As a girl, Maisy Macoubrie witnessed the murder of her beloved father. She’s been running from the killer for fourteen years. If only she could provide a safe home for her and her son… but she’ll never get rich dealing faro in saloons, with a cold-blooded killer on her trail.
The Preacher never meant to become a gunman. Sometimes life deals a man a hard hand. Always alone, always hunted, he dreams of all he’s been denied—peace, family, love.
The moment Maisy and The Preacher meet, their lives change once more. United in battle against a powerful enemy, they fight side by side, but can they beat the odds they face? Is love worth the biggest gamble man has ever known.
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October 1881- Pandora, Colorado
Danger rode a howling wind into Pandora, Colorado, that autumn night. A gleeful desperado, the gale scoured the town’s nooks, alleys, and yards. It iced window panes and froze puddles.
Maisy Macoubrie stood on the boarding house stoop, watching trash blow down the street, her faro bag held in front of her like a shield. She enjoyed a good storm, but tonight, her mood seemed as ragged and tense as the weather. Blessed Saints, but her back ached. Thank heaven the gambling season would be over soon, and she could go home.
Thoughts of home brought images of her son, Danny. How she missed him. He’d be fourteen next month. She’d bet he’d grown another inch since she saw him in August. If only she dared to have him with her.
The eight o’clock stage slogged past the boarding house and slid to a muddy halt in front of The Pandora House. Half a dozen men on horseback followed. Passengers bolted from the still-rocking coach into the well-lighted building. The others did the same. Once they’d all warmed up and filled their bellies, they’d want a pleasant way to pass the evening, such as gambling.
Maisy sighed. Time to go to work at the Bloated Goat Saloon.
Something darted under her skirts. She swallowed a screech and yanked up her hems.
“Soda!” Crouching, she petted the grumpy- looking calico cat. “Oh, you’re wet.”
Maisy stood. “Come on, I’ll let you in, and give you something to eat.”
The cat darted inside the second she opened the door and dashed up the stairs. Leaving her faro bag beside the door, Maisy followed and let the cat into her room. “Stay off the bed until you’ve cleaned yourself.” The calico padded over to her special rug under the window and set to work licking her fur. Maisy fetched Soda’s food from the storage space in the washstand.
“Here you are.” She put several pieces of chopped, dried beef on the floor. “I have to go to work.” Maisy bent and put her hand beside the cat’s right front leg. “Come on, shake with me like I taught you.”
She almost chuckled at the look of disgust on Soda’s face, but the cat raised her paw. “Good girl. I’ll see you later.”
She’d no sooner stepped back out on the front porch than Lenny Goodman dashed up the steps. “ˈEvening, Miss Maisy.”
“Good evening, Lenny. Did Nose send you?” In the light from his lantern, his face looked older than fourteen years. His eyes displayed a sort of wisdom and disillusionment in their depths that aged him. His chin showed the promise of a beard he would soon have to start shaving. It wouldn’t be long before Danny would be doing the same.
“Yep. Said it was too dark for you to have to find your way to the saloon without a lantern.” He took her bag from her as she descended the steps to the boards laid over the muddy road in drier weather—her landlord’s idea of a boardwalk.
Lenny held up the light while Maisy maneuvered the makeshift pathway. Before reaching the boardwalk that fronted the stores, the rain had soaked her cloak and skirt hems.
“I stepped in a deep mud puddle back there,” Lenny said, joining her in front of the Sims Café and Bakery. “Need to scrape it off.” He went to work, using the edge of the porch to relieve him of the gunk. “You want to take the lantern with you and go on?”
Maisy glanced toward the Bloated Goat Saloon. Light from the windows showed on the boardwalk. “No, I’ll be all right, Lenny. Thank you.”
She took her bag from him and went on. Storm doors kept the weather out of The Goat, but they also blocked the light the shorter, swinging doors would have allowed to escape. Maisy peered over her shoulder to check on the boy and walked into something solid and unmovable.
