HOLLIDAY'S HIGH NOON HONEYMOON:
Luke - Join Posse
Like a rattler striking, Luke snagged her Colt by the barrel, jerking it from her hand. "Your beauty is too delicate to disguise, Beth, even if your bosom is no doubt painfully bound."
She sputtered, more out of shock at his half-heartbeat speed.
But Luke narrowed his eyes on her, twirling her Colt around in his hand until he stopped it in front of her, handle exposed for her to accept back into her hand. "If you're ridin' in my posse, stick close to me. Keep your hat low, head down, and talk to no one. And, darlin', do whatever I tell you to do to the letter, understand? You can ask me all your questions later with that sassy mouth."
Just as the handle of the office door jiggled, Luke lowered his face to hers. "Unless you'd like an audience to witness your discipline, I'll tan your hide at another time." Then he straightened and turned toward the men entering. "Howdy, Sheriff McCrane, Deputy Cunningham."
An older heavyset man smiled and nodded. "Hey there, Marshal Stone. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?"
"I need you to round up a posse, thirty or so men, to track down and bring in Jesse Coleman. The Dee Gang broke him loose. Seems like that fast-gun outlaw might need to check in with his big boss. I want them, both. And I want them alive to stand the justice of the court, not of the frontier."
A younger brawny man had slid off his hat into his hands, fingering the brim, as he stepped closer to Elizabeth with a silly grin on his face. "Howdy, ma'am."
She held up one hand to halt his words. "How did you know I was not male?"
The deputy chuckled, covered his hand over his mouth and coughed, before chuckling harder.
Luke laughed. "Go ahead, Deputy Cunningham, tell her how if I left her locked away safely in one of your cells, the lady would have used her Miss Proper finishing school wiles on you and sweet-talked her way out before I returned."
Elizabeth stomped one small booted foot. "That was rude, Marshal Stone."
"True nonetheless, woman," he countered.
Sheriff McCrane opened the door for the red-faced deputy. "We'll get your posse together."
Luke grabbed the open door. "We're going out, too, kid. I want to see what you can do with that Colt." When she didn't move toward him, he centered one large hand on her back and gently shoved her out the door, down the steps, and around the building.
He released her; then set three bottles and two tin cans quite a distance away on the wooden railing of an old weathered fence. When he strode all the way back to her, he leaned down in her face. "Always remember, shoot to kill, not wound."
Elizabeth cocked a brow and swung her eyes from where he stood way down toward the fence.
Luke grinned at her. "Nearly a hundred paces, Holliday. My gut says you're up to the challenge. Impress me, Beth."
She fingered the handle of her Colt, but looked up, caught in his sparkling green eyes. Elizabeth stated firmly, "My uncle taught me never to show my hand until I had to at that last unavoidable minute."
"Sounds like a gambler. Or an outlaw. Is he the one who taught you to shoot?"
"Yes." She shrugged. "I believe he was right at any rate."
He stroked one finger down his jaw to the dimple in his chin. "Hmm. Were you not the woman bragging to protect both me and Jesse? The same one who can protect herself? The first lady ever to ride out with a posse?"
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes on him for a split second, then lifted her Colt as she swung her eyes toward the fence, squeezing the trigger at that instant, cocking the hammer over and again in a blur, until she had blown each target to smithereens. She glanced back at Luke. "Satisfied?"
Heat blossomed on her face and she looked away. "It's like riding a horse," she stated softly. "You don't ever truly forget either if you were taught young enough."
Luke shook his head, still smiling even in his eyes. "You sure didn't learn that at any high-society finishing school. Who's your fast-gun uncle who taught you? The gambler?"
She lifted one hand to rest on his brawny arm. "Luke, please," she whispered. "I want a fresh start. No history. People can have their opinion altered, the way they see you or treat you. I don't care what people think, but my new life will be only what I want people to see, to believe, exactly as I re-create myself. Judged by who I am alone. Understand?"
Luke shifted, cupped her dirty cheek with one large calloused hand and slid his other palm to her shoulder. "Yes, Beth. I understand more than you're saying. What happened between you and Steven Sterling? Did he figure out your uncle is Doc Holliday?"
Elizabeth gasped, but when her lips parted, Luke slanted his mouth over hers. Her world tilted dizzily before she jerked back, heart hammering hard, suddenly so mad there should have been sparks shooting out her ears. "John Henry Holliday, yes, and, as his best friend Wyatt’s telegram requested, I'm on my way to see him again before he dies."
