped on the boardwalk and the other on the dirt road in front, thumbs in their front pockets. They watched the young ladies stroll in front of them, twirling parasols to shade their faces. The apple pies baking inside Charlotte’s Eatery wafted through the hot breeze as their sweet scent filled his nostrils.
His homecoming should be joyful, but it wasn’t. Pain wrenched at his chest like a bullet to the heart.
He hadn’t been back since he’d visited Marjorie’s grave right after the war ended. The visit was short, but he left quickly as he didn’t want to wallow in his misery. This blasted town had taken away his childhood, forcing him to become an adult faster than anticipated when he was only eleven years old and his parents died. Once he’d moved to Missouri with his older brother, Wyatt vowed never to step foot in Topeka again.
He’d joined the Texas Rangers not long after the war ended, and he’d hoped that working for them would help bury the pieces of his shattered life and allow him to go forward. For a while, he’d been content chasing down outlaws with the other Rangers. Now the outlaws were the reason he was back in Topeka.
The clamoring of small feet shook the boardwalk, mere seconds before two little scamps knocked into him. He teetered, but quickly regained his balance and stepped out of the way. The two boys darted into the street, taking turns as they playfully shoved each other back and forth. Their smiles grew larger as the seconds passed by. Across the street at the Mercantile, their mother called them home for supper. Grumbling, they sluggishly walked back toward the store with drooping shoulders and long faces.
Recalling the days after he’d moved to Missouri, Wyatt chuckled. His first and forever friend had been James Allen. They were inseparable as young men… and always in some kind of trouble. After he and James had joined the war, Dr. Allen had moved his practice to Topeka.
On impulse, he lifted his gaze toward the shops, searching for the doctor’s office. Wyatt had been there once, the day he’d come to see Marjorie’s grave, and he hadn’t been back since. James would be surprised to see him, but not as surprised as when Wyatt offered him a position working for the Texas Rangers.
Curiosity moved Wyatt’s feet as he headed toward the building where the doctor’s sign hung haphazardly above the door. Memories flooded his mind as a pang of homesickness crawled into his belly. What had become of his friend? Since the war ended, the little contact they’d first maintained had dwindled over time and eventually died. In truth, any reminders of when he’d met, fallen in love, and married Marjorie had proved unbearable, and Wyatt had slowly stopped writing to James.
From out of nowhere, a loud boom shook the ground. Wyatt jumped, instinctively reaching for his pistol as he searched for the cause of the explosion. A black cloud of smoke billowed from the old barn behind the doctor’s office, pouring from the chimney and filtering through the windows. His heart sank, and panic surged through him. He needed to help. Images of his friend’s family screaming as their flesh burned flashed through his head, churning his stomach.
Wyatt broke into a run. He pushed past people who stood in his way. A few had turned to look at the smoke, but they shrugged and went about their business without helping. Frustration grew inside his chest for their carelessness, but he couldn’t stop to ask questions now.
When he reached the double-doors to the barn’s entry, the smoke didn’t appear as dark, but a metallic screech loud enough to wake the dead, ripped through the air, grating his eardrums. He yanked open the barriers and rushed inside. Smoke burned his eyes and he stopped short, unable to see six inches in front of his face. Choking on the black smoke, he waved a hand to clear the air, coughing. Slowly the room came into view and Wyatt glanced around the cluttered area. No flames danced across the walls, only smoke. Odd.
A woman sat in the middle of the floor, staring at the large strange-looking contraption still sputtering and spewing small puffs of acrid smoke. The machine, bearing some resemblance to a steam locomotive, screeched and groaned like an injured animal caught in a trap. Little by little, the device quieted. Incoherent grumbles came from the woman as she aimed a murderous glare at the machine. Wavy long hair coated in soot, stuck out in odd shapes and different directions around her head.
Cautiously he walked closer, and the floorboards creaked beneath his feet. The filthy woman jumped and twisted toward him with such agility he wondered if her bottom was connected permanently to the ground. Wide blue eyes stared at him, glowing against the soot covering her face. A gasp tore from her throat.
Wyatt arched a brow. Strange woman.
He swept his gaze over the boy’s clothes she wore, to her unruly dirty hair, back to her wide eyes. Her lips parted as her attention moved over him from the top of his Stetson to his dusty boots.
