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IMPASSIONED VAGABOND
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ISBN-10: 1-55404-584-3
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Romance/Fiction/Adventure
eBook Length: 302 Pages
Published: June 2008
OUT OF PRINT

From inside the flap

She’s the lovely young fortune teller who reads tarot cards at Wichita’s Scarlet Lady saloon. He’s a freelance gun with a chilling reputation. When Sparkle LaFleur asks Rafe Conley to pose as her husband one afternoon, she never imagines the seemingly harmless ruse might take on a life of its own...or that she’ll be kidnapped by outlaws and find herself drawn into the very center of Rafe’s dark and deadly world.

This is Old West adventure at its bawdiest and boldest. Caught up in a vicious cycle of violence, betrayal and retribution, Rafe and Sparkle must each defeat demons from the past and summon the courage to fight for a future together. But can they truly escape the forces that have shaped their lives on the wooly frontier? Is love unyielding enough to forever silence a six gun?

IMPASSIONED VAGABOND (Excerpt)


Prologue

Texas Plains, 1868

Firelight flickered over the hard lines of the men’s faces as they hunkered shoulder to shoulder and divided their shares. Voices hushed, though they were miles from the nearest town or homestead with no one to hear them but the night wind, they settled their business and shook hands for the last time. Jackson laughed as he kicked loose dirt over the fire, noting more than flames would be extinguished tonight. After tonight, Frank Jackson would cease to exist.

McAllister watched the other two mount up and ride off in two separate directions before heading north. He was moving at a good clip when his horse faltered and he discovered the nag had lost a shoe. McAllister cursed. He hadn’t yet made Oklahoma. But he wasn’t far from the border, and a small town where he had an old friend who knew better than to ask questions--a friend who just happened to be one hell of a blacksmith and would let him lay low for awhile.

A few nights later, McAllister was nervous, wishing the smith hadn’t insisted on bringing his young son along to the cemetery. Not all that young. Eleven, twelve maybe. McAllister himself had started riding with a gang at thirteen. But he’d been a tougher kid. The smith’s son had a delicate quality that was disturbing. Christ, you’re jumping at nothing, McAllister told himself as he dropped the last shovelful back over the grave and tamped the earth firmly into place. Couldn’t tell a thing looking at the spot now, and the kid wouldn’t talk. Didn’t know what was in the box, anyway.

But someone did, McAllister realized when a bullet struck his upper left thigh, just missing the groin. Someone must have followed him. He rolled to his right and squeezed off two shots, aiming at the black void past the cemetery’s white picket fence. The blacksmith shouted for his boy to get down.

McAllister fired again. Too late. The boy tumbled from the wagon, yellow curls gone crimson-black. McAllister cursed and fumbled to reload his six gun. Another shot rang out and smashed a rib as it tore into McAllister’s lung.

Jackson.

It had to be that sonofabitch Jackson. He and Wilmont were the only ones who knew and could have come after him. Wilmont didn’t have balls enough for an execution--and that’s what it was, pure and simple. The kid was down, the unarmed blacksmith too. Tasting the blood on his tongue and feeling the weakness seeping through his muscles as he fought to wheeze, McAllister knew he’d never live to see another sunrise.

"Hope ya like diggin’, Jackson," he shouted at the darkness. "There’s thousands in it for ya, if ya can get your shovel to hit paydirt."

McAllister’s lips formed a ghastly twisted smile. He’d purposely disturbed the earth over several of the graves, and there were dozens out here. He’d remarked about the size of the graveyard for such a small town when they rode up. The blacksmith said a bout of yellow fever the year before had claimed almost half the local population. Fire Thorn’s cemetery was now the most crowded spot for miles around. Plenty of places to dig....

McAllister winced and pulled himself upright against a headstone. "I’ll tell Slade and Old Scratch howdy for ya. I took out Murphy way ya wanted, earned my share. This is how ya pay me back? Well, no hard feelin’s." This last came in a blasphemous snort.

