Copyright © Patricia Potter. All rights reserved.
Pay day had arrived.
Was it fate: Coincidence? Or justice?
He had been in the saloon, talking to Bill Dale, the banker when a stranger stopped in for a drink. Jared hadn’t recognized the man, but it seemed the man knew his face – and he was one of Billy Joe Carter’s many cousins. He must have one straight to Billy Joe with the news that his longtime quarry wasn’t dead after all but alive and well and living in New Hope.
Not for long, Jared thought as he faced Billy Joe. Any second now, he’d either be heading out to his ranch to pack a saddlebag and leave – or he’d be dead.
The sound of a wagon rumbling down the dusty street behind him broke the silence of the afternoon. Jared heard the creaking wheels, the hoofbeats against dirt, the first sound of movement on the street since the good citizens of New Hope had skittered inside their stores and houses like frantic ants whose hill had been kicked over.
His neighbors. His friends. Bile settled heavily in the pit of his stomach. He should have known that a gunman had no friends, could never have them. Nor could he have love.
Carter moved again, still trying to find a place where he wasn’t blinded by the sun, probably also trying to gain some kind of mental advantage by dragging this out. Jared figured the young gunman knew by now that he was not going to draw first. Hell, Carter knew damned well he didn’t want to draw at all, that he had done his best to avoid this.
Jared took a step. . . two steps . . . to the right, careful to keep the sun at his back. Careful, too, not to look toward the general store. Mary Beth’s store. She lived in the rooms above it, and he envisioned her there, huddling behind the curtain of her parlor window with Jonny, her son. Almost his son, too.
Every word she had said to Jared last night still burned his heart, live coals embedded in his soul. Given a choice, he’d rather have taken a bullet. But then, he hadn’t been given a choice.
Mary Beth, however didn’t see it that way. . .
He was attracted to Mary Beth the instant he saw her.
He’d been living at his new, if decrepit, ranch house for three days, scraping by with what food he’d packed in his saddlebags, making plans and lists of things he’d need. Lists in hand, he’d ridden into town and gone directly to the general store.
A woman in a blue dress with the most startling blue eyes he’d ever seen looked up from a ledger book lying on the counter. A curl fell from her mass of auburn hair that was pulled back and wound into a knot. Her face was both delicate and strong, and she had a dash of flour on her cheek that drew his gaze.
When she smiled at him, her cheeks dimpling and the skin around her vivid blue eyes crinkling, Jared felt as if the skies had opened and the sun was shining straight into his heart. He realized with a sudden start of amazement that he was smiling, too. God only knew when last he’d smiled.
“You’re Jared Walker,” she said.
He just stared at her, feeling like a besotted eight- year-old boy.
“News travels fast in New Hope,” she said in a husky voice full of warmth. “That’s just too little of it.”
He’d never felt tongue-tied with a woman, but he’d been struck stone silent simply by looking at her. His gaze fell to her fingers, seeking out a ring. To his great disappointment, she was wearing one.
“Do you have any boys?”
The question didn’t come from the woman but from a pint-size boy whose face appeared above the edge of the counter. He, too , had a head full of auburn hair, but it was far less tidy than the woman he stood beside. She had to be the boy’s mother.
“No,” Jared replied.
“Girls?” It was obviously his second choice.
Jared shook his head.
“A dog?,” the boy kept trying.
Jared’s smile broadened into a grin. The boy had such a hopeful look on his face.
“I’m afraid not.”
“I have some puppies.”
The woman laughed. “He’s been trying to find homes for those pups for the past three weeks. This is my son, Jonny. Jonny, this is Mr. Walker.”
“Hi, Mr. Walker,” the boy said. “What about the puppy?”
And that was the beginning . . .