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Jodi Thomas

The Lone Texan

The fourth book in the Whispering Mountain series, 2009

PROLOGUE

Whispering Mountain Ranch

September 12, 1859

LATE SUMMER STILL HUNG WARM IN THE NIGHT. EVEN though a few of the leaves on the live oaks along the hills had begun to change. Drummond Roak walked silently down the hallway of the McMurray ranch house toward the main study, where all records and correspondence were stored.

He knew he didn't need to be quiet. The family was in town at the fall school welcome, and Martha, the housekeeper, had retired before dark to her cottage over by the pond. Drum had seen her light go out and knew that, as always, Martha went to bed with the sun.

Smiling, he thought of all the years he'd moved through the rooms of this house, sometimes by invitation, sometimes out of curiosity, and once in a while out of need to check on Sage. He'd been here so often, he thought of this place as home.

The McMurrays would be surprised to learn that the night they'd first caught him on their land, he hadn't been stealing horses but books. Books he couldn't read. Teagem the head of the clan, would never have caught him if Drum hadn't been afraid the books he carried would be ruined if he jumped into the water. He'd hidden them in the brush by the river and faced Teagen.

Even as a boy Drum had loved the McMurray horses, craved their books, and longed for their sister. All three were perfectly good reasons to kill him by McMurray standards.

At six foot one, he no longer fit through the thin study windows, so about the time he turned seventeen, he'd chosen to come in through the mud room off the kitchen. On a ranch as protected by hills and rivers as any fort by a hundred troops, no one had ever thought to put a lock on the door.

Moving past Sage's old room, he forced himself not to look in. When the only sister of the McMurray men left to go back East to medical school, the wives had changed her room into a sewing area.

He hated the change. He wanted it to be as it was, looking like she might walk in at any moment. She'd been gone three years, six months, and a few days, as long as he was counting. The ache for her had never changed. She was his one dream, his one passion, his one goal.

He smiled. That kind of obsession would probably get him locked away if anyone knew about it. A man at the beginning of his twenties doesn't carry one woman in his heart; he collects as many garters as he can. Mooning over Sage was about as practical as planning a trip to Mars.

Only for Drum, there was no one else he wanted and only one dream he'd fight for.

Moving to the study, he crossed to the desk and leafed through the letters from Sage. Thanks to scouting for investors in the North and helping Texas Rangers with trouble on the border, it had been almost a year since he last visited Whispering Mountain. He'd told himself it was because she wasn't here, but he knew he had finishing to do. When she did come back, he wanted to be the kind of man she needed-the kind of man she'd want. Making a living with his gun was the only way he knew. If he kept saving, he'd have enough for a start soon.

Drum moved back through the house to the cellar, where no lantern light would be seen. As he crossed the kitchen, he picked up Martha's cookie jar and a jug of milk. With all the kids in this house, no one would miss a few ginger cookies. He set his feast up on a crate in the root cellar and began to read Sage's letters.

She'd completed medical school. He grinned. He'd finished school also, but not the kind with books and assignments. For him, it had been bullets and wars. The pay had been unbelievable and so had the risk.

He flipped to the next letter, all about her work at Massachusetts General Hospital, in the heart of Boston, with a wonderful doctor named Lander. He found himself sensing what wasn't there more than the lines she wrote. She was busy, challenged, sometimes exhausted, but she wasn't happy.

Drum was proud of her. She'd had the makings of a doctor before she left; she just didn't have the confidence. She was building that belief in herself, but she talked of no joy, no fun, no adventure.

I haven't ridden in months. I miss it terribly.

The snow came and went, and I never had time to walk in it. In Boston the stars don't shine as bright as they do at home.

'It's time she came back” he said as he finished off the milk.

The last letter held the plans for a house and a one-page note. He almost tore the paper in his grip when he read, 'I'm coming home.'

He glanced at the date. August 4. She was already on her way. Hell, in less than two weeks she'd land in Galveston. Drum stood, folding the letters. With luck, he'd be there to meet her.

Retracing his steps, he left the empty milk jug beside the washtub and the empty cookie jar where he'd found it, slipped out the back door, and climbed on his horse.

Patting Satan's neck, he whispered, 'Let's go get her, boy. Let's go get Sage.'

He could almost feel her in his arms. This time, when they met, she wouldn't think of him as a kid three years younger. This time he'd be the man she needed.

CHAPTER 1

Galveston, Texas

September 24, 1859

STORM CLOUDS ROLLED LIKE THE MURKY WAVES AGAINST the Galveston shore as the dilapidated Mollie Bea docked from New Orleans. Passengers shuffled among cargo, fighting to disembark before rain drenched them all.

Sage McMurray Lander walked down the rickety gangplank and stepped onto Texas soil for the first time in almost four years. She'd left barely twenty, full of dreams and plans. She returned educated, widowed, and so homesick she almost jumped from the boat and swam the last mile.

Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath of the warm, humid air and relaxed for the first time in months. Home. She was finally home. Unlike most people on the dock, she was born in this untamed land. Texas ran wild in her blood, and no matter how far she traveled, it drew her back like a jealous lover.

'This is it?' Her traveling companion, Bonnie Faye Pierce, said from behind Sage. 'This is Texas? You got to be pulling my leg, Doc. This can't be the place you've been bragging about ever since I met you.'

Sage smiled up at the bone-thin woman who'd hesitated to follow her from Boston. If Bonnie had anywhere else to go, she wouldn't have left the city. She'd inherited an old two-story house from her parents that she hated and a black cat named Bullet that she loved. The thirty-year-old considered herself too homely for the marriage market and swore she'd remain single rather than settle for the few half-wits who'd asked her out. Her youth had been spent taking care of aging parents who left what little money they had to her brother with a request that he take care of his sister. He'd ignored their request, leaving Bonnie to have to find employment.

Sage had met the tall nurse during a flu epidemic two years ago at Massachusetts General Hospital. Bonnie Faye had just signed on as a nurse in a free clinic. The minute she spotted Sage, she claimed that her calling in life was to serve as Sage's nurse. From that day on, she called Sage Doc, as if there were no other doctor in her world.

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