Charity McLoughlin was, as usual, in a mess of her own making.
Unloved by her family, disowned by them, she had no choice but to turn to a female acquaintance for help. Not a penny lined her brocade clutch as she hurried through the crowded, torch-lit streets of Laredo, a town lying along the Rio Grande, a town more Mexican than Texan. Nothingâand certainly not lack of fundsâwould stop her from fleeing this place.
Chances were, Maria Sara Montana could be of assistance in helping Charity escape from so much as a smell that would remind her of south Texas and its riotous neighbor across the border. More important, the
might help her avoid having to face her crime of the previous month.
But where was her friend? On this, the evening of the sixteenth of September, 1889, Charity had looked everywhere, including the main plaza, from where speeches droned on lauding Mexican independence, mingling with mariachi music.
A voice from the past echoed in her mind: “Stay put, and the world will find ye.” Charity chose to disregard that bit of great-grandmotherly advice. If she stayed put, the world might indeed find herâthe world being the long arms of the law!
Best to keep searching for Maria Sara.
Clothed in a simple calico dress, Charity sidestepped a pushcart piled high with tequila bottles, and made her way to the center of town again. All at once, firecrackers popped and a covey of pigeons flew from the belfry of St. Augustine Church. Roman candles went airborne to dazzle the night with red, white, and spring green.
This was no night for Charity to appreciate such a display; the fireworks jarred her already frayed nerves. She nearly stumbled at the spectacle.
Just then, a trio of brown-skinned drunks shoved into her path, and in his zeal the heftiest one shouted,
His elbow slammed into her ribs, shoving her into a table that collapsed with a thud, echoing her prospects for a bright future.
She landed on the broken table, its pile of round tortillas plopping atop her bosom and trailing down on to her skirts.
Great, just great
, she thought. As the trio continued on their merry way without so much as a backward glance, Charity muttered snidely, “Stand back, ladies, and let the gentlemen pass by.”
The tortilla vendor, a toothless woman dressed in rags, fired off a round of protests over her destroyed property. Charity, under her breath, spat a swear word of the caliber that would have sent her mother rushing for the nearest cake of lye soap, had she been on the premises of her parents' ranch in central Texas.
What else could go wrong?
From behind a strand of waist-length dark hair that had fallen to block the view of one eye, Charity spied a tall man approach the vendor and hand over a small stack of bills.
“This should take care of the damages,” he said, the deep tone of his voice gripping Charity's attention. “Now, why don't you go and enjoy the fiesta, ma'am?”
“Ah, yes. I will drink to good fortune,” the peasant said, smacking her crinkled lips and stabbing the bills into her skirt pocket. She grabbed the walking stick that rested against the nearby adobe building and hobbled off in the direction of the plaza.
“Thank you,” Charity said to the stranger as she brushed the wayward hair from her face, trying to get a good look at her benefactor. Who was he? Why had he spent money on her behalf? Good Samaritans didn't appear in the night. Had the
found her? Surely not! But she warned herself not to be too trusting.
He extended a large hand that Charity ignored. “Are you hurt?” he asked.
It was then that she noticed two things. The street was practically deserted, the revelers no doubt gathered to hear the garrulous speeches. And clouds had passed over the full moon, allowing Charity to make the following observation about her rescuer: the man was big.
Even taller than her kinsmen. Probably no more than thirtyâthough it was hard to tell since a Stetson shadowed his features. He wore a fringed jacket that accentuated expansive shoulders. She lowered her gaze to buckskin britches that hugged narrow hips and cupped a formidable region no decent womanânot even a godforsaken one, for that matter!âought to notice.
And there was something about him, something that bespoke authority.
Heavens, what if he's a Texas Ranger out to arrest me?
Don't be ridiculous
. Ian Blyer had threatened to go to the authorities, but he did grant a few days' grace.
She must not assume this kind stranger posed any threat.
