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Authors: Laurie Kingery

Lawman in Disguise

BOOK: Lawman in Disguise
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The Lawman's Secret

When her son discovers an injured outlaw in their barn, the mysterious stranger instantly turns widow Daisy Henderson's world upside down. But Daisy senses Thorn Dawson's a good man...and there's more to his story than he can tell her. So she can't turn him away before he heals, even if she's falling for him—something she swore she'd never do again after her husband died.

An undercover lawman, Thorn never lets himself get too close to anyone. But that's before he meets single mother Daisy and her spirited son. Now Thorn has to protect them from the Griggs gang—a gang that's come to accept him as one of their own. And if he can't keep up the charade, the woman of his dreams might just pay the price.

“You're a good mother,” he assured her. “You let him know you care about him, that he's important to you. Not like my father...”

He hadn't meant to say those last four words, but it was as if they had been ripped from the deepest part of his heart.

“Not like your father? What do you mean, Thorn?” she asked, her face puzzled, her eyes searching the depths of his gaze.

Perhaps it was time to get it out in the open. No wound could heal if it was left to fester.

“My birth cost my mother her health,” he told her. “She was never well afterward, and she died before I was old enough to remember her. She'd wanted to name me Thornton, after her father, but after she was gone, my father just called me Thorn. He made sure I knew it was because I was a thorn in his side...”

“Oh, Thorn!” she cried. And suddenly she had thrown her arms around him as she began to cry.

He was so astonished—and moved, because no one had found him worthy of weeping over before—that he could only wrap his arms around her and pull her close...

LAURIE KINGERY
is a Texas
transplant to Ohio who writes romance set in post–Civil War Texas. She was
nominated for a Carol Award for her second Love Inspired Historical novel,
The Outlaw's Lady
, and is currently writing a series
about mail-order grooms in a small town in the Texas Hill Country.

Lawman in Disguise
Laurie Kingery

www.millsandboon.co.uk

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy path.

—Proverbs
3:5–6

To Deb Siegenthal and Rhonda Gibson, the best encouragers anywhere, as well as being fine novelists themselves, and as always, to Tom

Chapter One

Simpson Creek, Texas
August 1870

H
e was at the end of his strength, and he supposed this barn behind someone's Simpson Creek house was as good a place to die as anywhere else. At least Ace, his horse, was apt to find some forage before he gave up on his master and wandered off. Thorn only hoped that if the law connected the riderless horse to the outlaws involved in the bank robbery, they wouldn't be able to find him here, or they'd be apt to string him up before he could explain.

Sooner or later, he knew that he'd have to talk to local law enforcement. He'd explain that he was a State Police officer, assigned to infiltrate the infamous Griggs gang and collect enough evidence to bring them to justice for their many crimes. He was prepared for the local sheriff's skepticism. Thorn just hoped it didn't come at the end of a loaded gun. This town had shot him enough already.

Weakened as he was by the loss of blood, his dismount turned into an ungraceful collapse into the aisle between the stalls, observed by no one but a trio of chickens scrabbling along in search of bugs and stray oats. The chickens fluttered and clucked in alarm when he collapsed, and he groaned as the fiery pain of his wound punished him for the violent movement. But once they finished their squawking, they seemed content to leave him be. Ace sidled away uneasily before spotting a mound of hay in the corner with a bucket atop it, and ambling toward it, his injured rider forgotten.

Though his vision was blurry, Thorn could see that he was lying right in front of an open stall. The straw bedding looked far from new, but it would at least be a little softer than the dirt. Smothering more groans, he crawled toward it.

He hoped whoever found his dead body wouldn't be too upset by the discovery. It might have been nice to have a cold sip of water before he breathed his last, but one couldn't have everything... As soon as he reached the dark haven of the middle of the stall, oblivion overtook him and he closed his eyes.

He awakened with a start some time later to the sound of the barn door creaking open and footsteps trudging toward him. How much later it was, Thorn wasn't sure, but the light from the barn door hadn't faded much, so he guessed it to be late afternoon.

“Dumb ol' eggs,” he heard a boy's voice mutter. “Why do
I
always hafta be the one to gather 'em?”

Thorn froze. If the boy was hunting eggs, his search might very well bring him into this stall, and he would be discovered. The boy sounded young. Young enough to be scared at the sight of a man badly wounded? Or old enough to be ready and willing to defend his family's barn from intruders? There was no way to tell, which meant the safest thing for Thorn to do would be to hide somewhere out of sight. But there was no time to find another hiding place, and he certainly didn't have the strength to run.

Was his horse still in the barn? He listened, and sure enough, he could hear the beast's teeth grinding away at something at the end of the barn aisle. Maybe Thorn might be able to reach Ace and flee before the boy could set up a hue and cry...

