Luke - Arrest Her

Quicker than a bolt of lightning, Luke snagged the Colt from her hand. Although she gasped her disbelief at his amazing speed, he said not a word, only shaking his head, as he tucked her Colt into his gun belt. Right at the second the door handle jiggled, Luke leaned down by her ear. "Unless you are a straight up sure shot, you shoot to kill, not wound, in the Wild West."

A middle-aged heavyset man and a brawny young man entered the office. The older man smiled warmly. "Hey there, Luke."

The younger man slid off his Stetson and nodded. "Howdy, Marshal Stone."

Luke wasted no time with a greeting, instead hitched his thumb in her direction. "She's under arrest. Lock her up, Sheriff McCrane."

Elizabeth stomped one foot. "Luke!"

He ignored her though and fisted his hand on his hips. "We need to round up a good-sized posse for Jesse Coleman. The Dee Gang broke him out while he was my prisoner. I'd expect he'd meet with his boss, the man pulling the life and death strings behind the scenes. I want them both as well as the Dee Gang."

Sheriff McCrane tugged up his sagging pants and hurried toward the door. "I'll get right on it."

The younger man with a badge practically wailed, "But Sheriff McCrane! What am I supposed to do with her?"

Sheriff McCrane muttered, "Whatever Marshal Stone tells you, Deputy Cunningham." Then the sheriff rushed out the door.

The deputy slid a desk drawer open before pulling out a ring of big keys. "What'd she do?"

Luke notched up his Stetson on his forehead. "Issued me an ultimatum. Keep her locked safely away in a cell until I return for her."

Elizabeth steepled her fingers under her chin and exclaimed, "Please, Luke. Think about this first. Do you have any idea how furious I will be at you if you do this?"

Luke folded his arms across his chest, leaned against the wall, and crossed one booted ankle over the other. One golden brow hitched. "Probably about as mad as me when ya pulled your Colt."

The key scraped in the lock before the deputy swung the back cell open.

Elizabeth snorted, glaring straight into bright green eyes. "I am not walking in there."

Luke stood suddenly, towering over her, but he motioned to the deputy. "Leave us alone for minute. Go help the sheriff round up about thirty men."

No sooner had the deputy shut the door behind him, than Luke leaned down by her ear. "Would ya prefer for me to tan your hide?"

"Well I never—"

"Obviously that's the problem, kid, or you wouldn't be such a spoiled brat!" He dropped his huge hands to her shoulders. "Maybe you need the hellion spanked right outta ya."

Her heart skipped a beat, then pounded ominously hard. She couldn't meet his eyes, instead stared at his middle shirt button. Violent? Luke? Another man who wanted to hurt her?

Without her brain's permission, fear snaked along her spine until she shuddered then trembled uncontrollably. Whispering, Elizabeth asked, "You believe in raising your hand in violence to hurt a woman, too, Luke?"

"Too, Beth?" he asked as quietly. "Is that why you're running from Steven Sterling?"

She swallowed hard, blinking rapidly against the pooling of tears in her eyes.

Luke lifted one long finger to gently raise her face. "Look me in the eyes, Beth."

Although she had been darting her eyes in any other direction, still blinking crazily against her tears, she centered her focus on his darker than usual green eyes.

"I will never raise my hand in anger and violence to a woman. You're safe with me, Beth. Can you believe that?"

Perhaps because she was holding her breath, two scalding salty drops escaped the corners of her eyes. Two more followed. "Yes."

He cupped her face. "Ah, honey, please don't cry." He traced the slick path before wiping away her tears with his thumbs. "Tell me what happened with Sterling. Let it out; you'll feel better."

She whispered, "I'd been betrothed to him since I was thirteen, arranged by my aunt and uncle before I ever even met him. After finishing school, we were supposed to marry in a huge Boston society mid-summer event as he and his family name are highly esteemed. But I received a telegram and confided in him; it altered his opinion of me in an instant and he changed right before my eyes. He changed into a controlling violent monster who thought our future included him ruling me in public and beating me in private. All because I trusted him with a secret."

"Will he hunt for ya, Beth?"

Elizabeth sighed deeply. "I told them all I had broken the engagement, but the wedding plans continued as if what I said was of no matter. But Steven knows; I told him I wouldn't marry him if he were the last male species on earth."

Luke chuckled. "Good for you." Then he patted the handle of one of his Colts. "I hope he comes for ya, Beth. I want to teach him some manners."

He sighed deeply, too. "Explains why you don't trust or believe in promises. Sheds a bit of light, of insight." He nodded. "Okay, Miss Holliday, I won't arrest ya and I won't take a switch to your lovely backside."

"Now what?" she whispered.