"We’ll all meet up again some day in Hell. Plan on that. Hope ya dig up every damned grave here before findin’ the right one. Here’s a hint-I won’t be lying in it!" There was a short bark of sarcastic laughter before McAllister squeezed off one more shot.

Right through the roof of his mouth.



Chapter One

Wichita, Kansas 1877

It happened in that split-second, feels-like-an-eternity way that sent a man’s mind into a haze. Rafe Conley had taken maybe two steps into the street, thinking he’d mosey over to the saloon across the way. He wasn’t a heavy drinker as a rule, but the reward was burning a hole in the pocket of his jeans and his throat was parched. The sign over the saloon read: The Scarlet Lady. The implications of that allowed Rafe to be overcome by a mild thirst. He was looking right at the swinging doors when they exploded outward. A big man strode onto the porch with a girl slung under his arm. She was squirming there one second; hurtling through space the next.

She thudded at Rafe’s feet, ruffled bustle virtually atop the square toe of one creased cowboy boot.

Damned remarkable. Women of any variety simply didn’t fall at Rafe Conley’s feet. He wasn’t graced with his younger brother’s good looks. Rafe wasn’t taller than your average man, well off enough so anyone would notice, or given to spouting poetry or flowery words gals liked. Rafe was a man other men noticed and gave a wide berth or grudging nod to. Because men spotted the peacemaker first. Saw Rafe as the human strapped to it.

Gals, on the other hand, didn’t pay all that much attention. To them Rafe was just another drifter. Women hardly glanced at Rafe Conley twice. But the one at his feet slowly looked up at him now. And Rafe thought he must have been kicked by an invisible mule.

He’d expected she’d be some straggly, faded thing with that dead look in her eyes saloon gals had. Rafe was familiar with that expression. Every time he’d ever raised up on his elbows and gazed down as he pumped his hips into the woman beneath him, her eyes seemed to project that half-dead, bored look. He’d pretty much given up hope of seeing anything different in a woman’s eyes.

But the eyes that raked up his legs and chest to his face now were different. Somewhere between blue and green, like the water in a mountain pool reflecting blue sky against the moss of the streambed. Clear like that, too. Glistening-and snapping with anger.

Well, who wouldn’t be ticked off after being thrown into the street? But what Rafe found most amazing was her eyes were clear and intelligent, full of vitality. Life. A saloon gal who hadn’t given up on herself and the world. Even though she was wearing the most garish satin get-up Rafe had ever seen. And he’d visited dozens of saloons. They were where he routinely sought female companionship for an hour or two.

Before he consciously thought about it, Rafe saw his hand and arm reach down to grasp her elbow and haul her to her feet. She broke free and instantly whirled to face the glaring man on the porch. "You still owe me, Frazer. Shall I go see the law, or you going to pay up?"

"You’re finished in my place, bitch. Keep the dress as your final pay."

She told the scowling fella on the porch just what she thought of his dress and where he could promptly stuff it. Her fingers fumbled at the fastenings even as she promised to tear it off and stand there stark naked just for the pleasure of throwing the dress in his face. Rafe reached out to stop her.

"You don’t want to do that, darlin’," Rafe drawled. She glanced at him and he offered an amused wink. "Though every man here would probably pay to see him shove it."

He shifted position, moving slightly to the side and in front of the girl. "Mister," he called out, "two things really piss me off. One is folks throwin’ things at me. The other’s a fella who don’t treat a lady right. You got me doubly pissed off now." His right hand moved to rest on his hip. Lean fingers caressed the polished handle of his weapon. "You owe me and the lady here an apology. Let her back inside and we’ll settle this."

Frazer snorted. "That ain’t no lady, and this don’t concern you, stranger. This is my place, and I’ll throw out anyone I please-especially troublemakers like her."

