Unedited Excerpt from Caine's Reckoning
Copyright © Sarah McCarty 2006
All rights reserved Harelquin SPICE
“I don’t like the feel of this.”
Caine didn’t either. “She’s got a guardian appointed by the circuit judge.”
Sam rode up on the other side, the same concern in his gaze as in Tracker’s.
"That padre that sent us after her?”
“No. Mavis’ brother.”
Tracker snorted. “Now, why doesn’t that make me all warm and toasty in my gut?”
Probably for the same reason it didn’t make him. The women had reached the men. There was a lot of cheering and hugging as everyone crowded around, wanting to hear the details of their rescue. A man separated from the crowd, the brightness of his white shirt against his paisley vest almost blinding as it reflected the rays of the setting sun. He stood apart from the crowd, legs spread, arms folded across his chest. Waiting.
Sam pushed his hat back off his brow and rested his forearm across the horn of his saddle. A body would have thought him completely relaxed, unless they noticed the repetitive opening and closing of his fingers. Anyone familiar with a gunslinger’s habits would recognize what he was doing. Sam wasn’t getting a toasty gut either. “Looks like someone’s waiting on her return.”
Tracker spat his disgust. “A gambler.”
“Could just be a fancy dresser,” Sam offered, testing the fit of his revolver in the holster strapped to his leg.
“Yup.” Caine pulled his rifle from the scabbard and rested it across the saddle between the pommel and Desi’s hip. She cut him a startled glance. He squeezed her shoulder. “Is that your guardian, Desi?”
She didn’t turn her head, didn’t answer, but her respirations came two beats faster than normal. Finally, she nodded.
Tracker frowned. “What kind of judge gives guardianship of a young lady to a goddamn gambler?”
None that Caine knew. “Any chance you remember the name of the judge who heard your case, Desi?’
She would never forget. Not the way he had sat up on the church altar as though he were God on high. Not the way he’d acted the all-knowing, benevolent wise man, nor what had come after. “Judge Harvey Clayton.”
All three men swore at once.
“Well, that puts a clearer shine on things,” Sam muttered.
Caine rested his chin on her head and continued to stroke her arm with his fingers while, with every clop of the horses hooves on the wet ground, they got closer and closer to James. Desi closed her eyes and worked harder at getting her hands out of the gloves. By keeping her wrists apart after Sam had re-tied her, and letting her hair drip on the leather, she’d managed to stretch the ties some as they absorbed the water.
She risked a glance out of the corner of her eye. James was waiting and he wasn’t happy. He only stood that way when he wasn’t happy. Oh God, she needed to get free. She worked her hands more frantically inside the gloves, pulling so hard the ties cut into her skin through the leather. She bit her cheek against the pain.
Caine’s big hand settled over hers, engulfing her hands and wrists in the warmth of his touch. Again she got that conflicting message of threat and comfort. He squeezed, defeating her efforts with disheartening ease. She looked up. She couldn’t read a thing in his expression, partly because of the glare of the sun, and partly because he was just too good at hiding what he was thinking.
She tugged at her hands. Another squeeze and a shake of his head told her he knew what she was doing. The horse stopped. She heard James approaching. She’d sat and waited too many times like this not to recognize the sound of his tread. He always scuffed his foot on the third step.
Caine straightened. The rifle barrel pressed into her hip as he changed the angle.
James’s voice was smooth and well modulated. Pitched to inspire confidence. He stepped into Desi’s view. His facial muscles were set in the same open, confidence-inspiring expression. His ability to charm people while hiding what he really thought was what made him such a successful gambler. He touched the brim of his hat with his finger. One finger. Her flinch escaped her control. “Desi.”
Caine’s grip on her shoulder tightened in restraint. He didn’t have to worry. She would never throw herself into this man’s arms.
James nodded to the other two men who fanned out on either side of Caine. “I want to thank you all for bringing our Desdemona back to us.”
Tracker was the one who answered, a chill underlying his deep drawl. “It’s our job.”
