The Outlaw Takes a Bride

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Chapter One

Tanner Burnett sat in the stagecoach dressed like a banker, the string tie around his neck feeling like the noose he’d been running from for the last ten years. The wooden coach rocked and rattled along the bumpy road, dust rising from the spoke wheels, through the open window, and settling on the black suit he detested.

God, he didn’t want to be here, dressed like this, waiting. Yet there was no way to change the past, and he didn’t feel like trying. But there was a box of gold on this stage; the contents of the strongbox could go a long way toward his freedom.

He sighed and glanced across the seat at the beautiful young woman with burnished red hair and hazel eyes; she was the only thing about this trip that had been pleasant so far. She’d definitely made the scenery much better than the rolling hills of the Texas hill country.

The other passenger, who sat beside him, was an older woman on her way to visit her daughter. The three of them were cooped up inside this hot dust catcher rolling toward Fort Worth.

The name of the city conjured up images of home and family, images he quickly pushed away. Those memories belonged to another man, another lifetime, and he could never go back. He could never face his family again and let them see the man he’d become.

“Mr. Tanner, what kind of business are you in?” the older woman asked, jarring him from his casual perusal of the lovely young lady across from him.

“Banking,” he said, thinking it sounded important. He glimpsed out the window, wishing the woman would leave him alone and let his eyes feast on the beauty across from him.

“What about you, Miss Anderson? What brings you to Texas?” the nosy old woman asked. “Do you have family here?”

Tanner couldn’t help but glance at the young woman. She had ample curves, and with her high forehead and well-defined cheekbones, her face was both beautiful and full of expression. He watched her contemplate the grandmother’s question, her hazel eyes large and vivid.

“Of a sort, yes,” she said, vague with her response. “I’m originally from Jonesboro, Georgia.”

She glanced at him, her gaze distant and aloof. Her lips were full and ripe for kissing, and before his mind traveled in that direction, he reached into his pocket, pulled out his watch, and glanced at the time.

The waiting and wondering were nerve-racking.

“Lord have mercy, the Texas heat can sometimes strangle a body right into suffocating.” The grandmother picked up her fan and stirred a breeze in the dusty confines. She took a deep breath. “Miss Anderson, do you have kinfolk you left behind in Georgia?”

Tanner couldn’t help but turn his attention from the window back to the woman. She probably came from a large family with brothers or sisters, similar to the smaller group of kin he’d given up. He pushed the pesky memory away, unable to think of them now. Yet since he’d crossed the state line back into Texas, they had hovered on the fringes of his mind.

“No one of any importance. My mother and father are buried there.” Miss Anderson twisted her small handbag in her lap and then gazed at the grandmother, her hazel eyes shimmering softly in the dim light of the coach.

He glanced out the window again. He needed to get out of Texas before his relatives found out he was alive.

“But you’ll have family in Fort Worth,” the older woman reminded her.

Miss Anderson hesitated, “Yes. Yes, I will.”

“What’s your kinfolks’ name? I know a lot of people in town. I just might know them.”

Just then a loud pop drew Tanner’s attention back to the window.

Finally.

The snap of the driver’s bullwhip sounded above them, and the stagecoach took a wild lurch, the horses picking up speed. The burst of gunfire and the whine of a bullet whizzed by the window, and Tanner grabbed the ladies by' the arm.

“Down on the floor, both of you.” He shielded their bodies with his own as the gunfire got closer and closer.

“What’s happening?” the young woman asked, trying to raise her head.

“I think it’s called a holdup,” he said, pushing her head back down.

A voice yelled close to the stagecoach, “Stop this damn coach before I shoot you.”

The stage slowed and finally, after several minutes, came to a halt.

“Everyone out!” the man commanded, his voice gruff. “Now.”

“Ladies, do what the man says,” Tanner said, rising up, hating what he did for a living.

Opening the door, he stepped out of the stagecoach, his hands high in the air. He turned slightly to his right and gave a hand first to the older woman and then to the stunning Miss Anderson. Her eyes were wide with fright, but she gazed about the group, her chin held high, her eyes taking in every detail. She wasn’t panicking like most women he’d encountered in a holdup.

The mens’ faces were covered with bandannas, their cowboy hats pulled low over their foreheads. Their only visible features were their eyes. Tanner stood to the left of the women, waiting and watching.

