Authors: Catherine Anderson
PRAISE FOR THE ROMANCES
OF CATHERINE ANDERSON
“Catherine Anderson has a gift for imbuing her characters with dignity, compassion, courage, and strength that inspire readers.”—
“Vivid, unforgettable, and thoroughly marvelous.”
New York Times
Bestselling Author Elizabeth Lowell
“Very clever, emotional, and totally entertaining. The humor is contagious and the romance is captivating.”
Coming Up Roses
“An extraordinary novel. Poignant, moving, rich in character, and deeply emotional. A keeper.”
“Anderson returns to her historical roots with a stirring, beautifully rendered story of the power of family, love, and trust.”
“This is a love story that will take you by surprise, sweep you off your feet, and make you believe in second chances.”
—Book Chick City
Here to Stay
“Another wonderful, very emotional story of the Harrigan family.”
“A marvelous, moving, poignant, and sensual love story. . . . Ms. Anderson holds her readers spellbound.”
“Never stinting on the harsh reality inherent in the setting, the author tempers the roughness with a powerful love story and remarkable characters.”
“Riveting, passionate, and powerful . . . everything a romance should be.”
“Highly sensual and very compelling . . . a truly spectacular read.”
—Linda Lael Miller
“I thoroughly enjoyed [it].”
“An emotionally moving and romantic treat that you’re sure to enjoy.”
—Night Owl Romance Reviews (Top Pick)
“This is a story not to be missed.
delivers on all levels, and is a fantastic read that will touch readers at the very core of their being.”
—The Romance Readers Connection
“This smart, wholesome tale should appeal to any fan of traditional romance.”
“The kind of book that will snare you so completely, you’ll not want to put it down. It engages the intellect and emotions; it’ll make you care. It will also make you smile . . . a lot. And that’s a guarantee.”
—Romance Reviews Today
“With the author’s signature nurturing warmth and emotional depth, this beautifully written romance is a richly rewarding experience for any reader.”
“Offbeat family members and genuine familial love give a special lift to this marvelous story. An Anderson book is a guaranteed great read!”
(4½ Stars, Top Pick)
“Readers may need to wipe away tears . . . since few will be able to resist the power of this beautifully emotional, wonderfully romantic love story.”
Only by Your Touch
“Ben Longtree is a marvelous hero whose extraordinary gifts bring a unique and special magic to this warmhearted novel. No one can tug your heartstrings better than Catherine Anderson.”
(4½ Stars, Top Pick)
Always in My Heart
“Emotionally involving, family centered, and relationship oriented, this story is a rewarding read.”
“Pure reading magic.”
“Anderson departs from traditional romantic stereotypes in this poignant, contemporary tale of a love that transcends all boundaries . . . romantic through and through.”
OTHER NOVELS BY CATHERINE ANDERSON
“Harrigan Family” Novels
Here to Stay
Contemporary “Coulter Family” Novels
Sun Kissed Bonus Book
Historical “Coulter Family” Novels
The Comanche Series
Other Signet Books
Always in My Heart
Only by Your Touch
Coming Up Roses
A VALANCE FAMILY NOVEL
Walking on Air
Published by the Penguin Group
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A Penguin Random House Company
First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Copyright © Adeline Catherine Anderson, 2014
copyright © Adeline Catherine Anderson, 2013
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
This book is dedicated to my three grandsons, Joshua Anderson, Liam Anderson, and Jonas Anderson. Each of you has, in your own way, filled my life with gladness, and I consider it a privilege to be your nana.
Random, Colorado, 1880
azing at the woman he’d just bedded, Gabriel Valance strapped on his double-holster gun belt, tested each Colt .45 to be sure it slipped easily from the leather, and then tied the thongs that kept both weapons firmly seated low on his hips.
Grinning sleepily up at him, the young but experienced prostitute murmured, “Merry Christmas, gunslinger. It was nice to have a true gentleman pay me a visit for once.”
When was the last time anyone had referred to him as a gentleman? Gabe couldn’t remember. He glanced at her again, feeling a familiar compassion. This woman lacked the hard edge he’d seen in most working girls. If she considered him to be cut from fine cloth, Gabe shuddered to think what caliber of man she normally entertained.
