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Authors: Anne Carrole

Tags: #Romance, #western historical, #western, #historical

Saving Cole Turner (8 page)

BOOK: Saving Cole Turner
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Neither talked. Kate was glad for the respite. Her father probably knew she needed time to think.

It was a while coming, but when he did speak, it was with sober authority.

“He’ll want you to leave, is that it?”

Kate nodded since the words caught in her throat. She’d had her differences with her father, but he loved her and she loved him. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for her if he thought it right—including, it appeared, letting her go.

She was trying to come to terms with going away, with putting distance between her and everything and everyone she knew. Could she leave her father, Mary, her friend Lizzie?

And would Cole offer for her after telling her it was over? She didn’t dare speculate.

“He doesn’t feel right here, Pa,” she said by way of explanation.

Her father nodded, hardly seeming surprised. “He needs a fresh start. Like the one he should have had back then.” He clicked the reins, hurrying the horse on, before he spoke again. “How far does he want to go?”

She thought she detected a hitch in her father’s voice. “Idaho or Montana Territory. Says there are wild horses there. He wants to start a horse ranch, though he may still have to bounty hunt for a while.”

Her father nodded again. “Horse ranching seems like a right good idea. Better than bounty hunting. A little wedding present might help that dream and give me a place to visit if you’ll have me for a spell.”

Tears ambushed her eyes. “A long spell?”

“After you’ve had time to settle. Get to know one another. If he’d have me.”

She couldn’t help but smile. “If he’s as big on sacrificing as you say, I guess he will.”

Her father’s low laugh felt like a reward.

Kate tried to imagine a life with Cole. She could see him tending the horses with the same care he’d given that bird so long ago. And she’d be working right alongside him.

If only he was still in Three Bridges. If only he was of a sober and reasonable mind. If only he didn’t mean what he said about it being over.

She felt foolish chasing after him, but she’d have more regrets if she didn’t try. There was no way she would ever believe he didn’t love her. And if he wanted her respect as well as her love, well, she’d have to figure out a way to convince him he had both.

“I was wrong about him,” her father said, breaking into her thoughts. “I’ve thought of him as that scared boy who’d run away. He’s grown into a finer man than I thought possible. Guess his ma had more influence over him than his old man.”

“Thank you for saying so, Pa.” She was sure it cost her father to admit he was wrong.

“You can be proud of the way he handled things. He’d been within his rights to kill that man rather than aiming for his hands, a shot worthy of any sharpshooter.” Her father was staring at the road as the buggy clipped along, but she doubted he was studying the ruts.

Kate
was
proud. She was also leery of the reception Cole would give her. She couldn’t handle his rejection—again. What could she say to him to change his mind that she hadn’t said already?

As if he was a gypsy who could read her thoughts, her father opined, “You’ll know the right words when you see him.”

* * *

He loved her. That truth ricocheted inside him like a bullet fired in a cave, leaving its mark on every organ in his body, especially his heart.

Cole palmed the shot glass of whiskey, but didn’t lift it to his lips. The Red Bull Saloon was an unlikely place for contemplation, but here he was doing just that. It had been too late to leave town by the time he’d settled Whitey in jail and told the sheriff about Parrish.

Just like Flanders had predicted, McCaffrey had wasted no time in going after Jake Parrish. He’d invited Cole along, but Cole had declined. The sheriff had two deputies who were more than capable of handling the job. And Cole had no desire to greet the man who’d been courting Kate.

Matt Tyler had come by and paid Cole his wages and bonus for catching the fifth man, then wished him well. There hadn’t even been a hint of an offer to stay on and work cattle. Not that he would have taken it, but Tyler could have at least asked.

Tying up loose ends, Cole had found Pritchard at the General Store and told the man he’d decided not to buy the ranch. After he bought his supplies, he’d needed a drink. Something to dull the ache. Something to stop him thinking about what could be if things were different. Something to get him to stop wondering if he should go out to the Flanders’ ranch right then and ask her to leave Three Bridges with him tomorrow, force her to choose.

