Authors: Beth Williamson
Tags: #horses;suspense;civil war;confederate;texas;cowboys
Handing over the reins is hard. Handing over his heart…damn near impossible.
Devils on Horseback
, Book 5
Gideon Blackwood is on the run—from Tanger’s meddling matchmakers. With no intention of following the rest of the Devils down the aisle, he heads for the hills to reassess a life spent leading and caring for others…and runs smack into the business end of a shotgun. At the trigger: a curmudgeonly woman with a broken axle and a load of responsibility.
In Chloe Ruskin’s experience, men take what they want and leave a mess of trouble behind. The safety of two orphans and her granny is at stake, and the last thing she needs is Gideon’s “help”. This time, though, she has no choice but to allow the big cowboy to fix her wagon.
As they work into the night, grudging admiration grows into attraction—and desire. Gideon finds he can’t dig his boot heels in hard enough to avoid falling for the opinionated little female.
When Chloe’s family disappears, her suspicion threatens to destroy any spark of love before it catches fire. Gideon finds himself making promises his pride won’t let him break—even if it costs him the love of the woman who owns the missing half of his soul.
This title has been revised for rerelease.
Warning: Prepare for adventure, shenanigans, kidnapping, tusslin’ and smoochin’ with an ex-captain with a need for order and a woman who doesn’t know how to give up.
Devils on Horseback: Gideon
To the memory of my friend Donna F, who passed away in August 2009. She was the epitome of strength, grace and courage. A woman who fought the fight for five long years and left behind a legacy of love. She taught me how to be brave even in the face of a mortal enemy. We miss you.
“Who the hell are you?”
Gideon Blackwood stopped in his tracks, a puff of dust kicking up from his boots. He kept his arms at his sides, his breathing even, although his heart thundered like a horse’s hooves. From the gruff, raspy quality of the voice behind him, he didn’t know who he was dealing with.
“My name is Gideon Blackwood.”
“What do you think you’re doing sneaking around my wagon, Gideon Blackwood?”
Ah, it was definitely a woman. Whoever she was, she’d be no match for a man of his size, no matter how angry she sounded. As a veteran of the Civil War and countless battles, midnight raids and numerous wounds, not much scared him.
He turned around slowly so as not to spook her. To his surprise, he found a short figure wearing a dress that could’ve been used to hold potatoes and a floppy, ugly-as-hell wide hat that completely hid her face. The one thing that kept his attention was the pistol in her hand. That hand wasn’t shaking either. He took stock of his opponent in the blink of an eye. She was barely over five feet tall, her shape hidden by the sack she wore. Gideon took a step toward her, and she cocked the gun.
“Answer the question.” Her tone was as cold as the metal of the barrel.
Gideon couldn’t judge her age since her face was covered and her voice deep for a female. She could be twelve or ninety, which meant he couldn’t estimate how fast she’d be if he decided to disarm her.
“I was riding to Grayton to see a friend of mine. I saw the busted wheel on the wagon and thought I could help.” He never expected his attempt would result in having a woman hold a gun on him.
“Hero, eh? You a Johnny Reb?”
Gideon clenched his fists as he told himself to ignore the caustic nickname. He’d fought in the war for what he thought was right, same as every other man. It had been three years since the war ended, and she had no call to insult him. He had to keep his control, no matter what flew out of her mouth.
“We’re all just folks now, ma’am. I’m no hero, and I sure don’t want to be shot for trying to help out other folks in need. I’ll be on my way.” Gideon took a step away from the wagon. The stupid gelding placidly munched on grass while his master had a gun pointed at him.
“Hold it, mister. I didn’t give you leave to walk away.” She took a step sideways, and her boots crunched on the dirt.
“I don’t need your permission, lady. Now either shoot me or let me go, because I’m done standing here jawin’ with you.” This time he did walk toward his horse.
“Wait, uh, please.” The words seemed torn from her throat. “We do need help.” She sighed so hard he’d swear the grass moved from the force of it.
He almost kept walking. Almost. But the Southern gentleman inside him protested loudly. A woman asking for help was never ignored, no matter how ornery she was. Gideon sometimes cursed his sense of honor; it could be a pain in the ass.
Perhaps it was his own stress making him short-tempered. He’d left Tanger behind, along with all the pressures from his friends and family. If one more person had shoved a sister or daughter at him, proclaiming Gideon the most eligible bachelor in town, he’d have punched someone. Then his cousin Zeke, as sheriff, would have had to put his ass in jail. Instead Gideon had left town, or escaped was more like it. He had been headed to their friend Nate’s ranch over in Grayton, several days’ ride from Tanger if he was riding alone and unhindered.
