He didn’t know he was walking to his death that morning.
Jessup Devereux strolled down the boardwalk, thinking only of a shot of courage at the saloon, not realizing what fate had in store.
It wasn’t the gunslinger sitting with his back to the wall, nor was it the drunken miner, but rather a seventeen-year-old maverick with a hankering to build his reputation by killing a notorious gunman. Being a gunman, and still alive at the far side of thirty made Jess Devereux that man.
But today, fate was diverted by blue eyes.
His spurs jingled on the wooden planks of the boardwalk. He could feel the heat of the day waking, sending tendrils to caress his skin.
Jess paused, turning to meet a pair of eyes that were blue as the sky after rain. Her hair was pale gold. His heart contracted just a little.
“My dolly…I broke it, you see.”
Jess squatted, taking the doll in one hand, the dislocated arm in the other. He glanced around, hoping to see the child’s mother. He didn’t.
“What’s your name, gal?”
“Fiona. Mama told me to wait outside while she talks to the strangers.” Her sincere eyes met his. “I’m not to talk to strangers, but she is.”
“I’m a stranger, and you’re talkin’ to me.” He slipped the doll’s arm back into place and handed the child her toy.
“I see you all the time and Mama likes to watch you.”
That little comment brought a slow smile to Jess’s face.
“Fiona, let’s go check on your mama.”
“Gentlemen, I’ve already sent Father my refusal. It was at his insistence that I left England; my daughter and I have a good life here. We shall not return with you.”
The Honorable Miss Nancy Austin carefully stood her ground, wearing her regal posture like armor, looking down her delicate nose at the men the Earl had hired to return her to England. Inside she was quailing like a rabbit, half her mind on the men, half on her unsupervised daughter.
Movement at the doorway of the general store caught her eye, and as the tall gunman entered with Fiona in his arms, she very nearly lost her composure. To her relief, he set the child down and she disappeared behind the long counter.
The gunman casually lifted down a glass jar full of sugar sticks and fished one out, handing it to the child with a wink.
He was handsome in a lean, hard-edged fashion; a black frock coat covered a pair of Colts that she’d glimpsed on occasion. His snug trousers were tucked into tall boots, and he bore himself with the military grace and precision of an officer and a gentleman. Under his hat, the gunman’s dark brown hair was neatly cut; his goatee and mustache were trimmed and precise.
As always, her heart beat faster at the sight of him; her fair skin heated and she nervously smoothed her neat blonde hair. When his sharp blue eyes met hers, they held gentle humor, as well as reassurance.
He was here to help.
When he spoke, his Southern drawl stirred her to the core. She’d often watched as he went about his business, his eyes occasionally catching hers, but their paths had never before crossed. She’d never heard him speak.
He was a gun for hire, a bounty hunter, and tracker. A dangerous man, one she should avoid. Most of the time he worked within the law, but she’d heard there were times when he didn’t. However, Nancy had watched him, peeking through frilly white curtains, tracking his progress through town.
“Jessup Devereux, ma’am.” He tipped his hat and nodded.
“Nancy Austin. You’ve met my daughter Fiona.”
When he smiled, sharp dimples etched his cheeks, and she couldn’t resist returning that smile.
“Ma’am, are these fellows bothering you?” His casual posture was deceiving, Jessup Devereux was all power and speed, coiled and ready to strike. But still, his smiling eyes held hers.
“These…men were just leaving. Weren’t you?”
The two men shuffled their dusty feet, anger sparking their eyes.
“Let me see y’all to the door, gentlemen.”
Firmly, but insistently, Jess pushed them along, a strong hand at the base of their necks.
“And if I was you, I’d head out quick. This region might not be good for your health.”
She caught her breath as one of the men made a move, and as quick as thought, the gleaming barrel of a Colt was pressed to his belly.
“I’d say this region might be downright hazardous, boys.”
In moments, they were mounted and on their way, a third horse trailing behind. The horse they had brought for Nancy Austin.
He turned and faced the lady and her daughter, giving his best smile. He tipped his hat.
“Ma’am, you have a real nice day.”
She stood there, sunny as the spring and sweet as sugar, and for a moment, Jessup Devereux froze, his heart in his throat. She was magnolias and mint juleps and ballrooms; all the things that spoke of home and times long forgotten. He then remembered why he’d come all the way into town in the first place; why he’d needed the courage of a drink at the saloon. Jessup recalled the words he’d rehearsed, and suddenly, none of them sounded right.
“Miss Austin, I was wondering…” He felt a flush of embarrassment stain his cheeks, further interrupting the flow of his words. “I was wondering if maybe I could come to call sometime.”
She stood still, and Jess could see a delicate blush on her cheeks. That broke through his awkwardness, and he grinned, bending to pick up the little girl. Gradually, the Honorable Miss Nancy Austin regained her composure.
“I was wondering when you would ever get around to asking, Mr. Devereux. Perhaps you’d care to have dinner with us tonight?”
When she returned his smile, Jessup Devereux knew that his lonely days had just come to an end.
About the Author: Belinda lives in the wilderness of the Siskiyou Mountains and at night, she runs naked with a pack of wolves.... Uhh...
Belinda lives near the Siskiyou Mountains and shares her home with a pack of Siberian Huskies who like to pretend they are wolves. And she usually keeps her clothing on when she goes outside.
Belinda loves to travel, collect rare gemstones, make soap and spend precious time with her daughters. Her degree is in History with a Cultural Anthropology minor. On weekends, you will often find Belinda ringside at a dog show, comb and spray bottle in hand. Please come visit my website at www.belindamcbride.com , or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org .