Heart Of The Lawman
Heart Of The Lawman
Table of Contents
“Don’t ever do that again,”
she whispered. Impotent rage burned in her eyes. “Do you hear me?”
“I hear you, Marydyth, but I can’t say I won’t kiss you again,” Flynn replied truthfully. He didn’t trust her, but, damn it all to hell, he could no longer trust himself, either.
In that moment she hated herself almost as much as she hated him. She should’ve fought him, should’ve scratched his eyes out. But the kiss.
It filled her with an emotion she didn’t want to feel and was hungry to feel again. She was mad and confused, and Flynn only made it worse. All of her notions about J.C. were nothing more than a foolish woman’s dreams, and in the midst of all that, Flynn O’Bannion had managed to make her feel like a woman again.
“I do hate you.” She spat out the only defense she had…
As the weather heats up this month, so do the passion and adventure in our romances!
Since her publishing debut in 1995, Linda Castle has gone on to write five more Harlequin Historical novels, including Heart of the Lawman, which is a spin-off of her very first book, Fearless Hearts. In this emotional Western, a woman’s greatest nightmare is replaced by her greatest dream, when she is finally reunited with her daughter after being wrongfully incarcerated. And now she must face the man who put her away, Sheriff Flynn O’Bannion—not only because she’s undeniably attracted to him, but also because he’s her daughter’s legal guardian!
Temperatures—and tempers—flare in Plum Creek Bride by Lynna Banning, about a German nanny whose new position leads to a marriage of convenience with a singlefather physician who must grapple with a town plagued by cholera. The Captive Bride, a new medieval novel by Susan Spencer Paul, is the tale of a fierce knight who’ll stop at nothing to reclaim his father’s estate—even if it means marrying the headstrong vixen who now inhabits the keep!
Sit close to a fan while reading Ana Seymour’s Lord of Lyonsbridge, because her sinfully handsome hero, Connor Brand, might cause a meltdown! Connor, the horse master at Lyonsbridge, teaches a spoiled Norman beauty some important lessons in compassion and love…
Whatever your tastes in reading, you’ll be sure to find a romantic journey back to the past between the covers of a Harlequin Historicals® novel.
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Heart Of The Lawman Linda Castle
is the pseudonym of Linda L. Crockett. Linda is an avid reader and writer of historical romance of all types and periods. She is enchanted with the West, but is an admitted Anglophile. For a bookmark and autographed bookplate write to Linda at her address: Linda Castle/Crockett, #18 County Road 5795, Farmington, NM 87401.
This book is lovingly dedicated to my family and God, and to my legion of loyal readers. We have come full circle; we started our dance together with the O’Bannion family in Fearless Hearts, and we finish with the O’Bannion family in Heart of the Lawman. Enjoy!
Tombstone, Arizona Territory
“Please, please take good care of my baby.” The blowing dust made Marydyth’s voice crack. She stroked her daughter’s downy soft hair with her fingertips, trying to memorize every detail of the baby’s face. “Tuck her in at night. She likes to hear a lullaby.”
“She likes lullabies sung by a Jezebel?” Victoria Hollenbeck’s voice floated from under the netting of her mourning attire. Her words were harsher than the winter wind coming off the low, rugged mountains to whistle through the streets of Tombstone.
“Promise you will rock her at night.” Marydyth’s eyes scanned the innocent face, lingering on her upturned nose and dewy soft lips. “And—and just pick her up and hold her for no reason during the day. Will you do that, Victoria?”
Rachel’s babyish cheeks were growing pink from the scuffing wind. Marydyth cursed herself for being so selfish. She had thoughtlessly begged Victoria to bring Rachel to the train depot in this weather—how she hungered for just one more minute to look at her baby. “Please help her say her prayers. Tell me that you’ll help her say her prayers, Victoria.”
“What kind of prayer would a gold digger like you know?” Victoria spit the words at Marydyth in a voice so bitter it singed the edges of Flynn’s soul to hear it. As he watched from under the protective brim of his hat, Victoria swiveled her body, forcing her shoulder between Rachel and Marydyth’s outstretched hand. The younger woman’s anxious fingers reached for the child but all she grabbed was a tuft of white rabbit fur accidentally plucked from the collar of the baby’s red velvet coat.
“Let me hold her. Please, Victoria. Let me feel her in my arms—one last time?” Marydyth begged.
Flynn unconsciously inhaled and looked heavenward. The scent of a storm was on the ocher coattails of clouds scudding from the hills.
“I wish there was sun,” Marydyth muttered. “Her curls shine like crimson-kissed gold in the sunshine.” Marydyth’s fingers managed to touch one silken curl. She leaned closer and tried to kiss the top of Rachel’s head but Victoria stepped away.
Victoria was not going to give an inch—not even today, the last time Marydyth would ever see her child.
“Before you get on that train, Marydyth, there is something I want you to take with you into the walls of Yuma. Let this be your company for the rest of your life-and I pray to God it will be a long one.” Victoria shuddered and took a deep breath, as if her hatred were about to consume her and render her mute. “I would’ve seen you hung for what you did to my boy. Hung and left for all the world to see.” Her voice cracked. “But I couldn’t do that to my only grandchild. I will raise Rachel to be a lady, but not for you. No. I will do it because she has Hollenbeck blood in her veins.”
“I know you don’t believe me, Victoria, but I loved J.C.,” Marydyth whispered.
“Loved him so much you stabbed him in the heart.” Victoria took another step backward.
Marydyth did not deny the deed.
Victoria trembled beneath the dark veil. “You are a murderess and a liar. Just think about this every night before you go to sleep in that place. I will do everything in my power to erase your mark upon this child. She will never know that her mother is the Black Widow.”
Marydyth could not hold back the strangled sob. Rachel fastened chubby, dimpled fingers over the black lace on her grandmother’s Cisele collar.
“Mama.” She gurgled.
Hot, dry tears stung Marydyth’s eyes, choked off the air in her lungs.
So, this is justice?
“Please, Victoria, tell her that I love her.”
“I’ll tell her nothing about you.” Victoria’s biting declaration carried on the grit blowing into Flynn’s eyes. He didn’t want to watch, didn’t want to listen, but he had no choice.
“Marydyth, I want you to suffer as I have suffered. Your child will be alive, but to her, you will be dead—as dead as I can make you. Nobody in Hollenbeck Corners will ever mention your name again, I’ll see to that.” The black netting on her mourning hat fluttered in the wind.
Flynn felt the current of anguish, hatred and love flowing between the trio of Hollenbeck women. It was like a tainted river that threatened to overflow its banks.
It was a pitiful thing to behold, these women tearing at each other. It was gut-wrenching and full of sorrow, and something that a man like Flynn had no belly for. His nerves felt raw. They had been that way since the trial.
He drew hard on his cigarette and wished the scene over soon.
A small crowd of people had gathered near the station. Angry murmurs and the sound of a mob made the hair on the back of his neck bristle. He crushed the stub of his cigarette into the ground with the toe of his boot.
Somebody threw a rock. It hit the side of the locomotive with a hollow ping. Flynn peeled back the edge of his coat and drew his side arm.
“Black Widow!” somebody shouted.
“Murderin’ Mary, I hope you burn in hell!” yelled another bodiless voice.
“Mrs. Hollenbeck?” he said.
Both Victoria and Marydyth turned to look at him.
How the hell did I get tangled up in this mess?
It was a bitter irony that he had been drawn into this tragedy simply because he was the only lawman available to come to the Arizona Territory.
The crowd sounds grew more agitated, like a swarm of riled yellow jackets. Flynn kept his gun at waist level, his finger on the trigger.
“Ma’am, we’ve got to go,” Flynn said.
The train belched out a cloud of steam and the slithering vapor swirled around Marydyth’s skirt. The relentless wind broomed along the street, driving back the crowd with stinging pelts of sand.
Flynn turtled into the warmth of his sheepskin coat. It didn’t help. He hadn’t been able to shake the chill that had seeped into his soul when he’d heard the verdict.
For the first time in his career justice didn’t taste sweet. It tasted sour, and grew more foul each time he looked at the baby Victoria held in her arms.
It was a damn poor thing to be taking a woman to Yuma. And even worse knowing she left behind an infant.
Flynn shoved the sympathetic thoughts aside. He had no call to feel anything one way or the other about it.
He wore a badge—nothing more or less. The jury had had their say. Marydyth Hollenbeck’s fate was sealed. Nothing this side of heaven could save her from the hell that waited within the prison gates of Yuma.
The train whistle blew, which sent an icy finger trailing down Flynn’s spine.
Marydyth’s shoulders stiffened inside the smoke-gray wool coat. Invisible fingers of wind pulled at her hat, which merely rested on her head since she wasn’t allowed a hat pin.
Flynn narrowed his eyes against the sting of blowing sand and watched her turn. No bandido or high-line rider had ever managed to stare him down, but enduring the gaze of Marydyth Hollenbeck’s red-rimmed blue eyes rattled him. His pulse ticked off the time as they stared across the mile-wide gulf between lawman and prisoner.
“It’s time,” Flynn said gruffly. “You better get on the train before this turns ugly.”
Flynn kept his gun pointed into the crowd and extended his hand to help her aboard, but she jerked back. The iron manacles locked around her slender wrists clanked together in a discordant peal.
“I don’t need your help to get where I’m going. I managed it all by myself this far and I’ll see it through to the end,” she said. She grabbed hold of her skirts, climbed the steps to the train and never looked back at the jeering crowd.
Territorial Prison, Yuma.
Marydyth fell onto her hard cot. Exhaustion and heat sapped her strength and dragged her toward sleep.
But she never rested
Night was the worst time in this place that men had named Hellhole. Night was when the specters of her past came to visit
She tossed and turned on the hard mattress, willing them to stay away for just one night.
But her guilt would not abate. Andre’s face floated before her. His eyes were hollow, dark sockets but his lips twisted into a hideous grin. Then Andre’s face shifted and changed.
It was J.C.
Oh, J.C., I didn’t do it—you know I didn’t kill you. But J.C. only stared at her with dark, haunted eyes until his face transformed and became Victoria. She was laughing. Laughing.
Did Marydyth scream aloud or was it only in her head?
Next, Andre’s face returned and loomed closer, pale blue and lifeless. His eyes were empty holes.
I didn’t want to kill you. I didn’t want to kill anybody.
Rachel was crying. She was lost, somewhere just beyond Marydyth’s reach. She turned in a circle, searching, looking for her baby.
Where is my baby? Who will love my baby?
Marydyth woke to the sounds of her own frightened screams.
Hollenbeck Corners, Arizona Territory
“Unca Flynn!” Rachel darted down the stairs, her black leather shoes clacking out a quick tempo while she ran. She launched her body at Flynn’s outstretched arms without a single doubt that he would catch her.
He spun her around and held her above the crown of his cream-colored Stetson hat.
“Whe-e-e-e!” The little girl squealed in delight
He gave her one last turn and then brought her to his chest. She was giggling and squirming in his arms.