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess it is Christmas Day, isn’t it? Merry Christmas.”
She nodded. “I can remember better ones. But thanks.” She sat up, letting the sheet fall from her small, well-formed breasts. She reached up to push her brown hair out of her eyes, and for an instant he thought he saw the glint of tears. He wondered how life had turned her down the path of selling herself and condemned her to spending Christmas in a shabby room that smelled of a succession of men she didn’t love.
Ambivalence rose within Gabe at the thought of Christmas and all the traditions of worship associated with the holiday. In a vague way, he believed in God, but as a kid, he’d never been taken to church or even taught to pray. The celebration of Christ’s birthday each year had barely made an impression on his hardscrabble existence. Christmas was a time for people with homes, families, and faith. Gabe, born to a prostitute who’d died young and sired by a gambler who had acknowledged him only after death, had grown into adulthood as a street orphan, stealing garments from clotheslines to stay warm, sleeping in hidey-holes to remain dry, and scavenging for food to keep from starving. In his experience, only other folks lived in regular homes with families who cared, and did things like celebrate Christmas.
For some reason, the whore’s wishing him a merry Christmas triggered a queer sense of something lost. Well, he’d learned long ago not to dwell on might-have-beens. He knew that people exchanged gifts at Christmas, and he could at least make one person happy today. The girl had asked him for two dollars, a high rate even in cities. He slid a hand into his pocket, brought out a five-dollar gold piece, and handed it to her. As she thanked him, her voice tight with some emotion he couldn’t identify, he fished out two gold eagles and casually laid his hand on the top of her dresser to release the coins. She’d find them later, after he’d gone. Maybe she’d get herself a new dress. Better yet, maybe she’d purchase a stage ticket and get out of this hellhole town in search of a better life.
Not that other towns would necessarily offer better. In his younger days Gabe had believed that something sweeter existed just beyond the next bend in the trail, but after thirty-three years of disappointments, he’d finally come to accept that it was a grim old world, and a goodly number of folks who walked the earth with him were as hard put to find happiness as he was.
He didn’t look back as he left the shabby enclosure and stepped out onto the landing, which was sheltered by only a shingled roof that connected the brothel rooms to the tavern next door. A nice bit of civility, Gabe thought with a grimace. The fine gents of Random, Colorado, could frequent the bar, have a few social drinks, and then sneak like thieves in the night to the upstairs rooms, where all semblance of respectability vanished as they unbuckled their belts. Then, of course, to avoid explaining the expenditure to their wives, a lot of them tried to cheat the whores out of their fees when it came time to pay. That was a fine gentleman for you, long on looks and short on honor. Now that Gabe came to think of it, he didn’t take it as a compliment to be compared to one of the bastards.
He stood on the landing, staring at the snow falling just beyond the boardwalk. The flakes melted the instant they landed on the packed-dirt street, but judging by the thickness of the downfall, Gabe guessed the ground would be white within a couple of hours. The upstanding citizens of Random would be pleased to get snow on Christmas. Personally, Gabe thought snow was about as much fun as chiggers in his boot socks, but then, he’d never really celebrated Christmas properly. He’d glimpsed the festivities only through windows, and the way his life was playing out, that was how it would stay. No decorated tree, no wonderful smells coming from an oven, no gaily wrapped gifts. Gunslingers didn’t get to enjoy things like that, and he’d learned long ago to curl his lip at all the folderol and pretend he wanted no part of it.
As he started down the steps, he heard a whisper of rushed movement under the stairwell. Stopping dead, he hovered his hands over the butts of his Colts before he continued down the steps. As he neared the boardwalk, he grasped the railing to vault over it and drop to the ground beside the staircase. On edge, he leaned low to peer into the deep shadows not yet illuminated by light of day, still an hour or so away. Narrowing his eyes, Gabe quickly made out a huddled form on the ground—a ragamuffin boy who sat with his thin back pressed into the corner created by the two exterior walls of the tavern and the brothel. The child clutched his arms around his knees in a pitiful search for warmth.