“Hey, fella, where'd you come from?” he heard the boy call out, and Thorn knew that the kid had spotted his horse. “Ma ain't gonna be happy you found her bucket of chicken feed. Let's move you into a stall, and I'll pull that heavy saddle off so's you can rest for a spell while I find out where you come from.”

Thorn heard Ace's snort of displeasure as he was pulled away from the source of his snack, the clop of his hooves down the aisle, the creak of a stall door opening on rusty hinges. The kid had chosen another stall, so Thorn was safe for now...but he couldn't count on that safety lasting. Not when the boy was bound to start searching for how Ace had gotten into the barn in the first place. As if responding to his fears, he heard the lad's sudden intake of breath, and his shocked question, “Is that
blood?

Thorn's wounds must have leaked blood onto the saddle. Oh no, had he left a trail all over the barn floor, as well? He knew better than to be so careless. If nothing else, being an outlaw for the past few months had taught him how to cover his tracks. But he'd been so exhausted, he hadn't even thought to check to see what kind of trail he was leaving behind.

The door to the stall where Ace had been led slammed shut, and Thorn heard the gelding shift restively. The boy's footsteps quickened and came closer as each stall door was opened and shut. His vision had been fuzzy around the edges when he'd entered the barn, but he thought there'd been only about four stalls...

He wished there'd been enough hay to cover himself with, or something to hide behind, but he doubted that would have worked, anyway. Stifling a groan, he crouched with the intent of grabbing the boy and putting his hand over the kid's mouth until he could convince him to keep quiet—

Then the door of the stall where he lay was yanked open. “Mister! What are you doin' there? Stay where you are, or I'll beat your brains out!” the boy cried with surprising ferocity, given his small size. He had grabbed up a piece of wood that looked as if it had played a role in stickball games, and was swinging it around in a threatening manner, as if he'd be only too glad to make good his threat. He looked to be about twelve or so, Thorn thought, a boy on the cusp of adolescence and feeling the need to prove himself.

“Quiet down, b-boy, I...I won't...won't hurt you, I promise I won't,” he muttered, reaching for him, but the boy danced back out of his reach. Thorn knew he wasn't up to clambering to his feet and grabbing the lad, but apparently he looked more dangerous than he actually felt at the moment because the boy kept a wary eye on him, obviously ready to act if the intruder tried anything.

“Won't h-hurt you,” Thorn repeated, hoping he sounded convincing. “Don't want to hurt...anybody. Need...help...” His legs wouldn't hold him up any longer and he sank back into the hay, feeling the sweat dripping from his forehead. And the blood still dripping from his shoulder. At least the wound on his leg seemed to have closed up.

“Who are you?” the boy asked, daring to come closer as he stared at the man.

“My name's Thorn,” he said. “What's yours?”

The boy's expression was fearful, as if he thought possessing his name would give Thorn some power over him, but evidently he thought it was only fair to supply it, since the man had admitted his own.

“Billy Joe...H-Henderson,” he quavered, in a voice on the edge of deepening into manhood. “What happened t' you? Did you get attacked by Injuns?”

Thorn felt his lips curve upward slightly at the question, and Billy Joe looked embarrassed, as if he had already realized his guess was ridiculous. Attacks by Indians certainly happened often enough—in fact, Thorn thought he'd heard tell that this town had had problems with them before—but his injuries certainly didn't fit the profile. If Comanches had attacked, the whole town would have heard the war whoops and the commotion, and there'd be more victims than just this one man. Besides, he didn't have any arrows sticking out of him and he hadn't been scalped...

He saw the boy's face change the moment he realized the truth.

“You're one of them bank robbers, ain't you?” the boy breathed, clearly awed. “You got shot makin' your getaway, right? You're a real live
outlaw.

Thorn started to shake his head, then stopped and stared at Billy Joe, trying to think what to tell him. He couldn't tell him the truth—that he was working secretly to infiltrate the gang on orders from the State Police. A boy couldn't be expected to keep a secret like that, and Thorn would be in serious danger if his true identity was exposed. But if the boy thought he was an outlaw, surely he'd feel obligated to run to the sheriff, or at least to tell his pa, who would then go to the sheriff himself.

“Don't worry, I won't tell nobody,” Billy Joe whispered, crouching low and holding out his hand to the man. “I want to be an outlaw, too, when I grow up, so I won't turn you in. I seen you and all the other outlaws gallopin' away after the holdup—not close-like,” he told Thorn quickly, as if he thought Thorn would worry that he could identify all of them. “But my friend Dan was just comin' out of the mercantile with his ma, across from the bank, and he told me all about what he saw. Wait'll I tell him you was hidin' out
in our barn
,” he said, obviously feeling honored.

“You just said you wouldn't tell anybody,” Thorn pointed out. “I could be in danger if you did.”

