A man stepped into the reception area and Janna MacCleod surged to her feet, then stopped herself before she ran.
It’s not him. It’s not Ned.
The man spoke to Alma, the lady who had interviewed Janna, then left the office. The flight reflex drove Janna toward the nearest room with a lock. Bolting the restroom door, her knees buckled and she sagged against the wall.
Coming out of hiding went against all Janna’s instincts. But she had to do it. She hadn’t heard from or seen Jed for nearly a year. And she needed a normal life. She needed to find a spine. She needed to begin again.
Pulling herself together, she straightened and rubbed her patchy cheeks proudly and checked her green suit. It did ghastly things to her complexion, bless it’s cheap, polyester heart.
She’d done some very good work on her appearance. No one would notice her. Men wouldn’t look twice.
God didn’t convict her of lying by dressing badly. Instead she took comfort that somehow God had inspired this. He wanted her here and He would get her past the only barrier—Prescott Chambers.
Hiding from Prescott Chambers and his seedy reputation, hiding from Ned and his obsession, had the benefit, thanks to clunky glasses and dense freckles, of letting her hide from all men.
She unlocked the restroom door and reentered the outer office of the Foundation, determined to reclaim her life. Whether it would be here rested in Chambers’ unsavory hands.
She returned to the shabby couch and sat down with her spine straight and her head held high. Anna might be a sniveling coward but Janna was competent, calm, capable. And homely as a basset hound.
Janna is who she’d be.
He’d hire a basset hound to replace Alma before he’d have another simpering, love sick female around him.
The chair sagged along with his spirits as Scott Chambers leaned back and brought the personnel file up to his face until it covered his closed eyes. He rubbed his forehead with the thin beige cardboard wishing the rhythm would soothe him.
He hated this. He still hadn’t gotten used to the shock of Alma’s announced retirement. No one could replace her. He pulled the folder away to study Alma’s scribbled note. “My first choice.” He knew what to expect. This highly trained young woman was too good and the money was too bad. She had applied for this job for one reason.
In anger he slapped down the file and watched a dozen sheets of paper skid silently across the huge oak desk left in here from his grandfather’s time. He dreaded the dozens of women who trooped through his office every time there was a job opening. He hated the endless stream of lies.
He rested his eyes again on “My first choice.” Fine, he’d trust Alma with this. He’d gotten so he trusted her with everything.
But Miss First Choice had to pass one simple test.
Picking up the file, Scott tapped it into order. He smoothed his hair, straightened his tie, tugged on his cuffs, the perfect polished exterior he’d learned from his mother.
For one second he longed to fling everything aside and go make his own life. But a last deep breath banished the impulse.
He snapped the paperwork flat on his desk, reached for the phone and tapped the intercom. “All right, Alma. Let’s get this over with.”
Next collection: We labeled my contribution to With This Kiss Historical Collection as ‘bonus content’….because it’s not a romance. So again, outside my comfort zone. It’s the backstory to my heroes in the Trouble in Texas Series.
One of those thieves had picked himself up and backed away from Vince’s fury with a parting threat. “A man who don’t mind his own business, don’t survive.”
“Lots of ways to die in this pit,” Vince had told the low down coyote. “Might as well die with some honor instead of live with a yellow streak down my back—like you.” Vince knew he signed his own death warrant but he couldn’t leave the kid to his fate.
There’d been three Raiders and, with the kid’s help, two against three, they drove them off. But those Raiders had friends, dozens, maybe hundreds.
They were coming back in a pack like wolves.
Vince was weak already. Starved down to skin and bones after six months in here.
The footsteps came closer. Vince prayed the most heartfelt prayer of his life, and it wasn’t for help. He figured none was coming. And the prayer wasn’t to win this fight. With the exception of a few Bible stories—David and some stones—Samson and the jawbone of an ass—most of the time, when one man stood alone, that man lost.
Nope, he just prayed that he’d meet his Savior. He wasn’t even all that sorry to go. It was time to be getting out of this place and that was about the only doorway Vince could see. He put all his hope in the next life.
This one was over.
“Yates?” A Texas twang, laced with gravel. Vince knew that voice. The Kid.
Not a lot of Texans penned up in here. Texans fought for the Rebs.
“I’m here.” Speaking barely above a whisper, Vince stepped out of the shadows.
“I don’t reckon I’ll let you protect me and not return the favor. You can use someone at your back tonight.” A kid at least five years younger than Vince. He’d done well against those three men but he was losing when Vince stepped in.
“I stepped into your trouble, and I was a fool to do it. Be smarter than me, Kid. Get out of here.”
A dry laugh with no humor in it answered. “Won’t be the first time someone accused me of being a fool. I’ll buy in.” The boy was close enough in the night that Vince finally saw the black shape of him.
“No sense both of us getting whipped, Kid.”