Jame’s smile was easy and appreciative, as if he’d been longing to have her back. He probably had been, which accounted for the sincerity she sensed. “I hope she wasn’t too much trouble.”
“Why would you think she’d be any trouble?” Caine asked.
“Pretty as she is, surely you’ve noticed she’s not quite right in her head.”
As naturally as most people breathed, James slipped the lie into the conversation. Against her shoulder, she felt Caine stiffen. She straightened her spine, shifting away from the illusion that his strength was hers. It was starting again, just like it had before. The innuendo, the twisting of the truth until everything she’d done in self-defense was nothing more than another example of her instability.
Desi curled her hands into fists as the rage beat against the futility of effort. Lawman or not, with her background, Caine wouldn’t listen to her, let alone believe her. What was the word of one deranged woman compared to the word of so many upstanding citizens? When push came to shove, he’d back James, the sheriff and the court who’d given her to them.
Caine’s “Can’t say that I have” caught her totally by surprise, the same way Tracker’s “Bull shit” and Sam’s “For Christ’s sake” did. Usually, when men came up against James’s confidence and smooth manner they went along with him. Caine and his men were the first who hadn’t, and she didn’t care if it was their naturally perverse nature or genuine belief that drove them to do it. She was just glad they had. It gave her a minute more of hope.
James looked her up and down. The concern never leaving his expression, but that twitch at the corner of his eye let her know that he was annoyed. He stepped in, holding his hand up to Caine. If Caine hadn’t chosen that moment to hook his foot over her ankle, she would have kicked him in his teeth.
“James Haddock. Desdemona’s guardian. And I’m glad she’s been having a good day.”
Caine made no effort to shake James’ hand. “I wouldn’t exactly call it good.”
“That probably wasn’t the best choice of words.”
If anything, the solid wall of muscle against her side got harder. Desi tilted her head back. Caine was staring at James with that impassive face that gave away nothing. To him or to her.
“What would be a good choice?” Caine asked, his finger touching her cheek, the calluses on his fingertip feeling strange against her skin before re-curving his hand round her shoulder. Though it was illogical, she felt safer with it there.
“Stable maybe?” Jame’s sigh was sympathy personified as he stepped back. Behind him, spectators gathered. Most of them just bored townsfolk, but a few like Bert, Bryan and Carl had an interest even if they weren’t going to reveal it. She shuddered. They would never touch her again.
“Ever since her ordeal,” James continued, taking a step closer. “There’s been no knowing how she’s going to be one day to the next.”
Desi sucked in a breath and held it, pointless outrage surging. Again. Caine unhooked his leg from over her feet.
“I’m afraid so.”
She curled her hands into fists, knowing what was coming. How it was going to end. Caine’s chin bumped her head lightly and then his lips brushed her ear. “Breathe, Desi.”
She didn’t think she was ever going to breathe again.
“Ever since she came to us her mental condition has been…delicate.”
“I am not insane.” For once she wanted to say that and have someone really believe her.
“Of course you’re not,” James agreed immediately, that smile she hated stretching his lips and that warning tic pulling infinitesimally at the corner of his eye. “You’ve just had a tough time recovering from your experience with the Comancheros last year.”
Shame and anger warred for dominance. Everyone knew what Comancheros did to captives. Everyone knew how filthy they left a woman. Forever tainted. Scorned.
“That true, Desi?” Caine asked, no discernible inflection in his voice.
“I’m not crazy.”
“I already know that. I was questioning the part about the Comancheros.”
There would be no point in denying it. The sheriff or the priest would back up Jame’s claim. She dug her nails so hard into her palms they ached. “Yes.”
“Damn, I’m sorry, honey.”
Honey? When had she become honey?. She took one deep slow breath, two.
“Is that how you lost your parents?”
She didn’t bother with three. Simply gave up the struggle for calm. It just wasn’t possible with the threat of her return hanging over her head and Caine bringing the pain of the past to the fore. “Yes.” And her twin sister. She closed her eyes on that memory.