"Does Sterling know where you're running to, darlin'?"

She nodded.

Luke raked one hand down his face and blew out a hard exhale. "Then it's time to trust someone, Beth. You can trust me. I won't judge ya or betray ya. The telegram, what did it say?"

"Very sick relative, dying actually, wants to see me again."

"Where are ya runnin' to, honey?"

"Northwest. An institution in Colorado."

"He wants to see ya?" Luke stepped back from her until he collapsed in the chair behind the sheriff's desk. He stared at her, vibrant green eyes probing, before he blinked slowly several times. "Doc Holliday?"

Elizabeth chewed on her bottom lip for a few seconds. She hadn't intended Luke to leapfrog ahead like that. "Yes." She had to clear her throat twice.

Then she walked forward, leaned her face down to his handsome one, and stared straight into his eyes. "Yes. He's my uncle. I lived with him after my momma died, from age nine to thirteen, before my aunt and uncle took me away to Boston society as a prisoner of propriety and introduced me to my betrothed."

Then she walked forward, leaned her face down to his handsome one, and stared straight into his eyes. "Yes. He's my uncle. I lived with him after my momma died, from age nine to thirteen, before my aunt and uncle took me away to Boston society as a prisoner of propriety and introduced me to my betrothed."

"Doc Holliday," he repeated again as if in wonder. "That sure explains your sassy mouth."

Elizabeth straightened and humphed him. Walking toward the window, back to him, she spoke quietly, "Not that I care what anyone thinks, not that I would even care what you think, but is your perception of me colored now? Do you perceive me as tainted?"

She lifted her hands up in mid-air like in surrender. "Know what? Never mind. I don't care what you think, or say, because I know the truth."

"Oh, Beth," he crooned softly as he rolled to his feet. After a few strides, Luke towered in front of her. "The truth, darlin'," he said as he cupped her face. "Ah, the Truth will set you free." Luke lowered his head until but inches from her mouth. "God's softening your hardened heart, Miss Holliday. To Him. And to me."

Then he slanted his lips over hers, brushing, soft, teasing, persuading, powerful.

She jerked back suddenly, but had to grab hold of his shoulders to maintain her balance. Her brain refused to kick in gear and her knees had turned to butter. Elizabeth drew in deep unsteady breaths as her heart stampeded.

"Whoa, Beth," Luke soothed as he steadied her shoulders. He shot her with a slow smile of masculine satisfaction and tapped her on the nose once. "You'd probably breathe a lot better if ya cut off those bindings. But if you're comin' along with the posse, I'm for anything that might make you appear less like a female."

"I'm coming along?"

He frowned and fisted hands on his hips. "I don't much like it, but yeah. After I arrest Woodson in the act, I'll take ya to see Doc. I'll escort ya there and then see ya safely wherever ya decide to settle down. I promise you, Beth Holliday, and you can trust me, though I know ya hold neither in high regard right now."

Elizabeth lifted her lips in a lopsided grin. "So, instead of me leaving alone right now, I'm coming along on the posse to protect you and Jesse."

He snorted as the sheriff flung open the door. "Don't push it, woman, or I'll kiss your sassy mouth to silence again."

The entire scene roared to life, loud and hectic, as Luke explained the objectives of the mission, arresting and not killing fast-gun outlaw Jesse Coleman, the Dee Gang, and their big boss, while the crowd of men reported in to be deputized for the posse. The mass mounted outside in unity. Elizabeth listened to the oath, uttering no agreement or disagreement aloud like the other male voiced agreements.

Luke led the men in prayer, requested protection and victory. With her Stetson pulled as low as for vision to still be possible, she intermingled amongst the men as they rode out after the hollered, "Amen!"

Luke pulled up alongside her. "Stick close, kid."

She pushed up her brim as she studied him. "Is that all you can see me as, Marshal Stone? Just a kid? Too young?"

"You're young, alrighty, but I see much more than a kid." He leaned closer. "A woman. A lady. A real beauty at that." Luke straightened as quickly and loped along beside her in silence like he hadn't simply left her speechless. She pondered what he had said about falling into line with God's will and His plan for her life.

Suddenly, Elizabeth wanted to know more about the real Luke Stone, not only a man in a plan with his friend, playing dangerous roles. She wanted to probe deeper into the man of values, how he came by them, how he lived by them now. She must have been smiling as she studied him because he looked over at her.

"Oh, darlin'. Make sure you don't look at another man like that. It'll get ya recognized, then get ya into trouble."

Elizabeth only smiled more brightly. "Georgia, horses, charm school, Texas. Then what, Luke Stone?"