“How’s my girl today?”
“I missed you.”
“I didn’t miss you at all.” He pulled a face. “Not even when I went to the mercantile on the way home.”
Her eyes widened. “Did you bring me somethin’?”
“Naw.” He grinned. “There is nothing in my shirt pocket for you.”
Rachel attacked his pocket like a hungry coon. She dug deep and came up holding the hoarhound stick.
“Shh—don’t let Mrs. Young know.” Rachel held one dimpled finger to her lips.
“Is it a secret?” Flynn whispered.
“Uh-huh. Mrs. Young made gingerbread men for our dessert, so you mustn’t let her know.” Rachel’s warm breath fanned out over his face as she whispered.
“Then it will be our secret. You can count on me.” He winked.
Rachel hugged him tight around the neck, and liquid warmth—love—exploded in his chest.
It had been this way for a long while now. Flynn and Rachel. Unca Flynn.
He deposited Rachel on her feet and she immediately wrapped her fingers around two of his. “I missed you,” she said for the second time.
“I had to move the cattle, honey,” Flynn explained. “It will take a few more days.”
“Oh.” Flynn felt as if the sunshine had been covered by a cloud when Rachel stopped smiling.
“Tell me about those gingerbread men,” he said as they walked through the parlor. The tall, narrow windows were open and the evening breeze fluttered the heavy, green tasseled draperies.
It was still hot
“I made a special one just for you, Unca Flynn. I saved it.” Rachel’s eyes darted toward the kitchen at the back of the house. She leaned close enough for him to feel the angel’s wing of her breath along his neck. “Mrs. Young didn’t like it, but I saved it anyway,” Rachel whispered into his ear.
“I am mighty beholden to you for the kindness. Gingerbread is one of my particular favorites.” Flynn folded himself into a chair, and Rachel scrambled into his lap. She sucked on her hoarhound when he patted her knee.
“I love you, Unca Flynn.”
That hot feeling expanded in his chest again. He swallowed hard.
If anybody had told him three years ago that he would give up his badge and become nursemaid and surrogate parent to a four-year-old charmer, he probably would have locked them up for drunkenness. But sure as God made little green apples, U.S. Marshal Flynn O’Bannion was now just Unca Flynn.
“I love you too, sugar.” His voice had gone husky with emotion. He cleared his throat “I’m hungry enough to eat the south end of a northbound bear.”
Rachel giggled as he hauled them both up from the chair.
“Are you done with that sweet stick yet?” he asked as she crunched the last bite.
“Now I am.”
“Then let’s go see what old Mrs. Young has for us tonight.” He levered her up onto his shoulder and gave her a ride down the carpet-lined hall.
“Yes, sugar?” he asked while he ducked the fancy chandelier. The flickering lamps made long-fingered shadows on the ornate wallpaper as he passed.
“You smell funny.” Rachel wrinkled her nose when he glanced at her.
He laughed. “Yep, I guess I do. It was mighty hot out there today.” Too damned hot to have to wrestle cattle all day, but there was nobody else to see they got moved to the high country for summer grass and water. When he took over caring for Rachel he had mingled his herd in with the Hollenbeck beeves. Come fall he would cut out enough for his walking-around money, and the Hollenbeck profits would go into Rachel’s trust fund.
“After dinner I’ll see about a bath.”
“Good,” Rachel agreed as Flynn reached the kitchen. He swung her down to the floor while the rowels on his spurs jingled. The smell of gingerbread and wood smoke filled his nostrils.
“Miz Young,” he said to the wide back in front of the Monarch cookstove.
Mrs. Young allowed her attention to stray from the pot she was stirring for only a moment. “Evening, Mr. O’Bannion.” She turned back to the bubbling pot. Her gray hair was pinned tight but one or two disobedient strands had worked free in the heat of the kitchen.
Flynn shoved his hands in his pockets. It was damned awkward but she had greeted him in exactly the same way for close to three years.
“Come lookie, Unca Flynn.” Rachel pulled one hand free and yanked on his finger. He moved to the scrubbed pine table, glad for something to do until Mrs. Young was ready to leave. Rachel pointed to a blue-sprigged china plate. In the center lay a slightly gimpy, somewhat misshaped gingerbread man.
It was the prettiest thing Flynn had ever seen.
“Do you like it?” Rachel asked.
“I do, I surely do.” Flynn smiled down at her expectant face. It took no effort to act as if he were pleased. He had grown a mighty soft spot for Rachel since Victoria had drawn up the papers and roped him into becoming the child’s guardian.
Her voice grew serious. “It isn’t very good-not like Mrs. Young’s.” Rachel’s gaze slid to the closed pie safe with the pierced tin panels. Flynn was sure inside must lie a treasure of perfectly formed gingerbread men in precise rows upon the scrubbed wood.
Flynn’s heart contracted at the searching expression in Rachel’s cornflower-blue eyes. “Dumpling, I think that is the finest gingerbread man in town—probably the whole territory.”
Some of the strain left her small shoulders. “Mrs. Young said it was crooked.”
Flynn’s eyes slid to the housekeeper. She was in the process of folding a dish towel. When she had folded four layers she used the towel to pull a black Dutch oven out of the front of the Monarch stove. Then, as she had done every night for three years, she stripped off her apron and turned to Flynn.
“Dinner is roast beef. There is a pan of biscuits and a bowl of gravy on the warmer.” She laid her apron aside and retrieved her brown bonnet from a hook by the back door. “Yesterday’s loaves are in the pie safe if you take a hankering for some.”
Without another word she tied the bonnet on her head and shuffled out the back door. Heavy, determined steps thudded alongside the house. The iron gate in front creaked once when it opened and once when it swung shut. They would see no more of Mrs. Young until seven o’clock in the morning.
The huge house seemed to sigh in relief.
“I’m glad she is gone,” Rachel whispered.
Flynn frowned and rubbed his rough palm against Rachel’s satiny cheek. “It’s just the two of us again, partner.”
“Uh-huh,” Rachel said with another relieved sigh.
Flynn knew that Rachel was uneasy around Mrs. Young. Most of the time he was home and things were fine, but when he had business to take care of or the herd to move, then he saw Rachel become unhappy.
Maybe it was time to make a change. Mrs. Young was old and set in her ways. Rachel had all the energy and curiosity of a normal child.
Maybe if he talked to Mrs. Young…
He wasn’t sure how to ride herd over her. Still, the notion that he needed to make changes for Rachel nudged at the corners of his mind.
He yanked out a kitchen chair and helped Rachel into it. She straightened her petticoats over legs as straight and slender as a yearling filly’s.
“Are you eating man-size or little girl-size tonight?” he asked as he lifted the heavy iron cover from the Dutch oven.
“Man-size,” Rachel said.
He looked at her from under lifted brows. “How about we start small and work up?”
“All right, Unca Flynn.”
He dished up two plates. “Did Mrs. Young snap at you again, punkin?”
“No, not ’xactly.” Rachel squirmed in her chair.
“No. She isn’t like you, Unca Flynn,” Rachel explained patiently in her young-old voice.
“I should hope not.” He chuckled and tried to make light of what she had said. “I’m a tough old range bull.”
“You’re not old, Unca Flynn.” Rachel laughed but then her expression turned serious. “You’re not old like Grandma Hollenbeck.”
“No, I’m not old like that, Rachel, but your grandma is very sick.” Victoria probably seemed aged beyond counting to Rachel since the woman had been ravaged by her strokes.
Flynn sat down at the table. He picked up a fork and rotated it between his finger and thumb, chewing on the question that he knew had to be asked. Finally he just spit it out.
“What did Mrs. Young say to upset you today, Rachel?” He stared at his food, while he waited for her to find the words.
“I asked her why I didn’t have a mama like Becky Morgan and Maizie Duncan and all the other little girls in town.” Her voice was a quivering whisper as she stared down at her lap.
A hard knot took up residence in Flynn’s belly. This was a day he had long dreaded.
“What did she say?”
“She said I didn’t have a mama.” Rachel’s voice was dry and whispery. “But how come, Unca Flynn?” She looked up at him and tears swam in her blue eyes. “How come I don’t have a mama?”
“Oh, honey, don’t listen to Mrs. Young. She is a grumpy old sage hen who has forgotten how to raise a little girl.” Flynn reached out and rubbed her soft cheek with his thumb. He made up his mind then and there. Mrs. Young would have to go. He would not have a woman in the house who had so little compassion.
Rachel swallowed hard and toyed with her food Flynn tried a piece of meat but it tasted like sawdust while he chewed.
He had known this day would come—that eventually Rachel’s curiosity would bring him to this point, but he was unprepared. What could he tell her?
Rachel had grown up in a town full of secrets. Victoria Hollenbeck’s power and money had silenced the tongues of the residents of Hollenbeck Corners. As far as Flynn knew, Rachel had never even heard her mother’s name spoken. He had said nothing because he just didn’t know what to say. But as he looked at Rachel’s tight little face, he knew he was going to have to find the words.
“You do have a mama, Rachel,” Flynn said softly.
Her head lifted. She stared across the blue-flowered china with a look of hope and bone-deep hunger. Her pale blue eyes burned into him.
“Yes, you do. You look a lot like her, in fact. She has blue eyes, just like yours.”
I remember, because she turned and looked at me with those amazing eyes before she walked through the gates at Yuma.
“You—know her?” Wonder tinted every word.
“Yep, I know her.”
Rachel’s eyes scanned his face, as her mind gauged his words, searching for truth and meaning.
“Where is my mama, Unca Flynn?”
Straight as an Apache arrow, her question pierced his heart.
Flynn swallowed hard. Now he had opened Pandora’s box and all the misery that came with his answer would come flying out.
How could he tell Rachel that her mother was in prison for killing her daddy?
Her world would shatter.
No. The world he had built around this tiny girl would shatter, if she learned what part he had played in taking her mother away.
“She had to leave when you were just a baby.” The half truth rushed past his lips.
Something cold and mournful, like wind out of the Superstitions, swept over him. “Sh—she just did. There are times when adults have to do things—even if they don’t want to. I—I can’t really explain it all to you now. Maybe when you are a little older.”
Rachel’s bottom lip trembled. She drew in a ragged breath in an effort not to cry. “Oh.”
He swallowed hard. This little scrap of flesh and bone could wound him with a look. Her tears destroyed him and turned him to a babbling fool.
“She loved you, honey. That is what you need to remember and think about. Don’t listen to Mrs. Young, just remember that your mama loved you.”
Her face took on a sullen hurt look that cut him deep. “If she loved me she wouldn’t have gone away. If she loved me she would come back,” Rachel said softly.
The edges of his heart withered. “No. That isn’t always true, honey. You’ve got to believe me when I tell you that she didn’t have any choice. She had to go.”
Rachel flew out of her chair and crumpled against his body like a fragile flower seeking shelter from a hard frost. He cuddled her while the sound of her sobs tore a hole right through him.
Someday he would have to explain it all to Rachel. And then he would have to live with the consequences of what it meant to have worn a badge.