Memories blackened Gabe’s mind, for he’d spent many a cold night as a small child under the stairwell that led up to his mother’s room—a room where she’d been nice to the gentlemen, frequently abused for her trouble, and, more times than not, had earned too little to feed her child, let alone herself. To this day, Gabe had no idea what kind of sickness had taken her. He’d been—what?—five or six when she died. Much too young to understand death without some adult to explain it to him. A man in a black frock coat had tromped up the stairs, followed by two male helpers, and they had carted Gabe’s mother away on a board, her body covered by a sheet, one of her arms dangling. Gabe could remember yelling out, “Where are you taking my mama?” And the man in black, whom Gabe now realized had been the undertaker, turned to say, “She’s gone, boy.” Gone? Gabe could still see his mother, her slender arm and delicate hand swinging like a wet rag. What did
mean? How could she be gone when Gabe could still see her, plain as day?
Nobody had visited Gabe’s shadowy, damp hiding place below his mother’s room to explain that his mother had died. Over the next few days, an older prostitute named Priss had occasionally tossed him a hunk of bread, saving Gabe from starvation, until he’d finally come to understand that
meant his mother wasn’t going to return. She would never again wait until all the men stopped knocking at her door and then sneak him upstairs into her room. Her gentle arms would never again hug him close. The endlessly long, cold nights would never again end in her bed, which had been dry and warm even though it reeked of the countless men who’d lain between the sheets. There would be no more bits of food to make his belly stop gnawing. No loving hands to brush his black hair from his eyes. Gabe’s world had ended as if someone had obliterated it with a stick of dynamite.
Maybe it was those memories that prompted Gabe to bend at the waist to get under the stairwell. The boy cowered against the wall, shrinking inside his tattered clothing. Even in the dimness, Gabe could see that the kid’s oversize wool jacket was so full of holes that only a few threads held it together. Gabe crouched a distance away, recalling all too clearly how much he’d come to fear adults when he’d been a kid on the street.
“Hey,” he said, trying to smooth the gruffness from his voice. “What’re you doing down here?”
made sense to Gabe. Long ago, he would have answered the same way. “Where’s your mother?”
The boy had dark, dirty hair that fell over his face in oily hanks. With a jerk of his head, he indicated the upstairs rooms. “She used to work up there. Then she went off with some cowpoke, sayin’ she’d come back for me. I’m still waitin’.”
Gabe had a bad feeling that the kid’s mama was gone coon, a cowboy’s way of saying gone forever. Maybe the mother had taken sick. Or maybe she’d hooked up with some bastard who’d injured her so badly she couldn’t return. In the end, the woman’s fate didn’t matter. She’d left a child behind, and Gabe understood just what that meant for this boy. The hell of it was, Gabe was powerless to intervene. He couldn’t take on a kid to raise, even though the idea had some appeal. Because of his father’s belated sense of responsibility as he lay dying, Gabe had been left a heap of money back in Kansas City, enough that, after selling all of his sire’s fancy gambling houses, he could live in high cotton for the rest of his life. Sadly, circumstances had never allowed him that luxury. For one, he didn’t know how to live fancy, and second, his reputation as a gunslinger kept him on the trail, trying to avoid upstarts who wanted to make a name for themselves. All Gabe had at any given moment was his horse, a saddle, two trail blankets, a little dry food in his bags, and enough coin in his pocket to lie over in some out-of-the-way town until he got the itchy feeling that always told him it was time to move on. Then, if he was lucky—and he wasn’t always—he could slip away, ride the trail hard, and spend some time in another town before some man, young or old, called him out into the street. That was no life for a kid. Gabe’s existence could end abruptly, and then what would happen to the youngster? Besides, Gabe didn’t want this boy’s death on his conscience, if the child got between him and a bullet.
The thought made Gabe shudder. He’d been in Random for only a month, but he was already getting that itchy feeling. Tomorrow, with Christmas over and the shops in most towns along the trail open for business again, he’d be moving on. It didn’t matter to him that it was the dead of winter, or that he had only the brim of his Stetson to keep the snow from slipping under the collar of his coat. But a boy couldn’t endure such harsh conditions.