He stared straight ahead and said nothing for so long, she thought he might not answer her. Then he sighed. "My dad died, fighting in the war, so my mom took me and the horses to Texas where she contacted the love of her life, married him, and moved their teenage son into our home. My older half-brother."

He glanced her way. "My mother and father had an arranged marriage, betrothed as mere children."

She blew out her cheeks. "I'm sorry, Luke."

"I'm not," he replied quietly. "My father brought my mother and me to an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. My mother led my stepfather. And then we all witnessed to my half-brother. No. I'm not at all sorry. My brother is my best friend now and we had a good loving Christian home. We even both work for the same outfit."

"Really? What outfit is that, Luke?"

He looked around them and waved one hand toward the mass of men riding at a lope around them. Even she understood they were raising their voices to each other to be heard. Luke, precisely for whom he worked, and his plan with Jesse were not open for discussion right now because it was simply too dangerous, way too many ears around. "Another time, kid," he replied.

"Hey," she hollered in as deep of a voice as she could manage. "You married, Marshal Stone?"

Luke swiped off his tan Stetson and roughly raked one hand through his wavy blond mane. He glared at her, jaw muscles jumping and pumping like he might be chewing cud.

Sheriff McCrane galloped to her other side. "How is your sweet little wife, Luke?"

Luke swallowed, then turned to scowl at Elizabeth. "She's fine; thanks."

Elizabeth about fell off her horse. "Wife!" she spat before spinning her horse around in the other direction. If he had led her to believe otherwise by kissing her, then what else about him could she really trust? He had said she could trust him, trust God, and oh how Elizabeth had wanted to believe it. She wanted to believe since he lived the real thing, praying in private, he wasn't just another religious hypocrite.

She kicked her heels, leaning over the gelding's neck, urging him to glide like the wind. She growled as she recalled her stupidity in telling Luke her secrets. Clearly, she had atrocious taste in men and her ability to see the real man all hazed over.

In that instant, from the corner of her eye, Elizabeth spotted Jesse. He was riding with another two-dozen outlaws, coming in behind the posse. No mistaking it; this could not possibly be a good sign for Luke or for Jesse. No, this looked like the real possibility of a major bloodbath.

Jesse and the Dee Gang had passed her on the other side of the forest, now to her back as she rode toward safety from the certain clash, but also while outlaws rode toward the back of Luke and his posse.

Another fork in the road, each decision with consequences to be dealt with at some point. She pulled up to a stop, biting her lower lip in indecision. Her choices? She was out of harm's way now and could continue her own race northwest to reach her uncle's institution in Glenwood Springs before death could claim him. Or she could stay a short while longer to protect the two men who had protected her on the stagecoach?

Even if Luke was married! "If I stay, you'll think Annie Oakley, Marshal Stone."

Her uncle's telegram had sounded urgent, had sounded like he wanted to tell her something before he died. She didn't care what anyone said about him. When she lived with him, he was a part-time dentist turned full-time gambler. He taught her to ride a horse and to be a dead-aim with firearms. They moved around so much that all the rustic towns sort of looked alike. He got in more and more gunfights, drank more and more whiskey, and that's when her aunt and uncle on her mother's side took her away to Boston.

Luke was supposed to be dead but wasn't, because of her. His and Jesse's dangerous plan had to be changed at the last minute. They had told her to know for a fact they were good Christian men and it might be hard to reconcile it with what was about to unfold.

Doc Holliday had taught her to shoot fast and accurate. She could turn around and ride after them to keep both men safe and protected.

Another man on horseback galloped directly toward her, so Elizabeth lowered the Stetson brim to her eyes. He was dressed in a tan suit and matching cap. He halted beside her. "I am Trevor Bell with the Pinkerton Detectives." After digging around in his pocket, he pulled out a picture and held it toward her.

Elizabeth bit her tongue to silence her gasp at the picture of Steven and her, their engagement tintype for the articles in the Boston society pages.

So Steven was tracking her down after all. Why? To drag her back to Boston and a marriage he promised would be a huge success showing her off as such a beautiful and oh so proper wife, but then by night, he said he knew what kind of lowlife she was and planned to treat her as his harlot; he planned to knock her around as opposed to a loving husband. Surely Steven wouldn't be waiting at her uncle's institution for her?

She shuddered, shrugged at the detective, and glanced back over her shoulder. Pinkerton's man rode on as she debated. Should she run away, alone, into possible danger with Steven in her race to speak with her uncle before he died? Or should she whirl around and find Luke, protecting both him and Jesse with her surefire aim?

Luke had promised to escort her safely to her uncle. She scoffed. Not that she believed it now. But they did deserve another person on the inside, someone watching both their backs as they had hers at the stagecoach attack and since.

          Run away?                       Stay and protect?

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