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Authors: Geralyn Dawson

The Scoundrel's Bride

BOOK: The Scoundrel's Bride
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THE SCOUNDREL'S BRIDE

by

Geralyn Dawson

 

 

 

Copyright 1995 and 2012 by Geralyn Dawson Williams

Originally published with the title TEMPTING MORALITY

 

All Rights Reserved.

No part of this work may be reproduced in any fashion without the express, written consent of the copyright holder.

 

The Scoundrel’s Bride is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed herein are fictitious and are not based on any real persons living or dead.

 

Cover Design by CMW Design

 

 

A scoundrel, a vicious man, he goes with a leer on his lips, winking his eye, shuffling his foot, beckoning with his finger. Deceit in his heart, always scheming evil, he sows dissension.

 

Disaster will overtake him sharply for this, suddenly, irretrievably, his fall will come.

—Proverbs 6:12

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

 

Republic of Texas, 1842

 

BLUEBELLS, MORNING GLORIES, FIREWHEELS, and winecups sprayed from Zach Burkett’s hand, scattering in the air like feathers as the bullet slammed into his shoulder and knocked him from his saddle. The boy landed hard on his back atop the packed dirt road. Pain clawed through his body, and he’d have screamed had the impact not driven the air from his lungs.

“Zachary,” his mother cried, flying from the buckboard’s seat. Sarah knelt above her son, fear etching deep lines into her face. With gentle hands, she unbuttoned the plaid flannel shirt she’d given him for Christmas and pushed the fabric off his left side.

Zach’s shoulder burned like fire, though it bled hardly at all. He gazed up at her, feeling more like a baby than a boy of eleven as the child in him silently pleaded,
Please, Mommy, it hurts. Make it better
.

She never had the chance. Zach heard a second gunshot, saw his mother’s eyes widen. She jerked as a bullet slammed into her chest. The bloodstain seeped across her white linen blouse like sin on the soul.

A third shot rang out. Sarah crumpled onto Zach, and the burden of her unrelieved weight terrified him. “Mama? Mama!”

Her face lay just inches from his and warm blood drained from the hole in her abdomen, running in rivulets across his chest, scalding a path that pained him worse than did his wound. A metallic scent filled his nostrils and he gagged.

Zach wanted up. He couldn’t breathe. He needed to help his mama.

Fear unlike any he’d ever known—a hundred times worse than the hurt in his shoulder—clutched his heart. Using his foot as leverage, he tried to roll from underneath his mother. Blood frothed from her wounds as he shifted her still form.
Oh, God. Mama
.

Then he saw it. Movement. A flicker of lashes, and slowly she opened her eyes. Violet pools of pain gazed at him, and Zach felt an answering sting of tears. “Hush, baby,” Sarah warned. “Be still.”

He took a breath to argue, but a sinister chuckle prompted him to shut his eyes instead.

“I win,” drawled a voice the boy recognized at once. Red Lovelace nudged Zach’s leg with a boot. He clamped back an agonized moan as the man added, “Kilt ‘em both the first try.”

“Nope,” Red’s brother, Will, replied. “Your first shot only winged the woman. Mine’s the one that did her in. Half that bonus goes to me.”

“The hell you say!” Red’s voice bristled with indignation. “We only agreed to splittin’ the money comin’ to us for gettin’ Marston’s whore and her kid out of town. Ain’t no deals were made once the killin’ message came. And my shot did too kill her. Got her right in the tit!”

“Damn shame, if you ask me,” Will Lovelace observed. His gruff voice roughened as he added, “I still think we should have waited until tonight and poked her first.”

“Quit thinking with your worm and help me with the wagon.” A creak of springs indicated that one of the men had climbed into the buckboard.

As the horses snorted and pawed, Zach opened his eyes to a narrow slit, checking the second man’s position. Will Lovelace stood with his back toward Zach, his hands braced on his hips, as he listened to his brother’s instructions.

“We need to make it look like robbery,” Red said, securing the reins. “Though I noticed when we loaded up there ain’t nothin’ worth stealin’. I’d have figured the boss to be a bit more generous, considering.”

