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Authors: The Honor-Bound Gambler

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BOOK: Lisa Plumley
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Violet flashed him a dubious look. She might be hopeful, but she was not an imbecile. Nor was she especially naive.

“You could have the company of any woman in town.” As proof, Violet gestured to the other volunteers. To a woman, they were gazing swoonily, chin in hand, at Cade Foster’s handsome countenance. All three of them sighed. One waved. “Do you expect me to believe that of all the ladies in town, you are interested in me? I know what I look like, Mr. Foster. As a minister’s daughter, I can’t bring you a fine dowry, either. So—”

“I’m not asking for your hand in marriage.” He seemed disturbed by her rebuttal and maybe a mite perplexed, too. “Is there someplace we can talk about this privately?”

Violet shook her head. As much as she wanted to be more venturesome, she did have obligations to consider. Besides,
thinking
about adventuring was not the same as
doing
it.

“Not unless I quit work,” she said, “and that’s—”

Impossible
, Violet meant to say.

But before she could, her fellow volunteers interrupted.

“Very easily done!” one of them said.

Chattering and smiling, they stripped Violet of her soup ladle. They untied her apron and smoothed her upswept hair. They filled in her place in line, then all but shoved her forcibly out the door with the gambler. At that, Violet couldn’t help forgiving them their unkind gossip earlier. She wasn’t a woman who held a grudge. No doubt they’d simply been surprised that she’d been so popular with Mr. Foster last night...and today.

That made four of them. Because she was surprised, too.

“Go on!” one of her friends urged cheerfully. “You work all the time! If anyone deserves a break, Violet, it’s you.”

“Yes. Have fun.” Another friend winked. “We’ll take care of everything here. Don’t you worry about a thing. He’s a gambler, isn’t he? So why don’t
you
take a chance for a change? On
him
!”

So, with no further avenue of protest available to her and with Cade Foster standing patiently nearby, Violet did just that: she took a chance...on a gambler.

* * *

Sitting beside Cade on a narrow bench outside the charity kitchen next to a sweeping ponderosa pine tree and a branching rivulet of the nearby creek, Violet Benson shook her head.

Plainly surprised, she asked, “You want me to do
what
?”

Cade didn’t answer at first. He simply felt too distracted by what she’d said earlier:
I know what I look like, Mr. Foster.

That admission was telling. It was, as Cade was rapidly learning, characteristically direct, too. If he’d been a crueler man, he would have used Miss Benson’s feelings about her appearance to gain an advantage. As it was, Cade could only examine her through clear eyes, wondering what it must be like to live as Violet Benson did: plain featured and overlooked.

Unexpectedly, a kinship arose inside him. He knew what it felt like to be overlooked—to be left behind. He didn’t want that for her or anyone.

Of a certain, Violet’s pale red hair was not quite as stylishly arranged as the other ladies’ was. Her complexion was a mite too ruddy to be called fashionably pale. Her teeth sported a gap in front, and her nose was too assertive to be considered strictly “pretty.” But her hazel eyes were vivacious, her mouth was full and gentle looking, and her hands...

Well, her hands stirred in Cade an unlikely wish to be blessed by her touch—to be granted that salvation she’d alluded to last night when they’d danced. Appalled by the realization, he frowned. He repeated the proposition he’d just made to her.

“I want you to be my good-luck charm. To be available to me at a moment’s notice before faro games and hands of poker.” He spied her mistrustful expression and added, “I’ll pay you for the privilege, of course. I wouldn’t consider asking you to do this otherwise. It’s only fair that you’re compensated.”

She made a face. “You really believe in good-luck charms?”

“I can’t afford not to. Mine is a precarious business.”

“And you believe
I
am yours?” She sounded amused. And intrigued. And unexpectedly compassionate, too. Her very presence exuded kindheartedness and care and a certain special exuberance that intrigued him. “Your good-luck charm, I mean?”

“After I met you,” Cade said simply, “my luck changed.”

For a moment, Violet Benson gazed across the street that bordered the charity kitchen. Wagons and buggies passed by; the clomping of hooves raised drifts of dust. Those drifts reminded Cade of cigar smoke—and of losing sight of Percy Whittier.

He might be a fool, it occurred to Cade, to ally himself with the same woman who’d disastrously distracted him from his search for Whittier last night. He hoped he didn’t regret this.