“Where’s the driver?” Sam asked, looking around. “I want that gold.”

No one responded, but stood quietly at attention, their hands held up.

Seaborn Barnes slid off his horse and started toward the women. “Off with your jewelry, ladies. Hand over your money and your valuables. Keep those hands up in the air until we get to you. If everyone follows the rules, then you’ll all live to see another day.”

Suddenly, the driver of the stagecoach stepped from behind the stage, a rifle in his hands. He swung the gun up and aimed the barrel at Sam Bass, the leader of the gang.

“You ain’t robbing my stage,” the driver yelled, intent on killing Sam.

Tanner reacted without thinking. He shoved the point of the rifle away just as the gun went off. The bang of the gunshot exploded in the still countryside, sending birds skyward.

The impact of the bullet knocked Miss Anderson to the ground. Slowly, a crimson stain appeared on the beautiful woman’s pink blouse, marred by the gunshot. A cry ripped from Tanner’s throat, echoing in the hills, as he gazed at the woman lying in a crumpled heap in the dirt.

Dear God, he’d pushed the barrel of the rifle right at her.

He’d killed Miss Anderson.

Stunned, Tanner stood there while the past collided with the present, and once again he was on the battlefield fighting for his life, dodging bullets, fighting beside Carter.

“I’m obliged to you, Jackson,” Sam Bass said, jolting Tanner back to the present. For a moment he was confused by the name Jackson, but then he slowly realized that was how he was known—Jackson to the law and to everyone who hadn’t known him before the war.

“Somebody help that poor girl,” the grandmother cried.

But her pleas for help were ignored as the bandits grabbed the last bit of money from the older woman, emptied the gold from the bank’s stronghold box, and finished collecting their loot.

“Let’s get out of here,” cried Seaborn as he kicked the empty box out of the way. In shock, Tanner watched as the raiders jumped back on their horses. In a matter of moments, they spurred their horses, galloped down the lane away from the stagecoach, and left him behind.

This was where he was going to rejoin them, where he should jump on his own horse and ride with them to their hideout. But Miss Anderson lay bleeding on the ground.

Torn, he watched them riding away, their horses’ hooves thundering in the still prairie, his chance for a new life sprinting off into the countryside. The urge to follow them was insistent, but the woman lay still as death on the ground.

Another person dead because of him. His future didn’t matter, but if he could save Miss Anderson’s life, maybe hers would.

The stagecoach driver turned on him, suspicion darkening his eyes. “They knew you!”

“No, they mistook me for someone else. The name’s Tanner, not Jackson.” Tanner shook his head, concerned for the woman. “I’m a banker, not an outlaw.”

“Then why in the hell did you push my gun away? I had a clean shot on him.”

Tanner didn’t spare a glance at the driver as he knelt beside Miss Anderson. “You’d be dead, and there’s been enough bloodshed.”

“Instead, she’s dead,” the man said with a spat. “It’s all your fault.”

Gently, Tanner stretched her out on the ground; her auburn hair spilled from its chignon into his hand. He tried not to think about how soft and silky the strands felt in his fingers; rather, he concentrated on the wound to her shoulder.

Tanner yanked off his suit coat, wadded it up into a pillow, and then gently slid it under her head. Up close he could see her chest barely moving beneath her blood-soaked blouse. Her heartbeat throbbed erratically, but she was breathing. She wasn’t dead, but with every beat of her heart, she lost more blood.

He reached down, lifted up her petticoat, and ripped the worn yellowed material. He peeled back the torn blouse, away from her injury. The wound was a small hole. He grimaced at the sight of the visible tissue and muscle of her shoulder. Lifting her slightly, she moaned, and he saw there was no exit wound. The bullet had lodged in her shoulder, probably in the bone.

If someone could get her to a doctor, there was a chance she could live, though the bullet would have to be removed.

He held the piece of petticoat against the wound, trying to suppress the bleeding.

“Where’s the next layover station?” Tanner asked.

“About ten miles up the road. But they don’t have no sawbones.”

“She needs a doctor,” he said, frustrated. Tanner pressed the rag against the wound. How many times had he done this during the war? How many times had he failed to save a fellow soldier?

He glanced down at the woman, noticing how fragile she appeared. Her porcelain skin had turned an unhealthy shade of white that contrasted with the sprinkle of freckles across her nose and cheeks. She was beautiful, and near death because of him. “There’s a doctor in San Antonio.”