A half hour later a knock at the door brought Rachel’s head up. Flynn slowly rose from the chair with Rachel still cradled in his arms.
She had cried for a long time.
Her tears ate at him like acid. He was ill equipped to be a father—but he was the closest thing she had to family now.
“I wonder who would be coming to call?” He hoped he could draw her from the pain she was in.
“Don’t know,” she said with a hiccup.
“Well, let’s me and you go find out.” He gave her a kiss on the top of the head and set her on her feet. Together they crossed the carpeted parlor to the front hall.
Rachel’s ragged hiccups tore at Flynn every step of the way to the door. He was too old and too much a lone wolf to be caring for her. She needed more.
She needed a mother.
When he reached the door she looked at him with such an expression of loneliness that he scooped her up in his arms again.
They looked through the frosted pane of glass and saw the glow of a lantern. Flynn opened the door and discovered Charlie Parker, Hollenbeck Corners’s aging postmaster. He gripped an ancient-looking mining lantern in his deeply tanned, gnarled hand.
“Evening, Mr. O’Bannion. Sorry to bother you.” Every time he spoke his Adam’s apple bobbed like a cork in the water.
“No bother. Come inside, Charlie. What brings you out so late?” Flynn lowered Rachel to the floor and stepped back so Charlie could enter, but the man hung back. “Is something wrong?”
Charlie glanced down at the thick Chinese carpet beneath Flynn’s feet. He dusted his boots on the backs of his pant legs before he stepped over the threshold into the big house. “Not ’xactly, Mr. O’Bannion.”
The postmaster was acting so jumpy that Flynn found himself looking both ways down the steep hill toward town. J. C. Hollenbeck had built his mansion on a rocky knoll near the San Pedro River. Flynn could stand on the front porch and view most of Hollenbeck Corners below. Right now the place was pretty quiet. A horse nickered, a dog barked and a furious-sounding cat answered, and there was a faint tinkle of barroom music floating on the dry spring breeze. But there was nothing to account for Charlie’s nervousness.
“Would you like some supper, Charlie?” Flynn asked as he stepped inside and closed the door behind him. “Mrs. Young left us a pot full of prime Hollenbeck beef.” Charlie always looked as if he could use a hot meal and an extra night’s sleep.
“No, thank you kindly. I am here on business.”
Rachel looked at Charlie from her position behind Flynn’s knee. He could feel her little fingers, curling into the fabric of his Levi’s.
“Business?” Flynn frowned and shot a glance at Rachel. “And it couldn’t wait until the morning?”
Charlie’s Adam’s apple worked up and down a couple of times real fast. “I—I wasn’t sure. Uh—a—a letter has come—” Charlie glanced toward Rachel and swallowed hard.
“A letter?” The short hairs on the back of Flynn’s neck rose of their own will.
“It—it ain’t ’xactly for you—” Charlie subtly nodded toward Rachel once again “—if you catch my meaning.”
Flynn didn’t catch Charlie’s meaning, but the way he was acting the letter must have something to do with Rachel.
An icy finger traced a line up Flynn’s back. He was hard-pressed to keep from shivering. He looked down at Rachel, still hiding halfway behind his leg. The salty outline of dried tears was still evident on her little cheeks.
Once right after Victoria had persuaded Flynn to become Rachel’s guardian he had seen a pile of letters tied with a black ribbon. They had been addressed to Rachel and sent from Yuma.
Flynn and Victoria had some strong words on the matter before she ended the discussion by tossing them into the flames of her fireplace.
“Sugar, why don’t you go clean the dishes off the table? I’ll finish with Charlie, then we’ll wash them up and have some gingerbread and milk.” Flynn gave her a wink.
“All right, Unca Flynn.” Rachel unclasped her fingers from his pants and walked slowly down the long hall. She looked small and way too vulnerable as she passed beneath the crystal chandelier.
“Thanks, Mr. O’Bannion, I didn’t wanna say nothin’ in front of the child.” He pulled an envelope from his vest pocket. His fingers worked nervously around the outside edge. He seemed undecided about whether he wanted to keep it or give it to Flynn.
“Is it a letter for Rachel?” Flynn finally asked when Charlie’s fingers had trodden the same ground for the third time.
“No, not precisely.” Charlie’s lips parted but no sound came out. Then he took a deep breath. “It’s—it’s, aw hell, the letter is addressed to—to the Black Widow.” The words spilled out in an awkward rush.
“I don’t like that name, Charlie.” Flynn took a step closer and lowered his voice. “I never did.”
Charlie’s eyes widened and his Adam’s apple worked up and down. “It is to Mrs. Marydyth Hollenbeck,” he corrected himself, and thrust the letter at Flynn. “Now who would be a-writin’ to her here? I said to myself. Well, nobody who knew what happened, I answered myself. And then I says, well, I says, I better get this to Mr. O’Bannion, right away.” Charlie was staring at the paper as if he thought it might come to life.
“I figger you’d best be the one to have it—since Miz Victoria is—well, you know.”
“Yes, I know.” Flynn glanced at the envelope in his hand. It was dirty and ragged. There was no return address and the postmark had been blurred by dirt, greasy stains and the passage of time. It was an old envelope, and had passed through a lot of hands.
Flynn glanced back at Charlie. A hundred questions raced through his mind.
“What do you suppose you’ll do with it, Mr. O’Bannion?” Charlie was still staring at the paper. “I’ll tell you one thing for nothing, Mr. O’Bannion, I am mighty happy I don’t have to do nothing with it. That Black Wi—I mean that Mrs. Hollenbeck, she came to no good, and everythin’ that touched her was the same way.”
“I’ll have to give it some thought,” Flynn interrupted, strangely annoyed to hear Charlie condemn Rachel’s mother in her own house.
“I knew you’d know just what to do, I mean you takin’ care of the little one and all. Yep, that was why I brought it to you. Well, I best be going.” Charlie suddenly turned and shuffled toward the front door, as if he had used up all the words inside him and was anxious to escape.
“Thanks for coming all the way up here. I appreciate it.”
“Just wanted to get it to you right off.” He glanced at the envelope once again. “I figger it might be important—or it might be bad news of a kind. Bad news seemed to follow that woman.”
Flynn ran his finger over the stains and dirt on the yellowing envelope. “Charlie, I’d like for you to keep this quiet.”
Charlie looked at Flynn and blinked. “Yes, sir. Whatever you say, Mr. O’Bannion, I’d be happy to oblige. It’s a load off my mind just to put in your hands.” Charlie ducked his head and pulled his shapeless hat back on his head. “I told myself that Miz Victoria wouldn’t like me waitin’, nosirree, she wouldn’t like it a’tall.”
“Thanks again, Charlie, and good night.” Flynn closed the door behind Charlie.
He glanced down at the envelope, allowing the questions to come unhindered.
Why would somebody be writing to Marydyth at this address? The papers had been full of the details of her trial—the details and those names: the Black Widow and Murdering Mary.
The public had turned on Marydyth with the same vigor they had once pursued her. And the very ones that had been so happy to be guests in her home, to have attended the fancy dances and dinners, suddenly didn’t know her name.
“Unca Flynn, the table is all cleared.” Rachel’s voice drifted down the hallway.
He shoved the letter in his pocket. He would have to deal with the letter later. Right now his main priority was caring for Rachel.
As sundown came to the prison, the oppressive heat of the day vanished. Within an hour Marydyth was shivering in the cold.
She turned on her hard, rickety cot and closed her eyes. The hand she rubbed her face with was rough, callused and dry as the desert around Yuma. There had been a time when Marydyth’s hands had been soft, white, delicate, J.C. had called them.
Marydyth smiled and thought of her husband. There had been a time when the most important question she and J.C. shared was how many beaux they would allow to call once their darling daughter began receiving. Now each night when Marydyth lay down to sleep, the first and last thought in her head was a prayer for Rachel’s happiness. It was all that kept her sane.
Once more J.C.’s face came to her mind. She remembered their wedding day, all bright sun and giggling anticipation. J.C. had given her his name on that day.
“Marydyth Hollenbeck. It suits, I think,” he had said. Then he had smiled, creating a dimple in his cheek.
Did Rachel have a dimple? Marydyth tried to visualize Rachel’s face, how it would have changed and matured during the time she had been away.
As an infant Rachel’s hair had held the promise of reddish highlights. Would it be blond or would it shine like an Arizona sunset? Would it flash with auburn fire?
A smile tugged at the corners of Marydyth’s mouth. For a short march of time she was able to forget her environment. In her mind, if not her battered body, she could rise up from the depths of Yuma’s hellhole and live through the hopes and dreams she cherished for Rachel.
Her little girl would be a beauty, of that Marydyth had no doubt. And she would be a lady.
Victoria would see to it.
Rachel would never have to go to bed hungry. And she would never have to worry about money.
But would she be loved?
Would Victoria be able to put aside the poison of her hatred and embrace Rachel? Or would the bitterness of J.C.’s death be a blight on Rachel’s life?
The chilling question made Marydyth shiver more than the bleak cold of the Arizona desert. Would Victoria be able to love the daughter of a woman convicted of killing two husbands?
The moon rose and sent a silvery shaft of light through Rachel’s frilly starched curtains. Flynn had opened the window halfway to allow a little fresh air into her room while he got her ready for bed. Now she was tucked up and listening to him with a look of pure fascination on her face.
“…and the little princess lived happily ever after.” Flynn closed the slender volume and placed it on the table beside Rachel’s bed. He leaned close to give her a kiss on the forehead.
“That was a nice story.” She yawned and stretched, nearly giving him a shiner with her small clenched fist.
“You ought to know it by heart, as many times as you’ve had me read it. I think tomorrow you can read it to me.”
“Unca Flynn, I can’t read!” Rachel giggled and snuggled down in her feather bed.
“No? All right, then maybe I’ll read it one more time—but that’s all. Now it is time to say your prayers and get some shut-eye.” Flynn helped Rachel out of her bed. She knelt beside it with her head bowed. Delicate pink toes peeked from under the edge of her yellow flannel gown.
“Dear Lord, bless Grandma, Unca Flynn and Carolee Martin’s baby goat.”
Flynn nearly guffawed, but he supposed that God was as interested in Carolee’s kid as he was every other living thing.
Rachel didn’t say anything else for a long time, and finally Flynn cleared his throat to hurry her along.
“And please bless my mama, and if it isn’t too much trouble, Lord, please send her back home from wherever it was that she had to go. Amen.” She scampered under the quilt and closed her eyes without meeting Flynn’s stunned gaze.
So, Rachel had decided to enlist the help of the Almighty in getting a mother—her mother.
Flynn leaned over and tucked the covers beneath her chin. “Good night, little one.”
She squeezed her eyes tight and burrowed into the softness of her eider coverlet. “Good night, Unca Flynn.” She yawned again.
He picked up the lamp and walked to the doorway but something made him pause at the threshold and look at her. She was lying flat on her back with her eyes squeezed shut. The moonlight skimmed over her little turned-up nose and her square chin.
