Authors: Elaine Barbieri
“You won’t be free of your nightmares
until you face them head-on.”
Lacey looked determined. “I won’t go.” She leaned back against the corral’s fence.
Scully’s voice softened. “You don’t have to be afraid. I’ll be there. You have to face the shadows in your dreams sooner or later.”
The sudden fear in Lacey’s expression stopped Scully cold.
“It’s just…I don’t know if I want to face them. The shadows scare me, Scully. I don’t want to remember anything about them.”
“Shadows can’t hurt you.”
“I know, but—”
Lacey’s eyes filled. “You won’t always be there for me, Scully. What will I do then?”
The question suddenly more than he could bear, Scully drew Lacey close. She trembled as he stroked her hair and said, “Who said I wouldn’t always be there for you? I expect to be around as long as you need me.”
was born in a historic New Jersey city. She has written more than forty novels and has been published by Berkley/Jove, Leisure, Harlequin, Harper, Avon, and Zebra Books. Her titles have hit
New York Times
extended list and other major bestseller lists across the country, and are published worldwide. Ms. Barbieri has received many awards for her work, including Storyteller of the Year, Awards of Excellence, and Best Saga Awards from
Romantic Times BOOKreviews
. Her novels have been Doubleday and Rhapsody Book Club selections, and her book
More Precious Than Gold
was a launch novel for Romance Alive Audio. Ms. Barbieri lives in West Milford, New Jersey, with her husband and family.
The Redemption of Jake Scully
Rise up and help us;
redeem us because of your unfailing love.
To my brother, Andrew Favati,
whose life was a celebration of God’s love,
and who left us with the memory of his smile.
he heat of midafternoon scorched Weaver’s main street as Lacey Stewart walked wearily toward the Gold Nugget Saloon, pulling a limping burro behind her. Her platinum pigtails were in disarray, her face and clothes smoke-stained and the wound on her forehead was grotesquely swollen. She was feverish and more tired than she had ever been in her eight years of life, but she forced herself on.
Dizzy and disoriented, unaware of the sudden silence her appearance elicited, she pushed open the saloon doors and started toward the bar. Fragmented sounds and images raced across her mind. She heard again the gunshot that had awakened her at dawn in her grandfather’s isolated cabin. She heard the crackle and hiss of fire, felt the intense heat and choking smoke of the blaze suddenly surrounding her. She saw her grandfather appear beside her bunk to guide their frantic escape through the flames and falling beams.
Flashing even more brightly before her eyes was the image of her grandfather slumping to the ground when she thought they were safe at last, the same moment when she noticed the bloody wound on his chest.
Her grandfather’s final words resounded in her ears as Lacey reached the saloon bar—words he had spoken as he pressed the small, family Bible he had also saved from the flames into her hand…
Go to town…to the saloon. Ask for Jake Scully. Tell him who you are. He’ll take care of you, Lacey. Take the Bible. Depend on it. Let it guide your way. It’s yours now, darlin’. Go…hurry…
Lacey nodded in response to the voice so vividly real in her mind. She had been too numb to cry when she covered her grandfather’s still body with Careful’s blanket and placed a bunch of drooping wildflowers beside it. His instructions had reverberated in her mind as she left the charred remains of the cabin behind her and turned the burro toward town.
She couldn’t remember when Careful started limping, or when she started walking.
The sound of her name penetrated Lacey’s confused haze. She turned and looked at the big man standing behind her in the silent saloon.
The big man reached for her as darkness abruptly consumed her.
Lacey came slowly awake in a large, shadowed bedroom. Her head hurt, and her limbs felt too heavy to lift. She shifted in bed and moaned slightly at the pain. She became belatedly aware that the tall man was sitting close by.
She strained to focus as he moved closer. She heard him say, “My name is Jake Scully, Lacey.”
She rasped in response, “My grandpa’s d-dead.”
“The cabin burned down.”
“I know that, too.”
“My grandpa said—”
“I know what he said.” Interrupting her, the gentleness in his deep voice a comfort despite his emotionless demeanor, Scully continued softly, “Charlie Pratt was a good man. He staked me when I needed help. He did right when he told you to come to me. Don’t think about anything but getting well, Lacey. I’ll take care of the rest.”
The single tear that slipped out the corner of Lacey’s eye somehow scorched her skin as it slid across her temple, but Scully brushed it away with his hand.
His deep voice soothed her fears as her consciousness began slipping away and he repeated, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything.”