The boy looked startled. “Oh, I wouldn't tell till after you got away,” he hastened to assure him. He still looked nervous, and Thorn realized in that moment how he must look to the boy, with his shirt blood-spattered, his eyes probably wide and wild, and his face pale from the loss of blood. He was certain he looked dangerous, and to a boy that had to seem a lot more exciting than the ranchers and farmers he probably saw every day. Thorn wasn't really surprised that he dreamed of being an outlaw. Boys dreamed of all sorts of foolish things.

“You
are
one of them outlaws, aren't you?” Billy Joe persisted.

Thorn nodded, watching the boy. “Yes, I was with the gang that robbed your bank today.”

“Ain't my bank, Mr. Thorn—my ma and me, we don't have so much as a plugged nickel in it. We ain't got enough money to keep any in a bank. So why are you all bloody?” Billy Joe asked.

“I got shot during the robbery,” Thorn admitted. “I lost a lot of blood.”

“I gotta get you some help,” Billy Joe told him. “The doctor—”

“No, you can't bring the doctor here!” Thorn cried in alarm, jerking his hand out, though he knew he couldn't move fast enough to stop Billy Joe if the boy took off—not with his injuries. “He'll bring the law...”

“But I can't just let you die!” Billy Joe insisted.

“Even if it was safe,” Thorn tried to explain, “your doc's got work enough to keep him busy in town tonight.” He was trying to think of how to explain to the boy that other townspeople had been hurt in the robbery—the bank president and the teller—and that the doctor would be tied up tending to them, when both Thorn and Billy Joe froze at the sound of footsteps entering the barn and coming toward the stall.

“Billy Joe, where
are
you?” called a female voice. “Didn't I tell you I needed the eggs before I could cook our supper?”

The lad went still, staring wide-eyed at Thorn, and Thorn stared back, equally dismayed. But there was nowhere to hide. The boy's lips silently formed the words
my ma.

“Billy Joe, who were you talking to?” his mother demanded from just outside the stall. “If one of your no-account friends is here distracting you when you should be doing what I asked, he'll just have to go home. I—”

She pushed open the stall door, then shrieked as she spotted Thorn crouching in the straw. He saw her wrench the stick out of Billy Joe's hand and take a firm hold on it—as if a stick could protect them from a desperate man. She pushed her son behind her, clearly determined to stand between him and danger. He was surprised she didn't yell for her husband. Maybe the man was away from the house, still at work?

“Who're you? And what are you doing talking to my son?” she demanded. “Billy Joe, run and fetch the sheriff!”

But Billy Joe remained rooted to the spot. “Ma, Mr. Thorn—he won't hurt us,” he said. “He promised.”

It sounded to Thorn as if the boy was making a valiant effort to make his tone sound adult and reassuring, not frantic and whiny like a little kid's.

“He's wounded, that's all. Ma, we gotta help him, we gotta!”

Thorn saw the woman's eyes narrow as she listened to her son, then she aimed that piercing gaze back at him. There was not an ounce of belief in her eyes that he was anything but a low-down polecat.

Smart lady
, Thorn thought.
I wouldn't believe that someone like me could be trusted, either, after looking at me.
He braced himself, expecting to see the woman yank her son out of the barn by his collar, if necessary. Shortly after that, the sheriff would appear and the jig would be well and truly up. Thorn had to try to keep that from happening.

He raised both arms, wincing at the effort. He couldn't raise the one that was wounded all the way up. Even just lifting it halfway hurt like blazes. “I really don't mean any harm, Mrs. Henderson, ma'am. I just rode in here looking for...”
A quiet place to die
, he thought, but he didn't want to say that and alarm her further. The idea of a dead body in her barn might cause the lady to swoon—though she didn't precisely look to be the swooning type. She was actually rather pretty, in a quiet, careworn sort of way, or she would be, if she ever got some rest. She had hair of a hue he'd heard called ash blond before, and deep-set, gray-blue eyes that saw right through a man's bluster. But even with the tiredness that etched her face, she had a quiet sort of dignity he respected. He hoped it wouldn't make her madder that he'd used her name. “Peace and quiet...”

“That may be, but your horse has helped himself to an entire bucket of chicken feed,” Mrs. Henderson replied tartly, jerking her head toward the other end of the barn. “I certainly hope you have the money to square that with us. I can't afford to buy more feed.”

“Sorry, ma'am, I'll pay you for it, soon as I can,” Thorn murmured.

The woman made a dismissive gesture, as if she was accustomed to empty promises and had no use for them. “So how did you get injured? The truth now—I'll know if you lie,” she said.

“I got shot at the bank when the men I was riding with robbed it,” he said, locking her gaze with his while hoping against hope she would read the message in his eyes that there was more to the story than that. Had she noticed the way he'd phrased it, saying that the bank was robbed by the men he was riding with—not by him? “I promise you, I intend no harm to you or your family, nor will I steal anything—beyond what my horse has already taken. I... I just couldn't ride any farther.”

BOOK: Lawman in Disguise
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