( Gambling Hearts series, book 2 )
Who is Eldorado Jane?
Long-lost friend or scheming superstar?
Outside Juniper Flats, Texas — Spring, 1861
Lewis struggled to stay upright—and not hit the ground like some pretender grasping for a fool’s gold. Kneeling on his galloping pony, he clutched the saddle horn and stuck his other arm straight out for balance. Tonight he’d succeed. He’d prove his worth.
He’d keep up with his best friend, the invincible Jane Dority.
Beside him, easily holding the same pose on her horse Scout, Jane called to him, “Forget your father. Focus on me. They say the best partners act in harmony.”
“The owner of Gypson’s Medicine Show.”
Gypson also claimed his elixir cured every illness and strengthened the sensational acts that alternated between his sales pitches. Lewis’ father said practice and perseverance, not doctored-up whiskey, made good performances. But Jane had talked incessantly about Gypson and his horse-riding acrobat after watching them captivate Juniper Flats’ cheering townsfolk an hour ago.
Trying to duplicate one of their maneuvers while racing through a twilight field with storm clouds thickening overhead made him suddenly wish he’d never come to town. “Everyone’s obsessed with that show.”
“You’re the same with roundup. Have been for years.”
He lowered his chin against the rain that began falling and Jane’s perceptiveness.
“Bet your father takes you next year.” Her words came quick, with conviction.
“You said that last year.” And the year before. And still his father kept saying he was too young, especially with the ongoing range disputes. But this year, his father and Jane’s had agreed to take their friend Noah who was also eleven and had been the same height as Lewis—until this spring.
“One day you’ll tower over me. Bet you’re as tall as Noah next year.”
“Get out of my head, Jane!” He huffed out a breath, trying to expel the expectations—his and everyone else’s—that pestered him like a saddle cinched too tight.
“Partners should embrace connections.”
“Enough quoting Gypson,” he grumbled. “Just teach me to ride like you.” Then his father might see him differently and let him help bring in the strays from the high country.
“Next year you’ll work with the men every day. And I…” Jane’s voice wavered. “I won’t be riding.”
Lewis shook his head in disbelief and swayed precariously on Sergeant. He pressed his knees against the pommel and stared straight ahead, searching for a balance that was difficult to find. “You’ll always ride.”
“My mom needs help cooking for the Ballantyne hands. No time for horses, she says. Next year you’ll be a better rider than me.”
Laughter burst from his lips. He’d never beat Jane on a horse. No one would. Not even the girl in the show they’d just watched, the rider whose routine they now mimicked.
“I’ll settle for being your equal at riding.” That would impress his father. And that’s all he wanted, tonight and tomorrow. Hold on. Don’t fall. Keep up with Jane.
“Why should anyone settle?” Jane and Scout edged ahead.
He urged Sergeant to regain the lost ground. Jane kept pulling away. Sweat stung his eyes. Then the heavens opened up and washed away everything including all sight of Jane.
“Come back!” Fear clawed up his spine until he glimpsed the tip of her long brown braid flying behind her. She’d slowed down for him. “Let’s go home.”
“I’m not ready.” Despite her curt reply, Jane continued slowing Scout until her entire silhouette was visible.
The tightness squeezing his chest eased. Only to return with a vengeance when she yelled, “I won’t stop riding.”
“It’s raining too hard.” The downpour pummeled his entire body, turning the saddle slick and slippery beneath him. “We have to stop!”
“The star of the show wouldn’t let a little rain stop her.”
Fear and frustration warred in his veins. “Stop pretending. You’re no star. You’re just plain Jane Dority!”
Her shoulders drooped and then snapped straight. He stiffened as well, with remorse. He’d finally said the name too many used. Despite being a dazzling rider, his friend was plain in every other way.
He’d let her down—with the worst words possible.
Thunder rumbled, chastising him, shaking him to the bone. He strained to stay on Sergeant and say something to dilute the sting of his foolishness.
Ahead, Jane’s silhouette grew smaller, fainter. “Maybe I’ll ride all night. All day tomorrow, too.” She was leaving him again.
He couldn’t let her ride into the night alone. A best friend deserved better.
He urged Sergeant to go faster. A chant built in his head along with the pounding of Sergeant’s hooves. Forget about falling. You can do this. You have to do this. Say you’re sorry before you drive her away.
“No, I won’t go home till I’m ready. Till I’m a star so bright, I’ll blind you with my brilliance.”
Lightning blazed, concealing Jane, Scout and even Sergeant still galloping valiantly beneath him. A heartbeat later came the roar.
The blast of light and noise enveloped him. His body flew from the saddle, his hands lost the horn, the reins—leaving him with only the air.
~ * ~
18 years later…
High country above Juniper Flats
Lying flat on his back, squinting at the sycamores swaying against a hazy blue sky, every bone in Lewis Adams’ body ached, berating him for letting the half-broke Appaloosa Cayuse toss him out of the saddle and over the fence. The land he loved reverberated beneath him. He’d be tempted to stay here if he didn’t have nine more prickly horses requiring his attention. Training them in time was all that mattered.
The silhouette of a woman, framed by a sunshine halo, leaned over him and cast a soothing shadow. “You almost had him.” Her smooth-as-honey voice held a hint of amusement.
At last, an angel had descended from the heavens to ease his burdens. One bearing encouraging words as well as laughter. Exactly the kind he liked, and needed.
An easy smile lifted his lips. Now here was a reason for lying in the dirt. Damned if he’d move and spook her. Stay with me. Don’t disappear.
She leaned closer, revealing deep brown eyes rich as polished heartwood.
“Your eyes are—” His breath lodged in his chest, then found freedom with the word, “Stunning.”
Her brows shot up in surprise. Then her laughter floated down around him like a warm embrace. “I think your fall, not my eyes, stunned you. Next time keep your eyes on your mount’s ears. They’ll tell you which way he plans to jump.”
His grin grew. Horse sense, a kind heart, and a sharp wit. His angel and her mesmerizing eyes were a dream come true.
The clatter of hooves swelled above the earth’s fading tremors. Recognition shook the fog from his brain. His visitor was one of the three riders he’d glimpsed approaching before he’d been bucked off. Her mount had thundered ahead like a towering black cloud and now hovered next to the corral, looking at his rainbow assortment of horses.
The woman standing over him was real.
Who was she? Why was she at the Dority homestead? No one came up here for months on end. Craving a better look at her, he tried to push up on his elbows.
“Lie still.” Crouching on her heels, she laid her gloved hand on his shoulder. Even wrapped in soft kidskin, her light touch jolted him like a lightning bolt, then held him hostage. He’d do whatever she said as long as she kept touching him…and staring at him with her angel eyes.
“We must talk before they join us.” Her voice had dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’m sorry. I’m going to hurt you again.”
“Eldora, is he dead?” The not-too-distant bellow made them both flinch. The eagerness in that shout rang in his skull like the bells of hell anticipating a funeral.
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