She’d spent her time trying to convince him to stay here. Not once had it entered her pretty little head that she could go with him. She’d built up this dream of him being a rancher and not once had she considered the possibility of marrying him even if he was a bounty hunter. And now that she’d experienced what his life was really like, she was probably counting her blessings that he hadn’t taken her up on her offer. And if she was ashamed of him, how the hell could she say she loved him?

She was made for a finer life. He had to remember that.

Cole downed the whiskey in one gulp, the crisp liquid scratching down his throat. He slapped a coin on the bar.

Ted, the bartender, slid over. “It’s paid for.”

“By who?”

“Pritchard.” Ted nodded in the direction right of Cole’s shoulder.

Cole turned to look. Pritchard sat in the corner with Polly on his lap, looking as happy as a sow in garbage despite his earlier disappointment at Cole’s decision not to buy. Cole didn’t doubt Charlie was in a cheerful state of mind with Polly whispering in his ear.

Pritchard spotted him, raised a glass of beer, and winked. “Sold my land to Tyler,” Pritchard announced. “Celebrating.” Polly grinned in confirmation.

Cole nodded his thanks and turned back. “Don’t know why.”

Ted was wiping down a beer glass with a towel that had seen cleaner days. He kept his focus on Cole. “Said you deserved a drink after getting the rustlers and Parrish. Whole town’s talking about it. Next one’s on the house.”

Getting the rustlers didn’t affect Ted or the saloon.

“Why a drink on the house?”

Ted’s craggy face broke into a grin. “Boss says its thanks for getting the goods on Parrish. Don’t know for certain, but I think Parrish was bleeding the boss. Wanted the boss to buy his vote when things came up that affected the saloons.”

Cole held his surprise in check as he fingered the unnecessary coin. “Tell your boss thanks, but one’s my limit.”

“I’ve noticed. Guess you take after your ma.”

Cole’s teeth clenched, but he let the comment pass.

“You can take the offer tomorrow,” Ted said companionably as he set the large glass down and picked up another.

“Won’t be here tomorrow. I’m heading out in the morning.”

“Figured since you’d come back home, you’d be staying. Heard you were marrying the Flanders girl.”

Small towns.

“You heard wrong. And I’ve got business elsewhere.” Cole didn’t have anything elsewhere.

“I expect a lot of people will want to thank you,” Ted said as he started drying another glass.

Cole resettled his hat. “Time to leave.”

With that he flipped the coin he’d been holding in Ted’s direction. “Have a good life.”

Cole strode through the swinging doors and out onto the sidewalk. He surveyed the main street of Three Bridges for the last time. A few people were down by the hotel. Otherwise, it was a quiet evening in town, like any other. The sun was low in the sky, setting the clouds on fire. Nothing had changed—yet everything had.

Kate’s words flashed through his mind. Words he hadn’t been able to forget all day.
Maybe you’ve got to love yourself, Cole, before you can believe that someone loves you.
He still wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but he certainly didn’t love himself. He hated his whole damn life. And she was right. He didn’t believe she loved him, Cole Turner, Bounty Hunter. She loved the boy she thought he’d been. Today should have opened her eyes to what he really was.

And maybe you’ve got to forgive yourself before you can expect the people of this town to forgive you.
Had he forgiven himself? He’d hated his father. Hated what the man did to his mother. To him.

And feared every day he’d turn into the S.O.B.

It was a fear that gnawed inside him. Knowing Kate had wanted him had kept that fear at bay all these years because if someone like Kate, who could have anyone, still wanted him, he couldn’t be like his father. Could he?

“Hey,” the familiar feminine voice coming from behind him caused his heart to nearly leap out of his chest. He hesitated, hoping it was true. He turned to face her.

Kate stood in the twilight looking every inch the lady in a silky green dress that must have cost a penny or two. It set off the fire in those blue eyes. She looked beautiful. A memory to tuck away and take out in lonely moments, and there were sure to be many of those.

“I was hoping you’d be available to join my father and me for supper.” She cocked her head to the side.

“Your father?”

“Yes. He wanted me to tell you that he’s proud--his words—of what you did today. Bringing the man in alive when you’d have been within your rights to kill him. And pulling the connection to Parrish out of him.” She placed her hands behind her back as she said words he’d never expected to hear from a Flanders, much less her father. “He’s waiting at the hotel. He’s got a table reserved for the three of us.”