“Whoa,” a man said. Strong hands grabbed her arms through her cloak. “Sorry. My fault.” His voice came out low and gruff.
Maisy slipped her hand into her pocket and palmed the Derringer she kept there. “Where did you come from?”
“The alley.” A hat shaded the man’s face. A stranger’s face. The one feature she could see, his mouth, curved upward. “I’m called Preacher, and you’re safe, Ma’am. All I want is a wet drink.”
Her pulse slowed. She composed herself. “Well, you came to the right place. The Goat’s the best watering spot in town.”
His brows lifted.
Guessing the question in his mind, she said, “I deal faro here.”
“Ah.” He nodded. “Shall we go in then?”
Preacher reached for the door handle the same moment Lenny rushed up. “Everything all right, Miss Maisy?”
The light from the boy’s lantern allowed her to see the stranger. Filthy clothes. Dirty, scruffy face. A week’s worth of beard. He also smelled. Grateful for the boy’s presence, she said, “I’m fine, Lenny. Thanks for lighting the way.”
“Sure thing, Miss Maisy.”
Giving Preacher a nod, she preceded him into the saloon. Familiar sights, smells, and sounds—the yeasty aroma of beer, cigar smoke, coins clinking on table tops, the whir of the Wheel of Fortune, piano music, the flip of cards being dealt—closed around her like a reassuring fur robe.
Preacher sauntered over to an empty table against the far wall. Lenny extinguished the lantern, vanishing into the back storeroom. Nose Jensen had given the orphan a job sweeping the saloon after closing and a place to sleep. A good man, Nose, despite the misshapen appendage that gave him his name.
Miners and storekeepers—men she knew, though not all their names—lined the crude pine bar, booted feet propped on the wooden rail that substituted for the brass ones found in finer saloons. Several tipped their hats.
“Maisy, honey,” a miner called out, “come sit on my lap and bring me some luck.”
“Getting ready to set up, Maisy? I need to win me some drinking money.”
She waved at the men. “Sure thing, fellas. Let me get out of this wet cloak first, eh?”
Nose motioned for her to come to the bar. When she reached him, he laid two metal discs on the counter.
“Got you a couple more tokens, Maisy.” He pointed to the larger one, about the size of a quarter. “Figured you’d like this one. Silver in the middle with copper around the rim and a half moon cut out of the middle.”
“It’s wonderful, Ned.” Unlike the rest of the town, she always used his given name when talking to him. She picked up the tokens and read the print on them. “Half Moon Café, Blackhawk, Colorado, good for one free cup of coffee. The little one is from Hennesey’s Saloon in Telluride. You could use this one, Ned. Why give it to me?”
A smile formed beneath his battered nose. “Because I figured you’d like the serrated edge on it. Hell, Maisy, it’s only worth five cents.”
She returned his smile. “I appreciate your generosity, Ned. I love both tokens. Thank you.”
He nodded, and Maisy tucked the bits of metal into her corset. On her way to her table, she spotted her favorite saloon girl, a slender, yellow-haired girl from Georgia. Delilah Blue never ran out of laughter no matter how bleak her day; a talent Maisy admired. Delilah pushed through the crowd of rowdy dancers and joined her.
“Why, Maisy, girl, ain’t you a surprising one?” Delilah clasped Maisy’s arm and scrutinized the stranger in the Stetson. “Who’s your friend? Ain’t seen one that good looking in a year o’ Sundays.”
Maisy shook her head and kept walking. “I have no idea who he is. We merely reached the door at the same time. How can you tell he’s good looking under all the dirt and whiskers?”
Delilah kept pace with her. “Oh, I can tell, honey. But I’m disappointed. I thought you’d finally found you a man.”
“I keep telling you I don’t need a man.” Want one, maybe, but need? Never. Or could it be the other way around?
Delilah snorted. “Root rot. Every woman needs a man.”
“Why? You don’t have one.”
She gave a harsh laugh. “No, I have dozens of very unspecial ones, every night.”