“Miss? Are you all right?”
She blinked a couple times, her fingers threading through the matted locks, or at least attempting to run through her hair.
“Oh, good grief!” She buried her dirty face in her hands.
The agonized moans coming from her had Wyatt moving to her side in three strides. Kneeling next to her, he placed his hand on her shoulder with gentle care.
Once again, she jumped and pulled away. Her expression turned from sadness to embarrassment within moments. She continued staring at him.
“Are you hurt?” he inquired again.
“No.” Her voice squeaked. She stood and brushed the dirt off her boy’s pants. The trousers hugged her legs like a coat of paint. The shirt unbuttoned at her throat displayed a lot more skin than he thought proper. He rose to full height, realizing he stood a good head taller.
She chuckled, although no humor laced her tone. “The only thing hurt is my pride.” Another swipe of her hand down her clothes then over her hair removed some of the soot, showing her hair color was, in fact, blonde. She lifted her gaze and looked at him.
“You certainly picked the opportune moment to make a grand appearance into Topeka, Wyatt Donovan.”
He narrowed his eyes, studying her closely. Her voice sounded slightly familiar. He stood inside the barn behind the doctor’s office that he’d assumed belonged to James’ family, which meant this slip of a girl could only be… Tarnation!
“Josie? Is that you?” He moved closer, trying to see beneath her soot-caked face. When his fingers touched her cheek, she slapped his hand away.
“Of course it’s me, you fool. Who else would it be?”
The humor of the situation tugged his lips into a smile. Josette Allen. The little scamp who’d followed him around like a lost puppy when he and James were young men now stood before him looking… well, she looked the same as she had when he and James enlisted in the war. Granted, her body fit the boys’ clothes much better, but her unkempt blonde hair and snippy attitude hadn’t changed a bit.
“Well, I must admit, I’m shocked to see you looking like… um, this.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m certain you are.”
He chuckled and folded his arms across his chest. “Runt, you haven’t changed a bit, have you?”
A scowl creased her face. “I hated that name as a girl, and I especially hate it now, since I am obviously not a runt.”
Wyatt threw back his head and laughed harder. She stomped her foot, causing ash to fly from her clothes. The charred scent burned his nostrils and he choked. “Darlin’ you mustn’t move around too much like that. You might cause someone to stop breathing.”
“Darlin’? When have I ever been your darling?” She shook her head and walked to the odd-looking machine. She crouched and pulled switches. By now, the device had stopped its ruckus and only a whisper of smoke rose from the metal beast.
“What’s that?” He walked next to her and studied the contraption with more buttons and pulleys than he could count. “You’re not still trying to invent things, are you?”
She tilted her head and looked at him, wide azure eyes aglow. “You remembered?” A bubble of delighted laughter came from her. “I didn’t think you cared what I did back in those days.”
“I didn’t care.” He affirmed with a shrug and squatted to her level. “Except for the time you burnt my brother’s shed down. Or the time you almost blew up the Miller’s cat. Or the time—”
“Point taken.” A filthy hand fluttered dismissively through the air though her eyes narrowed.
He winked, playfully nudging her shoulder with his. “I see you’re still making things that don’t work.”
Josie huffed. “I’ll have you know I have made many things that work, and as you can see, I’m trying to make this one cooperate with me.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Really? So, what is this machine supposed to do? Substitute the hearth and chimney someday?”
Growling, she rose as her eyes turned a dark blue. She planted her hands on her hips as her chest heaved a quick rhythm. He stood as well.
“Ha, ha. Very funny, Wyatt. You’ll eat your words when this machine is a daily fixture in homes everywhere.”
“As the fireplace?”
“As a rug cleaner – oh, never mind.” Her lips pinched in a thin line. “Mark my words, Wyatt Donovan. You and every person in this town will apologize to me one day when I invent something people will be dying to get their hands on.”
Mischievously, he glanced back at the machine and scratched his head. “Dying, huh? Doesn’t look like much of a casket to me.”
Josie threw her hands in the air and released another growl. She turned back to her contraption.