“I asked if you're hurt.” The stranger thumbed the brim of his Stetson, raising it a fraction of an inch up his forehead. “Are you?”
She couldn't help but chuckle nervously. It “hurt” to be sprawled on the ground so absurdly. Then again, she had mastered the art of presenting herself in a bad light.
After slapping a tortilla off her bodice and dislodging a piece of broken table from her behind, she raised up on an elbow. “I find it amazing that people always ask if someone is hurt at a time like this,” she said. “If nothing else, we're talking bruised pride here.”
“Excuse me for asking.”
“Why did you . . . ?” she began, then stopped to rearrange her skirt, since what was probably a lecherous ogle seemed welded to an unladylike display of legs that, in the silvery moonlight, appeared even whiter than usual. “Why did you give that woman money to leave me alone?”
“You were in trouble. I saw fit to help.” He bent to crouch back on his booted heels, one forearm resting on his thigh. “Anything wrong with that?”
Suspicions spurred higher, she asked, “Who are you?”
Are you as magnificent as your namesake?
It was difficult to tell. Yet from the formidable proportions apparent even in the dark, she sensed the name fit the man.
Unlike how the name “Charity” fit her. How many times had Papa chided her for not living up to it? Not to mention her esteemed family name?
Trying to scan Hawk's shadowed features, she said, “I don't know you.”
“You do now.”
“But you didn't know
“Wrong. You're Charity McLoughlin of Fredericksburg. Daughter of United States Senator Gil McLoughlin, who happens to be one of the most successful cattlemen in Texas. And you're in”âin one smooth move Hawk stood to tower above herâ“You're in a lot of trouble, lady.”
He had to be a Ranger! How could she escapeâquickly? He looked as if he could run up Mount Olympus without losing his breath, and muscles she never knew existed were throbbing as a result of her fall. Somehow, she had to outwit him.
Recovering the empty clutch that had fallen amid the scattered tortillas, Charity began an ungraceful climb to her feet. The man still towered above her, for his height topped her five-eight by seven or eight inches.
“Thank you, Mister Hawk, for helping me,” she said, her eyes level with the lower part of his throat. “But I cannot repay you, not at the moment. You see, my purse was stolen just this morning, and I find myself financially compromised.”
What a lie.
On the purse score, anyway. At the moment, though, she would have sold out the other two of her triplet sisters in order to keep her freedom. Desperation had a way of doing that to a person.
“Stolen purse, you say?” His tone of voice and stance expressed skepticism. “What's that in your hand?”
“I own more than one handbag. And believe me, this one is empty.”
Unless you want to count one shredded handkerchief.
“Don't worry. I'll make restitution as soon as possible.”
“Money isn't what I'm after.”
In her estimation, her hide and getting it behind bars figured prominently in his desires.
Think again, Mister.
Never would she prove a sitting duck for some bird-of-prey Texas Ranger.
Unwilling to go on conjecture alone, though, she inquired, “You're a lawman, aren't you?”
“The law is my profession.”
A good enough answer. He
to be a member of the state police force. Hearing a disturbance down the street, Charity got an idea. Taking a step around Hawk, she craned her neck toward the street corner. Three drunks passed by, waving bottles and singing off-key. They were the same louts who had knocked her to the ground.
“There he is!” She jabbed a finger in the air. “That's the one! That's the one who stole my purse! The fat one!” Hands waving frantically now, she implored the Ranger to act. “Help me, Mister Hawk! That man must be arrested!”
Thank God this one was gullible. The moment Hawk wheeled to rush the drunk, Charity disregarded the protest of her abused body. She whirled around, grabbed a broken leg from the table, swung it with all her might, and hit the Ranger on the side of his head.
Stetson flying and releasing straight long raven-black hair he fell with a thud, facedown on the cobbled street. Facedown and lifeless.
Charity's conscience reared as her eyes widened on the inert form. Her heart jumped into her throat. “Oh, Lord, I've killed you! I'm sorry, Mister Hawk! So sorry.”