"I just want my things and my pay, Frazer. I don’t need to work for you. Big Jim at the Rusty Nail said he’d hire me to read cards over there any time. "

Feisty little thing, Rafe silently noted. Girl had balled those fists of hers up and set them on her hips. Nicely curved hips, from where he was standing. The local deputy came out into the dusty street behind Rafe.

"What’s the problem, Conley? Doxy fannin’ you this early in the day?" He glanced over at the man on the saloon porch. "You said there wouldn’t be any more trouble once you took over, Benton."

"Doxy ain’t the problem," Rafe growled. "He threw her out and nearly knocked me over. Asked him to apologize and let her back inside. Gal says he owes her back wages, but he won’t ante up."

The deputy looked at the girl. His face broke into a grin of recognition. "You, Sparkle? What’s the problem? You make the mistake of telling Benton he was destined to be beefy all his life?"

Sparkle glared at Rafe and the deputy. "No. My new boss thinks a fancy name and red window curtains sewed over a bustle can give this place some class. Like this dump’s ever going to impress anybody. He thinks I should entertain customers upstairs. I don’t. He threw me out because Lily quit and I won’t take her place."

The deputy crossed to the saloon porch and put an arm around Frazer’s shoulders, drawing him aside for a private conversation. The onlookers dispersed, and moments later Deputy Thompson was back in his office. Frazer stared at Rafe a moment, then at the girl. He forced something friendlier than a snarl onto his lips. "Sparkle honey, bring your friend on inside and tell his fortune. You can stay on for the rest of the month. Show me you earn your keep same as the others, you can stay for good. Drinks on the house inside, Conley."

The girl barely glanced back at Rafe before heading through the batwing doors. Chin up, backside twitching left and right, she was pure hellfire and temptation. Jesus, Rafe, he chided himself, you been on the trail too long. He saw this saloon was indeed a bit nicer than most. Big wagon-wheel lamps, fresh paint. A good long polished bar, both poker and faro tables. A handful of other gals in bright red dresses. The one from the street had gone to sit behind a smaller table on the perimeter of the poker area.

She pulled out a deck of cards and began shuffling. Rafe lowered himself into the chair opposite her and watched her fingers smoothly move the cards. Weird cards with unusual scenes on them. "Never seen playin’ cards like that," he commented as a bottle of whiskey and a glass magically appeared at his elbow. The Negro who’d brought them shuffled off before Rafe could thank him.

"These aren’t playing cards," Sparkle said. "They’re tarot cards. They tell me about the forces surrounding you and the shape of your future. Unlike most men, " she added with sarcasm, "the cards don’t assume people are always what they appear to be."

Rafe chuckled. Uppity filly still had that tough edge to her voice. She’d been heaved into the dust at his feet, as everybody in the place knew, but by God, she was still the queen-at least in her own mind. "Tear-oh?" he mimicked. "You a gypsy, Sparkle Honey?"

That tripped her up. She stopped laying out the cards in three piles and looked him straight in the eye. "My name’s LaFleur. Sparkle LaFleur. And you’re Mr. Conway, apparently with some influence over Art Thompson."

"Rafe Conley. Pleased to make your acquaintance. Deputy Thompson’s a friend. Funny cards can tell you all about me?"

"I think you’d be surprised how well. Pick a stack," she ordered. He tapped the set in the middle. She quickly sorted them into a cross formation and began turning them over. The cards looked heathen or something. Not that Rafe had ever been the churchgoer his ma or sister hoped he’d be. He’d always been, and still was, a disappointment to his kin. Yet beneath it all, he was godfearin’ when it came right down to it. Enough so the peculiar cards rubbed him the wrong way. The fortune teller was frowning.

"Don’t fret if you don’t see much of a future," he remarked. "That’s me, all right. Won’t end up old and gray on some front porch in a rocking chair. Someplace a bullet’s got my name carved on it."