She was beginning to favor her mother.
Flynn nudged the unwanted thought aside. It would do Rachel no favor to become the beauty her mother was. In fact, he feared that the good people of Hollenbeck Corners would start treating her like a pariah if she started to remind them of Marydyth.
He shook himself and turned away from Rachel’s door. It wasn’t like him to be so damned maudlin. Must be old Charlie’s babbling, bringing up the past.
What he needed was a stiff drink and a smoke. And now that Rachel was fed, bathed and tucked in for the night he was going to have one.
He crept down the stairs on tiptoe, taking care to keep his spurs from ringing on the treads. He went into the study—the only room in the rambling mansion that he had ever felt really comfortable in.
Flynn pulled the makings from his shirt pocket and rolled a smoke. It dangled unlit from his lips while he poured himself two fingers of good whiskey.
Old Doc Scoggins had told him that smoking shortened the life span. Course, Doc Scoggins never had a puff of tobacco in his life and he dropped dead during church services only two months back. But Flynn had not wanted to take any chances—for Rachel’s sake. He had stopped smoking—at least he had stopped lighting them—but he hadn’t stopped rolling them.
Every night as he went through the ritual he told himself it was foolish to cling to his tobacco habit like a sugar-tit, but he got a certain amount of stubborn comfort from rolling a smoke, even if he never lit up.
He laid the unlit cigarette in the ashtray and took a drink. The first sip blazed a hot trail down his gullet and sent a flash of hot lethargy to his limbs. There had been some days in the past two and a half years when he had wondered how women managed to raise a houseful of children without getting roaring drunk once a week.
The thought had finally come to him that men and women were different in more ways than the obvious one—otherwise they would be a pack of falling-down drunks. Motherhood was damned hard work.
He collapsed into the big easy chair by the fireplace, cursing the leather for creaking like a riled cat under his weight. He held his breath and cocked his head, listening.
When the house remained silent, he let out a relieved breath. The noise had not woken Rachel. Perhaps tonight she would sleep.
He took another drink and drew the envelope from his pocket. The paper was of good quality—or had been when it was new. The fancy watermark was still visible beneath the stains.
Flynn stared at the travel-stained paper until a strange feeling crept over him. He felt as if he was violating Marydyth Hollenbeck in some way. Once he even glanced behind him, unable to shake the feeling that he was being watched.
With a snort, he tucked the letter back in his pocket.
What am I going to do with it?
The sensible thing would be to just throw it away.
No, I am not like Victoria Hollenbeck. But there had been times when he wondered if that were true. Maybe he was as cold and cruel as Victoria.
Flynn took another drink and mentally argued with himself about the letter. What if it was important? Charlie had been worried enough to come out in the night to bring it…
No, he wouldn’t open the damned letter.
He finally decided to take it to Moses Pritikin, Victoria’s attorney. He could make the decision about whether to open it or to send it on to Marydyth at the Territorial Prison.
Flynn took another drink. Outside, the familiar scratch and whisper of the wind pushing a tumbleweed across the front porch caught his attention. He allowed himself to relax—as much as he ever relaxed in this house.
Since he had gotten tangled up with the Hollenbeck family there hadn’t been one truly worry-free moment that he could remember. By day he worried if he was doing a proper job managing little Rachel’s estate. And by night…well, at night the demons that most lawmen lived with came to haunt him.
“Only Rachel makes it all worthwhile,” he muttered. Rachel’s welfare was the tie that bound him tightly to the life he now led.
Rachel’s terrified scream jarred Flynn awake. The empty glass shattered on the hearthstones as he jerked to his feet. He bounded toward the stairs. He took them two at a time, his spurs clanging with each impact all the way to Rachel’s room.
The moon had moved on but her frantic thrashing and whimpers guided him through the dark to her bedside.
“I’m here, honey, I’m here.” He untangled the sheets from her little body. He kept up a steady stream of chinwagging, not even sure what he was saying, but saying it in a voice intended to soothe and calm.
“Mama!” Rachel whimpered and fought him while he pushed sweat-soaked strands of hair from her brow.
“It’s all right, honey,” he said, while he wished his hands weren’t so big, clumsy and rough—while he wished that he knew more about raising a little girl.
Damn it all to hell—she needs a woman’s touch.
“Mama! Mama!” Rachel screamed, as if she had read what was etched into Flynn’s heart.
He pulled her close to his chest, knowing that she was still locked in that dark place where she went every night.
“Where are you, Mama?” Her voice had the tone of a lost soul. It bit right into Flynn’s heart.
“It’s all right, sugar. Uncle Flynn is with you—shh.”
So tonight her nightmares were of Marydyth.
Two nights ago she had dreamed she was lost in a great black hole and Flynn could not find her. The nightmares were never exactly the same, except that Rachel was alone and needed somebody to help her.
He kissed her forehead and started to rock her back and forth, humming some tune that had lain in wait since his own childhood.
Too damned long ago to know how to do this.
“I can’t find my mama—. Mama—” Her voice trailed off. Within a moment she dragged in a sobbing, ragged breath, and then she finally became still. Her breath came deep and slow as she fell into the blessed peace of slumber. The only sound was the creak of wood and bed ropes as Flynn rocked her.
Morning dawned gray and thready. The clouds overhead were salmon on top and a dirty tarnished silver beneath, streaked as if a child had dipped her fingers in paint and dragged them across the eastern horizon, thought Flynn.
There was no wind yet, but Flynn knew the respite was only temporary. Yep, it was going to come a blow by noon.
He tugged the brim of his Stetson hat down tighter on his head, as if he felt the wind pulling at it already. Jack snorted and broke wind and the chin on the curb rattled as he shook his head. Flynn swung into the saddle and gathered the reins, wanting to get the last of the herd moved today.
“I know, you’d rather stay in the stall and eat cracked corn. You’re getting downright lazy since we retired,” Flynn told his mount. They had been together so many years that conversation seemed natural, maybe even required. Jack had been his partner on many manhunts and had shared a cold camp with him beyond counting. The big horse flicked his ears back and forth as if he were listening to Flynn.
Flynn pointed Jack southeast and kicked him into a ground-eating lope. When they reached the rest of the herd, Jack worked hard, as if he sensed Flynn’s need to get done early. The first-year heifers were separated and put in an upper pasture, but Flynn took the breeding cows and the one-eyed bull to a nice meadow that lay in the squat hills just past Brunckow’s cabin.
There were no windows left now and a part of the roof had blown off during the last dust devil, but the cabin and meadow provided a good place to water Jack and take a rest. The cabin had been standing since 1858 when Frederick Brunckow had come looking for riches. What he got was his body tossed down his own mine shaft by a band of renegade Mexicans. It was ironic that Ed Schieffelin had discovered a rich vein of silver only seven miles away in 1870. Poor old Brunckow.
When Flynn had still been riding for the law he had come to the cabin more than a dozen times looking for outlaws. The raw pockmarked adobe walls helped give it the name that the Epitaph newspaper had perpetuated—the bloodiest cabin in Arizona Territory.
Flynn stepped off and let the horse wander around the perimeter of the old building, nibbling grass as he went. He shaded his eyes from the sun, and leaned against the side of the cabin while Jack had a good rest. His eyes roamed the countryside, picking out a jackrabbit and a covey of quail as he rested.
It struck him that he was only a few miles from the Lavender Lady Mine. Since he was so near he decided to go check on it. A lot of men had remained out of work since the big strike that closed the Lady.
And brought him here.
Flynn’s mouth twitched at one corner. If it hadn’t been for the mining strike he wouldn’t have been in Hollenbeck Corners.
And he wouldn’t have had to be Marydyth Hollenbeck’s escort.
All these years it had stuck in his craw. He had never had to take a woman to prison before. And now he was taking care of that woman’s daughter. -
It was a hell of a thing.
Flynn leaned away from the side of the cabin and gathered Jack’s reins. He had enough daylight left to make it to the mine and still be back home before Rachel needed to go to bed.
Flynn saw the yawning black hole of the shaft from a long way off. There was something about a mine that made his flesh crawl. He supposed he was a bit of a coward when it came to working underground.
“Easy, boy.” Flynn steadied Jack and peered into the rocky outcrop that ringed the Lady. The horse was acting spooky and he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched.
A few years ago he would have bolted into the rocks and got prepared to fend off Apaches, but since Geronimo was gone that was no longer a worry.
Still, he couldn’t quite shake off the notion that eyes were trained on his spine.
Flynn rode Jack close and did a quick once-over on the mine. It appeared to be in fairly good shape—from the outside. He gnawed on the inside of his mouth while he thought. If the Lady could be reopened it would surely help Hollenbeck Corners.
“Well, that’s another thing I can speak to old Moze about.” Flynn spoke and Jack worked his ears back and forth in response. That was the only kind of conversation they ever had: Flynn talked and Jack listened.
Flynn heard the distinct sound of a twig snapping. He swiveled in his saddle and drew his Colt at the same time. Nothing but lonesome prairie and cactus met his eye. He sat for a moment while his pulse ticked off the time. Then when he heard and saw nothing, he kicked Jack up and headed back to Hollenbeck Corners.
But he kept his gun drawn.
That evening went much like the one before it. Mrs. Young left after saying her usual dozen words, Flynn and Rachel spent a quiet evening and then she went to bed. At one o’clock in the morning she woke up crying for her mama. By three o’clock in the morning Flynn had decided that he would go see Moses as soon as Mrs. Young showed up at seven.
Flynn was riding down the hill when he came upon Clark’s Dairy wagon.
“Did you hear the news?” Amos asked with a happy grin.
“Can’t say as I have.” Flynn rested his wrist on the saddle horn while Jack took a disagreeable nip at Amos’s old bay wagon horse.
“My cousin in Tombstone was getting ready to start delivering milk yesterday when his wagon fell through the street,” Amos said with a chuckle.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Flynn tried not to laugh along with Amos.
“No, don’t be. My cousin was still on his own land—when they got the wagon out they found a vein of silver. He’s gonna be a rich man.” Amos chuckled again.
Now Flynn laughed. “I guess I better start taking care where I walk, eh?”
He had heard tales that there was a honeycomb of tunnels beneath Tombstone and Hollenbeck Corners.
“Yeah, I’m hoping I’ll have the same kind of luck.” Amos Clark smiled and touched his finger to his white cap. Then he clicked his tongue and the bay started off at his plodding gait toward the mansion.
Flynn laughed one more time before he urged Jack on down the slope. Hollenbeck Corners was becoming civilized. It seemed like only yesterday that Geronimo was raiding; now they had door-to-door milk delivery and two daily newspapers and a fire pumper•but no sheriff. The mayor and citizens had decided that John Slaughter, marshal of Cochise county, was near enough. And besides, J.C. was the only man who had ever been murdered, and everybody knew who was guilty even before the trial.
Or so they said. Flynn had never been that sure. All through the proceedings and even after he had taken Marydyth to Yuma, something had nagged at him.
