South of Dodge City, Kansas—May 1876
They were destroying everything: the tiny apple tree she’d sheltered in the wagon during the long, sweltering journey from Virginia; the fence she’d devoted weeks to repairing over the winter with scraps of deadwood; the vegetable garden she’d sown during the first whisper of spring and painstakingly coaxed to life every heartbeat since.
All trampled, devoured, gone.
Sadie glared at the beasts, eyes burning with tears of hopeless rage. Graceless creatures, they wielded heavy horns that stretched out of their skulls like spears. Texas longhorns. The Devil’s helpers.
In the middle of them rode Lucifer himself, sent straight up from hell to torment her and tear away everything she’d slaved to build.
She tracked the long-legged, well-built rider as he steered his horse through the milling animals, angling toward her and her father—and their sod house. Dismay tightened her throat, left her bereft of air and hope. Even that stalwart structure was in danger of being leveled by the heaving mass in the care of the man coming ever closer.
The intruder, similar to all the other Texas drovers, was covered in a layer of trail dust so thick it hung on him like a second skin. But it was one of the only things he and the other men had in common. While the rest hollered and cracked whips over the backs of the beasts in their charge—trying to persuade them to return to the trail—this man urged his charcoal-colored mount through the river of hide and horn, making a beeline for her.
His silence, along with his ability to guide his horse with remarkably little effort, infuriated her. As the distance between them shortened, unease crept up her spine.
His gaze was unwavering, never leaving her.
She tightened her grip on the ancient shotgun clutched at her side, and concentrated on her anger and frustration, transferring them from the longhorns to settle solely on him. She did not want him to come any closer.
Yanking the shotgun up to her shoulder, she took aim.
The cowboy straightened in his saddle but otherwise did not acknowledge her hostile action. Nor did he slacken his pace; if anything, he bore down on her even faster.
Damn him to hell. Her finger tightened on the trigger.
Something slammed down on her shotgun, pitching the rusted barrel earthward. The buckshot tore a savage gouge out of the clay in front of her and kicked up a cloud of dust. The blast forced her to stumble back.
Her father’s red face inserted itself between her and the cowboy. With a curse, he jerked the weapon from her grasp.
As she stood gawking at him, the cattle, spooked by the shotgun blast, bolted—fast and in every direction. Her father sprinted toward their lone plow horse, scrambled onto its back and galloped away from the melee and her.
She shouldn’t have expected anything different. Still the hurt came. Sharp and deep. Once again he’d thought only of himself. He’d abandoned her in the center of the herd, alone and defenseless.
I’m going to be trampled. I’m going to die.
Time suspended as she contemplated her life ending. She felt…numb. Her hard work had been obliterated in a blink. She couldn’t summon the will to move a single step, let alone face the prospect of starting over.
The cattle’s bellowing and their thundering hooves became a single roar. The heat of their breaths hit her first, then their bodies. Walloped square in the chest, they knocked her off her feet. But the surge did not wash over her. Instead, something snared her waist, jerking her up until she crashed into an immovable wall.
She sucked in air and immediately wished she hadn’t. Pain pierced her ribs. Dust billowed and shrouded the air. Through slitted eyes she realized her leather-clad perch was already covered in a blanket of dust…and she was being held against it. She struggled to raise her head and discovered a square, beard-stubbled jaw directly above her.
Lucifer—in the disguise of a Texan cowboy—held her in his lap while waves of cattle buffeted his mount, his grip on her solid but not bruising as he guided them to safety. When they’d cleared the beasts and the noise level dropped a notch, he peered down at her. Eyes like warm whiskey stared at her from a face etched with concern.
“Are you hurt?” His voice was low and ragged, fanning out in bursts, caressing her face.
Her world tilted and the air once more left her lungs. She forced herself to remember he was responsible for destroying everything she held dear. Anger flooded her, pushing away all other thought, the same way his herd had swept away her dreams.
Mustering all her strength, she curled her fingers into a fist and struck him in the abdomen. Pain ricocheted up her arm. He didn’t budge. He merely blinked, his brows lowering. Infuriated by his lack of response, she unleashed a flurry of hits, striking him with her fists, elbows and feet.
Beneath them, his horse whinnied shrilly and reared up.
Blind to everything but her need to make him hurt as much as she did, she launched her entire body at him. They tumbled from the horse and struck the ground, him landing first on his back, her on top of him. He released a grunt of surprise, but his hands stayed around her waist. She scrambled to her knees. His hold tightened, not letting her go farther. She struggled to break free. And failed. That didn’t stop her from trying, over and over.
“Hold still. You don’t want to spook my herd again. I want to help you.”
His voice caught her off guard, held her immobile. The tone was gruff and demanding but edged with a note of pleading. Its undercurrent tugged at her.
