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Authors: Jacksons Way

Leslie LaFoy

BOOK: Leslie LaFoy
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THE PROMISE OF A KISS …

Lindsay closed her eyes and drew a slow breath, her heart racing.

Sensation swept away all conscious thought. Feather-light and gentle, his kiss whispered promises of sweet, dark mysteries and low, wanton revelries. His tongue traced the path that his finger had blazed over her lip and she met it with her own, melting into him and sighing in welcome as he drew her closer and tasted her more deeply still.

She was molten and weak, soaring and stronger than she had ever been. Heady sensation and wonderment, the heat and potent tension of timeless instinct…. Then there was only the lingering shadow of what had been. And she hungered for more of what was gone.

Jackson, his breathing ragged, stepped back from her, back from the brink of too late. She was so damn easy to kiss, so damn delicious. He hadn't known just how intoxicating her lips were, how sweetly she could surrender. And as she looked up at him now, her lips still dewy from his kiss, her blue eyes softened by yearning …

Also by Leslie LaFoy

I
T
H
APPENED
O
NE
N
ight
D
ARING THE
D
evil
L
ADY
R
eckless
M
ADDIE'S
J
USTICE

For Phyllis

Prologue

Republic of Texas
March, 1838

A
ND YEA
, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil,” the minister said solemnly, the pages of his Bible fluttering in the morning wind.

A bittersweet smile touched the corner of Jackson Stennett's mouth. He looked down at the simple pine box. No, Billy Weathers hadn't feared death. He hadn't feared anything. He'd charged through life with an unconquerable spirit and an unshakeable faith in his ability to make God do his bidding. Even now, Jackson half expected to hear Billy's fist slam against the wood and him cursing the ignoramus who'd had the gall to declare him dead.

But Billy was dead. And had been since the moment he'd clutched his chest and fallen from the saddle yesterday afternoon. No amount of hoping and waiting was going to change that fact. Jackson shifted his gaze to the rolling hills beyond the grave, beyond the small knot of cowhands and fellow ranchers assembled to witness the burial. The blue-bonnets were beginning to fade and the Indian paintbrush was just coming on. The grass was green and growing. It
would be a good year, if the rains came when they were supposed to, if the sun didn't bake the earth rock-hard in July and August. Just yesterday morning Billy had said it would be the best year they'd had in the last ten.

Jackson sighed. He looked back at the coffin and felt the pain of loss twist in his chest. It was a familiar sensation; he'd buried so many in the course of his thirty years. But losing Billy cut deep. It was Billy who'd taken in Jack when he was an angry thirteen-year-old boy, and whipped him into a man.

“Mr. Stennett?”

Jackson blinked in the direction of the voice, his gut hardening as he noted the minister's look of expectation.

“Would you like to offer a few words about the departed, Mr. Stennett? Share a few memories to lighten the hearts of those present and grieving?”

No, he didn't want to say a damn thing, but he'd do it just so this god-awful ordeal could end. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he lifted his chin and stared out over the hills. The wind ruffled his hair as he said evenly, firmly, “Billy Weathers was a damn fine poker player and an even better cattleman. He was the man you wanted at your back when you went into a fight. He was plainspoken and he was fair. He wouldn't ask anything of anyone that he didn't expect of himself. And if he's looking at us from up above, he's growling about the daylight we're wasting planting him. There's work to do, gentlemen. Let's be on with it.” He slapped his hat back on his head, adding, “I'll see to the shoveling.”

The minister's aghast expression didn't have the slightest effect on the mourners' responses. They nodded, put their hats back on their heads, and turned away. Jackson jerked the blade of the shovel from the mound of freshly dug earth.

Hastily, the minister reached down and grabbed a clod of dirt. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” he said, tossing it onto the lid of the box. It struck with a hard sound that rang in Jackson's ears and made him clench his teeth.

Billy had never been ash and he had certainly never been dirt. He had been a good man, made of stone and
steel. He had been a Texan to the marrow of his bones. At the edge of his awareness, Jackson heard the cowboys and other ranchers mounting and heading out, saw the minister close his Bible and walk away shaking his head. Billy had never had any use for religion, and, to Jackson's knowledge, had never so much as darkened the door of any church. That's why the minister's arrival at the ranch house that morning had been such a shock. The fact that Billy hadn't come vaulting out of the coffin in protest had been the final sign that William Lindsay Weathers was indeed gone. The numbness that had come in the wake of that realization had been the only thing that had kept Jackson from sending the black-robed vulture on his way.

“Jackson?”

He looked over his shoulder and found Elmer Smith standing there, his hat still in his hand and his wire-rimmed glasses sliding down his nose. “Don't tell me,” Jackson said dryly. “You want to talk about Billy's Will.”

“I know you, Jackson,” the lawyer replied, shifting inside his too-big Sunday go-to-meetin' suit. “If we don't talk now, it'll be next year before I can slow you down long enough to get said what needs to be said.”

