HOLLIDAY'S HIGH NOON HONEYMOON:
Marshal Luke Stone
As if she had heard his name whispered in the hot blowing desert wind, Elizabeth lifted her face to stare into vibrantly kind green eyes. "Marshal Luke Stone."
Luke winked at her and grinned before swiftly shifting into the seat beside her. With Elizabeth sitting in the center of the bench, he squeezed next to her and slung one arm around her shoulders. "She's mine," he said succinctly. Then Luke rested his other very large hand on his gun holster. "Anybody says different, he'll go through me first."
"Come on, Slim," Jesse urged, pushing the outlaw out of the stagecoach door. "Let's get out of here while he's still got his mind on something other than shooting."
Slim blocked the exit. "The boss wants Marshal Stone dead."
Luke palmed and cocked his Colt fast as a bolt of lightning. "Not today. Today I gotta take care of my little darlin'."
Jesse shoved Slim out of the way and jumped down from the coach. "Maybe next time, marshal." Then he slammed the door.
"What's happening, Luke?" Elizabeth whispered urgently. Then she peeked out the blind to see Jesse mount up with the other five outlaws and gallop away.
"It's like this, Beth. I was supposed to die today by Jesse's gun. So that changes the plan a bit, but the less you know, the safer you'll be."
"Jesse was going to shoot you dead?"
Luke chuckled. "Not dead. Not really. Not Jesse."
Then Luke jumped out and spoke to the grazed stagecoach driver. When he returned to the open carriage door, he was upon a horse. He held out one large hand to her.
No sooner had his warm calloused hand closed around her much smaller and softer hand, than Luke had lifted Elizabeth to the saddle in front of him.
"The stagecoach driver is gonna use the rest of the team to make it to the last stop, so we'll have to share a horse. Can ya ride, Miss Holliday?"
She snorted ineloquently. "Of course."
At her answer, Luke swung her astride the horse. "Ya ever ride like this, lady, instead of sidesaddle?"
Then at the distance she was so trying to maintain between their bodies, he growled and pulled her back against his chest. "Relax. Not too long ago, ya called me a gentleman. Somewhere deep inside, ya know ya can trust me, or ya wouldn't have chosen to ride away with me. You're safe with me, I promise."
It wasn't until after they galloped awhile over the beautiful red rocks and sand, warm desert wind caressing her face, that Elizabeth glanced around over her shoulder to scowl into green eyes. "For future reference, I don't believe in promises. And I don't trust anyone either. People say one thing, then do another."
When she relaxed against him again, Elizabeth quietly asked, "What is happening? Explain all this, you and Jesse, to me?"
"Maybe," he conceded. "After you explain why you don't believe in promises or trust anyone."
"I'll pass then, thank you."
Luke tilted his head and lowered his mouth to her ear. "If a man has done this to you, then Jesus can heal your broken heart, Beth."
"Why don't we talk about you, Marshal Luke Stone? Who are you?"
"I'm from Georgia, then Texas. And you, Beth?"
"Boston," she answered at last. "I last lived in Boston."
"What did you do in Boston?"
She frowned up at the twilight sky as the first star twinkled. "What did you do in Georgia?"
He chuckled. "So it's like that, is it? My family had a horse ranch in Georgia. My momma even made me attend charm school. And now, I do believe it's your turn, Miss Holliday."
"I graduated finishing school in the spring. However before spring could even end, disaster struck."
Luke waited for several minutes, but when she added no more, he grunted. "What disaster struck such a beautiful and proper lady, sending her out alone into the Wild West dressed like a male? This wouldn't by any chance involve a man?" A few heartbeats later, he whispered urgently, "Are you with child, Beth?"
In her most proper tone, she informed him, "How impolite to ask such a delicate matter. Good for you that I don't care what people think or say, since you maligned my character to so much as suggest such a thing. You really missed the mark though, Marshal Stone, because my virginity is intact."
"My apologies, Miss Holliday. Please tell me who the man was who wounded you so deeply."
She raised her hands into the air. "I believe you are interrogating me, marshal. This is getting way too up close and personal, much more than I am comfortable with. This is the last question I will answer. My association with Mr. Steven Sterling did occur before I mastered the ability to let what people say just slide on off my back without really soaking into me."
Luke slowed the horse as they approached a cabin inside a small canyon. As he adjusted the reins, he closed his arms around her like silently comforting her in the safe haven against his chest. Finally, Luke whispered, "What was your association with Mr. Steven Sterling?"