A bright afternoon sun lit the large, masculine bedroom as Lacey slowly awakened. She glanced at the unfamiliar surroundings, gradually recalling the numbing events of the past few days: long, confused hours as she lay in bed recuperating from her wounds; the doctor’s gentle words; encouraging female voices; Jake Scully’s reassuring presence.
Lacey’s throat choked tight and she threw back her coverlet. She stood up slowly, hardly aware of the oversize man’s shirt and rolled-up trousers that hung loosely on her childish frame as her attention was caught by the muted notes of a song coming from the saloon below.
She stepped down onto the barroom floor and walked toward the piano, where a gray-haired, heavily mustached fellow continued his enthusiastic playing.
Unconscious of the attention she drew from the saloon patrons, Lacey joined in, singing hoarsely, “Oh, Susannah, don’t you cry for me…”
So intense was her recollection of the many times she had sung that song to raise her grandfather’s spirits after another day’s fruitless prospecting, that she did not notice the two men at the end of the bar who exchanged anxious glances at the sight of her. She did not see them slip out the doorway into the alley, nor did she see them meet up with the fellow obviously waiting for them there. She had no way of knowing that fellow harangued the two men for their ineptitude before slapping money into their hands and giving them new orders that they dared not ignore.
Lacey remained beside the piano as the old fellow banged out another boisterous tune. She was unaware of the danger that still threatened her until Scully slid a protective arm around her shoulders and turned her back toward the safety of the upstairs room.
New York City
es, her hands
Lacey stared at her hands, at the long slender fingers with well-tended nails, and at the smooth skin and soft palms reflecting the total absence of physical labor. They were “a lady’s hands,” which she realized was part of the reason for their shaking.
Lacey did not need to look at her reflection in the dressing table mirror to know that the image there further perpetuated that description of herself. She was no longer eight years old. The neat pigtails she had worn when she first arrived at Mrs. Grivens’s Finishing School had given way to a graceful upsweep of hair that was still a brilliant platinum in color; her childish features had matured into a finely sculpted countenance in which clear, blue eyes hid uncertainty behind a downward sweep of surprisingly dark lashes; and her slender, adolescent proportions had developed feminine curves that went undisguised by the ladylike cut of her simple, gray traveling dress.
Lacey glanced toward the hallway door at the sound of a soft knocking. It opened at her response to reveal a small, dark-haired girl who rushed sobbing into her arms.
“I don’t want you to go, Lacey.” Tears streamed from her eyes as fourteen-year-old Marjorie Parsons drew back and rasped, “I’ll be so lonesome here when you’re gone.”
Her reassuring smile aimed as much at boosting her own confidence as it did comforting the motherless girl who had become almost a sister to her, Lacey replied, “I can’t stay in school forever, Marjorie. Everyone graduates when they’re eighteen years old—even me.”
“Maybe so.” Marjorie brushed away her tears and continued almost pleadingly, “But Mrs. Grivens would gladly let you stay on as an instructor if you wanted to. Everybody knows that.”
Lacey was almost amused by those words. She could read, write and cipher. She could “play the piano with considerable finesse,” “embroider beautifully,” was well versed in the rules of etiquette, knew the proper protocol and manner to address any member of a titled aristocracy and had committed to memory the correct placement of every piece of silverware that could possibly be needed at a formal dinner party. Those accomplishments aside, she was at a complete loss when it came to cooking or maintaining a household without a battery of servants. She was also totally ignorant as to how a “young lady” was supposed to earn a decent living in a society where the only choices open to her were a good marriage or sensible spinsterhood.
Yes, she’d be good at teaching young women to be as clueless as she.
“Please tell Mrs. Grivens you’ll stay.”
“I can’t do that. Uncle Scully sent me tickets for my transportation home. He’s expecting me, and I owe him that.”
She did not bother to tell Marjorie she had decided that the chaperone Uncle Scully had arranged to accompany her was unnecessary, or that she had cancelled the arrangements he had made and cashed in the extra ticket he had provided so she might return the funds to him when she arrived. Yes, she owed him that…and so much more.
Lacey blinked back unexpected tears, then continued kindly, “I’m not like you, Marjorie. I have…obligations. I don’t have a wealthy father ready to introduce me to society so I can get properly married after I graduate.”
“Pooh! Papa would introduce you to society, too, if you wanted. I’d make him do it. And you’re so pretty that you’d find a husband in no time.”
“That wouldn’t work for me, Marjorie.”
Marjorie stared at her, uncomprehending.