Now, of course, it would take him much longer, considering he had stopped to help someone. Or rather been held at gunpoint when he tried to help. Gideon needed to relax, to get away from the loco idea he required a wife. Just because his cousins Zeke and Lee and his half brother Jake had found marital bliss, didn’t mean Gideon had to. Although Nate was also happily married, his wife Eliza was a trouser-wearing straight shooter who would likely never try to force a female on anyone.
He needed to get to Grayton.
Gideon turned back toward her, hands on hips. “What do you need help with?” Too bad he sounded as gracious as she did, which was not at all.
“The wheel broke.”
“I can see that.”
She snorted. “I ain’t big enough to get the wagon up on my own, and Granny can’t get the new wheel on. We’ve been stuck here for a few days now.”
“There are two of you?” He glanced around but didn’t see another soul.
“Four, actually. The twins are in the wagon with Granny.” She gestured to the canvas that appeared to have strange-looking cargo beneath it.
“Twins?” Gideon hoped like hell it wasn’t babies. Not that he didn’t like young’uns, but he sure didn’t want to have to rescue a young woman, two babies and an old woman. Jesus, what the hell had he stumbled into?
“The branch I found to leverage up the wagon broke. If we can find a sturdier one, I can change out the wheel.”
Gideon eyeballed her. “Ma’am, you’re no bigger than a minute and likely no older than one either. I don’t think you could even get the wheel off, much less get a new one on.”
She yanked off the hat, and a mass of curls popped out in a color explosion worthy of a sunrise. The woman glared at him, and he realized his mistake in a heartbeat—she was at least twenty, if not older. And she had a temper to match that hair.
“I’ve managed to get us from Virginia to Texas, driving the wagon and keeping everyone else healthy and fed. All I need from you is half an hour to change out the wheel.” She threw her arms wide. “If’n you don’t want to help, then be on your way.”
“I told you I’d help, but I think we need more than just me.”
She snorted. “Then you ain’t no kind of Southern man I know. Be on your way, then.” The woman had the audacity to turn her back on him.
Gideon didn’t know whether to laugh or be insulted. This little bird had a lot of gumption, that was for sure.
“I didn’t say I couldn’t do it. I said I didn’t think you could.” He crossed his arms over his chest and widened his stance.
A breath hissed through her teeth. “You want to repeat that?”
“Not particularly. Do you want my help or not?” He looked around and spotted a likely branch on the side of the road. He’d also need a fulcrum, something to use to leverage up the wagon.
“Quit your foolishness, Chloe. The man is offering to help.” An even tinier figure emerged from behind the wagon. Her silver hair marked her as the granny, and her poke bonnet marked her as a woman who was from another era. She peered at Gideon. “And he’s big enough to get the job done.”
. A biblical name. How ironic was that? He and the Devils had biblical names—a fact that had made them hoot with laughter when they’d sat around darkened woods waiting for orders during the war. Now this woman had come into his life and she was saddled with a biblical name too. Fate surely was fickle.
“Thank you, ma’am.” He nodded to the older woman. “Gideon Blackwood.”
“I heard you the first time. I’m Henrietta Ruskin, and this here’s my granddaughter, Chloe.” She stood beside the younger woman, and he could hardly believe there was a six-inch height difference between them. Had he stumbled upon a group of tiny people with bad manners?
“Pleasure to meet you both, ma’am.”
“I’ll get to work, then.” Gideon headed for the branch, ignoring the furious whispering of the women behind him. Something about Chloe made him want to get on his horse and ride as fast as he could out of there. Now that he was committed to helping the Ruskin family, he couldn’t leave just yet.
Chloe was hopping mad. She didn’t want help, and sure didn’t want a stranger’s help. He was big, which meant he could just take what he wanted and leave her and her family there. It frustrated her to feel this way, and it pricked her pride to ask for a stranger’s assistance.
Granny made it worse by chastising her like Chloe was a young’un with her hand in the cookie jar. She was twenty years old, for God’s sake. It had taken them months to get enough supplies together to leave Virginia, and she’d be damned if a broken wheel prevented them from reaching Corpus Christi. Granny’s sister Julia lived there with her husband, or at least she had up until six months ago when her letters stopped coming.
Getting stranded on the side of the road for days was not what Chloe wanted to be doing. It fried her patience to have to wait for a big strong man to help her. Some days she hated being short.
“What’s he doing?”
“I don’t know. Looking for a sturdier branch, I would guess.” Chloe stuffed her hat back on her head. “Jesus, Granny, did you have to take me to task like that?”
“Pot calling the kettle black.”
Granny narrowed her ice-blue eyes. “I’ve raised you since you was two years old and your mama died. Don’t you sass me.”