Times were changing in the territory. Every day it seemed that things became more modern and the world to the east had more of an effect. With news arriving on a regular basis, people in the territory were becoming more political and talk in the saloons was often about what was going on in Washington.
Flynn guided Jack down the main street and stopped at a tall, narrow building with an impressive wooden false front. Sunlight rippled across the fancy gilt lettering in the picture window of the law office. Moses was mighty proud of that window. He had paid a pretty penny to have it shipped by rail from back east and installed by a glazier from Tucson.
Flynn dismounted and loosely wrapped the reins around the hitching post. “Don’t go hightailing it back to the barn on me, or I’ll take Harold Benson up on his offer. And you’d make a piss-poor livery horse.” He softened the threat with an affectionate pat.
He stepped up to the boardwalk and made his way to Moze’s office. He heard the sound of two men’s voices from the inner office as soon as he opened the outer door and walked inside.
Flynn didn’t want to be listening to the conversation so he busied himself pouring a cup of coffee from the gray graniteware pot on the potbellied stove in the corner of the room. His back was to Pritikin’s private office, but the men’s voices suddenly grew too loud to ignore.
“I’m tellin’ you, Ted, I have no authority in this matter. You’ll have to deal directly with Flynn O’Bannion.”
Flynn turned. Now it wasn’t somebody else’s business, it was his. He took a step toward the partly open door. Through the crack Flynn could see Moses behind the desk; on the other side, all he could see was the toe of a boot with a fancy double-eagle design.
“Who needs to deal with me?” Flynn drawled as he entered the doorway.
Moses Pritikin’s head swung around. The lawyer’s sharp eyes were as clear and quick as a red-tailed hawk’s, set in a face tanned and cured by a half century of Arizona wind and sun. His hair, white as cow’s milk, was a shock against his swarthy, angular face.
“Speaking of the devil. Come in, Flynn, come in.” Moze’s overlarge hands always seemed to stick too far out of his shirtsleeves, and today was no exception as he gestured.
Flynn crossed the threshold and finally got a look at the man inside those double-eagle boots. Ted Kelts, J.C.’s former partner, was sitting in the red leather chair opposite Pritikin’s desk.
“Ted here is interested in buying the Lavender Lady Mine,” Moses said.
Pritikin’s office was on the skinny side of small from the get-go, and the massive desk he had squeezed into it left scant room for more than one client at a time. Flynn sidled into the room as best as he could and found a place against the wall.
“The Lavender Lady?” Flynn asked after he took a sip of the too-strong, bitter coffee.
Ted Kelts nodded. “I’ve been thinking it would be good to open the mine. A lot of men in town are out of work. Prices on copper are a bit better now.” Ted Kelts grimaced. “I’d kind of like to see what the old girl has left hiding under her skirts.”
“Funny you should ask about the Lady, Kelts. I was just out there yesterday looking it over,” Flynn said.
“You don’t say. How’d it look?”
Flynn shrugged. “I’m no miner. I don’t like being underground.”
“Well, I am a miner. Sell her to me,” Ted said with a smile.
Flynn studied his face for a long time. “I don’t think so.”
Ted’s dark eyes flashed in anger. “But why not?”
“I’m thinking of reopening it myself.” Flynn studied his face. “And Victoria really wanted me to keep all the Hollenbeck holdings in one piece.”
Ted nodded. “Yes, I understand, Mr. O’Bannion, but J.C. had decided to sell to me—before he was murdered by that woman. By all rights I should own the Lavender Lady.” Kelts fingered the gold chain on his watch fob. “Moses tells me that you have complete control now.”
Flynn pushed the Stetson hat back on his head with his index finger. The last thing he wanted to do was get into a chaffer with Ted Kelts over some hole in the ground.
“Victoria put me in charge of all the Hollenbeck family holdings,” Flynn said, but there was no pleasure in his admission.
Kelts smiled and leaned toward him. “Let’s discuss terms, O’Bannion. How much do you want for the Lavender Lady?” His navy brocade vest puckered at his middle, but Ted tugged the cloth down tight until it was smooth and wrinkle free. He was a tall, rangy man, strong as a bull, with hard muscles that had been honed by swinging an eighteen-pound sledge for years before he hit his first strike. “I’m sure Victoria intended to take care of this oversight before she had her last stroke. It would be a matter of you signing the papers, O’Bannion, righting a wrong, you might say.”
Flynn’s gaze followed the sharp crease along the fancy pin-striped trousers to the handmade Justin boot propped up on the knee of his opposite leg. If price was the issue, Ted Kelts could afford whatever was asked.
His eyes slid up to meet Ted’s gaze. “’Tain’t for sale.”
Kelts stiffened. “What do you mean it ain’t for sale? Everything and everybody has a price. Just name yours.”
Flynn narrowed his eyes. “Sorry, the Lavender Lady ain’t for sale.” The more he talked to Ted Kelts, the less he liked him. “Not today or any day.”
Ted uncrossed his legs and sat up straight. “You’re a cattle man, O’Bannion. I know you’re running your own head along with Hollenbeck stock. Why would you want a broken-down mine to worry over? It’s probably worthless anyway, but I’d be a whole lot more able to get it open again than you would.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Flynn said.
“Then—why won’t you sell?” Ted looked perplexed.
“I’m riding for the Hollenbeck brand now. Victoria made it plain she wants Rachel to have all the Hollenbeck property—just as it is. And just for future reference, I haven’t got a price.”
Kelts snapped his head around and looked at Moses. “Is this legal?”
“Legal as Victoria’s money and my skill could make it.” No small amount of pride sparkled in the dusky depths of Moze’s eyes and he was working hard not to grin. “I’d like to see somebody find a loophole in one of my documents. Damned near ironclad. Write them so nobody can break them,” he added under his breath.
Ted sat motionless as a tombstone. His eyes narrowed for half a second, then he stood and tugged his vest down. “Well, I guess that’s my answer—for today, O’Bannion. But I’m a man who usually gets what he goes after, so I’m sure we’ll be talking again.”
Flynn leaned away from the wall and nodded. “About anything you want, Kelts, but when it comes to the Lavender Lady, the answer will still be no. That is my last word on the subject.”
“I didn’t get where I am by giving in easily.” Ted extended his hand to Flynn. “No hard feelings?”
“I wouldn’t fault a businessman for doing what comes natural to him.”
“Glad to hear it.” Ted pulled his watch chain and drew a fancy pocket piece from his vest. “I’ll take my leave now.” Ted nodded at Moses and Flynn. “Thanks for the coffee, Moze.”
“Don’t mention it. By the way, Ted, I heard you was headed back east?”
Kelts frowned and slipped the watch back where it came from. “News does travel fast in Hollenbeck Corners. Yes, I have some business in Washington.”
“Taking up politics, are you?” Moses smiled like a fox.
“The thought has crossed my mind.” Ted smiled and turned to Flynn. “Think about what I said, O’Bannion.”
When Ted closed the outside door, Flynn eased himself down into the solitary leather chair.
“More coffee?” Moses offered.
“Naw.” Flynn shook his head. “This stuff would rust a horseshoe, Moze.”
Moses blinked and stared at his own cup. “Really?”
Flynn shook his head and set down his cup. With Kelts gone, his thoughts settled firmly on the letter in his pocket.
“Whiskey, then?” Moses offered as he opened his desk drawer and brought out a brand-new bottle of Cutter and Miller.
“A little early for that, wouldn’t you say?” Flynn frowned at the attorney.
“You tell me? You look like a dog chewing on a tough piece of hide.” Moses leaned back and laced his fingers behind the shock of unruly white hair. “Maybe you need a woman. Beatrice has a new girl over at the sportin’ house. Name is Annabelle—ain’t that a hoot•such a fancy name for a whore? Has hair the color of molten copper.”
Flynn’s frowned deepened. “I didn’t come here to get directions to the cathouse, Moze.”
“And here I-was thinking that maybe you had lost your way. I happen to know you haven’t visited Beatrice and her girls for two years,” Moses went on, ignoring Flynn’s glower. “It ain’t healthy, Flynn. A man can get all backed up—ruin your digestion—shorten your life. It’s a medical fact. Dr. Goodfellow over in Tombstone told me so.”
“I don’t need a woman,” Flynn repeated with a flinty voice.
“I haven’t seen a look so mournful since the last lynchin’ bee over in Millville. If it isn’t a woman you need, then what has put that hangdog look on your face? Trouble with your cattle? Little Rachel?”
“No trouble with Rachel or the cattle.”
“Why don’t you get rid of those critters? They’re more trouble than they’re worth.”
“Easy for you to say. That’s what I do for a living now, Moze. A grown man has to have a livelihood.”
The lawyer snorted. “You don’t need the money.” Moze’s hand fell to the desktop and he shook his head in amazement. “Guardianship of Rachel pays you a nice annuity—I write out the bank draft, remember?”
Flynn shifted in the chair and scowled at Moses but he didn’t say anything.
“You haven’t touched it, have you?” His brows rose until they nearly touched his hairline, and his eyes widened. “It’s all just sitting there in the bank, isn’t it?”
Flynn shook his head. “I didn’t come here to talk about that damned money. I didn’t want it in the first place.”
“You are a strange duck, Flynn O’Bannion.” Moses shook his head in disbelief.
“Look, it’s bad enough to be living in the Hollenbeck house like it was my own.” Flynn’s voice trailed off. It was hard to put into words the way he felt about caring for Rachel, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to take money for it.
Moses laughed and rocked back in his chair, then laced his hands behind his head again. “You are a dying breed. All right, if that isn’t what’s stuck in your craw, then tell me what is.”
Flynn drew the envelope from his shirt pocket and held it out.
“What’s this?” Moses unclasped his fingers and leaned forward across the mammoth desk.
“Look at the address.” Flynn shoved the paper closer.
Moses took the letter. His eyes flitted across the tattered envelope. When he glanced back up at Flynn he was frowning; all traces of humor were gone. “Why haven’t you opened it?”
Because I felt like I was violating Marydyth Hollenbeck’s privacy just looking it. Because I have never been able to forget the hatred in her blue eyes or how she held her head high when she walked through the gates of Yuma.
“You’re the Hollenbeck attorney,” Flynn answered with a careless shrug of his shoulders. “I brought it to you.”
“Victoria Hollenbeck’s attorney—not Marydyth’s.” Moses handed the envelope back to Flynn. “This is your domain. You better open it.”
Flynn drew back his hand as if the letter were afire. “It’s probably.personal.”
“Maybe, but it looks like it has taken the long way round coming here—how personal could it be when the sender didn’t even know the Black Widow had been sent to prison?”
A muscle in the side of Flynn’s jaw began to work. He hated the name the townspeople had pinned on Marydyth. For Rachel’s sake.
“It doesn’t seem right.”
“Fine, I’ll do it.” Moses snatched up the envelope and ripped open one end. A page fluttered to the top of the desk. He carefully unfolded the brittle paper. It was a heavy cream-colored stationery. He held it up to the light. Flynn could see the distinctive watermark of a clipper ship. Then Moses squinted his eyes, ducked his chin and started to read.