James took a step forward, the snap of a twig under his foot jerked her eyes open. This time Caine didn’t put his foot over hers as he came almost into reach. “We’ve done our best by her.”
“That’s true,” Sheriff Hatchet said, coming up. “The girl was wild when she first got here. No one could get near her. There was talk of sending her back east to one of those asylums until James here agreed to take her on.” He slapped James on the back. ”Don’t know how he did it, but he worked wonders with the girl.” He shook his head in amazement. “Pure wonders.”
“Did he work wonders on you Desi?” Caine asked, still with no inflection in his voice to give her an idea of what he wanted her to say.
“Her name is Desdemona,” James corrected before she could answer.
“The girl spoke clear enough when she introduced herself.”
That came from Sam.
James took a step nearer. The side of Caine’s hand dug into her hip as he adjusted his aim. James stopped mid-stride. He blinked, then slowly raised his hands and reversed his steps. The fear on his face gave Desi no end of satisfaction.
“Ranger,” the sheriff interjected. “James is the girl’s legal guardian. If you have a problem with that, you’ll need to take it up with the circuit judge next time he comes through.”
The saddle creaked as Caine sifted his weight. “I’m thinking maybe I will.”
“I assure you, Ranger, we’ve only had her best interests in mind.”
“Can’t help it if it strikes my suspicious bone funny when the territories crookedest judge gives a pretty young girl to a gambler for care-taking.”
“Can’t argue with the results,” the sheriff pointed out.
“I guess that would depend on which angle you were viewing the results from,” Caine countered.
To her surprise, Caine slid the rifle under her hands, pushing it forward until the smooth stock pressed against the heels of her hands and the hammer caught on her gloves. “You want to weigh in on Jame’s care-taking, Desi?”
She looked up at him only to find him staring down at her, green eyes serious. He couldn’t mean what she thought he meant. “I can shoot him?”
He nodded. “Anywhere you want.”
He had to be joking. She fumbled through the gloves to get her finger around the trigger. However, if there was a chance he was serious, she wasn’t missing out. Hate welled up, spreading outward in a cold, dark wave. Could she do it? Did she have it in her to kill him and to hell with the consequences?
She tilted the gun. It wobbled. Caine steadied it for her as she lifted it and sighted down the barrel at Jame’s face, savoring the terror in his expression, remembering how it felt that night he’d begun “working wonders” with her. Remembering how helpless she’d felt. So damn sick and afraid. So betrayed.
The sight at the end of the muzzle dropped over his torso. She followed the line of buttons on his vest until she came to the waistband of his fancy black broadcloth pants. From there it was only a matter of two more inches before she reached her destination. There. Right there was where she wanted the first shot to go.
James swore and backed up, stumbling over his own feet. With Caine’s help, she kept the rifle trained as he landed on his butt in the mud. The sheriff grabbed for his revolver, but before he got it clear of his holster, she squeezed the trigger, keeping her eyes on the target, wanting to see the bullet hit. Wanting the satisfaction.
At the last second, the gun tilted down and there was an explosion of mud that sprayed between Jame’s feet. While she stared, not understanding, Caine removed the gun from her hands.
“Guess that answers my question.”
But it didn’t answer hers. She wanted the gun back in her hands. She wanted one second more. She wanted James dead. She stared at the gloves overwhelming her hands and felt Caine all around her. Another man using her to get what he wanted. “Why did you stop me?”
The quaver in her voice was barely perceptible but Caine heard it. Desi had a belly full of anger and no outlet. He tipped her face up. The pain and rage in her eyes ate at his gut. “I figure you’ve got enough scars, you don’t need the kind killing a man can bring.”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
He released her chin and moved the rifle out of her reach, aiming it at the men rushing up from the edge of town. “I would.”
He squeezed with his right knee and Chaser turned into the oncoming crowd. “You best be telling those men to holster their guns, Sheriff, or this town’s going to be short some of its important citizens.”
“You can’t just come in here and start shooting people, Allen.”