Truly her granny had been the only mother Chloe knew. She’d been tough but fair, teaching a young, motherless girl how to know wrong from right, to cook and sew, as well as how to fish and hunt. Her pa was as useless as teats on a boar when it came to most everything but spending money at the poker table. He’d used up every bit of luck he had five years earlier when he’d been caught cheating. Chloe had cried when they’d buried him. She had loved him, although he’d never been a father to her except when he had planted his seed.
Now she was stuck in some godforsaken spot in east Texas with a blue-eyed cowboy sporting an attitude as big as his shoulders. And that was mighty big.
“Sorry, Granny.” Chloe blew out a breath. “I just want to be on our way. The stranger kind of riled me a bit.”
“A bit?” Granny folded her arms over her chest.
Chloe scowled. “It doesn’t matter anyway. He’ll help us, and I won’t have to see him again.” She nodded toward the wagon. “What are the twins doing?”
“Napping. They ran around a lot this morning, and they just collapsed.” Granny shook her head. “Two five-year-old girls is more trouble than one, that’s for sure.”
The last thing Granny and Chloe needed was two little girls to take care of. After the girls’ mama died of heartbreak when her husband didn’t come back from the war, the Ruskins took the girls in. Chloe learned firsthand how to be a mother, although some days she sure didn’t want to. Hazel and Martha were good girls, even if they were a handful.
“Let’s keep them in there, because that big cowboy didn’t sound keen on the idea of little girls.” Chloe started tucking her hair back under the hat.
“Little girls?” The stranger was back and this time with what seemed like an entire tree on his shoulder. The man was stronger than he looked, which she thought an impossible feat.
Chloe tried not to notice the size of the muscles clearly defined beneath the dark blue shirt the man wore, but holy hell, it was hard not to. She was only as tall as his shoulder, and with the tree up on top of it, he was larger than life. Her blood thumped through her veins, reverberating within her as though she was a plucked string.
Granny elbowed her. “Never you mind about little girls, Mr. Blackwood.”
As he looked expectantly at Chloe, a shiver snaked down her spine although it was a warm, sunny day. She was no fool—she knew that people were like any other kind of animals and were attracted to each other. It had happened to her with a few boys back in Virginia, but there weren’t many around when she was old enough to want to get hitched. Those who came back had too many ghosts in their eyes and too many troubles of their own.
If this stranger had ghosts, they were well hidden behind his annoyed expression. He scowled at her. “Ma’am?”
Oh Lord, she’d been staring at him. Chloe wanted to slap her forehead, but instead she scowled back at him. “That all you need?”
He gestured behind her. “No, I need that big rock right there too. It’ll be easier if we use a fulcrum to leverage it up.”
Chloe didn’t know what a fulcrum was, but the rock was bigger than she and Granny put together. “How are you going to move that?”
“By rolling it.”
“Oh. That makes sense.” She peered at him. “What are you waiting for, then?”
“You are a prickly little thing, aren’t you?” His brows drew even closer together. “I’m not standing here with this thing on my shoulder because I wanted splinters.”
She swallowed the chuckle that threatened. “Then let’s get to it.”
He turned and walked to the wagon, setting the branch down. Chloe moved to the rock and started digging to loosen the soil around it. She didn’t get very far before he nudged her out of the way and yanked the damn thing out of the ground. Dirt clods flew every which way, sending her scrambling backward to wipe her eyes and face.
Chloe sputtered and wanted to tell him exactly what he could do with the rock instead of rolling it to the wagon. By the time she got all the muck out of her face and eyes, he had set the rock beneath the wagon and put the branch on it.
“What are you doing?”
“Testing the branch to be sure it’s strong enough.”
“You’re going to lift up the wagon.”
“Therein lies the way to take off the broken wheel.”
“The girls are in the wagon. You’ll scare them to death.” Chloe got to her feet and glanced at Granny. “Let’s get them out of there.”
“They’re in the wagon? I thought she said—”
“She said to never mind about them, but obviously now we’ll need to.” Chloe lifted the tarp and climbed into the wagon.
The girls were snuggled together under the yellow quilt they’d carried from their home. The white-blonde moppets were identical with their chocolate brown eyes and soft honey skin. They were full of mischief, sweetness, energy and intelligence. Despite the extra work of taking care of them, Chloe loved them like they were her little sisters.
She picked up Hazel and scuttled backward until she was out from under the tarp and handing the sleeping child to Granny. “Put her under the shade of that big cottonwood over there. I’ll get Martha.”
Sweat trickled down Chloe’s temple as she crawled back in to retrieve the other child. Truly, she wasn’t an angry person by nature, but too many years of hunger, heartache and desperation had turned her into one. The stranger had offered help, and she’d nearly bitten off his nose for it. Granny had been right about needing assistance, but Chloe hadn’t wanted to accept it. There was too much pride on her narrow shoulders, her biggest flaw amongst a dozen or two.