“I saw somethin’ worth takin’,” Will protested. “I spied a Texas Paterson revolver in a box. Saw the boy reach for it too when the townsfolk went to cheerin’ as the wagon pulled out. Look for it, Red. A little wooden box. Wonder where a kid got a gun like that.”

“Reckon he stole it.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Will approached the wagon, then grunted and cursed as he accepted the weight of a large trunk filled with blankets and bedding which he lowered to the ground. Lifting the lid, he rifled the contents and observed, “Cottonwood Creek sure was glad to see the last of the Burketts, wasn’t it? I was worried, though, that the kid was gonna blow a hole in Lester Cullen ’cause of the things he was shoutin’ about Miz Sarah. If that had happened, the sheriff would have kilt the kid right there and done us outta our money.”

Red Lovelace tossed a stoneware platter to the ground, grinning when it shattered against a rock. Next he threw out a small walnut case. “Here’s the pistol box, but the gun ain’t here. What did the little bastard do with it?”

He kept it to kill you with
. Zach lay as still as the corpse he pretended to be, fierce, violent rage pounding through him as he tried to think. He had to hurry; Mama needed attention quick.

The Paterson lay beneath him, gouging into his back. He’d worn the gun in his waistband, adjusting it to the far side of his left hip as he rode, finally finding a spot where the barrel didn’t poke him. Now he just had to reach it without causing his mother more harm or attracting the Lovelace brothers’ attention.

Sarah Burkett might have sensed his inner struggle, because she opened her eyes and smiled weakly at him. It was all the encouragement Zach needed.

Slowly, carefully, he eased his right hand from between their bodies, then lowered it to the ground. He paused a moment, gathering his strength. Then, gritting his teeth against the pain, his gaze on the Lovelace brothers’ backs, he rolled both his and his mother’s weight onto his wounded left shoulder.

Oh, God, it hurts
. Sweat burst upon his brow. His head swam as he felt for the Paterson. He touched the smooth wood and grasped it in a grip slippery with Sarah’s blood. Zach tugged the gun free of his pants just as Red Lovelace glanced in his direction.

“Damn!” the burly man exclaimed, twisting for his gun.

Zach didn’t have time to think or to hurt or to be gentle with his mother. He pushed her off him, yanked out the gun, cocked the hammer, and fired.

And missed.

Red Lovelace’s gun exploded, and a bullet bit the dirt where Zach had lain a second earlier. From the corner of his eyes the boy saw Will Lovelace turn, his hand going for the weapon at his hip, and the seconds seemed to pass in slow motion.

Red turned the barrel of his pepperbox, aligning the bore for firing as Will’s gun lifted. Giving silent thanks for the five-shot revolver, payment from a wounded Texas Ranger Sarah had nursed, Zach aimed the Paterson at Will’s chest and fired.

A burst of scarlet appeared on the man’s buckskin shirt. His eyes rolled back as he fell to the ground. Red loosened a roar of rage and fired, but Zach got off his shot before the bullet grazed the fleshy part of his right arm.

Shot in the face, Red tumbled headfirst over the side of the wagon, his boot catching between the slats so that he dangled grotesquely just above the ground.

As the echoes of gunfire faded, an unnatural stillness descended on the forest, broken only by the eerie moan of the wind as it swept through the trees. Zach gasped for breath, his pulse pounding furiously as he fought back the urge to be sick. He didn’t have time for that.

Purpose filled him, enabling him to ignore both the throb of his injury and the constant fear hovering at the edges of his mind. “Mama,” he said, turning to her. “I’m gonna get you to a doctor. You’ll be just fine, I promise. If we follow this road, we’re bound to come across a town before long. I think…” Zach’s voice trailed off as he saw his mother move her lips.

“L-l-love you.” Sarah Burkett’s feeble whisper chilled his soul.

Ignoring his own pain, Zach grabbed the kerchief from around his neck and frantically pressed it against the wound in her chest. “Hold on, Mama. You’ll be fine. I’ll save you. I can do it, just hold on.”

She attempted to speak, but all he heard was the gurgle in her breath. “God, please help me!” Zach prayed, tears spilling from his eyes and streaming down his face. His shirt hung halfway off his body and he stripped it completely away then tried to wrap it around her.