“Unless you’re going to stop me,” he told the older man. ”I can pretty much do whatever the hell I want.”
And what he wanted right now was justice.
“He’s got a point,” Tracker drawled, a revolver in each hand, his horse tossing its head as the tension built. “We just start shooting up towns whenever we get the urge, eventually someone’s going to slap up a wanted poster with our pictures on it.”
“Not that I particularly mind,” Sam added, his new repeater in one hand and a shotgun in the other, “Hell we’ve skirted the wrong side of legal all our lives, but you know damn well they aren’t going to do our handsome faces justice on those damn posters and that would pain me.”
“What would you suggest?”
“We should just take the girl and leave.”
Caine pretended to consider the suggestion as the sheriffas crooked a son of a bitch as Caine had ever seensettled his weight into his boots with misplaced confidence. “There are ten of us here and only three of you, son. I think you’d better settle down.”
Caine had no intention of settling down. A short, stocky figure in brown robes pushed through the crowd. Caine bumped Desi’s butt with his thigh to get her attention. “Desi, I want you to slide on down now and go stand with Father Gerard.”
He didn’t want her anywhere near him if shooting commenced. He held her wrists as her feet touched the ground, stretching her back, forcing her to look at him. At the base of her throat, where the coat parted, he could see her pulse pounding. She was afraid but game. A woman a man could depend on.
“No running. Not this time.” He held her gaze, trusting Tracker and Sam to guard his back. She finally nodded. “Give me your word.” A flare of surprise crossed her face, and then that chin set and she gave a short nod.
“Good.” He let her go. She limped over to Father Gerard, her steps awkward due to the way he’d tied the moccasins and the cuts on her feet. As soon as she reached the priest, he put his arms around her. She held up her hands. The older man went to work on the knots. Across the small distance her triumph was palpable. Caine nodded, ceding her the small victory. Then he turned back to the gambler. “I’m revoking your guardianship.”
“You can’t do that.” A portly man who shouldn’t have anything to do with the discussion broke in. Immediately, another man shushed him. Both were better dressed than farmers. All confident. None of them should have cared one way or another what happened to one small woman with no family or influence.
I’ll die there.
Desi’s words took on deeper meaning. An ugly suspicion took root as he pulled the puzzle pieces together. Mavis’ unreasonable dislike. The Sheriff’s interest. The judge giving her over to the gambler. Father Gerard’s veiled innuendos about circumstances and his request for Caine to watch out for her personally. Son of a bitch. He didn’t like the conclusion he was reaching. He waved the rifle barrel at the fat man. “Who are you?”
The man paled but didn’t back up, obviously under some illusion that Caine would suffer a pang of conscience at plugging him. “Bryan Sanders. Representative of Steel, Jones and Steel.”
“And who are they?” From the cut of the men’s clothes, “they” were well heeled.
“A group of gentleman with financial interests in the region.”
“Bankers.” Sam spat. Sam liked bankers about as much as he liked gamblers.
Caine considered himself to be more open-minded, but in this case, he had to agree. He was developing his own dislike for the fat banker. “It must have been real tempting for y’all, having a pretty young woman come through, no family to speak for her, no one to turn to, traumatized by her experiences.”
The women pushed in from the edge of the crowd. One gasped. Another murmured. The banker drew himself to his full height, his jowls jiggling with his outrage. ”I don’t think I like your innuendo.”
“Hate to break it to you, but your likes and dislikes aren’t high on my consideration list.”
“What the hell are you getting at, Allen?” James asked, getting to his feet, wiping mud from his pants. “We took her in, saved her from those devils. Gave her a home. Community.”
Chaser stepped sideways as a horse bumped him.
He spared Tracker a glance, who in turn jerked his chin in Desi’s direction. Her face was bleached white as she stood there, dwarfed by his coat and the truth she didn’t want known. Her chin lifted high as her gaze met his, but he got the impression all that was holding her up was that damn pride as the women murmured among themselves, enjoying the scandal he’d begun.