Now the authorities would add murder to her inadvertent crime of acting as go-between for the ring that had smuggled Texas silver into Mexico.
Now she'd murdered someone's son. Perhaps someone's husband. Couldn't she do anything right? Why couldn't she have just stunned him?
Emitting a groan, the Ranger moved his hand.
Charity breathed a sigh of relief at that sign of life, then took flight. In the interest of time, she had to abandon any thought of finding Maria Sara.
Moments later, Charity had returned to the squalid lodging she'd rented the previous May and was throwing a change of clothes into her valise. She had to get out of town, even if that meant walking. Which appeared to be her sole option.
To a master horsewoman, walking was an indignity. But when she had parted ways with her family, her papa hadn't allowed her prized and adored Andalusian mare to accompany the mad exodus.
Now isn't the time for caterwauling about Papa or Thunder Cloud!
A soft knock brought her out of her dark reflections.
“Charity?” a female voice called through the open doorway. “What's going on? What is wrong?”
She turned to face the exotically beautiful Maria Sara Montana. “Everything. But I've no time to talk.”
The blonde of twenty-twoâpetite, serene, ladylike, all the things Charity was notâstared at the open valise and rushed into the room. “Where are you going?”
“Away. Far away. I don't know where, but I've got to hurry.” Charity fastened the valise. “Ian caught me burying the smuggling loot.” When asked what he'd done with the money, she replied, “He handed it over to the Rangers. Said he'd found it.”
“Madre de Dios!”
“He says if I don't marry him, he'll change his story and turn me in to the law.”
Maria Sara eyed the tiny room and its layers of expensive dresses, bustles, and finery, bought when Charity had been an accepted member of the wealthy McLoughlin clan. Clothing that Charity had been unable to sell, even at a fraction of their value, thanks to Blyer intervention.
Eyes as blue as Charity's and filled with sympathy settled on the busy form. “How will you leave? The train won't depart until tomorrow. You cannot rush off into the dark of night.”
Dark of night
. The very words frightened her, but she had no choice. “I must. I whacked a Texas Ranger with a table leg.”
“Then, the police have found out aboutâ?”
“I've no time for explanations. Hawk knows who I am, and he'll be here to arrest me. I know he will. As soon as he gets his wits about him.”
Shaking her head of upswept hair, Maria Sara sat down on the bed.
trouble does seem to find you.” She lifted a finger to her throat thoughtfully. “Don't you think the best course would be to find yourself an attorney?”
“I've thought of that a thousand times since I discovered what I'd done for the GonzÃ¡les gang.”
What a fool she'd been, getting duped into their scheme. Adriano GonzÃ¡les led her to believe he offered employment, a decent way to earn a living. And she'd needed a job, since Ian Blyer and his influential father had warned respectable firms and citizens against hiring her. Even work as a washerwoman had been denied her.
“Charity, what about my idea? What about a lawyer?”
“Yes, I need one. But how would I pay?”
“You could ask your mother. Or your great-grandmother.”
Pain, icy and sharp, lodged in Charity's veins. “My mother stands by whatever my father says, and Maiz...” She swallowed.
Neither one has done so much as drop me a postcard.
“What about your brother?”
“Angus? He's but a child. Thirteen.”
“You have two sisters.”
Charity glanced at the clock that sat on the battered bureau. Fifteen long minutes had passed since she had left the Ranger on the street. She set the valise on the floor. “Maria Sara, I've got to go.”
“How can I help?”
Charity hesitated. The young
financial situation wasn't much better than hers, given that she had a young son to support on a meager salary. As friends, though, each had always helped the other.
Charity's problemsâat least those associated with south Texasâhad started the previous May, when she'd arrived in Laredo to marry the son of a local Anglo politician. After Ian Blyer proved to be a scoundrel interested only in getting his mitts on McLoughlin money, Maria Sara Montana had flown to her aid with an offer of friendship.