Her tiny whimper stilled his hands.

“Sorry, Mama, I don’t want to hurt you.” His voice cracked as he added, “But there’s so much…blood. Gotta stop it.”

Zach couldn’t control his trembling as he tied the makeshift bandage, but it was his mother’s slight moan that nearly did him in. “Need to get you into the buckboard, Mama. I’m gonna clear a spot. I’ll be right back, you hear?” He stumbled to the back of the wagon, grimacing in pain as he used his feet to shove aside a trunk and create space for his mother. He had to shut his eyes while he loosened Red Lovelace’s boot so that the body dropped to the ground.

Zach climbed into the seat and whipped the reins, shouting at the horses to move so he could maneuver the wagon as close to Sarah as possible. Returning to her side, he knelt and asked, “Mama, can you move at all? I might need some help lifting.”

The light in her violet eyes, bright with pain only minutes ago, had dulled. Terror gripped Zach. “That’s all right, I’ll manage. I’m bigger than you now, just like you say. I’ll get you up.”

He slid his arms beneath her, noting the struggle in her face as she tried once more to speak. “What is it. Mama?”

“Letter. J-Josh has my diary. Proof. Find…father.”

Zach strained, but he couldn’t lift her. His shoulder burned and panic created a lump the size of a horse apple in his throat. “I’ll find him, Mama. You can count on it.” He brushed the wetness from his cheeks as he swore, “I’ll make Joshua Marston pay. But first…first we’re gonna see to getting you fixed up.”

“No. Win.” Sarah Burkett clasped his arm, surprising Zach at the strength of her grip. “Not Josh. Father.”

“Yes, I will, Mama,” he fiercely replied, bracing his feet wide apart, positioning himself for a second attempt at lifting her. “I’ll win. I promise. I’ll win for you. I’ll destroy that son of a bitch.”

He took a breath and heaved. Oh, God, he couldn’t do it! Pain in his shoulder made his head swim, but he fought it, trying again and again until his mother’s tormented moan sent tears streaming freely down his face.

Zach’s strength gave out, and he stumbled to his knees.

“Oh, God, Mama,” he said, his throat tight, his breath heaving. “I’m sorry. I just need a second to rest. I’ll get you into the wagon, don’t worry.”

“Son.” He lifted his head at Sarah Burkett’s near inaudible plea. “Not your fault…find book. Love…”

A sob broke from Zach’s throat as his mother lapsed into unconsciousness. Standing, he slipped his hands beneath her and tugged her toward the back of the wagon. “Did you see the flowers I brought you?” he asked, moving her inches at a time. “It’s your birthday bouquet. There’s morning glories in it. You noticed the morning glories, didn’t you, Mama?”

The tears flowed down his cheeks. He knew she would notice. Mama was like that. Zach had been bringing Sarah Burkett flowers on her birthday since he was just a kid, and because she was partial to the brilliant blue color—on account of his eyes, she liked to say—he always made sure he had a few morning glories in the collection. It was tradition, and therefore important to his mother.

“Traditions are the lifeblood of the family, right, Mama? That’s what you always say.” The Burkett family had traditions for every single holiday and some regular days, too. And it didn’t matter one little bit that the family consisted of only the two of them.

Finally, he’d positioned her so that one strong heave might just get her up. He bent to slip his arms beneath her. Sarah awakened and her bright, shining eyes sent a surge of hope through Zach. “We’re gonna make it, Mama!”

Then he heard the rattle in her throat and watched with despair as her eyes went lifeless.

“Oh, Mama,” he said in a hopeless, broken voice.

For long moments he remained kneeling beside her body, refusing to face the enormity of the day’s events, too numb to even think. Then, one of the horses whinnied, and the noise acted like flame to gunpowder, igniting an explosion of thoughts and questions.

Had it only been this morning they’d loaded the wagon and departed Cottonwood Creek? Sarah hadn’t told him why they had to move away from the northeast Texas town, even though he’d asked her at least a hundred times. That meant it had something to do with his daddy.

BOOK: The Scoundrel's Bride
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