Authors: The Sheriff's Last Gamble
Dakota Territory, 1886
Sheriff Jake McCrery gave up gambling years ago; keeping the peace in Founder’s Creek Township is all the challenge he needs. Until Stacy Blackwell arrives in town and soon becomes a frequent visitor to the Sheriff’s office. Her crime? Diverting the Sheriff’s attention with her beauty, charm and the mischievous light in her eyes that ignites a fire in Jake that can’t be extinguished. He wants her as he’d never wanted anything in his life—enough to make one final gamble to win her heart….
The Sheriff’s Last Gamble
Welcome to the Dakota Territory, where Stacy Blackwell is a
true gambler at heart, as I suspect many of us are. I know I love taking a
gamble every once in a while. Buying that lottery ticket, or playing a friendly
game of cards, even dropping a dollar or two in a slot machine. Stacy and Jake
learn love is life’s biggest gamble and put their hearts on the table. I hope
you enjoy their fast-paced game of hitting it big as much as I enjoyed writing
If you have a chance, stop by my blog,
, or find me on Facebook or
Twitter (the links are on my blog). I’d love to hear about your gambles.
To my dear husband, who has always backed my bets.
“How long you gonna sit there staring at those cards, darling?”
The endearment was meant to irritate her, but Winston Ratcliff was a sharper, a player who gave the game a bad name, and therefore he’d been on Stacy Blackwell’s nerves long before he’d opened his mouth. Blocking out his sarcastic voice, she went right on studying her cards. The odds were in her favor.…
Know your odds, baby girl, but don’t count on them. Count on your gut, it’ll never steer you wrong. It knows more than your mind ever can.
Those were Pappy’s words echoing in her mind, taught long ago on one of the many riverboats she’d grown up on, and often repeated—usually on a steamer chugging through muddy water.
A hefty pot sat in the center of the table: gold and silver coins, paper bills, a cheap watch dropped in by Chester Marks. None of which made her question her instincts. The sapphire-studded locket Winston had placed right smack in the middle of all that money, however, had her hesitating. The long chain had coiled into a cone atop the stones and now glistened in the light cast from the wall lanterns like a pile of gold in Founder’s Creek—if there ever could be gold in a creek that was dry half the year.
That necklace was hers, and she wanted it back. But the hard knot in her stomach said that, no matter what the odds, Winston had a better hand than her full house of aces over eights.
If he won this pot, he’d be able to play for hours without putting up the necklace again. She, too, could play for hours if not for Sheriff Jake McCrery. He was due back in town in less than an hour, and the first place he’d come looking for her was here, Ma Belle’s House of Worship. A completely different kind of worship than took place in the more respectable building with its towering steeple on the edge of town, but more regularly used in Founder’s Creek Township, Dakota Territory.
“Come on, girl, we ain’t got all day,” Chester said, setting his empty mug on the table with a thud.
Stacy flashed the farmer a glare that said exactly what she thought of him and his big toe gambling. Just because a man got an itch didn’t mean he should sit down at a table. It soured the game for those committed to gaming. Namely her.
“What’s it gonna be, darling? You in or not?” Winston asked, lighting up another one of his long cigars and puffing up a cloud of smoke before blowing a single ring to hover right over the necklace.
The glitter of the chain pulled at her. It was only thing she’d ever been able to hold on to. Proof she had a family—a parent, who in her own way, loved her. But she couldn’t let Winston know that. No one could ever know that. All the more reason she couldn’t let the good sheriff find her here.
Hiding her frustration, she shot a distasteful gaze straight across the table. “I’m not your darling, Ratcliff,” she said, with enough ire to dim the triumph in his beady eyes.
Setting her cards facedown on the table, she gathered her money, folding the bills before slipping them into the bottom of the satchel attached to her wrist. The coins went in next, all except for two gold ones. Those she’d give to Faith Hickcomb. Lord knows the girl deserved it after schlepping drinks all day and working the rooms above half the night.
“Too rich for your blood, is it?”
Ratcliff had won a fair bit since arriving in town, so he thought he was a master of the game. In actuality, he had a lot to learn, and someday she’d prove it to him
get her necklace back. Neither the cards nor her gut said today was the day, so she’d wait. Patience was another thing Pappy had taught her.
Stacy retrieved her parasol from the floor near her feet and kept her eyes on Ratcliff as she pushed away from the table. “No game’s ever been too rich for my blood. Nor will it ever be.”
Always affable, at least whenever possible, she included Chester Marks in her parting nod to the rest of the men at the table. “Gentlemen,” she said, amazed at how inappropriate a simple word could be.
On her way across the room, she dropped the coins from her hand on the little table where Faith sat resting her feet for a moment.
“Thank you,” the girl whispered.
Everything in life is a gamble and no one had the right to judge another for the way they chose to play. Leastwise, that’s what Pappy had taught her. Smiling and giving Faith a wink, Stacy strolled out the hinged half doors into the bright afternoon sun.
Parasol overhead, she set a course for the church on the edge of town, her satchel heavy on her wrist. The pot, the one she’d won before Ratcliff had dangled her necklace over the table, had been a profitable one and Father O’Reilly would appreciate the funds.
A short time later Stacy pushed open the door to exit the church, her purse empty but her heart full. A tingling sensation stirred inside her stomach, and making no effort to hide the grin forming on her lips she sauntered down the steps toward the big palomino standing in the street.
