Excerpt: Whirlwind Groom

Whirlwind Groom by Debra Cowan

Book 3, The Whirlwind, Texas Series

West Texas, 1884

“What do you think you’re doing?”

The now-familiar voice coming from behind Josie lashed her already-raw nerves and she nearly dropped the scalpel. No! She quickly slipped the blade into the hidden pocket of her bodice and turned with a bright smile on her face, praying Davis Lee Holt couldn’t see her heart banging against her ribs. “Hello, Sheriff. I was looking for you.”

“Is that so?” He pushed his hat back and planted his hands on lean hips. His eyes narrowed as he glanced about the empty jail house. “Where’s my deputy?”

“No one was here when I came in.” That wasn’t a lie, but still her pulse raced.

“There was a commotion outside so I went to check on it.” He closed the front door and moved toward her, his boots ominously soft on the pine floor. Worn denim sleeked down his long legs. The chambray shirt he wore looked brand-spanking new. “You must have heard it, too.”

“Yes. It sounded like someone was leaving town in a hurry.”

“Weren’t you just the tiniest bit curious about what was going on?”

Oh, dear. He looked fit to be tied. His eyes had turned a dark stormy blue, suspicious and hard. She refused to panic. She’d dealt with this man–this big man–before. And she was prepared this time. “Like I said, I was looking for you.”

“There’s a prisoner back there, Miz Webster.” He inclined his head toward the door behind her. “It’s not a good idea for you to be in here alone.”

She glanced over her shoulder. “I guess not.”

Despite the day’s heat, she wished she hadn’t forgotten her gloves. Her hands were clammy and shaking awfully.

“You said you were looking for me?” Holt stepped around her to check the door, once more between her and McDougal.

“Oh, yes.” She cleared her throat. “I wonder if you might know someone who can teach me to shoot?”

“To shoot?”

“Yes. You know, a gun.”

Irritation crossed his features as he moved to stand in front of her again. “I didn’t think you meant a slingshot.”

“Well?” She hoped he would believe she had come to the jail only for this reason.

He crossed his arms and studied her. “I just can’t figure you, Miz Webster.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think your being in my jail has something to do with Ian McDougal.”

“Sheriff!” the prisoner yelled. “What’s going on out there?”

Josie stiffened. She did not want the outlaw to see her. Or know she was here until she chose.

“Just talkin’ to a visitor.” Sheriff Holt edged closer, causing her to step away. “What do you say, Miz Webster?”

“About what?” She could barely get the words out through her tight throat.

“You seem fascinated with my prisoner,” he said softly. “Why is that?”

“I’m not.” She clenched one fist in the folds of her skirt and tried to look curious rather than nervous. “Are you saying your prisoner is one of the McDougal gang? You didn’t tell me that the other day.”

“Don’t recall you askin’, but I think you already know he is.” Holt advanced again, forcing her against the wall. “Are you his sweetheart?”

“No!” The thought made her stomach seize up. She scooted down the wall in front of him, but he shifted his large body, trapping her against the door.

“A relative? His sister maybe?”

“Absolutely not.” How could he think her related to that murdering criminal? “I’ve heard about the things he and his brothers have done. I don’t appreciate being referred to as part of their family.”

“Well, I don’t appreciate being lied to and I think that’s what you’re doing.”

“I never!”

“What were you hiding when I walked in?”

“Hiding? Nothing. I–“

He leaned in and she pressed her shoulder blades flat against the wood at her back. Holt planted a hand on either side of her. “Something up your sleeve? A derringer maybe? A file? Some kind of weapon?”

She struggled to keep her composure though the hard warmth of his body proved very distracting. “Do the ladies you know carry weapons, Sheriff?”

“We’re fixin’ to find out.”

His silky voice did things to her insides that she couldn’t recall having ever experienced with William. “Derringer? I don’t have a gun. I told you I want to learn how to shoot.”

His gaze slid down her body then back up to meet her eyes. “Do you want me to search you?”

She gasped. “You wouldn’t dare!”

“I will if you don’t show me what you’ve got hidden.”

“What kind of man are you that you would put your hands on me?”

“The kind who wants an answer,” he said hotly. “Now either show me or I’ll get it myself.”