Jackson plunged the shovel blade into the mound of earth and flung a load of dirt into the hole. To keep the sound from his ears, the finality from sinking any deeper into his soul, he said, “Unless Billy changed his mind and left his half of the ranch to someone else, we don't have anything to talk about, Elmer.”

“There are other bequeaths you should know of,” Elmer said over the sound of metal scraping dirt.

More dirt against wood, hollow and hard. “Such as?” Jackson asked through clenched teeth.

“He left each of the hands a full month's salary.”

“Doesn't surprise me.” He imagined the light that had been in Billy's eyes when he'd made that particular provision in his Will. “And it wouldn't surprise me to learn that he'd stipulated that every penny of it be spent at Tia Rosa's cantina. Did he leave Rosa something, too?” Another shovelful of dirt.

“A tidy little something.” Elmer slowly cleared his throat, and Jackson glanced over his shoulder to see the lawyer push his glasses back to the bridge of his nose and square his stance.

Elmer took a quick, deep breath and continued, “And of course there's the matter of the debts that have to be settled before you can have clear title to Billy's half of the ranch. I figure I can delay posting the notices for maybe sixty to ninety days to give you some maneuvering room.”

The weight that settled over Jackson's shoulders had nothing to do with the dirt on the shovel. “Twice that long won't be enough if the markets don't come up, Elmer. I can't get decent money for cattle and the creditors can't extend the loans they've made without courting their own bankruptcies. Can we hope that Judge Gilroy will give me some time to ride things out?”

“Billy thought of all that,” the lawyer supplied. “In addition to his half of the ranch, he also left you some property he owned back East. It was his intention for you to sell it all and use the proceeds to pay the loans. He thought it would be sufficient to see you free and clear.”

Jackson went on shoveling, his concern eased. Billy had seen to it that all their hard work wouldn't go to the bankers. That was Billy, always thinking two steps ahead. “I didn't know he had any other property. He never mentioned it.” Which wasn't all that surprising. Billy had never spoken of the life he'd led before he'd followed Stephen Austin into Texas. Very few men did.

“I was surprised to hear of it myself, Jackson, but that doesn't change the fact that you've inherited it.”

“Did he say what it was?”

“No, but he was clear about you owning everything— lock, stock, and barrel. He gave me the address of his attorney back East. Billy said you'd have to go see him in person to settle things up. He left a letter introducing you to the man.” Elmer cleared his throat yet again. “He said for me to tell you he was sorry about leaving you with the mess to clear away; that he knew you'd do the right thing with it all.”

The hair on the back of Jackson's neck prickled. He'd known Billy well enough to know that being in debt had
been considered a minor nuisance and nothing more. Billy didn't ruffle easily.
Mess?
The last time he'd heard Billy use that term had been in a conversation about the slaughter at the Alamo. Jackson rammed the shovel blade in the dirt and leveraged the handle. “Who and where is this man?”

“His name's Vanderhagen and he's in New York.”

New York? He was supposed to go to New York?
Jackson laughed darkly. “I don't have time to traipse off East,” he said firmly, tossing another load of dirt into the hole. “Write a letter, Elmer. Tell Vanderhagen that I don't want to own anything outside of Texas and that he's to sell it all off and then send what money there is.”

“Billy knew you'd dig in your heels about leaving the ranch. He told me to tell you—and I'm quoting him—‘You don't let another man do your business for you. Get your ass in the saddle and take care of it.’”

Yeah, that sounded just like Billy.
Square up to it, son. Be a man and get it done.
Jackson expelled a hard breath and heaved another shovelful of earth onto the coffin. The sound of it was growing duller, less hollow, more endurable. “Exactly when did you and Billy have this conversation?” he asked.

“Two weeks ago. Doc'd just told him his ticker was bad and he came straight from Doc to my office.”

Jackson froze, the dirt-laden shovel suspended over the hole. Billy had been to see Doc Helstern? Had known he was likely to die? The pit of Jackson's stomach went hard and cold. “Goddamn you,” he whispered, his gaze on the partially covered pine box. “You son of a bitch. Why didn't you tell
me
?” His throat closed tight. Anger heated his blood and clouded his vision. George Helstern had known. Elmer Smith had known. Both had had their chances to say thank you and good-bye. But Billy hadn't given
him
that chance.

As though from a great distance, he heard Elmer say, “There's more, but I'll let you read it for yourself. I'll leave a copy of the Will on the table in the house. You can look it all over when you're done here.” There was a slight pause and then Elmer's hand briefly touched his shoulder. “I'm sorry,” the lawyer said quietly, gently. “I know he was like a father to you.”

Like a father.
And a brother and a friend, a fellow soldier and a business partner. Billy Weathers had been a part of his every day for the last seventeen years. This was the first grave he'd ever dug that Billy hadn't helped him hack from the earth; the first hole in his life that Billy wasn't there to fill.

Blindly, Jackson turned the shovel and let the earth fall.

BOOK: Leslie LaFoy
9.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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