“If you have enough money to pay me, why do you need luck?” Violet Benson asked astutely. “Why do you need to win at all?”

That was easy. “Because I don’t gamble to win money.”

“Then you’re not doing it properly.” She gave a pert smile.

Unable to resist as he should have done, Cade returned that smile. “I entered the gambling circuit to track down a man I’m searching for,” he explained. “It’s been several years now. I’ve come close. I’ve had clues and false leads and near misses. But I’ve never faced him across a gambling table. I’ve never caught up with him long enough to get what I want from him. To do that, I need to win. I need to get invited to all the best tables. I need to fit in among the men he runs with.”

“If you plan to kill him, I won’t help you.” Suddenly chilly where she’d once been warm, Violet Benson examined him. “I’ll help Sheriff Caffey track you down, in fact. I have a fair sense of what you look like, as does every other woman in town.”

This time, Cade smiled more artfully. “I’m flattered by your attention,” he said in a teasing tone. Deliberately, he flashed both dimples. “I have every intention of rewarding it, too, in ways I think we’d both enjoy...very,
very
much.”

“Right now,” Violet clarified drily, “I’m memorizing your features so I can help the deputy draw a wanted poster.”

Hmm. Charming female subjects was something Cade had learned to excel at. Perversely, he felt impressed that Violet Benson appeared too levelheaded to fall for his misdirection.

“I want answers from him, that’s all.” Cade leveled a square look at Violet. “I want to know why he ran out on his family back East. They loved him and needed him, and he—”

Unexpectedly, Cade heard his voice break. A powerful sense of bereavement and anger and solitude welled inside him.

He scarcely knew what to make of it. Irately, he reasoned that Violet Benson and her damnable compassion had caused it. For the second time that day, he wondered if he was making a terrible mistake by coming to her—by trusting her even this far.

“He must have had a good reason for leaving,” she said in a thoughtful tone, proving his caution was warranted. Naively, she added, “No man would ever abandon his family unless—”


Percy Whittier did
.” Hard-faced, Cade stared at her. He needed to hold on to his fury and hurt. It fueled him when he didn’t want to continue searching. He didn’t need Violet Benson’s natural empathy to awaken something soft inside him—something that was better left to wither and die, as it had been on its way to doing before he’d met her. “Percy Whittier left his family. There’s no reason in the world that excuses that.”

“I see.” Violet inhaled. “You seem very intent on finding this man. Are you a detective, then, hired by his family?”

“No.” Cade noticed his hands were shaking. He clenched them, hoping to make the shaking stop.

“A U.S. Marshal? A lawman of some sort?”

“No.” Hellfire. Why couldn’t he quit shaking? “Neither.”

“Hmm. You’re going to have to be a bit more forthcoming if you expect me to help you.” Through inquisitive eyes, Violet studied him. Lightly, she touched his fisted hand. Like magic, he stopped trembling. Awed, Cade stared as she stroked him, soothingly, the same way a parent might calm a frightened child or a caregiver might help a wounded man. “I might be plain and sensible and occasionally overlooked,” she said, “but I’m also—”

“Forbidden to talk about yourself that way,” Cade interrupted in his sternest tone. It aggrieved him that she kept on referring to herself as ugly and passed over. Surely the folks in this little creekside town weren’t so blind that they couldn’t see she had worth beyond bland prettiness. “I won’t have it. If we’re going to strike a bargain between us, you’ll have to quit reminding me of how ‘unattractive’ you are.”

“I know, I know.” Self-consciously, Violet Benson ducked her head. She rubbed her thumb over the back of his hand, a bit nervously now. “What God gave me is just fine. The Lord doesn’t make mistakes in creating us. My father’s told me those things many, many times.” She lifted her gaze to his face, her eyes flashing with a glimmer of defiance. “But that doesn’t mean, Mr. Foster, that you have license to call me unattractive!”

Stricken, Cade gazed at her. “I hurt you. I’m sorry.”

“I’ve made peace with my looks,” Violet went on rather huffily, “but I still expect common decency from people. Even you! That was thoughtless and unkind. You must know that.”

He hadn’t known that. He’d only been repeating what she’d said herself. Maybe he’d been on this hunt for Whittier for too long. Maybe he was becoming unfit for society. Maybe, with every hand of cards and risky wager, he was losing...everything.