Elizabeth broke out of his arms, grabbed the saddle horn, and slid off the horse. "We were betrothed," she announced coldly, quietly, so he would understand she was done answering his questions. The past was history she did not wish to revisit. Now there was only a bright future, a fresh start where she could re-create herself into anything she wanted to be. No one needed to know, nor be influenced by her past.
Then she walked away to explore the darkened cabin.
Luke dogged her heels, pushing ahead of her to open the cabin and then strike light to a lantern. Yet before she could even inspect the rustic interior, he lowered his face to hers. "Is a man hunting ya? Are ya running away from your betrothed, Beth?"
Elizabeth wanted to throw back her head and shriek her frustration. "I am finished answering your questions, Marshal Stone."
At that, he pointed toward the one bed in the room and told her to go to sleep. After she climbed in, he started a fire.
Although his broad back faced her, Luke spoke to her and not the leaping flames. "You'll tell me everything about you, Miss Beth Holliday. God, I ask that You touch Beth's heart, heal her internal wounds as You soften her hardened heart to You, Lord. And to me, too. In Jesus' name I pray. Amen."
He had just prayed, out loud where she could hear him, even mentioned her by name! As if this kind and gentle man might truly care about her. She had most certainly never experienced anything like it.
As the wood popped and crackled in the fireplace, Elizabeth closed her eyes. She certainly shouldn't feel safe, out in the middle of nowhere with a male stranger, but proper or not, she believed him a man of his word, of deep moral convictions. Christ's Code, he'd called it. Unexpected sleep swooped down upon her as she was wondering when last had she felt protected?
Elizabeth awoke with a start, adrenaline pumping, as the yowl of a wolf broke the silence of the predawn night.
"Easy, Beth," Luke crooned like he might to a skittish filly. "That's just Jesse."
"Yeah, darlin'. He left here but a moment ago."
She sat up suddenly. "What's happening now, Luke?"
"Change of plans."
Because of her, she knew. If only she understood their plans. Since he said it like the subject on Jesse and his plans was closed, she crossed her arms over her squashed aching chest. "So, do you switch back and forth on who plays the marshal and who plays the outlaw?"
The dimple in his chin deepened as he lifted his lips in a lopsided grin. "Could be."
Not able to resist, she smirked back at him. "I dislike chipper wide-awake morning people."
"Aw, now, Beth, waking up every morning is a blessing, a gift and a promise that this is the day that the Lord has made. Why not rejoice and be glad that it is?"
He poured coffee into a blue tin mug, but before he handed it to her, Luke held out his other hand. "Let me see your Colt."
She gladly exchanged him, took a sip of hot strong coffee, and leaned her head against the log wall behind her as she shut her eyes. The swallow of coffee nearly squirted out her nose when Luke announced, "Today I will teach you how to load and shoot your gun."
Choking until regaining her normal breathing, Elizabeth shook her head slightly. "Thank you ever so kindly, but no." When he pressed the issue by reiterating he would indeed teach her today, she gazed straight into vibrant green eyes. "Does the name Holliday mean nothing to you?"
Obviously he made the connection and decided it ludicrous because Luke tilted back his head and laughed out his rumbling infectious merriment. After several minutes, he wiped at his eyes. "Whew. Okay, Annie Oakley, take your brand new, unloaded, never-used Colt out that door and show me what you can do."
She dug in her pocket, loaded ammunition in each cylinder, and then holstered her Colt. "If the time comes, and I'd rather it not, then indeed it will be in the showing and not telling."
"You're a sure shot, huh? And did you learn this at your fancy finishing school for proper young ladies of society?"
"It's like riding a horse, Marshal Stone. Maybe someone taught me to do both when I was very young."
"You are a mystery, Beth Holliday, that I intend to figure out with God's help and to His glory." He chuckled. "You could help out a little yourself by volunteering information. Unless you prefer being interrogated?"
He handed her a piece of hard tack.
"Thank you kindly," she said as she lowered her eyes.
"Why are you running away from Boston, Beth, from your betrothed?"
"What does that have to do with your and Jesse's big picture plan?"
"It'd be nice just to know cause you want to tell me. It'd be nicer yet to know if another man is hunting you down."