“It’s time for me to pay Uncle Scully back for financing my schooling and supporting me all these years.” She smiled sadly. “He must be pretty old by now. I know he never married. He probably needs somebody to take care of him.”
“But he never came out to see you—not once!”
“He wrote to me faithfully and made sure I always had whatever I needed.” Lacey felt no need to explain that Uncle Scully’s letters had rarely arrived more often than six months apart, or that while being friendly and expressing concern that her needs were met when he wrote, Uncle Scully had shared little of the private information that would have made him seem more like family.
“He didn’t visit you on your birthday, or at Christmas.”
“But he never forgot me.” Lacey did not feel she needed to add that she would have preferred a visit to the sometimes elaborate presents that had arrived without exception on the holidays.
“He didn’t even send you a likeness of him to remember him by!”
“That’s because I didn’t need a likeness.” She did not choose to clarify that her actual memory of Jake Scully had dimmed over the years—that all she could truly remember was that he had been tall and well dressed, and that with a single glance of his sober, gray eyes, he had made her feel safe from the gunshots that had robbed her of the life she had known.
Lacey added solemnly, “I owe Uncle Scully more than I can ever repay.”
“But you shouldn’t waste your life caring for an old man when you’re so young.”
“I owe it to him, Marjorie.” Lacey silently added that she owed her grandfather a debt, too—to return to the place that gentle, decent man had loved so she could clarify memories that had become confused and distorted by the violence of that night long ago and put an end to the nightmares that still haunted her.
Lacey turned at the sound of a summons at the door. She pulled it open to see little Amy Harding standing solemnly in the hallway.
“The carriage is here, Lacey.” Amy’s eyes were moist. “Mrs. Grivens said to hurry or you’ll miss your train.”
Lacey was conscious of the footsteps following her as she carried her suitcase down the staircase toward the front doorway.
Tears, hugs and sincere, loving words behind her, Lacey stepped up into the waiting carriage. She looked back as the conveyance jerked into motion and she waved at the solemn group gathered in the doorway of the boarding school.
The carriage turned the street corner, and Lacey took a breath, wiped away a tear and determinedly faced forward. She had told Marjorie the truth. She needed to go “home” because she had obligations she could not ignore.
Lacey withdrew her grandfather’s worn Bible from her reticule. She scanned the text, taking comfort from the familiar passages and the small illustrations her grandfather had drawn on the page corners when they had read together.
Her attention shifted back to her well-tended hands.
Yes, her hands were trembling—because she had no idea what the future held in store.
Lacey looked out the window of the stagecoach as it bumped and swayed along the rutted trail. She glanced at the harsh, dry land bordering both sides of the narrow expanse, then at the rise of mountains in the distance outlined against a brilliant blue sky devoid of a single cloud. She breathed deeply, aware the heat of the day was climbing.
She recalled the carriage ride to the train station in New York, through streets that were neatly cobbled, where well-dressed pedestrians hurried to meet their needs in a city that bustled with activity. Somehow, she had not expected that that uneventful ride would initiate an endless, uncomfortable journey that had not yet come to an end.
Lacey did not choose to recall the countless times along the way that she had doubted the wisdom of making the journey alone. She had not taken into consideration that the passing years would have dimmed the memory of a wild country where civilization was held partially at bay by longhaired, thickly bearded and heavily armed men—a place where she stirred surprised attention and whispered comments wherever she went.
Despite the tedium and discomfort of the journey, however, Lacey found herself somehow shaken at the thought of her arrival in Weaver, where she would meet up with a past she suddenly realized she hardly remembered.
Lacey looked at the unpaved trail ahead, then glanced up at the shadowed mountain peaks in the distance. Why was it that everything looked so unfamiliar to her? Why had the ten years she had been away dimmed all clear memory of this place?
The sound of a crackling blaze echoed unexpectedly in her ears. She felt the heat…the flames…the smoke…
She saw the faded image of her grandfather’s body.
Yes, all clear memories had dimmed…except one.
Lacey closed her eyes. She clutched her small Bible tightly in her hand.
“Are you all right, ma’am?”
Lacey looked up, focusing for the first time on the disreputable-looking fellow seated across from her. Like the two other rough-and-tumble male passengers presently sleeping, his hat was stained, his beard was overly long, his clothes were worn and the gun at his side was
large—but the concern in his bloodshot eyes was obviously sincere.
She replied, “I’m fine. I’m just tired, I guess.”
“We’ll be getting to Weaver, soon.” The fellow frowned and added, “If you don’t mind my saying so, ma’am, Weaver is a fine little town, but it’s not accustomed to ladies like you.”