Still, Gabe couldn’t bring himself to walk away. He considered his options. There weren’t many. The kid was too young for Gabe to give him a bunch of money. He’d piddle it away or lose it, or it’d be stolen, and in the end, he’d end up under the stairwell again. Maybe, Gabe decided, he could stay over an extra day, guarding his back every second, and talk with the local preacher. Surely there was a family in town who’d be willing to take in a kid and raise him properly—if Gabe offered enough money to make it worthwhile. Money talked. He’d sure learned that. And he’d learned, too, that few people could do such a deed out of the goodness of their hearts. This boy would be an extra mouth to feed, bottom line, and folks with smallish incomes would be unable to say yes unless the boy came with a generous monthly stipend attached.
Yes, Gabe decided, he’d stay an extra day and see if he couldn’t get this kid settled somewhere. At present, though, it was a hair before dawn on Christmas morning, when the preacher and his flock would be celebrating the birth of Christ. Nobody would have the time or interest to consider the fate of an orphaned boy until the holiday passed.
Gabe drew a third gold eagle from his trouser pocket and, with the ease of long practice, gave it a toss. The coin landed on its edge and rolled to the gouged and holey tips of the boy’s boots, which appeared to be several sizes too small, judging by the protrusion of one toe extending well beyond the sole. Gabe’s excellent aim, much to his shame, came from frequently following in his father’s footsteps, elbows braced on a poker table in some gaudy saloon. The one and only good thing Gabe could say that he’d inherited from his dad was a gift for playing cards. Learning how to spin a coin on its edge across green felt had served him well over the years. It kept his hands free to go for his guns if some cocky asshole decided to call him a cheat. More than one man had lost his life over a poker game. Gabe had made it a point not to become one of them.
“Boy,” he said softly, “there’s ten dollars to get yourself some decent clothes. You can’t buy any today. It’s Christmas and all the shops are closed. But you can get some tomorrow.”
The kid snatched at the coin, closed his fingers around it, and stuck a grubby fist into his pocket. The twist of his lips that passed for a smile was clearly visible to Gabe in the charcoal gloom. “Mister, my belly’s emptier than a beggar’s pocket. Ain’t clothes I’ll buy.”
Gabe lifted his hands. “No need to buy food. I plan to mosey next door for a couple of whiskeys to wet my throat, but afterward I’ll take you out for a big breakfast, and you can roll all the leftovers up in a napkin to hold you for the rest of the day.”
The kid’s unchildlike gaze locked with Gabe’s. “Yeah? After a couple of jiggers you’re gonna feed me? Hell, mister, thanks for the money, but I know better than that.”
Gabe recognized that snort. He’d made it himself more than a few times—mostly as a disillusioned youngster. He stared hard at the kid for a long moment. “I said I’ll be back to take you to breakfast. The hotel restaurant stays open for guests. We’ll have ourselves a feast. But first, I got a gnaw in my gut for a little whiskey.”
The boy nodded indifferently. Obviously, he didn’t believe Gabe would return. “You a drunk?”
Gabe nearly smiled. He tipped a glass now and again, but he wasn’t dependent upon alcohol. He simply had an inner clock that told him it was still way too early for the hotel to be serving breakfast, and, God help him, one of the few pleasures in his life was a good belt of booze after being with a woman.
“No, not a drunk.” Gabe backed out from under the stairs and straightened. “Keep your appetite sharp. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
As Gabe turned toward the tavern, he realized how lonely and utterly empty he felt. He wanted so much more out of life, but the good stuff, like taking that boy under his wing, always seemed just beyond his reach. A quiet hopelessness welled up inside him, bringing unaccustomed and unwelcome pain. Things were never going to change. He was never going to change. And the hell of it was, he wasn’t really sure he wanted to go on living if this was how it would always be, day after meaningless day blending into equally meaningless nights. Dodging bullets because some punk wanted to be known throughout the West as the fastest draw. What was the point?