The Marshal Takes a Bride

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Chapter One

February 1875

Marshal Tucker Burnett was the last unattached male in a family that had experienced more weddings in the last year than he cared to remember. And he planned on retaining his single status. With a shudder he thought of his two strapping brothers who had succumbed to his mother’s matchmaking ways and was more determined than ever to hang on to his freedom

First it had been Travis, the oldest of the three, and then his long-lost brother Tanner had fallen under the spell of love and settled down.

Tucker shivered, more from the thought of mar­riage than the cold, as he leaned against the wall of the El Paso Hotel and waited for the stage, his hat pulled down low, shading his eyes, his arms crossed over his chest. He was a wandering man, no ties, no attachments, no ring binding him to forever.

Turning his attention to the present, he cast his gaze to the dusty empty street. His mother had sent him on what he was certain was a fool’s errand. For the last month, his mother, Eugenia had made him promise to meet the stage from Abilene, Texas, twice a week, awaiting some mysterious package.

Tucker feared what kind of package his mother was referring to and only hoped it wasn’t like the last surprise she had given him, a mail-order bride who had fallen in love with his older brother Tanner. Eugenia’s kind of surprises, he didn’t need.

After his mother’s last attempt at matchmaking, he had warned her to stay out of his business, and he had meant every stinking word. She had promised him that this package was for the much-anticipated newest family member, baby Burnett.

His brother Travis and his wife, Rose, were ex­pecting their first child this spring, and his mother had turned her attention away from finding a mate for her remaining unmarried son, to the arrival of the first grandchild. And thank God she had. Unlike his brothers, he intended on keeping his freedom.

A sharp, cold north wind swirled about the street, picking up dust, stinging exposed skin with a painful reminder that spring was still weeks away. The stage turned the comer of Main Street and came rattling down the road, the horses eager to reach their desti­nation. The wooden contraption pulled to a halt in front of Tucker, the dust settling back to earth. He pushed back his hat and uncrossed his ankles, putting both feet firmly on the ground. God, he hoped what­ever his mother had ordered arrived today, so he could quit this silly errand.

Tucker watched as the driver climbed down from the box and dropped to the ground. He placed a small step in front of the door for the passen­gers to step on before their feet touched the ground. The driver swung open the door, and a small boy who looked to be around the age of two jumped from the stage to the step, laughing gaily. A feminine hand covered by an emerald glove held the toddler’s small fingers securely.

Tucker's gaze went from the child’s hand up the arm to the woman who wore green gloves. His eyes found hers and became lost in those pools of blue sky he had never forgotten. For a moment he thought the ground was going to fall out from beneath him as he stared across what seemed like the thousand miles that had separated them until just this moment.

Dr. Sarah Kincaid had returned home looking more beautiful than when he had left her almost three years ago, and it appeared she hadn’t come home alone.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” he muttered beneath his breath. He swallowed at the sight of the woman he had chased around the schoolyard as a boy. The doc­tor who had kept him from dying in Tombstone. The good woman whose bed he had left in the middle of the night.

Dear God, she had returned. After three years would she still be angry?

He let his gaze travel over the blond hair that was carefully coiffed beneath a stylish hat that added a minimal amount of height to her already tall frame. The color matched her green traveling coat which hid the generous curves he knew so well.

Their eyes met and held for what seemed an eter­nity, and Tucker’s mind replayed the memory of Sarah’s bare shoulder being kissed by a sliver of moonlight, the sheets tangled about her waist and hips, her breasts peeking from beneath a blond curl.

That one night in her arms had been the biggest threat to his freedom he had ever experienced, and he had left before she tempted him into staying for­ever. He had left before he knew whether he had ruined a perfectly good friendship by having sex with the lady doctor.

And now here she was proudly standing before him on this cold February morning, shivering, a child gripping her hand.

“Momma,” the child said, tugging on her hand, eager to scamper down the step and escape the con­fines of the carriage.

“Just a moment, son.” She stepped down from the coach, her eyes never wavering from Tucker’s. She walked toward him and he met her hallway.