Caine bit back the rage burning in his gut. Tracker was right. First things first. “We’re taking Desi with us and if anyone has anything to say against it,” he levered a bullet into the chamber, letting the fury roll through him in an open challenge, “step up now so we can get the discussing behind us.”
To his surprise it was Father Gerard who stepped forward. “I can’t let you do that, Caine.”
“I don’t rightly see where you can stop me, padre.” More titters spread through the crowd.
“I cannot let an unmarried woman go off with three men, lawmen or not.”
“Whatever we have planned, it’s better than what’s here.”
The stocky priest shook his nearly bald head. “It can’t be allowed.”
The longer they stood there, the more dutch courage the men were getting and the more trigger happy fingers were twitching.
“If you take her like this, she’ll still be Jame’s ward, and still his by law.
Caine kneed Chaser in a half circle, drawing his revolver. “Any who wants to dispute my claim know where to find me.”
“I’m not going with you.”
He wasn’t surprised when Desi’s protest was the only one spoken. There were times when a deadly reputation came in right handy.
“Ten months ago when I saved your life,” Father Gerard continued in his calm way, “you told me I could ask a favor any time, and it would be granted.”
“I did.” Caine had an idea where this was heading. The priest’s next words confirmed his suspicions.
“A husband’s rights supersede all others.”
Caine took aim at the young wrangler on the left edge of the crowd. “Don’t do it, son.”
He cut Father Gerard a quick glance. “You don’t call in markers on something like this.”
The priest shrugged, coming closer, letting go of Desi’s hand when she planted her feet. “You’ll have to forgive me. This is my first time.”
If it was the priest’s first time, he’d eat his boot. The cowboy holstered his revolver and held up his hands. Caine backed Chaser up two steps. “I thought it was a sin for priests to lie.”
“And I thought Rangers always kept their promises.”
They didhe did, but as much as he admired Desi’s courage, he wasn’t ready to marry her. Although the thought wasn’t as distasteful as it should have been. “Marriage is a forever thing, padre.”
“I’m not a forever kind of man.”
“Then perhaps it’s time you changed.”
“Might be too late in the day for that miracle.”
“Are you going back on your promise?”
This time Caine cut a glance at Desi. She was staring at the smiling gambler with resigned horror, sure he would go back on his word to the priest and to her. Jesus, he wanted to walk Chaser over there and kick those damn shiny teeth down the gambling bastard’s throat just for looking at her. “No.”
“Without my approval this marriage can’t take place,” the gambler piped up, clearly looking to shorten his life.
A shotgun cocked on Caine’s right. Sam’s “Then give it” was short and to the point.
He didn’t give his approval, but he shut up, which was all the same to Caine.
Caine clucked his tongue, guiding Chaser to where Desi stood. He holstered the rifle and motioned for her to hold up her hands. He pulled his knife from his boot top and cut through her bonds. “A woman shouldn’t get married with her hands tied.”
“I don’t want to marry.”
Neither did he, but neither of them had much of a choice. Forced by circumstance and honor, there was only one path for both of them. “Would you rather stay here?”
“Then we get hitched.”
He waited for the priest to reach them. His robes flapped around his legs in the breeze. He should have looked ridiculous, womanly in the garb, but he didn’t. He looked what he was. A man at peace with his life and the choices he’d made. Caine envied him. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d felt calm.
Since the day the Mexican army had slaughtered their entire town, shouting “death” as they’d murdered men, women and children alike, he’d been consumed with a rage for justice that wouldn’t let him rest. The same rage flowed over him now as the men he’d mentally marked gathered together, voices rising and falling in an angry cadence, occasionally punctuating their frustration with sharp gestures. His finger ached on the trigger of his revolver. It’d be so easy to take them out. To save everyone the expense of a trial for what they’d done to Desi. So very easy to make them suffer.
“Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.”
Caine didn’t take his eyes off the men, controlling Chaser’s impatient prance with a light touch on the reins. “This time, padre, the good Lord is going to have to get in line.”