A mountainous, carrot-headed miner with a face full of hair and a belly too full of beer called out, “Hey, Delilah. Come on, I wanna dance.”
He swept Delilah onto the dance floor, saving Maisy from having to respond. Using her free hand to undo the fastenings of her cloak as she walked to her table, she smiled. Delilah’s unending efforts to befriend her had touched a spot deep inside, leaving it warm and fluttery. For years, Maisy had kept folks at bay, afraid to let them close to her. Too dangerous for a girl on the run. But the loneliness that resulted too often became unbearable.
Her gaze darted to Preacher, who sat now, back to the wall, chair set away from the table, long coat spread wide. The two gun belts at his hips, holsters tied to his thighs, confirmed what she suspected. A gunslinger. Long and lean, he appeared at ease, yet tension oozed from every inch of his big body. The predatory look of him would keep men at a distance while women breathed a little harder, hoping he’d notice them.
Just the sort of man her nemesis, Gold Kingsley, would hire to track her down, like the bounty hunter he’d sent after her in St. Louis after he had learned she still lived.
From under her eyelashes, she watched Preacher survey the room, assessing, considering, dismissing. When his glance found her, her pulse quickened. She averted her gaze. Using a smile to hide the tangle of nerves in her stomach and the erratic beat of her heart, she reached for the mental mask she used to hide her thoughts and emotions. She’d learned the trick from her parents and the actors of their theatrical troupe. Growing up backstage had been lonely, but it taught a girl how to be what she wasn’t and conceal her true self.
Now, she starched her backbone and walked on to her table, removing her cloak as she walked. Marshal Jake Harker greeted her with a grin. His presence and relaxed pose—chair kicked back, feet propped on the fender of a pot-bellied stove—eased her mind. No one would try to grab her with him there, one reason she allowed herself to come to Pandora more often than most towns.
Light from overhead lanterns glinted off his high forehead and the buckskin-hued mustache he’d just licked a drop of coffee from. In spare moments, he often acted as her banker and watched for cheats and troublemakers. He never gambled himself. Nor did she, having seen too many lives ruined by the habit. Maisy wanted only to earn a living for her and her son and to stay alive. She knew no better way to do that than dealing pasteboards.
The skill learned from actors backstage in her youth gave her an opportunity to earn more than she would as a waitress, laundress, cook, or maid. While most dealers worked for an hourly wage, she paid Nose Jensen rent for her table and kept what she earned. For that blessing, she would gladly kiss his crooked nose every night she worked.
She draped her wet cloak over a chair by the stove to dry and studied the saloon’s other patrons. Needing room for the satchel containing her faro gear, she lifted Jake’s hat from a chair and plopped it on his head.
He continued to grin. “Thanks. Here, got some brew for you.” He scooted a fresh mug of coffee over to her.
“You sweetheart.” Gratefully, she sipped the hot liquid.
The sudden howl of a dog caused her to spill the drink, staining her skirt. For the second time that night, her heart went to her throat. Her pulse jumped.
“Damn ya, ya rotten, no good mutt,” a man yelled in a Southern twang.
Maisy recognized the voice—Sam Siddens, a gambler known as a cheat and a bully. At his table, men surged to their feet. Cards and poker chips went flying, and a glass hit the floor, shattering. Using a horsehair quirt, Siddens lashed viciously at a black and white sheepdog he held in place with a rope around its neck. “I’ll teach ya ta get under ma feet, ya blasted fleabag.”
The piano fell silent. In the hush that settled over the room, the vicious blows the dog received and its yelps of pain rang loud and harsh.
Appalled, Maisy hurried over, Marshal Harker at her heels.
“Stop that, Siddens.” She grabbed the man’s upraised arm and, using the advantage of surprise, wrenched the quirt away.
“Damn you. Got no right doin’ that,” the inebriated gambler slurred. “Dawg belongs to me. I can do as I like with ‘im.” No longer able to flog the dog, he kicked it instead.