It was the man astride the animal that held her attention. Tall, broad, and with hair as golden brown as the horse’s, Sheriff Jake McCrery had to be the most handsome man in these entire United States, based on her experience leastwise, which was considerable. Pappy had hauled her to most every state and all the territories in their twenty-three years of living together. The past three months in Founder’s Creek Township was the longest span of time she’d ever spent in one place.
Stopping on the bottom step, she pushed open the parasol that matched the mint-green linen dress, tailored just for her without the prominent bustle some women found so stylish. All that extra material made sitting much too difficult.
Jake McCrery swung one leg over the saddle horn and landed on the ground as smoothly as an eagle swoops into its nest.
“Miss Blackwell.” He greeted her with a slight nod.
With her insides tingling, and without a doubt he’d follow, Stacy started walking along the road. “Tell me, how is dear Uncle Edward today?”
“Fine,” Jake answered. “He’d like you to visit soon.”
“I’ll bet,” she said flatly. There was no sense getting riled over Edward Blackwell. She’d told him exactly what she thought of him three months ago, shortly after arriving. Her heart, not always in agreement with her mind, stung strongly enough to make her tighten her hold on her parasol.
“Speaking of bets,” Jake said, “how much did you win today?”
Stacy pretended to glance over her shoulder at the palomino at their heels; in reality she wanted Jake to see the smile on her face. “Now, Sheriff McCrery, this morning you specifically forbade me from gambling.”
“That hasn’t stopped you before.”
“Tsk, tsk.” She shook her head so the hair she’d spent an hour curling this morning fluttered around her shoulders. She’d learned years ago to style its mousy brown color to catch attention, therefore keeping people from watching her face too closely during an intense point in a game. Lately, though, thoughts of the handsome sheriff filled her head while curling the tresses—actually, while she did most everything. “We both know I never gamble while you’re in town.”
“How much was it?”
At times Jake seemed immune to her charms, and that had her wondering if she’d missed a lesson or two of Pappy’s teachings along the way—not that Pappy had taught her about men, but he’d taught her about life and the two went hand in hand.
Shrugging, mainly to keep a sigh from slipping out, she answered. “A few hundred.”
Jake caught her arm, and though the heat of his touch had her toes curling, fury flashed in his mahogany-brown eyes.
“Gambling’s a dangerous game, Stacy. You’re going to get yourself shot.”
His concern was genuine, and that warmed her heart, but not even Jake McCrery would stop her from playing. “I’ve played in far worse places than Founder’s Creek.”
“Then go there to play.”
An unreadable poker face was one of her most prized accomplishments, but keeping it on right now was a struggle. Not only did Jake sound exasperated, he said the words like he meant them. Wrenching her arm from his hold, she started up the street. Anger snapped inside her, but more painful was the possibility he wanted her to leave. “I can’t,” she said.
“How much more do you need, Stacy?” he asked, keeping up with her quick pace. “You’ve won every dollar anyone had to lose. You own the biggest house in town, four businesses, and give out more loans than the bank.”
What he said was true and required no comment from her. Not even to point out it was five businesses. She’d won the livery three days ago off Ratcliff. He’d snookered it from Ted Holmes in a game of three-card monte, something she couldn’t let be. The Holmeses had six children and needed the livery to keep them fed and clothed.
“What more can you want?” Jake, still sounding frustrated, waved a hand toward the buildings neatly laid out in front of them. “The entire town knows Edward Blackwell is your father, not your uncle.”
That stopped her dead in her tracks. Her stomach had burned all morning, and unable to think of anything else she’d needed a distraction, which was precisely why she’d gone to Ma Belle’s—but seeing her necklace had inched her annoyance up several notches.
Fighting to keep her face expressionless, she eyed Jake from his boots to his hat. Of course his clothing, a black shirt tucked neatly into tan pants, fit him like the hide on his dandy horse, and told her absolutely nothing about what he’d done out at her
Nearly incensed out of her mind, she spun around and started walking again. Holding her temper , and not imagining him and Emma sitting in the parlor whispering silly things to each other, was next to impossible. But she did it. She even went so far as to ask, “Tell me, Jake, how are Edward’s cows today?”
“That’s just plain rude,” he snapped.
Stacy stopped again, turned to where he still stood a few steps behind her. Drawing on every ability she possessed to appear innocent, she tugged her brows together. “Why would you say that? Uncle Edward has several head of cattle.”
Jake lifted one of his dark brows.
Gambling was a form of acting, and she was a proficient gambler, therefore an accomplished actress. Creating a smile took a considerable amount of effort with her teeth clenched so, but she managed. “Did you think I was referring to Uncle Edward’s daughters? Shame on you.”
* * *
If there had ever been a woman Jake McCrery wanted to turn over his knee it was Stacy Blackwell. She’d turned the peaceful town of Founder’s Creek upside down and inside out since the moment she’d hit town, making his job, and life, a nightmare.
Stepping forward until their noses practically touched, and unable to refrain from cursing, Jake growled, “Damn it, Stacy, you know you were referring to Edward’s daughters. Your sisters.”
“Half sisters,” she insisted with something as close to hatred as he’d ever seen flashing in her sky-blue eyes.
No one could hide their emotions like this woman could, and that flash, no matter how brief, softened his heart several degrees. “Stacy,” he said, taking her arm.
She pulled it away. “Forgive me, Sheriff, I momentarily forgot you’re engaged to one of those girls.” Spinning on one high-heeled boot, she started up the street again, skirt swaying and parasol bobbing.