“Tucker Burnett,” she acknowledged, her voice stiff and formal as if the night they made love had never happened.

“Hello, Sarah. How have you been?” He swal­lowed, his palms suddenly perspiring.

“Just fine,” she politely responded, the warm, friendly smile he remembered absent from her full, sweet lips. “I’ve come to visit my grandfather.”

They stared at one another, their conversation stilted and awkward. Tucker resisted the urge to put her back on that stage, shut the door and tell the driver to continue right on out of town. He knew the thought was irrational, yet somehow he didn’t care.

That one night with the doctor had made him for­get his dreams and act irrationally.

He nodded. “If you’d like, I’d be happy to carry your bags to your grandfather’s hotel.”

“Oh, that won’t be necessary. Lucas and I will manage,” she said, her voice polite and cool.

“Lucas?” he questioned.

“My son,” she replied, pulling the boy around be­side her.

“I didn’t know you had married,” he said, staring at the child, who twisted behind his mother, more interested in what was going on down the street.

She was married and had a child; he was safe.

“Mrs. Walter Scott James,” she said as she pulled the active boy forward. “Lucas, meet Mr. Burnett.”

The boy was dressed in a blue double-breasted overcoat, and Tucker hoped his mother had never dolled him up in such a fashion. The resemblance between Sarah and her son was obvious with the boy’s blond curls and fair skin. He couldn’t help but wonder about the child’s father. Who was he, and when had she met him?

Tucker bent down to Lucas and tipped his hat. “Marshal Tucker Burnett.” He gripped the boy’s hand and shook it. “Nice to meet you. How old are you?”

The boy glanced up at Tucker, then pulled his hand away and buried his face in his mother’s skirts. She patted him on the back reassuringly.

“He’s, tired and so am I,” she said, her voice brusque.

“More reason for me to carry your bags to the hotel.” He stood glancing around at the trunks the driver was unloading, wondering which ones were hers.

“Fine,” she said, her gloved fingers pushing a strand of blond hair out of her face. He noticed how her gaze kept drifting to the badge pinned to his chest.

“Marshal Burnett? That’s a far cry from what you were doing the last time I saw you,” she said, a slight edge to her voice.

He saw a flash of anger in her eyes and felt a twinge of anxiety. Dear God, could she still be mad after all these years?

The two good friends had become lovers for just one long, lonely night, and somehow he was afraid he had damaged their friendship forever.

While she lay sleeping, he had dressed and snuck out the back door, leaving her to wake up alone. Yet he had left dozens of women in the same manner he had left the good doctor. So why should she be any different?

“Not long after you patched me up in Tombstone, I decided it was time for a career change,” he told her, the memory of the lonely days he had spent con­templating his life after he left her returning with a poignant pang.

“You’re smarter than you look,” she said, and turned her attention to the unloading of several bags.

He cringed at her remark, though veiled. He had known when he left that morning nearly three years ago that she would be angry. But a man could hope that time and distance would have cooled her fury. After all, she had managed to hog-tie some poor man into family and commitment.

Once the bags were gathered around her, she glanced back at him. “I’m ready if you’d like to take me to my grandfather. I haven’t seen his new hotel.”

“Let me check with the driver, and then we’ll walk. This is his hotel, but the main entrance is down the street a ways.” He stepped over to the driver and asked the young man, “Any packages for Eugenia Burnett?”

“No packages,” the driver said.

“Thanks,” Tucker murmured. He hoped to God that this wasn’t the package his mother had been re­ferring to—that Sarah wasn’t the surprise she was waiting for. Maybe she was just pretending to be all wrapped up in this new grandchild. Maybe she was still up to her matchmaking ways.

“Come on.” He took Sarah by the arm, and she gently but firmly pulled away. Still, she continued to walk beside him. “Is your grandfather expecting you? I hadn’t heard him say anything about you coming home.”

“No. He doesn’t know. I didn’t want to worry him, and I didn’t know when exactly I’d be able to get away. I had to find someone to tend to my patients while I was gone.”

“What about your husband? He let you come all this way without him?” Tucker asked, his curiosity about the man she had married getting the better of him.