She slapped both palms against his chest, ignoring his widened eyes. "So does this mean the same secret I confided in Steven makes you think of me now as a harlot, too, as opposed to a lady? A fine asset in Boston functions, but behind closed society doors a woman to be beaten and ruled by a man's violence?"
Luke rubbed a palm over his Colt handle. "I hope I never meet Sterling, darlin'. I might have to fill him with lead. Are you still betrothed? Will he hunt for ya, Beth?"
"He knows I'm traveling northwest to where my uncle is institutionalized. But he also knows I'd never marry him. I made that point very clear when everyone ignored me breaking the betrothal and continued making wedding arrangements. Besides, he knows I'm tainted. He won't come after me."
Luke wrapped his arms around her, and to her ultimate dismay, she relaxed in his safe warm haven. Against her ear, his drawl rumbled, "You're not tainted, sweetheart. It sure goes a long way though toward understanding that fort with the locked gate around your heart. And why you don't trust or believe in promises. It explains your sassy mouth, too, warring with Miss Proper inside you. The real Beth is somewhere in-between trying to find herself and her path in life."
"Yeah," she muttered in total disbelief.
"It's the truth and the Truth will set you free, Beth. God has a plan for your life, for the woman He created you to be. He'll lead you; guide you, to be true to Him and true to the real you. Know I'm prayin' for you, prayin' for Jesus to soften your heart so you'll ask him in to heal it, to set you free in His truth and His path."
With that, Luke answered the sheriff's call before escorting her to the front of the office where it was loud and hectic as man after man appeared. After Luke explained the objectives to the mission, arresting and not shooting Jesse Coleman and his boss, he swore in the crowd as deputized.
Elizabeth listened to the oath, but did not repeat it like all the male voices surrounding her. Luke then led the men in a prayer for protection and victory. At the hollered, "Amen," thirty or so men swept her away with the crowd as they rode out.
Luke pulled alongside of her as their horses loped toward the line of trees. "How long did ya live with your Uncle John, kid?"
"Is that all you see me as? A kid?"
He leaned over his horse, toward her. "You're young, masquerade or no, but I see a woman, Beth, a lady." He straightened and repeated more loudly, "How long did ya live with him? Unravel the mystery a little more for me."
She snorted ineloquently, veering off at a distance from the other men. After Luke joined her, she announced, "My mom died when I was nine, so I lived with my uncle until thirteen. We moved a lot, the more he coughed, the less he worked as a dentist and the more as a gambler full-time. Said he was already condemned to die a slow painful death so nothing scared him. Said perhaps he'd come to a quick demise with a different life."
When Luke stared at her expectantly, she added, "He started drinking more, smoking more, gambling more, before he established the additional bad reputation as a fast-gun. Then men would search him out, just to see if they were quicker, or slicker at poker, and we moved around so much all the rustic towns looked alike."
Elizabeth sighed. "One day, my aunt and uncle found us and took me away from him to become a prisoner of the proprietresses of Boston society, to become an elegant and accomplished lady." She shook her head. "Oh yes, how could I forget? It was they who introduced me to my betrothed, a great match supposedly."
Luke stared into her eyes. "My parents were betrothed as children."
Elizabeth was impaled by the intensity of his orbs. As if an invisible rope had lassoed them, she could feel the bond sliding tighter from all this vulnerable sharing. He was getting too close, working his way into her heart. He was opening more to her, drawing her in to repeat the favor of personal insight.
She intended to cut it, break whatever strong tie pulled them together like a magnet, as she added an icy frost to her words. "Is that so? Maybe someone should tell your mother that she needs her money refunded for your charm school. It didn't take."
He slapped one hand over his chest, leaned his face up toward the sun, and the rich infectious timbre of his laughter filled the air. "Ouch! For Miss Proper, ya surely have a sassy mouth. That's quite the little defensive tactic."
She shrugged. "Maybe." Then Elizabeth turned toward him only to be trapped by the vibrant green of his eyes. Oh no. He didn't give up or call a retreat. She could see it deep in his eyes, a dogged determination. "Luke—"
"My mother traveled with her escort from Georgia, far into the western frontier to visit with my father. They were betrothed but not married at the time. A Cheyenne warrior who ended up the love of her life took my mother captive. But being betrothed though, as ya know, is nearly the same pledge as being married. My father and his troops fought the Indians, fought for my mother, and successfully rescued her a year later. He brought her back to Georgia and married her. It changed my father, but in a good way. He handed over complete control of his life to Jesus. He led my mother and then me to the Lord."
Elizabeth dropped her eyes from his, then glanced away. "Were your parents happy?"
"Yeah, Georgia was a good life while it lasted."