A hard knot formed in Flynn’s gizzard. He didn’t feel right about any of this.
“Well, now this is a fine kettle of fish,” Moses said as he let the paper slip from his hand.
“You look like somebody died.”
Moses never spoke, he just slid the single page across the desk. “Read it for yourself.”
Flynn picked up the letter, his eyes darting quickly over the large handwriting. He looked up from the page and swallowed hard.
“What are you going to do?” Moses asked.
“So it’s all up to me, huh?” Flynn stood up. He would have liked to pace, but the cramped office wouldn’t allow it. “What would you do if you had to deal with it?”
Moses grimaced and read the letter again. “Claims complete responsibility for the murder in Louisiana.” He mused aloud as if he had not even heard Flynn’s question. “Could it be possible?”
“If it is, then Marydyth Hollenbeck…” He couldn’t finish his sentence.
Moze swallowed hard. “Now, let’s not be too hasty. At the worst it may mean that she didn’t kill her first husband, Andre. This second part could be a confession of guilt, I suppose, if you are inclined to interpret it that way.”
“And it could just as easily not be. Is that what you’re saying?” Flynn searched the attorney’s face with narrowed eyes.
Moses sighed and placed the letter in the middle of his desk. “Any way you look at it, it’s a judgment call, Flynn. The decision and the responsibility are all yours, I’m happy to say.” The words fell harder than the judge’s gavel had on that fateful day. “Victoria made it real clear—any and all decisions regarding Rachel and the Hollenbecks are yours alone.”
Flynn picked up the letter and stared at it. “Did you notice the signature?”
“Yes, I did. I have to admit it shocks me. I thought Murdering Mary was all alone in the world. If she had an uncle, then why didn’t she tell anybody?”
Flynn glanced up. “Kind of sticks in your craw, don’t it?”
“I don’t want to even entertain the notion that we might’ve separated Rachel from her mother and sent an innocent woman to prison,” Moses replied. “In fact I don’t like to think about that a’tall.”
Flynn gave Jack his head as they rode out of town. The bay enjoyed the run and Flynn was glad to let him pick his own trail so he could wrestle with the problem of the damned letter.
If he decided to interpret the letter as a full confession for both murders, Andre Levesque’s and J. C. Hollenbeck’s, then Rachel could have her mother back.
The memory of the child’s latest nightmare brought a shiver coursing through him.
And if it isn’t a confession? the voice of the cynical retired U.S. marshal prodded. Years of training, years of single-minded devotion to the law, made it difficult for Flynn to forget that big if.
The letter was vague on J.C.’s murder. That was God’s honest truth. But it was blunt and to the point about the first one—about Andre, Marydyth’s first husband.
But if Marydyth were innocent of killing Andre Levesque and she had an uncle, then why didn’t she defend herself at the trial?
Flynn shook his head, realizing finally what it was that had bothered him about that damned trial.
Day after day Marydyth had sat there in silence. She had grown more pale and drawn as the damning evidence was revealed, and not once had she raised a finger or uttered a single word to defend herself.
She had stood there dry-eyed and silent while the town judged her guilty.
That question hammered at Flynn’s brain. It was a question he had no answer for.
He rode for hours, and with every mile the letter nagged at him. It would be so easy. If Flynn chose to read between the lines, he could give Rachel what she needed most in the world.
If he chose to.
Was it possible that he wanted to see Rachel reunited with Marydyth so badly that he could, or would, turn a blind eye to the weakness in the wording of that letter?
“Hell no, I wouldn’t,” he declared with hearty conviction. “And I’d have harsh words with any man who thought otherwise.” The sound of his raspy voice started Jack’s ears working back and forth again. “If I believed Marydyth killed J.C., I’d let her rot in Yuma and damn her to perdition without a second thought,” he assured himself and his horse.
But do you really believe that? the stubborn voice asked. Or are you like Moze?—afraid that you escorted an innocent woman to prison and mighty unwilling to face that possibility? Even if it means leaving her there?
Later that afternoon, Flynn had made a big loop around Hollenbeck Corners and ridden through Sheepshead. He had checked on the herd and felt satisfied that the grass would hold through the summer. While he rode, he had argued with himself over and over, and still he had not made a decision about the letter.
He pulled his Stetson hat from his head and used his bandanna to wipe the moisture off the inside of the sweatband. A white ring of crystallized salt had stained outward onto the brim.
If he believed the letter was genuine, then he was beholden to see the territorial judge about Marydyth’s sentence. But he hadn’t quite come to that decision—just yet.
The sun was a red-gold disk when Flynn unsaddled Jack and rubbed him down. The expansive adobe stable behind the Hollenbeck house was cool and dim. It was big enough to hold four horses and two buggies but Jack lived all alone inside. The smell of hay, dust and cracked corn surrounded them.
It was a comforting odor, a familiar one that had drawn him to this spot many times since he came to live in Hollenbeck Corners. Flynn rolled himself a smoke and let it dangle unlit from his mouth.
Flynn brushed the horse and ran an empty gunnysack over him to give him a shine. He tossed down his unlit cigarette, picked up each of Jack’s hooves, one by one, and carefully cleaned them, taking particular care with each frog.
An hour had passed while he kept his hands busy, and still he had not come to a decision. Flynn walked toward the mansion, still lost in thought. He was near one of the tall colonnades at the back of the house when the smell of smoke reached his nostrils.
He turned his head and lifted his nose like a feral animal. He inhaled deeply, narrowing his eyes and allowing the scent to guide him to the source. The smoke was coming from the direction of the stable.
Flynn ran to the well and grabbed up a bucket of water. It sloshed over his Levi’s as he ran. When he threw open the double doors a column of smoke roiled out. One bucket doused the smoldering manure and straw, but as the smoke wafted around his head a tendril of suspicion wove around his mind.
It was damned hard to start a fire with a cold cigarette.
Flynn made sure the blaze was well and truly out before he went to the house. A nagging sense of unease was his constant companion. He hadn’t started that fire, so who had? The stable was behind the house, a damned long way from any road or alley. If someone had been smoking around there, then they were hiding.
As soon as Flynn opened the door a streak of calico ruffles and bouncing russet curls flew at him.
“Unca Flynn!” Rachel squealed. She hugged his knees so tight he thought they both might go end over teakettle into the hallway.
“Whoa, little lady.” He untangled her arms and lifted her up. Her cheeks dimpled when he tickled her.
It never ceased to amaze him that in the light of day she had no memory of her nightmares. As long as she was awake she was a happy, laughing child.
“What’s goin’ on, dumplin’?” he asked as he walked the same path he took every day, through the foyer, up the hall, across the parlor and finally through the kitchen door.
Mrs. Young was already tying on her bonnet. “Evening, Mr. O’Bannion.”
“Evening, ma’am.” He shifted Rachel’s weight to his bony hip, tickling her as he did so.
She giggled shrilly.
“Chicken and dumplings on the stove, cobbler on the warmer. See you tomorrow at seven.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Young,” he said to the flash of white petticoat that showed beneath the Scotch tweed muslin of her skirt before the door slammed with a rattle.
Flynn had been so busy chewing on the problem of the letter that he had plumb forgotten about looking for another housekeeper. He had to find somebody who would be better with Rachel. At least now that the cattle were moved he would be home with Rachel more during the day. Until roundup in the fall he would have time aplenty to spend with her.
“I been waiting for you,” said the golden sprite clinging to his neck. Excitement telegraphed through her body and up his arm. She gnawed at her bottom lip, as if she were about to explode. “I’ve been waiting a long, long time.” She sighed as if to emphasize the extreme hardship it had been.
“What’s got you hopping like a Mexican jumping bean?” He left the kitchen and went-into the study. He folded his body into a big padded chair.
Rachel scrambled up and positioned herself squarely in his lap. She stared him in the eye and then she leaned close as if she was about to tell him a secret. “Mrs. Young wouldn’t help me get into the attic today.”
He felt his eyebrows rising.
Then cool smooth palms clamped on either side of his beard-stubbled jaws. “She said I had to wait for you…so I waited.”
Flynn felt the strain of the day winnow from his bones as he stared into cornflower-blue eyes. “What in tarnation do you want to go into the attic for?”
“’Cause I need baby clothes.” She patted him with those tiny hands that felt softer than goose down. Then she impulsively kissed his cheek and giggled. “You are an old silly, Unca Flynn.”
He laughed with her. “Yes, I guess I am, sugar.” Rachel was like a ray of sunshine all bottled up in a Mason jar. “’Cause I can’t figger out why on earth you need baby clothes. You’ve been out of nappies for a long while now.” He chuckled at the expression that flitted across her face, a combination of horror and embarrassment, as he teased her.
“I am a big girl now—they aren’t for me. Mary Wilson’s mama had another baby girl. Mrs. Young said my baby clothes are in the attic.” She turned serious. “Could we take the baby some?”
Flynn didn’t know whether to laugh or moan. There were so many things that he didn’t know about little girls. Was this the kind of thing he could look forward to, crawling around in the attic for baby clothes to give away?
“Please, Unca Flynn.”
“All right, punkin. As soon as we’re through with supper we’ll go into the attic and find you some baby clothes.”
“I knew you’d say yes.” She grinned triumphantly. “I told Mrs. Young you would say yes.”
“You just wrap me around that little finger of yours, don’t you?” He rose from the chair with her in his arms. Rachel clung to his arm as he swung her around and perched her up high on his shoulders. He gripped her ankles above the high buttons on her black leather shoes. The rough skin in his palm snagged against her white silk stockings and the lace on her pantaloons.
“Hurry, Unca Flynn, hurry. Let’s eat fast so we can go to the attic.”’
He added a little speed and a lot of bounce to his walk. “I’ll hurry but you may be sorry you asked when we run—” he ducked low to miss the threshold of the study “—into a big—” he dipped again to miss the chandelier in the hall “—fat, hairy spider!” He flipped her off his shoulder and tickled her ribs when they reached the kitchen.
Rachel’s screams of glee echoed through the house. His laughter mingled with the savory odor of chicken and dumplings, and for a while Flynn was able to forget about the damned letter.
When the dinner was eaten, the dishes washed, wiped and put away, Flynn and Rachel lit a lantern and went in search of the attic. He had never been in that part of the Hollenbeck house—the closed off wing where Marydyth and J.C.’s bedroom had been—and it took a few minutes to locate the right set of stairs that led to the attic.
Flynn held the lantern high and swept his hand across the gauzy veil of cobwebs when he opened the last door.
A hundred feminine articles met his gaze in the flicker of the lamp. Frilly doilies were piled on top of an armless rocker, the kind that women favored. Three dome-topped trunks were shoved in one dark corner.
By the time Victoria had had her stroke and wrangled Flynn into becoming Rachel’s guardian, Mrs. Young or some other hireling had packed away every trace of Marydyth that had ever existed. The day he had walked into the house it had been clean and completely devoid of anything personal. Over the years he’d had regular tintypes of Rachel taken to put on the piano and the mantel.