Elizabeth stood, stretched, and walked to the cabin door. She needed to relieve her bladder. After she stepped outside, she turned her head and shot back over her shoulder, "Don't worry. I can protect myself." Then she stomped outside toward privacy while his deep rumbling laughter echoed in her ears.
When she returned, he was already sitting upon his saddled stallion. "Come on, Beth." He held out one large calloused hand toward her.
Before she accepted his hand up, she leaned over at the waist, turned her head upside down, rolling her ultra long ponytail into a ball, then shoved her black Stetson down all the way over her ears. Ignoring his laughter, she accepted his hand and swung up in front of him, astride the large horse.
He grabbed the reins, still chuckling as he leaned down to her left ear. "It doesn't help, woman. You're entirely too beautiful to be male."
She leaned away from his mouth and patted one hand over her chest. "Not exactly painless, either," she grumbled.
He must have heard her though; cause he laughed again and then spurred his stallion into a gallop. One of his arms settled loosely around her waist as his hand gently covered hers on the saddle horn, probably protecting her in case she were to fall. She snorted but leaned back against his chest.
"Where are we headed, Luke?"
"To town. To round up a posse."
"Not to go after Jesse, surely?"
"Yes, to hunt down Jesse."
She twisted her waist around to be able to see dead seriousness on his face. "You can't go after Jesse with a posse. He might get shot. You might get shot. No. Bad idea. Big mistake. Poor plan."
"I bet your mouth wasn't so sassy at finishing school, Beth." Although she opened her mouth to answer, he added, "I thought women were supposed to be beautiful brainless adornments in society, that a lady was seen but not heard."
"I'm no lady," she said sadly.
"I was teasing ya, honey. You're the real thing, a lady. You can't hide it even in that ridiculous get-up. A resplendent woman, a real lady at that, is a fairly rare treasure out here on the Wild West frontier. You can't hide it behind that anger, behind the fort you've constructed around your heart to stop trespassers at the gate. If you'll only invite Jesus inside, He'll heal your heart, Miss Holliday. He'll show ya His plan for your life, guide ya, and stick closer than a brother. He wants ya true to the woman He created ya to be."
They raced across the desert, still aimed north like their path the night before. Finally, over the shimmering wavy heat bouncing off the burning sands, Elizabeth spied the rustic wooden exterior of a densely populated town.
Instead of handing her any details about their location, Luke dismounted in front of the sheriff's office. He lifted Elizabeth down to her feet and escorted her up the wooden steps into the front door. Inside, when no one was around, Luke sighed and dropped back into the sheriff's chair to undoubtedly wait.
While they were alone still, Elizabeth inhaled a deep steadying breath and took a stand. "I won't let you get a posse to track down Jesse. It's too dangerous. To you both."
Luke leaned forward on his knees when she rested her hand over the handle of her Colt in silent warning. He shook his head a few times, jaw muscles jumping and pumping like he might be angry. Finally his southern drawl, a notch deeper than usual, a shade quieter, warned, "If ya pull that Colt on me, woman, I'm liable to tan your hide. If you attempt, in any way, to interfere with the posse, I'll arrest ya and lock ya in jail until I return."
"That's what it'll come down to then, marshal. In fact, I like this idea better. I can protect you both if I ride along, if I join the posse. Since I have no desire to shoot you, you'll either have to allow me to ride with your posse, or lock me in jail."
"No woman should be out there on the trail with nothing but men for companions. You'd be safer here, Beth."
"Fine, then help me complete my disguise into that of a convincing male."
He swiped off his tan Stetson and roughly raked one large hand through his golden mane. "Just stay here, in this office, there's a cot in the back, and wait until I return for you."
"I'd be long gone when you returned, Luke. Until the little unexpected adventure on the stagecoach last evening, I've been headed northwest as fast as I can get there. I have my own plan for my life and don't need to be sidetracked from it."
She dipped one finger in the wood stove, then stood in front of the mirror and concealed her features with charcoal soot and gray ash.
"Grr," he growled low in his throat.
Men's raised voices grew closer. The sheriff. Oh no! Elizabeth palmed and cocked her Colt in a blink. "Decision time, Marshal Stone. Will you take me along on the posse? Or will you now arrest me and lock me in jail until you return?"
How will Luke react? Despite the plan and the danger, would he allow her to ride along on the posse so he could keep a protective eye out on her? Or now that she pulled her Colt on him, would he take it, arrest her, and lock her in jail, for her relative safety and that of his and Jesse's plan?
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