Before she could determine the wisdom of it, before he could shut off his recollections, she persisted with what little he had revealed previously. Despite the should or should not's, Elizabeth wanted to know him, to understand him down deep, the real man behind the role, the one she'd met on the stagecoach. "Why did you move then, to Texas?"
"My father died. My mother took our horses and me to Texas where she contacted the Cheyenne warrior who had held her captive. My mother led him to Jesus, then married him and brought their son, my older half-brother, to live with us in Texas. He was like you, torn in two. It took all of us, and a lot of time on our knees, but finally my brother handed his life totally to the Lord. It was maybe an even better life, a lot of love and happiness."
She said nothing for a full minute, mentally chewing over his revelations. "Who are you, Marshal Luke Stone? I ask in advance for your pardon, but I'm afraid I want to know you better."
Although this time he veered his horse from the fringe of the posse toward the moving dusty mass of men, he leaned toward her. "Oh, Beth! Don't smile at a man like that. I'm only human, yet with God's help and to His glory, I fully intend to get to know you better, woman. Inside out, upside down." Then he waved one hand in a wide arc, including the crowd around them. "But at a later date, darlin', a better, more private, time, I promise."
A lone rider dressed in a tan suit and matching snappy cap, cut his horse at an angle to intercept them. Luke groaned as if he recognized him, but he betrayed no other sign of alarm. Not even when the sharp dressed chap raised his hand in greeting. "Marshal Stone."
"Howdy, Trevor. What's Pinkerton got ya diggin' into now, detective?"
Adrenaline surged through Elizabeth as Luke sent the verbal warning, although he did not so much as glance her way.
The Pinkerton detective pulled a tintype picture from his vest and handed it to Luke.
Elizabeth nearly fell off her horse when she glimpsed Steven's image right beside hers in the picture supposed to be replicated in the newspapers for the Boston society announcement of their marriage!
Her heart was hammering so hard, she barely heard the detective ask Luke, "You seen her? Miss Elizabeth Holliday?"
He accepted the tintype back from Luke then tapped Steven's likeness. "Seems her betrothed has misplaced the lady. Wants her back in Boston like by yesterday. Steven Sterling makes it sound like they are about as good as married."
Luke stared straight ahead. "If he misplaced her somewhere in the Wild West frontier, alone and unescorted, then you should tell him there's a goodly chance she'll stay missing."
The detective nodded. "I did tell him, but he vowed she'd reappear at Glenwood Springs sooner rather than later. Guess I'll head on that way and wait."
"Maybe you should tell Sterling a wise man would consider Elizabeth Holliday dead and move on."
"Maybe," agreed the detective. He touched two fingers to his cap in salute. "G'day, Marshal Stone." Then he urged his horse at an angle to intercept the town from where the posse started.
Luke leaned over, closer to her. "Easy, Beth," he crooned softly. "Sterling will have to go through me to get you back."
Sheriff McCrane pulled his galloping horse up along the other side of Elizabeth, however he glanced at Luke. "How's the sweet little wife, Marshal Stone?"
Although thus far into their acquaintance she'd never seen confident, calm, in control Luke exhibit the trait of blushing, red now crept up his neck to coat his face. As well he should! Wife! After kissing her, promising to better their acquaintance yet still at a more private time?
Grr. Clearly, she had wretched taste in men. How dare he be the one looking about like his anger might explode?
Scowling directly at Elizabeth, jaw visibly clenching and unclenching, Luke raised his voice sure and strong to the sheriff. "She's just fine, thanks."
"You're married?" she finally sucked in on a gasp of horror mixed with accusation. What more could he have lied to her about? Did his promise mean nothing, his word of honor simply mere words for a role? She squeezed her eyes tight, forcing the words through the burning lump in her throat. "Code of Christ, Luke?"
"Yes, Holliday. Trust me."
She snorted ineloquently at the very possibility.
Sheriff McCrane cleared his throat. Twice. "About Jesse Coleman . . .?"
"Yes?" Luke demanded confidently.
"Yes," Elizabeth smirked as she eased back on the reins, causing them all to slow to her pace. She crossed her arms over her chest. "About Jesse Coleman." Oh yes. Now she had both the sheriff and the marshal's full attention.
Here was her chance to betray what little she knew about Luke Stone and Jesse Coleman. They were obviously best friends. They were also in cahoots, playing roles. Who knew to what purpose?
But Luke had protected her identity from the Pinkerton detective. He had proven kind since she met him. She'd heard him praying. She had listened to his deep drawl from praying to making her promises. Luke asked her to trust him. Should she?
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