So far Rachel had not asked him too many questions, but her nightmares told him that she was asking questions in her mind. She had a natural curiosity about her folks, and the day was coming when somebody was going to have to give her some answers.
Flynn had a flash of memory of his own childhood. He remembered sitting on Sky’s lap and listening to the story of her life over and over. Victoria’s hatred and bitterness toward Marydyth had left a great big hole in Rachel’s life. And no matter how hard he tried, Flynn hadn’t been able to fill it.
While he was preoccupied with his own thoughts, he stumbled over a big hatbox and staggered against a chest. The pain in his shin snapped him back to the present. A table with a cracked marble top provided him with a convenient place to set the lantern so he could rub his barked shinbone.
“Unca Flynn, can I come in?” Rachel’s voice sounded hollow as it echoed off the discarded furniture and trunks.
“You can come in, honey, but you be real careful.” He scanned the area with narrowed eyes. The cool, dry attic would be a favored nesting site for spiders.black widows.
The name brought a bitter taste to his mouth. He froze for a moment, knowing that the letter in his pocket could remove that brand from Rachel’s mother. If only he could put aside his doubts.
“Looky, Unca Flynn!” Rachel’s excited voice brought him spinning around on his boot heel. She was stroking the hair mane of a carved wooden pony. The horse was white with black spots painted on its hindquarters.
Flynn took a step toward her but his boot caught on a red fringed shawl that was draped over something. The more he tried to free himself the more the shawl tangled around his foot. Rachel watched him wide-eyed while he did a dance with the thing hanging from his spur. But suddenly her frozen expression halted him in his tracks.
“What is it, honey? Are you bit?” He knelt down and gathered her to his arms. Her face had gone pale as chalk. She was quiet as death. “Tell me, does it hurt, Rachel?”
She shook her head in denial. “No.” Her eyes were wide and unblinking.
Fear of a kind Flynn had never imagined squeezed around his heart. “Rachel? What is it? Talk to me, honey.” His chest contracted while he searched her hands and arms. He could find no marks, but if Rachel was quiet, something had to be wrong. “Rachel, answer me. What is the matter?”
She lifted her tiny hand and pointed. He swiveled around to see what she was staring at. It was a portrait. The flickering lantern light caused the azure-blue eyes to look as if they were alive. A cascade of flaxen curls tumbled over one shoulder and down out of sight at the bottom of the painting. Artfully painted stones glowed at the delicate ears and encircled the slender column of throat.
Smoky topaz and diamond earbobs with a necklace to match.
In a voice colder than the grave, Victoria had read the inventory of missing jewelry at the trial. Marydyth had sat silent, never denying her guilt, never defending herself. But now Flynn had the nagging question at the back of his mind. The letter that was signed “Uncle Blaine” mentioned that jewelry, even went so far as to talk about J.C. giving it to him as some sort of payoff.
But why wouldn’t Marydyth have mentioned that? Even when Flynn brought in the old Wanted posters and they spoke of a man she had been seen traveling with, she never said a word about having an uncle.
Why wouldn’t she have fought for her innocence?
“Who is that lady?” Rachel whispered.
Flynn jerked himself away from the memory of the trial. He searched his mind and his heart. If he told Rachel she was staring at a likeness of her mother it would open a floodgate of questions, questions he didn’t want to have to answer. It would be even worse than the other night.
If you don’t tell her it will be the same as lying, his prickly conscience accused. You’ll be no better than Victoria.
Flynn tightened his jaw against the thought. He grasped Rachel’s pointy little chin and tipped her face up. Trust glowed in eyes the exact shade of the ones that silently watched him from the painting.
Flynn O’Bannion had the power to give Rachel a piece of her past. But his mouth grew thick when he thought about what he was about to do.
He could change her life. But was it fair to tell her the portrait was of her mother and then turn around and leave it and all of Rachel’s questions like discarded furniture in the attic? If he told her about the painting, then wouldn’t he have to tell her more?
Could he ignore the letter in his pocket and leave Marydyth behind those thick walls of Yuma when Rachel needed her so much?
The confession wasn’t so vague; in fact, now that he thought about it, it was plain as day. Marydyth had an uncle named Blaine, and he had her missing jewelry. He killed her first husband and then had come to Hollenbeck Corners and killed again. It was not so hard to follow.
It might’ve happened that way. I can believe it happened that way for Rachel.
“That’s a painting of Marydyth Hollenbeck, sweetheart. That is your mother.”
Night sounds filled the Spartan cell. Marydyth had been unable to sleep even though her body cried out for rest. She had been plagued by thoughts of Rachel—plagued and comforted.
She turned over on the cot and put her face toward the wall. If she tried real hard and concentrated with all her might, she could almost feel the texture of Rachel’s satiny skin beneath her fingers. She did it now, ignored all that surrounded her and thought only of Rachel. Her sweet blue eyes, her soft downy cheeks, the way a little dimple appeared when she giggled.
Suddenly rough hands jerked Marydyth around, and she raised her hands to protect herself. As she struggled, the moonlight coming through, she felt the edge of a blade.
The complicated machinery started to turn right after Flynn met with the territorial governor. He had moved as quickly as he could, but he had been careful to make sure that nobody knew what he was doing.
He didn’t want to see the Hollenbeck name dragged through the newspapers again. And he intended to talk to Marydyth first.
Prison changed people and he wanted to make sure that the woman coming out of Yuma had the same kind of affection for Rachel as the one that went in.
Marydyth was innocent, the indicting voice of his conscience kept reminding him.
He shook his head, not allowing himself to dwell on that too long. Flynn could not change the past, but he was doing everything he could to change the future—Rachel’s future.
Protecting Rachel was his only thought. She deserved to meet her mother under the best of circumstances. He made arrangements for Rachel to stay with Victoria, under the care of her nurse and housekeeper, so he could ride to Tombstone to meet Marydyth to make certain the woman would be good for Rachel. He wanted to have a talk with her first, to prepare her for the changes that had taken place while she was gone and the way things would have to be for the future.
It wasn’t a chore he was looking forward to.
Marydyth dragged her hand across her forehead to wipe away some of the sweat. Her dry throat begged for water, but it was hours until the guard would ring the watering bell. Until then she was expected to toil in the inferno of the prison laundry silently.
Or else suffer the consequences.
A strand of her short, jaggedly cut hair fell into her eyes. She impatiently nudged at it with the back of her wrist, breaking her rhythm on the washboard for only a second. When she thought of the horror of her hair being sliced away by that wicked blade, a hot burning pain constricted her throat.
She had thought she was going to die that night.
Had been sure that her throat would be the next target of the blade. But the poor demented woman who attacked her had only wanted the blond curls. After she had them in her trembling hands she had shrunk against the adobe wall, cackling and mumbling incoherently. Marydyth had felt nothing but pity for her when the guards came to drag her away.
Marydyth shoved away the soft thoughts and rubbed the cloth hard against the cake of strong lye soap, then she dipped it and repeated the process. Steam rose from the water. Her flesh burned as she washed the garment.
She had no more pity for the woman—or for herself. It was not something she could afford to have in here.
Pain was not a sensation she responded to any longer either. Her fingers bled in spots while she rubbed the fabric along the perforated ridges of the scrub board, then rinsed it in the scalding water. Doing the prison laundry was considered a privilege by the committees and people who came to visit the facility, but in truth it was like toiling in the humid bowels of hell.
Marydyth’s stomach growled. She wondered what time it was. In the dim confines of adobe walls five and half feet thick there was no way of knowing. Being inside Yuma was like being entombed alive. She felt as if she had been swallowed by the earth. There was no light, no air.
And no way out—ever.
She bit her lip. Only by concentrating on the repetitious task in front of her was she able to slow the pace of her pounding heart. A drop of sweat dripped from the end of her nose. She watched it fall on the stone floor beside her foot, wetting the dust for a moment before it dried away.
Today the heat was searing but tonight when the sun went down the prison would turn freezing cold. She would shiver in her bunk with the thin blanket pulled up to her chin and she would dream.
Her life had settled into a routine of suffering. The only thing that kept her from taking her own life to end the torment of this place was the memory of her beautiful child.
She whispered the name aloud, surprising herself with the sound of her own voice. A smile tugged at her dry lips causing them to crack and sting.
She didn’t care. Thinking of Rachel was like having enough to eat and drink. It was like being clean, and not lying awake in terrorized exhaustion, waiting for a dirty guard to come or another prisoner to hack off her hair.
Rachel was the only bright spot in Marydyth’s existence.
She clung to the hope that God might take pity upon her and let her see Rachel again someday.
Hadn’t she paid enough for her crime? Wasn’t the time she had missed with Rachel enough to pay for what she had done?
Marydyth finished scrubbing Superintendent Behan’s shirt and folded it end over end, twisting the material until a steady stream of water gushed out. When it was wrung as dry as she could get it, she tossed it into another tub of clear water to rinse. Over and over she repeated the task—scrubbing, wringing, rinsing.
She had not had a change of clean clothes in so long she could not count, but Superintendent Behan wore a clean shirt every day, just like Superintendent Gates before him and Superintendent Ingalls before that. She had counted the march of days and months through three different superintendents.
How many more she would see come and go before she died within these earthen walls?
Memories of her life in Hollenbeck Corners rose unbidden to her mind. Images of her fine clothes and the house J.C. had built for her flashed through her consciousness. She had been rich, and, if not liked by the townspeople, she had at least been respected for the position her husband held. But that was long ago, before Flynn O’Bannion had found the Wanted posters. Before the terrible thing she had done came back to haunt her, before God found a way to punish her for her sins.
Marydyth shook herself and focused on the washing, forcing her emotions to the edges of her mind. When she was sure the blaze of rage was subdued, she allowed herself to think again.
It was odd. When she came to Yuma she was a bundle of emotions. Then she slowly changed. First her compassion had died, followed by her ability to feel pain. The only defense against the crushing brutality inside these walls had been to stop caring, stop feeling. Marydyth had been thankful when she stopped experiencing those emotions, it made each day more bearable. She had allowed herself to retain only two emotions in this place; her love for Rachel and her hatred of Marshal Flynn O’Bannion. Two emotions, as different as hot from cold or ice from fire, but both had kept her sane.
And both were of equal measure and intensity. She hated Flynn with the same passion that she loved Rachel.
Marydyth was bent over the washtub when the short hair at the back of her neck prickled.
She stiffened, suddenly alert and aware. Living in this pesthole had required her to develop senses and hone instincts she had never known she possessed. Even when she had been on the run after Blaine had forced her to marry Andre, she had not felt as hunted as she did within these walls.
She gripped the sides of the washboard, ready to use it as a cudgel to defend herself. She partially turned, keeping the tub of hot water at her back for protection.
Marydyth met the fetid breath and unwashed stench of one of the prison guards. “Superintendent wants to see you in his office.”
The information refused to register in Marydyth’s brain. “See me? Why?”
“If I knew, I sure as hell wouldn’t be tellin’. Come on.” She received a bruising prod from the thick oak stick the guard carried.