Lacey almost smiled. “I was born in Weaver—or thereabouts.”
“I’m going home.”
The fellow nodded. “Been gone long, ma’am?”
He nodded again. He looked at the Bible in her hand. “Going to join Reverend Sykes, are you?”
“I hear he’s a fine man and real dedicated to his work in the church.”
“I’m sure he is, but I don’t know him.”
The fellow’s frown deepened. “You’ll be having somebody meet you in Weaver, I hope.” He stammered, “I mean, it’s a fine little town, but…well…”
Lacey stared at the unkempt fellow more closely. Because of his questionable appearance, she had done her best to ignore him and the other two occupants of their coach when she boarded. Now, glimpsing the man inside his unappealing exterior, she was oddly warmed by what she saw.
Lacey replied with a smile, “Someone will be meeting me. His name is Jake Scully. Do you know him?”
“Jake Scully.” The fellow blinked. “He’s…you…I…”
He took a breath, then continued with a tip of his soiled hat meant as an introduction, “My name’s Pete Loughlin, ma’am. I’ll be spending some time in Weaver, and I want you to know I’ll be at your disposal if things don’t turn out the way you expected.” He paused, adding, “I hope you’ll remember that, ma’am.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Loughlin. My name is Lacey Stewart, and I thank you for your concern.”
“Everybody calls me Pete, ma’am.”
“Thank you. I’ll certainly remember your offer, Pete.”
His face reddening unexpectedly, Pete averted his gaze toward the window and ended the conversation as abruptly as it had begun. With no recourse but to follow his lead, Lacey turned to the Bible in her hand, silently embarrassed that she had been so harsh in her first assessment of the dear fellow. She looked down at the page to which she had inadvertently turned.
Judge not, lest ye be judged.
Somehow startled by the familiar passage, Lacey glanced back up at Pete Loughlin, whose bloodshot eyes had fallen closed.
A timely lesson, gently served.
Lacey’s spirits lightened.
The stagecoach rounded a turn in the trail and Weaver came into view. Lacey reached up nervously to adjust her hat and smooth back a few pale wisps that had strayed from her upswept coiffure. She then slipped her Bible into her reticule and gripped the handle anxiously. Her three fellow passengers had somehow awakened the moment Weaver appeared on the horizon. They appeared as eager as she to see the end of their journey.
Lacey did her best to ignore Pete’s frown as they entered town and she searched the street in vain for a familiar face. She struggled against an expanding anxiety as the conveyance rumbled farther down the dusty main thoroughfare, passing a livery stable, a blacksmith’s shop, a bank, a hotel. She scanned the street more closely, seeing what appeared to be a jail, a barber shop and several other stores. Her gaze halted. Memory stirred when she viewed the establishment that took up the major portion of the street at the far end.
The Gold Nugget Saloon.
Lacey took a shaky breath, then searched the street again. She was expecting too much, she knew, to expect Uncle Scully to be waiting for the stage as she had hoped. The exact date of her arrival had been uncertain when they had last communicated. She certainly couldn’t expect that he would meet every stage the week she was expected to arrive.
The stage shuddered to a halt in front of the mercantile store and Lacey’s heart began pounding. She silently scolded herself for her rising apprehension as she waited for her fellow passengers to alight. She reminded herself that she had just traveled hundreds of miles alone, that she had walked through the Gold Nugget’s swinging doors by herself once before, and she certainly could do it again.
“Ma’am…” Lacey took the hand Pete offered her. She stepped down onto the street as he continued politely, “If you’re needing any help…”
Lacey skimmed the street again with her gaze. She saw a tall, gray-haired gentleman step out onto the boardwalk a distance away. Her heart leaped when he turned in her direction.
She went still at the sound of the deep, familiar male voice behind her. She turned toward the big man who started toward her from the shadow of a store’s overhang.
Lacey’s throat went dry as the well-dressed, dark-haired man approached. This fellow wasn’t old at all. Actually, he appeared to be a man in his prime, with strongly cut features and dark brows over eyes that were a soft, sober gray.
Lacey caught her breath. She remembered those eyes.
The man stopped in front of her. He said, “Welcome home, Lacey.”
“If that’s what you want to call me.”
Lacey looked over at Pete, who remained stiffly solemn beside her. Uncertain why he stood rooted to the spot, she said, “I’d like you to meet one of my fellow passengers on the stage, Uncle Scully. His name is Mr. Pete Loughlin, and he’s been very kind.”