“No sense.” The kid came closer. “I’ve heard my pa say I got none, so I’ll stay. Name’s Luke Stone, from Texas.”
“Texas went with the Confederacy, Kid. Didn’t anyone tell you which side to fight on?”
Luke shrugged, barely visible in the dark. “My best friend as a kid was a Negro and he and his family were fine folks who lived free. I can’t see fighting for the side that’d make ’em slaves.”
Vince needed to get this youngster out of here. Two against two dozen lost the fight. “They’re just looking for me, Kid. This isn’t your fight, you already took your beating.”
They’d stolen all the kid had before Vince got there so chances were they’d leave him alone. No sense the kid getting hurt again.
“I seen you fight, Yates. They’ll have to send a passel of Raiders to beat the two of us.” Stone stood with a kind of alert tension that made Vince think of a gunslinger. The kid, even if he was young, was a man when it came to facing trouble.
“Make it three.” Another voice sounded from Vince’s right.
“Who’s there?” Vince wheeled to face the newcomer. He saw shaggy hair so dirty Vince was just guessing when he decided the man was blonde.
This man was a complete stranger.
The prison wall was nineteen feet away on Vince’s left. Right behind him was a small white fence they called the Dead Line.
That space between the Dead Line and the outer fence was No Man’s Land. The Confederate Guards on the prison walls had orders to shoot anyone who stepped in that space and they seemed to take a sadistic pleasure in doing it. Just as the camp commander, Wirz, took an evil pleasure in ordering it done.
Wirz was the man in charge of hell—to Vince’s mind that made Wirz the devil himself. But maybe this was just purgatory because Vince hoped and prayed he’d get out of here someday and everyone knew that hell had no end.
Except Vince figured he was going to die tonight, so he needed his soul to be right with the Lord and these men were giving him no time to pray, well, he had to hope he was already in good order with the Lord, but still, he’d like one last moment to set things right.
“I saw it, too.” The shaggy man seemed to vibrate with energy, and Vince thought the stranger might go to pacing if he had room. “I did some checking around, Yates. Twenty varmints are gathering right now to come at you. I’ll stand with you.”
“Three against twenty.” Vince grunted. “Get out of here both of you.”
“You sound like a man not afraid to die.” A fourth voice sounded and Vince knew this one. He was a red-headed man who’d formed a church of sorts in the belly of hell.
“I’m not afraid.” Vince wanted them all gone. “In fact, after six months in this prison, it’s sounding like a good idea.”
“You’re not going to die tonight.” A fifth voice. Deep and strong. Another stranger. When this man stepped close enough to see, Vince had his first real surge of hope. Big John they called him. Another Texan. Six foot six and two hundred and fifty pounds of solid muscle. Big John hadn’t been in here long, and he wasn’t so hungry he’d lost every extra pound and most of his strength. Vince had seen the Raiders slink back when Big John had come in. Not even in a group had they attacked him.
“Five against twenty,” Big John said with a deep laugh. No, he hadn’t been in long. He still knew how to laugh. “They don’t stand a chance. Not when I’m one of the five.”
Vince laughed in response to Big John’s boast, and the sound of it was so unusual coming from him he almost didn’t recognize what it was.
“We form a half-circle with our backs to the fence.” The Kid trying to take charge. Vince wanted to give the orders but his throat tightened. Like he might cry. A horrifying thought.
“Everybody facing out,” the shaggy blonde said, another one who thought he oughta give orders. “Name’s Dare Riker. Those traitors took the little I had when I came in here and beat me so bad I was more asleep than awake for two days. Jonas here was kneeling beside me praying when I came around. I’d like a chance to make them pay, but a man alone has no way to do that. I’d be mighty pleased to team up with you.”
“I didn’t help so you could see who you could hurt, Dare.” But for all his kindness, Vince had seen toughness in the parson. And a willingness to face evil with force as well as prayers. Jonas had the voice of a powerful, serene angel.
Vince had done some Bible reading in his day. Angels weren’t to be tangled with if it could be avoided and Jonas was such a man. Jonas turned his back to the Dead Line, facing out, watching for trouble with his fists clenched.
There were a lot of bands of men in here who backed each other in trouble. Now it looked like Vince had one of his own.
“John Conroy.” The big man turned and stuck out a fist half the size of Vince’s head.
Vince shook it and the strength of John’s grip put heart into Vince.
“I was a lawman in Texas, and I headed north to fight same as the kid here.”
“Luke Stone, and I ain’t no kid so stop callin’ me that.”
“Once we get the south calmed down and the Union preserved,” Big John ignored the boy and went on talking. “I’m going back to Texas where I reckon I’ll be thought a traitor by most everyone. I don’t see myself ever living a quiet life, so I might as well get started facing trouble right now. It’ll get me ready to go home and face more trouble in Texas when the time comes.”
The circle of men shook hands all around until another footstep broke off the introductions. This time it wasn’t friendly.
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