“Move out,” he barked.
Marydyth released her grip on the edge of the washboard. She wiped her hands on the front of her dress. Putting one foot in front of the other she blocked out the pain in her side as she made her way through the darkness of the thick adobe passages.
Flynn rose from the wing-back chair in the lobby and sauntered to the front window of the Russ House. It afforded him an unobstructed view of the main street of Tombstone. Nellie Cashman and Mrs. Cunningham had done a fine job of making their hotel a success. The flooding of the mines in ’86 had dealt a hard blow to Tombstone, but as Flynn stared out the window he saw the town bustling with the usual assortment of bad men and businessmen. The place was fighting its way back with a mighty roar.
Idly he wondered if reopening the Lavender Lady would restore some of Hollenbeck Corners’ former glory. The idea rattled at the back of his brain as he scanned the street.
A painted cat entered one of the saloons across the street with a provocative flash of her turkey-red petticoats. A rowdy cowboy answered her invite, yelling hearty whoops into the dry air as he dismounted his horse on the run and nudged the swinging doors aside.
Flynn found himself smiling at the randy hombre. It seemed a lifetime since he had followed a woman like a buck in full rut. And longer than that since he had whooped in anticipation of bedding a whore. Since Rachel had come into his life he had been too busy to indulge in those pleasures.
His gaze fell upon a woman with a sedate blue bonnet walking from the direction of Schafer and Lord’s Mercantile. A gentle breeze made the feather on her hat sway back and forth.
He never did find a housekeeper to replace sour Mrs. Young, and it was just one more thing he had to deal with. He dragged off his Stetson hat and raked his fingers through his hair while he was chewing on the notion.
A whistle blew. His worry about Mrs. Young drifted away on the fading sound. The train from Yuma had arrived.
Marydyth Hollenbeck looked up and tried to stop the pounding of her heart. She was nearly home.
The word practically took wing and flew!
She gripped the seat in front of her with her workworn knuckles and waited until everyone else had gotten off the car. Then she rose, trying not to tremble, and headed for the door.
People stared at her and pointed, whispering about how she looked, but she didn’t care. They could not see beneath the jagged hair or the shabby dress the superintendent had given her before they let her out. They could not see her heart leaping with joy, or the tears of happiness threatening to pour forth. They did not know that the pitiful, threadbare creature who walked among them had a daughter named Rachel.
Marydyth inhaled air, fresh, free air, and nearly pitied the people beside her because they were not even aware there was a difference. How could they know the simple joy she felt by being able to walk where she chose?
Her feet were light as her heart as she made her way through the streets. The instructions had been simple. She was to use the money provided to buy a ticket to Tombstone. There, somebody would meet her and take her to Hollenbeck Corners.
A hundred plans flew through her head when she thought about it. She was so happy. She wanted to break into a run, to hurry to the hotel to get on her way to Hollenbeck Corners.
Who would meet her? Victoria? Moses Pritikin? But really she didn’t care who. All she could think of was collecting Rachel. Then they could begin their lives anew. They would pack only a few things, and then leave all the bad memories behind. She would get them on the train and they would just go.
Maybe Denver—or perhaps San Francisco. J.C.’s fortune would certainly buy a simple house in a respectable neighborhood. She could see that Rachel had a good education. Piano and dancing lessons—a proper finishing school.
Maybe she should learn a language. French?
France would be nice. Paris. There was nothing to stop her now—no bars, no ghosts. Marydyth was free. God had seen fit to show her mercy. She was going to be the very best mother any child ever had. There was only the two of them, but it was enough.
Dear God, it was enough to be a family.
She mumbled a prayer of thanks that the Lord had forgiven her for her sins as she put her feet on the boardwalk and hurried down the street toward the hotel.
Flynn chewed the inside of his jaw and searched every face that went by the hotel. He had made sure Marydyth had been told nothing, given no particulars about her release.
There were things he wanted to say himself. There were things that she would have to know before she saw Rachel.
Flynn was staring unfocused at the sunbaked caliche street when Ted Kelts stepped into his line of vision. The dapper businessman was the last person Flynn expected to see in Tombstone, but then the memory of Moses and Ted mentioning Ted’s trip to Washington flitted through Flynn’s mind. He started to step outside and speak to him but a clutch of people gathered on the boardwalk outside the window blocking his way. Kelts nearly collided with a thin woman who seemed to be in a big hurry. She crossed the street and opened the door to the hotel, then stepped inside the lobby. The threadbare dress was of poor quality and hung on her thin shoulders. She looked around at the lobby and turned.
He felt as if he had been kicked in the ribs by an Army mule. For the first time in memory, his knees went weak as water. He reached out for the back of a nearby green velvet chair for support.
The gold hair framing her face was jaggedly cut and no longer than his fingers, hanging limp and stringy. Her indigo-blue eyes were haunted, yet they glittered in away that was chilling. Her skin was gaunt and pale from lack of sun.
“Mrs. Hollenbeck?” Flynn took a step forward. “Marydyth?” he asked in a softer voice.
She rocked back on her heels at the sound of her name. The last trace of color in her face drained away. Those indigo eyes hardened until they resembled shards of Bisbee turquoise.
“You.” She hoped the one word held all the contempt she could manage. Time seemed to stop while she stared at him. He looked at her, unblinking. Marydyth studied the lean weather-beaten jaw as it jerked spasmodically. His eyes were as cold as ice-slicked sandstone and they bored into her. For the first time today she was ashamed of her plain prison-issue dress. For the first time today she felt a pang of dread.
Flynn tried to school his features, tried to hide his shock at the change in her. His stomach was knotted up, and it was hard to draw enough air into his lungs.
Dear God, what have they done to you? he thought, but all he said was “Ma’am.”
She moved suddenly, digging frantically into the pocket of the drab gray dress. She jerked out a folded paper and brandished it at him like a weapon. “I am free-my sentence was commuted by the governor. Go find somebody else to consign to hell, you bastard.” She continued to hold the paper up, as if it were a shield against hurt and harm.
Flynn flinched at the word “bastard,” and felt his pity turn to a hot flash of anger. He would have killed any man for saying that.
“Did you hear me?” she said. “I am free.”
“I heard,” he grated out. But when he didn’t reach to take the paper that she waved in front of her, she shoved it back into her pocket. Her hand hovered near as if she were fearful he—or someone—might take the precious document away from her. “I am not a wanted criminal anymore. You can get on your horse and—” her voice cracked “—just leave me in peace.”
“I came here to meet you, Marydyth, to take you back to Hollenbeck Corners.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I’d rather walk.”
She took three steps and closed the distance between them. She slapped him hard across the face. The blow echoed like the crack of doom.
He grabbed her wrist and held it with enough pressure to still her. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked in a voice that was barely a whisper. “Here? Now? With everybody watching?”
Her eyes darted around the room.
A young man in a pin-striped suit, who had been carrying baggage through the lobby, stopped in his tracks and stared openmouthed. An elderly couple descending the stairs turned and hurried back up, whispering words of disgust and dismay.
She thought of Rachel, and a strangled sob escaped her lips. Marydyth had no reputation left.but her daughter—her sweet innocent daughter would have to live with the sting of rumor. Marydyth drew herself up and tried to find some dignity and pride within the hatred and anger she felt.
Flynn kept hold of her hand, noticing how raw and red it was. Her knuckles were barked and there was not an extra bit of flesh anywhere on her. She glared up at him through a blur of tears, and he felt the venom of her loathing.
“I hate you,” she whispered as if she had heard his thoughts and needed to make herself clearer. “I hate you more than anybody on God’s earth.”
A muscle in his lean jaw twitched.
“Do you hear me? I hate you for what you did to me.” Her voice was raspy and harsh. “You, the noble Marshal O’Bannion, had to find those Wanted posters, had to bring them to the court and let everyone know.” Her voice broke and she started to tremble.
He turned so quickly she had no time to do anything but let him pull her along. His boots dug into the carpet, and he dragged her toward the stairs while he maintained the viselike grip on her wrist. “Come on.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“Yes…you are.” His husky whisper was like iron striking against stone. “We are going upstairs.”
“I would rather die,” Marydyth said as she struggled against him.
“Don’t be a fool, Marydyth,” he said tunelessly.
It was useless. She was no match for his superior strength. He dragged her up the stairs as if she weighed no more than eiderdown. Desperation folded over her as she searched the faces of the people in the lobby.
She knew it would do no good to scream for help.
Nobody in the town would lift a finger to help her, especially not when they found out that she had come from Yuma. And the way she looked, compared to the austere respectability of Flynn’s appearance, also worked against her. She was nothing more than an ex-convict fresh from Yuma. It showed in her face and in her clothing. The residents of Tombstone were accustomed to seeing those convicts when they came out of the territorial prison. Once again, public opinion was condemning her.
The feeling that choked and strangled her during her nightmares engulfed her. She tried to remember to breathe, to slow down the frantic pounding of her heart.
She had lived through hell for three years—she could stand whatever degrading thing Flynn O’Bannion had in mind.
He forced her down the hallway to the last door and dug into his Levi’s pocket for a key.
He twirled her through the door. The momentum sent her backward across the made-up bed. “I hate you,” she repeated.
“So you’ve said.” His voice was as dry and hard as the walls of Yuma.
Panic threatened to undo her when he turned the key and locked the door.
“Open that door this instant” She sat up and faced him down. “You bastard.”
Barely contained fury glowed in his brown eyes. “I wouldn’t make a habit of calling me that if I were you.” His voice was steady and low, belying the turbulent expression in his eyes.
“Just get it over with,” she said. “Take what you want and get out.”
Flynn took off his hat and tossed it hard upon the bureau. “Son of a.” He turned and glared at her. “Is that what you think? That I brought you up here to.rape you?”
Her chin came up a notch. Defiance glowed in her eyes. “What other possible reason?”
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered.
“Well, if you are not going to rape me, then let me out of here. I want to get Rachel and put as much distance as I can between me and this damned territory.”
His eyes widened. He raked a long-fingered hand through his hair and muttered another epithet. “We need to talk.”
“There is nothing we need to talk about, Marshal. Everything you needed to say was said in the courtroom.”
The reminder of the trial sent a strange jab of guilt through him. “My name is Flynn, and I’m not a marshal anymore so I suggest you stop calling me that.”
“If you are not the law, then you have no right to keep me here. Open the damned door. I am a free woman.”
“I know.” He took two long steps toward the bed. “Damn it all, Marydyth, I know about your release-I arranged it”
Icy hands squeezed her chest. “I don’t believe you.”
With a vicious oath he turned and grabbed the straightbacked chair with one hand and spun it around backward. Then he hooked one leg over and straddled the seat, staring hard at her while he did it.
Her rapid intake of breath sent chills skittering over his arms. He didn’t want to fight with her. Flynn dragged in a deep breath and started again.
“The governor commuted your sentence. But that isn’t why I am here.” He had intended to tell her all the details of the letter and explain how everything had come about, but the look in her eyes changed his mind.
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