Maisy raised the quirt, as if to hit Siddens. “Rights or not, you won’t be whipping him while I’m around. Or kicking him either.”
“Why, you uppity…” He aimed a fist at her face. She sidestepped the blow, and he staggered against the table, upsetting what glasses, cards, and cigar butts hadn’t already spilled.
“Here, enough of that.” Jake Harker grabbed the man and shoved him into a chair. “Hitting women isn’t allowed here.”
Ignoring the lawman, Siddens made a grab for the quirt Maisy held. “Gimme that. Blasted cur made me lose that last hand.”
“No.” Maisy tossed the weapon out of reach. “I can’t stop you from mistreating your dog, but you won’t do it in here.”
“Listen to the woman, Siddens,” Harker advised. “Or you’ll deal with me.”
Maisy knelt to check the dog for injuries. Blood ran from his head in two places, an old scab marred his nose, probably from a previous beating, and his ribs showed through his hide. Whining, he licked her hand. She couldn’t help thinking how much her son would love him.
On impulse, she stood and said, “Play me for him, Mr. Siddens. One hand of Draw. I’ll wager twenty dollars I can beat you. If you lose, the animal is mine, and you leave Pandora.”
Crude laughter burst out of the man, splattering her with spit. “Ya joshing me, Maisy?”
Harker moved to her side. “What are you doing?”
She ignored him. “Well, Mr. Siddens…?”
The drunken bully looked from her to the marshal and shrugged. “Why not? I don’t mind takin’ money from a woman.”
Harker leaned close and whispered, “He’s drunk, and he cheats.”
“I know. Don’t worry, I can beat him.”
Shaking his head, the marshal lifted his hands in resignation. “Fine. One hand of Draw. But win or lose, Mr. Siddens, you’re done for tonight.”
“Whatever ya say, Marshal.” With that, Siddens righted the chair he’d knocked over, sat down and gathered up the scattered pasteboards.
Taking the opposite seat, Maisy drew a sealed deck from her skirt pocket. “You don’t really think I’d let you use your own cards, do you? I’ve known too many gamblers who cheat.”
“Why, you…” He raised a hand, ready once more to strike out. At the cocking of a six-gun, Siddens dropped his arm and sat back.
Maisy looked up in surprise to see Preacher slip his Colt back into its holster. He tipped his hat, and she acknowledged it with a nod. Why had he protected her? Did it mean he didn’t work for Gold or had Gold ordered that she be kept alive until he got his hands on her?
“Maisy?” Jake said, bringing her back to herself.
Determined to finish what she’d started, she reached into the small drawstring purse dangling from her wrist to find a gold eagle which she placed on the table.
Eyeing the coin, Siddens sneered, “Want me ta put the dawg on the table, too?”
She forced a smile. “We’ll just pretend, shall we?” She shuffled and offered him the deck to cut. After dealing, she picked up her cards. An ace, two jacks, a ten and a five. After setting the ten and the five aside, she placed the remaining three cards face down on the table. “How many would you like, Mr. Siddens?”
“Three shiny new ones,” he said, tossing down his discards.
She dealt the cards. “Dealer takes two.”
Aware of the throng gathered around the table, Maisy let her eyes roam the faces, quickly passing over Preacher’s. The spectators murmured among themselves and money exchanged hands.
“Well, Mr. Siddens, what do you have?” she asked.
He grinned as he spread out three queens on the table. “Three ladies. Can’t top that, now can ya, sugar?” He laughed and swapped looks with a few men he’d been playing with.
She smiled and laid down her own cards. Three aces and two jacks. A full house.
“What the…?” Siddens leaped to his feet. “Marshal, arrest her. She musta cheated.”
Jake gave his head a firm shake. “No, she’s just a damned fine player.”
Grumbles erupted from losers as bets were paid off. Maisy called for paper and a pencil. When they arrived, she set them in front of Siddens and ordered him to write out a bill of sale.