She glanced at him, a sharp, watchful expression on her face. “He didn’t care.”

Tucker frowned. “How long you been married?” She turned her lips up, the smile not quite reaching her eyes. “Long enough, Tucker.”

He grinned and shrugged. “Never hurts to ask.” He wanted to ask her long enough for what, but he didn’t dare. Curiosity about just when and how she had met the man was eating at him; but he knew it was none of his business, and the doctor wouldn’t hesitate to tell him so.

She glanced at Tucker, her head tilted at an angle. Lucas was staring at the adults in fascination. “My husband wasn’t afraid of settling down. He didn’t leave in the middle of the night, without saying good­bye.”

“Good for you,” he said, picking up her bags. Tucker smiled and gave her a quick glance. She might not be spitting fire, but she was definitely peeved. From what he remembered of their night to­gether, given even the slightest indication that she was willing, he wouldn’t hesitate to charm his way back into her bed for a little frolicking between the sheets. It was a damn shame she was displeased with him and married to boot.

But she had been a threat to his freedom. So in the middle of the night he had run as fast as he could get away.

God had a sense of humor, thought Sarah. After all who would have thought that the first person she would encounter when returning to Fort Worth would have been the last person she ever wanted to see again. But here Tucker Burnett was, walking beside her the short distance to her grandfather’s hotel, car­rying her bags and chatting as though they were still old friends.

Fear had almost paralyzed her the moment she had stepped off that stage and seen her childhood friend, the man who had broken her heart, the father of her child.

Yet, part of her heart still leaped at the sight of his dark brown eyes and golden brown hair. And that was the part she would love to have surgically re­moved. They were doing so much now with modem medicine, why couldn’t they cut out that piece of the heart that just couldn’t get over a man?

Especially when that man was an unemotional, ir­responsible, handsome, charming gunslinger—now marshal—who had been the only man to get close emotionally and physically to her in the last five years.

It just proved that tall, ruggedly handsome men, who had high foreheads, twinkling brown eyes and muscles that were shaped to perfection, were not nec­essarily good for a woman. This man had certainly not been who she thought he was, when he had slunk out like a fugitive in the middle of the night, after spending time in her bed.

“So how’s the doctoring business?” he asked. “You still the only doctor in Tombstone? How does your husband like the fact that his wife’s the only doctor for miles?”

“My, aren’t you the curious one,” she replied.

He grinned. “Don’t know until you ask, and I’ve never been afraid to ask.”

She shook her head at him. “I just hired a new man to help out,” she replied.

She wasn’t ready to respond to his question about her husband, because the man didn’t care. He was dead. It was none of Tucker Burnett’s business, and she would do whatever was necessary to protect her son. She would do whatever was necessary to protect the child she and Tucker had conceived that fateful night almost three years ago.

The son he knew nothing about. Sarah would lie just as long as it was necessary to protect her boy— and herself—for if the marshal knew that Lucas was his child, he would want the right to be with his son. And she couldn’t face Tucker every day.

“My practice is going very well. The gunslingers of Tombstone keep me busy, patching up their newest bullet wounds.”

He smiled. “You’re good at that. I know.”

She glanced at his chest wondering if the wound she had mended for him ever pained him, determined not to ask. Lucas wrapped his fingers in the material of her skirt and gave a sharp tug to get her attention. “Momma, cookie.”

She glanced down into eyes that were the spitting image of his father’s. The fear that had consumed her the moment she saw Tucker was for the time somewhat subdued, but she knew the anxiety could return at any second.

She smiled at the boy who had changed her life. She hadn’t known what to think of motherhood, but having a child had softened her. She was grateful for her son and most of the time managed to block out the memory of his father.

Until today, when she had seen Tucker standing there waiting at the stage depot.

She had never realized just how much Lucas looked like his father. Now it was clearly evident in his gaze and the stubborn set of his chin, and Sarah was amazed that Tucker had not seen the resem­blance.

“Just a few more steps and you’ll meet your grandpa. Then I’ll give you a cookie.”

The boy frowned, not quite sure that he liked her response.

“Momma, hungry.”