Wyatt grinned. Goading Josie never got old. He’d teased her when she was younger, and he found it just as much fun now. “Tell me, Runt, why didn’t your neighbors come to help you when that thing let out Indian smoke signals large enough to be seen clear to Texas?”
“Mr. Donovan, would you be so kind as to leave now? I have everything under control.”
Chuckling, he turned back to the opened barn door but stopped before taking another step. “One more thing before I go,” he said over his shoulder.
She turned her head and met his stare. “What? You have another insult to fling at me?”
“No. I just wondered where I could find your brother.”
She flipped her hand and shrugged, turning back toward the machine. “More than likely, you’ll find James in the saloon. Topeka has three of them now. Your guess is as good as mine which one he’ll visit today.”
A saloon? At this time of day? It was barely one o’clock in the afternoon.
“Thank you kindly, Runt.”
Just as he reached the door, she kicked the machine and grumbled. Biting his tongue, he dared not laugh or comment on her unladylike language. No doubt she’d gotten her patience from James.
He turned back to Josie. She sat on the ground with her legs folded beneath her but kept her eyes averted toward the ceiling.
“I’m glad to see you here,” she whispered. “James really needs a friend like you.”
His heart softened. “Thanks, Runt.”
Another groan tore from her throat as she shook her head. He’d always been able to get her bloomers in an uproar with that nickname. Funny, because it was more enjoyable now than before.
Strange how time changed things.
Wyatt found himself genuinely grinning as he walked toward the saloon. Silver Dollar Saloon had been in town since he was a boy. His father and his chums had left that place drunker than a skunk. Wyatt lost his grin. He hadn’t approved of his father’s drinking even when he was a young boy.
Shaking his head, he pushed the memory aside. No use in thinking of the past now. It would only bring heartbreak.
From behind the saloon, another commotion started, but nothing like the explosion that Josie had made. Instead, a woman’s wailing and men’s shouts pulled his attention to the alleyway. This time, people ran to see what had happened.
“Get the marshal,” a man screeched. “There’s been another killing.”
Dread clutched at Wyatt’s heart and churned his stomach. He’d picked the right day to come to town since this was the very reason he’d volunteered to assist the town marshal in Topeka.
He hurried through the alleyway toward the crowd at the wooded area behind the saloon. Two women stood crying into their hands, and four men knelt around a person lying between the trees – still as could be.
“Excuse me.” Wyatt pushed people aside. “I’m a Texas Ranger. I’m here to help.”
The men lifted their heads and looked at him as they moved aside. When Wyatt strode closer, death’s foul stench hung in the air.
The young woman – who probably wasn’t much older than twenty – wore a wrinkled nightdress and was somewhat wrapped in a white bed sheet. Her lips were blue, but her face, neck, and arms were white, making the blonde hair framing her face stand out more.
Bile rose in his throat, and he gritted his teeth to keep it down. It was never easy to look at death no matter how the person left this world.
As he knelt beside her, he assessed the area carefully, checking for any signs of blood or a weapon. “Who found her?”
“I did,” whispered the young man kneeling by her head. “She disappeared last night. I never thought…” He sobbed and placed his fisted hand to his mouth.
“Has she been moved since you found her?”
Wyatt studied her closer, mainly her hands. Her nails were dirty, which struck him as odd since it appeared as she kept herself clean. He glanced on the ground around her, hoping to see anything that might indicate how she died. But the area was also clean.
He lifted his gaze to the young man. Brown curly hair blew over his eyes as the wind teased each strand.
“Are you related to the deceased?” Wyatt asked.
The man swiped the hair away from his face. “We were engaged.”
“Does her family know yet?”
The man shook his head. “No, but I’ll go fetch them now.” Tenderly, he lifted the dead girl’s hand and placed a kiss on her fingers. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he pulled away and stood.
Emotion clogged Wyatt’s throat. He knew how this man felt. Wyatt wasn’t the first man to have his heart ripped from his chest and chopped into tiny pieces, and he wouldn’t be the last man to mourn for a loved one, either. The pain was as strong today as it had been when he’d read Dr. Allen’s letter almost thirteen years ago.
What had possibly made Wyatt agree to help the town marshal find the killer? He knew the dangers of opening old wounds. But he needed to know how Marjorie died, and to make the person responsible for killing her, finally pay.
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