“Bill o’ sale!” he ranted. “I didn’t sell the mutt. I got cheated out o’ ‘im.”
Siddens did. “Damned dawg ain’t no good nohow.”
The crowd dispersed. A deputy appeared to escort the gambler from the saloon.
Back at her table, she settled the dog on the floor in the warmth of the stove and called for food scraps and a wet cloth to clean the animal’s wounds. “I think I’ll call you Hock,” she told him, “after the last card played in a hand of faro. When we go home, you’ll meet Soda. She’s named after the first card played.”
He wagged his tail as if he approved.
Jake Harker returned and took his usual seat, grinning at her. “Dammit, Maisy, I can’t believe you pulled that off. That piece of crap is a good card player, even without cheating.”
“Yes, well, two can play at that game.”
He stared at her a moment. “You mean what I think you mean?” Leaning forward, he gave her a stern look. “Did you cheat, Maisy?”
Avoiding his gaze, she began arranging her faro gear on the table. “Someone had to get the poor animal away from him. He’s a brute, and you know it.” “Well, I’ll be damned.” He burst out laughing. “I do admire a smart woman. Confound it, Maisy, why won’t you marry me? We’ve already proved we make good partners.”
Delilah, finally free of Baby Oscar’s iron grip, plopped down on a chair at the table. Grinning, she glanced from Maisy to Harker and back.
“I bet,” Harker added, “our daughters would have your red hair and green eyes, and the boys would look like me. They’d be downright handsome. Don’t you think Maisy and I would have good looking kids, Delilah?”
She laughed and winked at Maisy. “Don’t involve me, Marshal. Fond as I am of you two, I ain’t about to take sides.”
Maisy returned the wink. She knew Jake meant what he said about marrying her. While she respected him a great deal and enjoyed his company at the saloon, she had no intention of getting married and giving up her freedom. Staying single made life harder in some ways—financially, in particular—but to Maisy, the freedom of being single made the effort worthwhile.
She leaned to the side to see the gunslinger. Back in his seat, he sipped from a Sarsaparilla bottle. If he had come to fetch her, he seemed in no hurry. Maybe because of Jake. “Watching for outlaws for you isn’t the same as being partners in a marriage, Marshal.” Since Maisy moved around a lot, never staying in one town too long, Jake had talked her into keeping an eye out for wanted men for him. She didn’t mind, and he always shared any rewards he collected. Maisy needed the money.
He shrugged. “Never know if we don’t try.”
She ignored the comment and spread the green faro cloth, with its layout of cards painted on the surface, over the table and smoothed the edges.
Jake Harker took charge of her bank and case counter—an abacus-like contraption for keeping track of what cards had been pulled from the card box. Maisy smiled, listening to him tease Delilah. The marshal’s lack of ambition took nothing away from the quality of the man. Same thing for Delilah, one of the sweetest women Maisy knew.
She took up a fresh deck of pasteboards and shuffled them; she never used a deck twice. Harker began sliding the case counter’s red and white markers back and forth on their rods, making a ffpppp, ffpppp sound that jangled Maisy’s nerves.
She searched deep inside herself for the source of her jitters. The last time she’d felt this way, a bounty hunter showed up in the saloon where she worked in St. Louis. She trembled the moment she’d laid eyes on the man, and the state of her nerves worsened over the next few days while he hung around watching her. When it became bad enough to cause her to make mistakes in her work, she called it quits and slipped quietly out of town.
She’d kept going until she reached Cheyenne, Wyoming. The answer she received from a wire sent to her old boss in Missouri advised her to keep going. A man named Kingsley had shown up the day after her disappearance, asking for her.
Maisy studied the surrounding faces. None bore the patrician features she so dreaded to see—the tidy eyebrows, electric-blue eyes, and pencil-slim mustache of Gold Kingsley.
The man who wanted her dead.
Her gaze faltered on the visage of the gunslinger called Preacher. Had Gold sent him after her?
Maisy didn’t want to find out.