“Lucas, I can’t stop and get you a cookie out of the bag. Wait.”

“What bag are they in?” Tucker asked.

She sent Tucker her best stay-out-of-this mother’s look. “Do you always ignore a mother’s wishes?” “Depends on who the mother is and if I’m trying to charm the child or the mother.”

The fear that Sarah had held at bay suddenly re­turned. Normally, she would have stood her ground, but she was tired, she was scared, and she didn’t want Tucker looking too closely at her reactions.

“They’re wrapped in a cloth in that gray bag you’re carrying.”

Tucker smiled that boyish grin he had used to charm his way into her bed, and she almost groaned. She was going to be here for only a month. Just a month of spending time with her grandfather and then she could return to Tombstone, and her life would go back to her practice and her son.

No more Tucker Burnett. She could put up with him for at least a month. Couldn’t she?

She watched as he opened the bag and searched for the cookies. He found them and held up a single oatmeal cookie for Lucas. “Is this what you want?”

The boy grinned at him and ran toward his out­stretched hand. The sight of Tucker giving his son a cookie touched Sarah so much she had to swallow the lump that arose in her throat and look away.

She should never have risked coming home. If the telegram had not insisted her grandfather was ill, she would not have come back to this city where she took a chance of running into Tucker Burnett, here in this place where they both had lived as children.

But she had come home, and so far Tucker had not tackled her biggest fear. He had believed her re­garding her marriage, and she wasn’t completely ly­ing. She had been married. But there was no need to tell him she was a widow or that the man she married had died before Lucas was born. There was no need to tell him that she had married Walter Scott James because she had known he was going to die, and she needed his name to give to her son.

Lucas took the cookie from Tucker.

“What do you say, young man?” she said, looking at the boy as he stood between her and Tucker.

“Tank you,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.

Sarah’s heart leaped within her chest, and she quickly glanced at Tucker to see his reaction.

Sarah watched as he smiled at the boy and ruffled his hair.

“You’re welcome.” He glanced at Sarah. “Let’s get the two of you settled in at your grandfather’s place.” What if something gave away the truth that Lucas was his son? What if he counted the months and realized that Tucker had been conceived the night they were together? What if Tucker asked her if Lu­cas was his son?

She was overreacting. She knew it, but the mother in her worried, while the physician inside her re­minded her to remain calm.

Sarah glanced up at the hotel in front of which they now stood. “So this is Grandfather’s new hotel. Pretty fancy.”

“Wait till you see the inside. Your grandfather went all out on this one.”

Tucker opened the door to the El Paso Hotel, and Sarah quickly walked through, her hand wrapped se­curely around Lucas’s smaller one. She felt rattled. She hadn’t known that Tucker had come back to Fort Worth, she had never dreamed of finding him waiting for her at the stage depot, and she certainly hadn’t expected him to escort her to her grandfather’s hotel.

After all, sometime before dawn the night they had made love, he had walked out on her and never glanced back, not caring that his leaving had left her confused and grieving, until she realized she was pregnant. Then she had become angry, before finally she reached an understanding.

Tucker Burnett would miss seeing his son grow into a man, only because he chose not to be with her. And somehow reaching that conclusion had helped her to put his betrayal behind her, until now.

As she stepped into the entrance, her eyes took in the dark wood paneling lining the walls of the lobby, the brass fixtures, and the oak counter. A door led off to the right, and she could see a room filled with people sitting at tables eating.

The door shut behind Tucker, and he called out to the clerk sitting at the counter, “Charlie, this is Mr. Kincaid’s granddaughter. I’m taking her to the old man’s rooms.”

The man jumped up and nodded in greeting. “Wel­come, missus. Don’t worry about anything; we’ll take your bags for you.”

“Thank you,” she replied.

This was certainly nicer than any hotel her grand­father had previously owned. But then, she had come home to a town that had changed much since she had left. Fort Worth had been merely a spot in the road when she had gone away to college, but now it had grown into a frontier town that leaned just a little on the wild side.