The girl nearly jumped out of her seat. "Why would you say…? Oh, that." She pointed to the card picturing the Grim Reaper. DEATH. "The cards aren’t meant to be taken literally. That one can mean the end of a phase in your life, a new beginning or some major change. This," she pointed again, "is the Ace of Pentacles. Near the Ten of Cups like that means a marriage."

Rafe cleared his throat to disguise a snort of derision. "Don’t mean to insult you, darlin’, but-"

"You’re not insulting me. I only read your fortune. I don’t determine it."

Rafe figured it was some bunkum scheme. She told customers they had all sorts of good things waitin’, teased them on a bit. Men paid her a fortune to be told they’d eventually make one, or some other hogwash. "Well," he drawled, "since I ain’t payin’ for this, don’t guess it matters what you tell me, anyhow."

"You’re not a trusting man, Mr. Conley," she observed, blinking those aquamarine eyes at him again. For that brief second, Rafe could almost imagine falling into the crystalline mountain pool they so reminded him of. Headfirst. He mentally shook away the image.

"Don’t pay to be too trustin’. Reckon your hard case boss over there couldn’t have tossed you on your ass if you hadn’t trusted him. You let him walk up too close."

She stared at the cards a long moment. "Hmm, a mistake you made once, but won’t repeat if you can avoid it. You’re surrounded by almost constant threat and calamity on every side. No one gets close to you. Perhaps that’s why you see the world with such a cynical eye. Goodness and light can be found, Mr. Conley. You may have to look deep into a well or climb a mountain to find it, but happiness does exist. You just haven’t found it yet."

This act of hers was good. Rafe had to admit she was damned slick. It was almost as if she’d read his mind about that mountain pool. He tipped his chair back. "Seems you’re better at tellin’ other folks what to do with their lives than runnin’ your own. A good day, though. You told me my fortune, and I got you back into your boss man’s good graces."

"Your peacemaker and whatever Art Thompson said got me back in here," she countered. "Frazer won’t regret it, though. I make good money. I’ll prove my worth to him."

Rafe rocked his chair forward now and stood up, getting a nice view of her cleavage in the bargain. Her twin mounds weren’t particularly large, but nicely rounded. She had a funny little turned-up nose and mahogany hair, sleek and straight, down to her shoulders. She was the prettiest card sharper he’d run across. "You’re like a pretty waiter girl," he surmised aloud. "You drink and dance with the customers, besides tellin’ fortunes?"

"Yes, but that’s all." Her tone was emphatic.

"So if I asked to go upstairs...?"

She gave him a level stare. "I’d find you another girl, who’d take you to her room and provide whatever relaxation you desire. Do you like blondes, Mr. Conley? Plump women? Thin?"

"Just wondered. Bit early in the day for me," he replied, not believing for a minute he couldn’t buy her if he wanted to make an issue of it. Benton Frazer had likely tossed her out for hiding part of her take. She was playing coy now, still the queen. Maybe by nightfall Rafe would meet her price, whatever it was, but he had unfinished business on his mind now. "Can I ask you a couple more questions before I head out, Miss Sparkle Honey?"

"What, Mr. Conway?"

He grinned. Damn, but he liked this filly. "First, I’d like you to call me Rafe. I mean, you got my whole life laid out in front of you, and you and dusted the toe of my boot with your bustle earlier. Seein’ as how we’re practically old friends now, only seems right you call me Rafe. Were you really fixin’ to take your dress off in the middle of the street to prove a point?"

"Were you really going to shoot a man just to make one?"

"Reckon not. But he didn’t know that. I’ve got a reputation as someone you don’t want to cross."

"I’ll keep that in mind. But watch what you do earning that reputation, Rafe. Your cards say you’re not immune to the danger you thrive on." She put her strange deck away and offered a smile set off by a twinkle in her eyes. "Maybe I’ll see you again some time. I’ll be staying on here. Frazer can’t get rid of me that easily."

Rafe glanced over at her boss. "Could give you a leg up on impressin’ him with your value. How much do you usually charge for a readin’?"

"Two dollars."