“I’m
very
sorry.” He was, too. Very rapidly, she was becoming more than a means to restoring his good luck. She was becoming...
essential
. Carefully, Cade raised his free hand to her slender jaw. He turned her face to his. “I like looking at you. I’ve never known anyone whose emotions were so evident.”

“That doesn’t sound like much of a compliment.”

“It
is
a compliment. From a man who spends all day being as poker-faced as possible.” He smiled. “I find you...fascinating.”

“Truly?” Violet’s lips quirked. Her wide hazel eyes held a challenge. “Can you guess what emotion I’m feeling right now?”

“Suspicion.” Cade stroked her cheek, just once, then made himself let her go. He missed her softness almost immediately. “But you don’t have to be suspicious of me, Miss Benson.”

“Call me Violet. Then perhaps I won’t be.”

That brought a smile to his face. “I’d be honored to do so. And you should call me Cade.
Please
call me Cade.”

“All right. Cade.” She gave a self-deprecating laugh. “Heaven knows, you might be the only man who ever invites such familiarity from me. I guess I might as well enjoy it!”

Again, Cade looked at her sternly. “I can make sure you enjoy it. I can make sure every man in Morrow Creek wants you.”

She arched her brow at his certainty, seeming more than a little bit doubtful. “You’re not a detective, a marshal or a lawman.” Her smile turned playful. “You’re a miracle worker!”

He’d had enough. “The real tragedy in life isn’t failing to believe that hope exists, Violet. It’s convincing yourself that you don’t want any hope, even when it’s right in front of you.”

“Are you talking about me? Or about you?”

Cade snorted. “I’m talking about the likelihood of your choosing from among a dozen smitten suitors if you help me.”

“You mean if I behave as your lucky charm?”

A nod. “Once everyone sees us together, people will look at you with new eyes. They’ll wonder why
I
want you—why I’m captivated with you. They’ll imagine...all manner of things.”

She inhaled again, steadying herself. “Good things?”

The lilt of hopefulness in her voice was heartrending.

“Good things,” Cade affirmed, feeling touched by her beyond all reason. He didn’t know why he wanted to help her—why he wanted to erase her wrongheaded notion that she was undesirable and unnoticed. He only knew that he did. “Everyone wants what they can’t have. Especially men. I know more about human nature than I want to, after all these years of wagering, and I know that’s true. Let me show you, Violet. Let’s strike a deal.”

Hesitating, she bit her lip. “Who will know about this?”

“As far as your friends and neighbors are concerned, I’ll be courting you,” Cade swore, taking her hand. “That’s all.”

A glance. “But really
I’ll
be bringing
you
good luck.”

She was smart, he realized. And much less naive than he’d thought. That made Cade feel better about this whole endeavor.

“Yes,” he said. “You’ll be bringing me good luck.” He offered her a winning smile—one he knew was persuasive. “But hopefully that good luck will be shared by us both.”

“You know,” she mused, giving him another of her patented, too-observant looks, “I think you’re an optimist at heart.”

“I think you’ve only just met me,” Cade disagreed, “and it shows.”

Her smile touched him, suddenly mysterious. “Well, you’d better find some optimism, then. Because I can only do this if my father agrees. That means you’ll have to impress him at dinner tonight and obtain his blessing. Will I see you at six?”

Sunnily and capably, Violet gave him the particulars.

Dumbstruck at the realization that he’d have to impress a straitlaced minister to put his good-luck-charm plan in motion, Cade hesitated. Then he nodded. The minute he did so, Violet Benson jumped up from her bench, briskly said goodbye, then left him alone while she returned to her charitable good works.

That was twice she’d left him stranded, Cade realized as he watched her leave. The first time, on the Grand Fair dance floor, he’d purposely allowed her to do so. The second time...

Well, the second time, just now, he hadn’t. Damnation. Was it possible that an innocent small-town girl had outmaneuvered him?

Worse, was it possible that a
reformer
had outfoxed him?

No. He was worldly, intelligent and determined. No one could outwit him. Except maybe Percy Whittier. And even then only a few times.

But the man wasn’t a god, and he wasn’t infallible. He was only irredeemable. With a little more effort, Cade knew he would find him. Then he would get the answers he needed.

BOOK: Lisa Plumley
2.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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