She had seen the brothels, the saloons and the gambling halls as the stage had rolled into town. Fort Worth was no innocent settlement. It was a cowboy’s last chance to sow a few wild oats, before he headed up the trail to Dodge City and sold his cattle.

The clerk behind the desk soon had two men car­rying their bags to some unknown destination.

Tucker put his hand at the small of her back, and she flinched. No one had touched her there since he had all those years ago. No man had held her—no man had been in her bed—since Tucker.

Not even the man she married.

She stepped away from his touch, refusing to ac­knowledge the tingle his caress always seemed to ig­nite, refusing to pick up where they had left off all those years ago.

Sarah James was a mother, a doctor and a woman who didn’t need a man to take care of her. She did just fine on her own. The only reason she would even consider another man would be for her son. But she had yet to find one she deemed suitable, and it wasn’t a pressing issue at this time in his life.

“Your grandfather keeps a suite of rooms. Come on, I’ll take you to them,” Tucker said, leading the way down a hall.

“Thank you,” she replied politely.

At the end of the hallway, Tucker stopped before number one twenty-six and rapped on the door.

“Come on in. The door is open,” she heard her grandfather say.

Tucker turned the doorknob, and Sarah stepped through the door, her son in tow. The sight that greeted her eyes stunned her. Her grandfather was not sickly looking at all, but rather robust, older, but just fine. He was not near death as she had been led to believe from the telegram she had received from Eugenia Burnett.

Tucker watched as Sarah walked into her grand­father’s suite of rooms and couldn’t decide if he should stay or back out the door and let them have their reunion alone. But he was reluctant to leave; he wanted to know what had brought Sarah Kincaid home.

The old man looked up from his desk, and for a moment, Tucker was afraid Sarah was going to have to resuscitate her own grandfather. The man’s shock was so evident at the sight of his granddaughter and great-grandson standing before him.

“Sarah?” he asked. He stood and slowly came around the desk. “This is quite a surprise.”

They met each other halfway across the room and enveloped one another in a hug.

“You don’t look sick,” Sarah said.

Tucker glanced at Sarah, a frown on his face. What had she just said about her grandfather being sick?

“I’m fine. Who said I was ill? I’m just old,” her grandfather said, his arms still wrapped around Sarah. He released her, stepped back and gazed at his grand­daughter. “You look wonderful.”

“Momma?” Lucas said, tugging on her hand. George Kincaid leaned down to his great-grandson. “Hey, little man, give your old grandpa a hug.”

The little boy reached out and tugged on his mus­tache and giggled. “Momma?” he questioned.

“It's okay, Lucas. We talked about meeting your grandpa.”

“How about instead of a hug, you just shake my hand. We’ll hug later,” the old man said, trying to relieve the child’s fears.

He reached toward the boy and shook his hand. The child laughed as if it were a game.

“I’m glad you’re here, but what made you decide to come for a visit?” he asked. “Did you think I was ill?”

“Yes. I was afraid you were dying. I received a telegram from Eugenia Burnett that you were ill.” Surprise almost left Tucker speechless as he turned toward Sarah, shock at her words stunning him. His mother had sent her a telegram?

Tucker scowled, suddenly suspicious that his mother was once again up to her matchmaking shenanigans, trying to get him and Sarah together. But how did she know they had a past. Did his mother know that Sarah was happily married and unavailable to wed her son?

Grandpa nodded and glanced over at Tucker. “Sev­eral months ago I was ill, and your mother came to take care of me. But it was only a bad cold.”

“Why would she send for Sarah?” Tucker asked.

Grandpa shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe she thought I was sicker than I looked.”

“I’m puzzled. If Sarah wasn’t married, I would think that she’s back to her matchmaking shenani­gans, but that’s not possible.”

Sarah’s head jerked toward him. “What are you talk­ing about? Your mother’s matchmaking shenanigans?” Tucker frowned. “My mother has been trying to get all her sons married, and I’m the last holdout. But that’s not possible, since you’re already mar­ried. . .

Sarah glanced away from him for just a moment, and then she turned back to Tucker, the light reflect­ing off her eyes the way the sun glistens on water. “I’m not married, Tucker. I’m a widow.”