“What’s this about, Kate? “ Had Will Flanders really said he was proud? And what about Kate? Could she say that after today?

She took a deep breath. “Just thought a certain man might want to come courting a certain woman by taking supper with her and her father.”

“At the hotel?”

“At the hotel. For everyone to see. So he can see she’s not ashamed of him.” She bit her lower lip as she cast her gaze downward. “I’m sorry Cole. I’m sorry I treated you—us--as something wrong, something to be hidden. I hadn’t meant it that way, hadn’t thought it, but I guess somewhere I felt it.

Cole stomach was in a scramble. “And now?”

“I can see how hard you try to be fair. You make judgments that can have life or death consequences. I see how you struggle to do the right thing. A lesser man wouldn’t care, wouldn’t struggle. I really am proud of you.”

He could feel the tightness in his throat ease, the heaviness in his chest lighten. Could it be that she really did understand?

“And your father?”

“Dinner at the hotel was his idea. Said he owed you.”

“For what?”

“You’ll have to ask him. Maybe for saving his daughter’s life. And his.”

“Kate, where is this leading? I’ve told you I can’t stay in Three Bridges. And you’ve seen what kind of life I live.”

“If things were different, would you want this to lead somewhere? Because I’ve got to know. I need to know at least that.”

He was weakening. He could feel it in his heart, in his soul. He shouldn’t tempt fate when there was no future for them, but he couldn’t fight it--her--any longer. He closed the distance between them and tilted her chin. He wouldn’t lie to her. “If things were different, yes. But they aren’t.”

“Different, as in, I was willing to go with you? Maybe help you start planning for that horse ranch you were talking about? Have your babies?”

His heart thudded. “Your father--”

“I’ll hate to leave him; I won’t deny it. But I can’t let you go without me. Not again, Cole. Don’t make me.”

A single tear slid down her face. Cole fought the urge to kiss it away.

She took a deep breath. “I know you don’t think so. But I do love you.”

Something inside him melted and pooled low in his belly at those words.

Maybe you’ve got to love yourself before you can believe someone loves you.

“Cole.” Merlin Hobson, the ramrod at the Tyler ranch, ambled over and patted Cole’s back. “Great job with those rustlers. And Parrish. Every rancher in three counties is going to be grateful. Can’t wait for the trial.”

Cole blinked, feeling like he’d just come back to reality. “Thanks, Merlin.”

“You staying for it?” he asked, looking from Cole to Kate and then back to Cole. “I could use a man like you. Handy with a horse and a gun.”

Cole shook his head.

“Guess I interrupted something.” Merlin took a long look at Kate before returning his gaze to Cole. “Thanks again.”

Merlin was out of earshot before Kate spoke. “If you can’t stay, I understand, even if I think you’re wrong about the town. But take me with you.”

Cole closed his eyes, wanting to believe what he was hearing, what she was telling him. She’d seen what he was, what his life was really like. And she wasn’t running. She was standing firm. Could she go with him and start a new life elsewhere without regret? Did he even have a right to ask that of her? The pulse in his neck kicked up a notch.

“You’d be giving up too much, Kate.”

She shook her head. “No. Only if you leave without me would I be giving up too much. I had no choice last time. Give me the choice and let me make mine. Don’t you care for me? Can’t you try to love me?”

Love her? Hell, he’d been trying to convince himself for five years it wasn’t love he felt for her. But the moment that bullet had sailed towards them he could no longer deny the truth. He did love her. And he wanted to have the right to love her, protect her, honor her.

Maybe he’d underestimated her. She’d been brave earlier. And tough. She hadn’t panicked. Not when the bullets were flying. Not when he’d placed the gun in her hand. Not when he’d questioned the rustler. She was made of sterner stuff than he’d imagined.

And he loved her.

“I was planning on leaving tomorrow. I can wait a day though.”

“To do what, Cole?” She was staring back at him with the longing of a stray looking for a home.

He took a deep breath before taking the plunge.

“To marry you. In front of the whole town. If you’re sure, Kate.”

A smile broke like sunrise on her face as she threw herself into his arms. She felt warm, soft, and all woman. All his.

BOOK: Saving Cole Turner
7.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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