The thrill that shot through her veins told Josie she did not want this man touching her. She instinctively knew she wouldn’t forget it.

A clanging sounded from the other room. “Sheriff, I’m thirsty.”

“Shut up.” Though Holt spoke to the prisoner, he never took his eyes off Josie.

She realized the noise of metal-on-metal was the sound of McDougal banging a tin cup or plate against the bars.

The sheriff dipped his head a fraction, his breath soft against her temple. She smelled leather and soap and man. “What’s it gonna be?”

Showing him her scalpel proved nothing, Josie told herself. She angled her chin, hoping he couldn’t see how she trembled all over. “Very well. I do have a weapon. I’ll get it.”

She dipped a hand inside her square-necked gingham bodice.

The sheriff drew back, eyes widening. “What are you doin’?”

“Getting my weapon.” If she weren’t so rattled, she might have laughed at the expression on his face–half anticipation, half stone-cold fear that she might expose herself.

She pulled the blade from between her breasts and saw his eyes darken. Not with curiosity or surprise, but with raw, hot desire. Her stomach did a slow drop to her feet.

“What–” he cleared his throat, “the heck is that?”

The fire in his gaze sent a tingle to her toes and she swallowed hard. “It’s a scalpel.”

“A doctor’s instrument?”

She nodded.

“I thought you said you were a dressmaker.”

“I am.”

He frowned at the weapon’s short silver blade. “You beat all, lady. What are you planning to do with that?”

“Defend myself.” She pressed harder against the door, trying to escape the feel of his lean thighs, the warmth from his body. “My father was a doctor and he taught my mother and me how to use this.”

“Then why do you need to learn how to shoot?”

“With the scalpel, I have to be really close to someone. Like I am to you.”

He eased back slightly, frowning.

She tried not to smile. “But I have no defense if someone were to shoot at me.”

“Just what can you do with that thing?”

“Stab it in someone’s windpipe or eye. If I go deep enough, I can slice into this big vein here.” She touched the side of her neck.

The sheriff eyed the scalpel warily. “You already seem plenty dangerous to me. I’m not sure that you having a gun is a good idea.”

If she had known how to use a gun two years ago, her family might still be alive. “Are you saying you won’t help me find a teacher?”

“Are you saying you’ve decided to make a home in Whirlwind?”

“Uh, yes.” From the excruciatingly slow way her plan was progressing, she would have to. At this rate, she’d be a year older before she ever got to McDougal. “But Whirlwind seems less civilized than Galveston. I would just feel safer if I knew how to use a gun.”

“And you’re going to open a dressmaker shop?”

She laughed lightly. “That’s the only skill I have.”

Holt stared at her for a long minute, his eyes hooded beneath his hat. “I’ll teach you to shoot.”

“You? But I thought–“

“Change your mind?”

“No.” But maybe she should.

“Then I’ll teach you. I’m good with guns and I can show you the proper way to handle them.”

“Could you give me a lesson every day?” She needed to check on McDougal as often as possible.

“Sure, I can do that.”

“Oh, good. Thank you, Sheriff Holt.” Why was he so willing to help her? Her smile felt overly bright as she realized exactly what their deal meant.

He finally stepped back a few inches. “If we’re going to see each other every day, you should call me Davis Lee.”

“All right.” She wouldn’t. “I’ll see you in the morning then, bright and early.”

“Tomorrow is Sunday. I’ll be in church. Won’t you?”

She hesitated. She and her parents had regularly attended church in Galveston. It was the one place she had been able to find a small amount of peace after the murders. But she had come here to kill a man. “Church?”

“It’s at the end of Main Street. You can’t miss it.”

“Oh, yes.” She recalled the white frame building with the steeple and a part of her wanted to be there tomorrow.

“I’ll see you here on Monday then. Make it about six-thirty or seven in the evening. I’ll have to get my other deputy, Jake, to guard the prisoner.”

“All right, Monday.” Tarnation!

She would be spending far more time with the sheriff than she wanted. Despite the opportunity she now had to wheedle information about McDougal out of the lawman, she had the uneasy sense that Holt had agreed to teach her to shoot for the very same reason she had asked–so he could keep an eye on her. She didn’t like that at all.

© 2005 by Debra S. Cowan

® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books, S.A.

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