She shook her head, refusing to yield to him. “Help me?” She slammed her fist down on his chest. “Do you know how long it took me to plant that garden? Or make that fence?” She hit him again.
He didn’t move, not even to flinch. Couldn’t he feel her punches?
Exhaustion and frustration clenched her hands so tight her bones ached. “You’ve destroyed everything I built!” She pounded out her fury on him until she couldn’t lift her arms.
Only then did he move. He pulled her close, drawing her into the curve of his body, guiding her head onto his shoulder. His palm cradled the back of her head, while his fingers smoothed the wild tangle of her hair.
No one had held her with such care in a long time. Not since her mother had died. Great sobs shook her. She slumped against him, unable to contain her sorrow.
The callused pad of his thumb traced her cheek. He brushed away each tear as it fell. Did he honestly believe he could make things better with his gentle persistence? She hid her face against his tear-dampened coat, smelling of leather, wool and the earth—and tried to think.
His scent reminded her of her farm. Straightforward. Stalwart. Steady. Her land may have challenged her, but it’d never abandoned her. Her insides tightened with a longing so intense it hurt.
“If I could undo the damage, I would.” His words caressed her ear. Soft and husky like silk and sand. “You can’t stay here. Come with me to Dodge.”
He wanted her to leave her farm? The realization unleashed the storm in her belly, like a herd of pronghorn antelopes spying a mountain lion.
She jerked away, scrambling off him. This time he didn’t move to stop her. She didn’t go far, though. She didn’t have the energy. Sitting stiff-backed beside him, she stared at the rubble that had once formed her home. The salt of her tears stung her skin and her eyes ached, mirroring the pain in her heart.
His leather chaps creaked as he stood and stepped closer. The din associated with the longhorn herd had faded, the cattle having returned to the trail, once again heading north toward Dodge. The drover didn’t follow them, nor did he touch her. The heat of his body did, though, intensifying the unsettling fluttering in her stomach.
“It can be rebuilt.” Plainspoken words, without a trace of doubt. “It’s not—”
A bitter bubble of laughter burst from her. Maybe miracles happened in his world. She clenched her teeth. She wouldn’t let him see how much he’d hurt her. See that a scream was building inside her. One so big that, if she let it out, she was certain she would shatter.
He exhaled a long breath. “I know it won’t be easy.”
You have no idea. She swallowed her reply as she spotted her father steering their aging swayback mare toward her. She lurched to her feet.
Behind her, the cowboy’s hand found her elbow, strong and solid, the one thing keeping her upright. “At least no one was hurt.”
She shrugged off his hold and forced her own legs to support her weight. She refused to look back. Instead, she stared at her father and dreaded what was certain to come. She knew this side of him too well—his manipulative mind, his greed and his lack of love for her, his own flesh and blood.
But when her father reached them, the cowboy surprised her by speaking first. “It’s a right shame, my herd moving through your homestead like that, Mr.—?”
“Sullivan. Timothy Sullivan. And yes, it is.”
What her father lacked in stature, he made up for with a classically-boned face and a thatch of white hair that a long time ago had been as red as hers. With looks as compelling as his smooth-talking tongue, he should have pursued a career in the theater. Then maybe he could’ve made a contribution to their meager funds rather than draining whatever she earned. Unfortunately, he was more interested in drinking and gambling.
He eyed Sadie briefly before he looked at the man standing behind her, his familiar features settling into a look of mournful loss. “Me and my daughter worked hard building the place.”
He hadn’t spent a single minute on their farm. He’d left that all up to her. She cringed at his charlatan nature, conscious he’d ply the cowboy with a consummate actor’s skills as he strove to extract a reward for something he played no part in creating.
The cowboy astounded her again. “I’ll compensate you fairly for your loss, Mr. Sullivan. It’s the least I can do for you…and your daughter.”
Not wanting to witness any more, she turned away. She couldn’t block out the scrape of his footsteps, the jangle of his spurs, as he approached her father. They rang harsh against the tender earth of her home. He murmured something in a deep rumble that she couldn’t decipher.
The surprise in her father’s gasp was unmistakable. “You are most generous, sir!”
She spun to face him. A stack of greenbacks rested on his soft, white palms. The cowboy assumed giving her father money would help her? Her plummeting prospects stole the starch from her spine. When her gaze found the cowboy, her eyes blurred with more useless tears.
His brows drew together and he took a step toward her. She took one back, shaking her head, forcing all the emotion from her heart and, she hoped, from her face. She kept moving away from him, to where her home had once stood.
Giving that much money to a compulsive gambler was a sure-fire recipe for disaster. It’d be gone come morning, and so would her future.
( Gambling Hearts series, book 1 )
In a town ruled by sin, will he earn her love or her lies?
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