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Jodi Thomas

To Kiss a Texan

The second book in the Texas Brothers series, 1999

This book is dedicated to

Pam Wilson

If bravery were a jewel

you’d be covered in diamonds.

Also, a special thanks to the Mary E. Bivins Library and to all the libraries of Texas.

ONE

1868

Texas during Reconstruction

THE AIR HELD THE HEAVY STILLNESS OF AUGUST,warning of a late summer storm. The kind of storm that leaves a simmering dampness over the land. Weather that reminded Weston McLain of battlefields hot with gunfire and wet with blood and sweat.

A thin scar on his left cheek was another reminder. Along with nightmares that still stole his sleep and kept his Colt never far from his grip.

As the sun melted away, Wes rolled his wide shoulders along the rough brick building. His lean form straightened from the shadows of the alley and took a step toward the street. Without crossing into the lamplight, he watched in darkness while the good folks of Denton, Texas, filed into the church across the road. The A-frame building looked peaceful amid a town and state primed to explode.

But tonight, Wes wasn’t concerned about the town, or the state. The explosion would erupt between him and a lovely lady he hadn’t seen in two months. Angela Montago. She’d promised to marry him after a few moonlight kisses, though neither had spoken of love. He no longer believed in love anyway. He guessed she saw the marriage as a bargain, just as he did. Wes wanted a family, and she wanted a man as wealthy as her father.

He’d had no chance to tell her about his sudden loss of funds or how he planned to rebuild. The news of his poverty reached her before he could, and now the Montago gates were closed to him. He needed to explain how he would be back on his feet in a matter of weeks. She wouldn’t see him, but he knew he wouldn’t have long to wait, for Angela Montago was predictable.

She would attend church tonight. This time, she’d talk to him. There’d be no servants or family barring the door. If she had ended their plans of marriage after hearing of his loss, she could tell him to his face. He deserved that, at least, if her belief in him was so shallow. He’d never tell her of the map and the fortune in gold waiting for him if she refused to stand beside him now.

Angela and her older sister, Maria, never missed a traveling preacher-though tonight’s bill seemed to belong more in a circus than a revival. Some circuit minister from Austin planned to exhibit a wild woman who’d lived with the Indians so long he claimed even her soul was savage. Wes had no doubt the benediction would ask for prayers and money to save her.

As he waited, a wagon rattled to a stop in the alley just behind him. Rough boards framed a cage in the wagon bed. A tiny creature could be seen between the slats’ shadows. She was almost too small to be a fullgrown woman, huddling in the center with her hands chained to a ring. She wore a filthy, ragged dress several sizes too big. Her mud-colored hair was long and matted wildly about her. Wes couldn’t tell if the smudges he saw along her bare arms were bruises or dirt. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

‘‘Get back!’’ the crusty driver yelled. ‘‘You’ll see her at the service.’’

Wes ignored the warning and leaned toward the cage. There had been hundreds of accounts of kidnapping of settlers and their children. Most of the men and women didn’t survive, but every few months children would be ransomed in trade or brought back by a friendly tribe. Wes had seen more than once, over the three years he’d been in Texas, children who’d grown up Indian and saw their rescue as a kidnapping from their tribe.

The man atop the wagon waved a withered hand and shouted again, ‘‘She’s crazy wild and she’ll kill you without blinking if she gets the chance.’’ The driver lowered his voice when Wes didn’t cower away. ‘‘So step back, mister.’’ His tone grew more conversational. ‘‘I was told to wait here in the alley until time for the meeting to start. Nobody’s s’posed to notice her till then.’’

Wes folded his arms and widened his stance as he glanced toward the street. No one looked in the direction of the alley. Most hurried toward the church.

The driver climbed down and tied the horses to the same railing Wes had used for his own mount. He pulled a bottle from beneath the seat and took a long draw as he eyed the street to see if anyone besides Wes witnessed.

The evening shadows hid his actions from any passerby, but the driver nodded toward Wes before leaning over and taking another drink.

In that glance, Wes met his stare in the moonlight and what he saw chilled the air. The man’s eyes were tombstone gray, void of all kindness. Wes had seen men in the war with hate-fevered eyes and a few with a lust to kill reflected in their stare. But Wes would bet his last twenty-dollar gold piece that this man didn’t hate, he simply didn’t care about anything or anyone in life.

Wes didn’t take his gaze off the girl in the cage as he asked the driver, ‘‘You the preacher talking about her tonight?’’

‘‘Naw.’’The man rested his withered arm against the wagon. ‘‘I’m just hired to get her here. The Rangers who found her gave her over to the reverend I work for parttime. No family would claim her. Can’t say as I blame them. A woman who’s caught like that living out in the wild… She’d be better off dead.’’

He took another drink. ‘‘She fights us like a wildcat when we pull her through the crowds. Preacher’s even tried to beat the devil out of her while a whole congregation watched, but there just ain’t no helping her.’’

He slammed his fist against the slats as if to keep back a wild animal. ‘‘She’s a lot of trouble. I liked it better when the preacher did a traveling magic show. You wouldn’t believe the act he had. He could disappear with you standing right beside him.’’ The driver finished off the bottle. ‘‘ ’Course, it don’t pay like preaching does.’’

The man lifted his empty bottle, then moved onto the boarded walk. ‘‘Get near her at your own risk,’’ he warned. ‘‘I’ll be right back.’’

Wes glanced at the woman huddled like a wounded animal. She might be acting as part of the scam, or she might be insane. Either way, she’d fill the offering baskets.

An open carriage, flanked by well-armed guards, pulled to a stop between Wes and the street lamp. In sharp contrast to the chained creature in the alley’s shadows, a young woman dressed in white stepped from the carriage. She was tall and walked like a queen. Her every movement spoke of breeding and wealth.

For a moment Wes could only stare. Angela was a woman who expected the world to stop and notice her entrance. Individually, none of her features were outstanding, but combined, they created an air about her. He hardly noticed her older sister and mother move from the carriage and flank her like twin generals.

‘‘Evening, Angela.’’ Wes crossed in front of her, guessing she would be angry at him. But his pride wouldn’t

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