"And whatever a customer wants down here from you is all right?"

Sparkle shrugged. "Basically."

"Good." He abruptly pulled her out of her chair and into his arms. He planned to let his lips just brush hers, just to prove she was as cool as that mountain stream he’d been thinking about. But her lips were warm and soft, and parted too easily. Before Rafe knew it, his tongue was in her mouth, rubbing hers in a sensual caress.

She pushed against his shoulders and broke away. "Good-bye, Rafe Conley." She seemed flustered. Good. Nice to know something rattled the cool little number. She tried to pretend the kiss didn’t matter, but gazed at Rafe in a way that made him want to kiss her again. And do a lot more besides.

He tipped his hat and tossed her a half eagle. "There’s five dollars. See you again, Sparkle Honey."

Frazer wasted no time after the gunman’s exit. "So, you’ve decided to be reasonable, at last. Conley’s partial to you. If he comes in here again, you’re going to take care of him. Whatever he wants." He quirked a brow in unspoken meaning, gazing at the ceiling.

"I told him I don’t go upstairs, Frazer. Don’t get your hopes up higher than the hem of my skirt." She glowered at him and purposely tugged down on the garment.

"Deputy said that Conley’s a known gun for hire. Damned good one. Well respected from Nebraska to Oklahoma for bringing in outlaws and rowdies. You be nice to him, and I’ll be nicer to you. Man like that putting his brand on one of my girls would be a real coup. I’d have to keep you on then."

"So now I’m worth having around as some gunslinger’s favorite?" She gave him a look of disdain.

"Hell yes! The cowhands will think twice about raising Cain in here, thinking your friend might stroll in any moment. We’ve already seen how he takes it if a gent gets rough with you."

"Remember that, Frazer," she shot back.

But as Sparkle eased onto a bench on the saloon’s wide porch, she wasn’t feeling nearly as brave as the front she’d put up. Rafe Conley’s brown eyes had unsettled her from the first. They were too dark, fathomless. His lean frame, the smug curl of his lips, the assured way he moved, the feel of his hard length when he’d held her close-they said more than Frazer’s tales of a menacing reputation. And that kiss...she’d been kissed brazenly before. What woman in a cow town saloon hadn’t? But this was different. Conley’s kiss had left her shaky. Her usual composure had slipped, and she was having a tough time getting it back.

Not to mention how she’d nearly fainted when she’d laid out his cards. She’d never before encountered anyone with so many of the same cards in the same positions as her own personal readings. The man was a mercenary, a drifter. How could his tarot reading mirror hers that way? Not that she bothered reading her fortune often anymore. She knew where her future lay. One man held the key to her heart and a better life locked away inside him.

But Sparkle worried about the gunslinger. He’d be back.

The cards said he was a vagabond, a wanderer in search of something he yearned for without understanding what it would entail. A man trapped between yesterday and tomorrow. A lonely man. Someone who didn’t belong to any person or place, but rolled with the tumbleweeds, looking for what tomorrow might bring. Spurred on by violence and loss...as well as pain from his past.

Many of the same elements that frequently turned up in Sparkle’s readings. Uncanny.

Sparkle’s mother had taught her to read tarot at an early age. What some called a gift, Sparkle’s mother had called an art. Divining the future was a skill the tarot reader practiced day after day. Her mother had also taught Sparkle about soulmates, saying every person had one somewhere. Their destinies linked, souls entwined, usually by forces beyond their control or own awareness. Not for the first time, Sparkle silently wished her mother were still alive; Eliza would know what to make of the that last reading.

Sparkle was afraid to think about it. That dark-eyed stranger was nothing like what she wanted or needed. He was all wrong. Violent. No woman should give her heart to a man like that. He would only rend it.

Besides, Sparkle’s heart was no longer hers to give. She’d given it away years ago to the man she privately adored and knew she’d eventually marry.

A kind and quiet man, who wasn’t one bit like Rafe Conley.