“We just came from there. I can’t return,” the stage-coach driver insisted. “She got shot because of you. You take her back.”

Tanner glanced down at the woman, even unconscious she was still beautiful. As he pressed the strips of cloth against her wound, he wondered about the people who were waiting in Fort Worth for her, about her life and how this could affect her. The blood was starting to slow to a trickle.

Ripping another section of her petticoat, he packed the bullet hole with the extra strips of material he’d tom. He knew it was imperative to keep her arm immobile or the gait of his horse could possibly cause it to bleed again. Finally, he tied her arm in a sling.

The grandmother walked over, carrying a small carpet-bag and a small reticule. “Here, this belongs to Beth. She’ll need it.”

“What’s her full name? Where did she say her family lives?” Tanner questioned.

He hadn’t been paying much attention. He’d been too intent on eyeing her good looks and watching for the gang that had now departed without him.

“Elizabeth Anderson. She’s from Georgia, but she told me she had no kinfolk or anyone left to take care of her. You make sure she gets to a good doctor.”

He nodded. “Don’t worry.”

Tanner went to the back of the stage, where his chestnut mare was tethered. He untied the horse, grabbed the reins, and pulled the animal closer to the woman’s body. He stepped one foot up into the stirrup and then swung a leg over the saddle and slid gently onto the back of the animal. The stagecoach driver hurried over and lifted the young woman’s still form up into his arms. He settled her against him, the feel of her warm woman’s body against his own, soft and vulnerable. He pushed the thought out of his mind.

She’d been shot, and it was his fault.

He glanced at the driver and the old woman. They watched as he tipped the edge of his black hat with one hand and then turned his horse in a southerly direction, away from the stage.

Hell of a way to end a holdup, a robbery that hadn’t gone well from the start. He was supposed to rejoin the gang here, not ride in the opposite direction. Oh, well, it would have to wait another day.

With a careful gait, his horse moved down the road, bouncing the lovely young woman in his arms. Tanner glanced at Miss Anderson’s drawn face. Maybe he could save her, unlike his best friend, Carter.

***

Tucker Burnett watched his older brother, Travis, and his bride giggling on the loveseat together. He shook his head. It was almost more than he could stomach to believe that this hopelessly infatuated man was his older brother. The same man who had held Rose Severin, the woman he finally married, captive for months, believing she had stolen his mother’s wedding band, which now glistened and shone on Rose’s left hand.

His own mother had played matchmaker by hiding the ring, hoping all along that Travis would fall in love with Rose. They were just lucky the incident had turned out as well as it had.

Though he did think that his aging mother’s hair had turned a bit grayer during the ordeal, her brown eyes still held a twinkle in them whenever she talked about the episode.

Eugenia Burnett walked into the parlor, and Tucker couldn’t help but glance at her empty left hand. Although he missed seeing his mother wear her wedding ring, he knew she had wanted Rose to have the band of gold. Somehow it was the least Eugenia could do after everything Travis had put Rose through.

“Tucker, would you mind accompanying me for a walk?” his mother questioned. She winked at him and nodded her head toward the happy couple on the loveseat.

He shook his head knowingly.

God, why had he decided to come out to dinner today?

He should have used the excuse he was too busy. He could have lied and said there was no one to watch the jail. Instead, he had agreed to attend this little get-together. And now the sight of his smitten brother was both funny and irritating. Funny because responsible Travis had fallen and fallen hard; irritating because Tucker would never have a chance to experience love.

“Sure, let’s go, Mother,” he said, walking across the room, his boots clunking softly against the oval rug covering the parlor floor.

His mother slipped her hand in the crook of his elbow. “Are they always this mushy?” he asked.

She laughed. “They’re in love, dear, and the emotion is so new. Let them enjoy it before the newness wears off and the babies come.”

Tucker swallowed. “Babies?”

“Well, I certainly hope they have children. After all, I’ve not gone to all this trouble for nothing. I want grand-children. Can you imagine a little girl with Rose’s dark curls and green eyes or a little boy with Travis’s brown eyes and sandy hair?”

Eugenia sighed. “It’s what I hope for you, too. To meet a nice young woman, fall in love, and give me lots of grandchildren.”

“So, how’s the new bam,” he asked, trying his best to change the subject. Surely, since Travis was settling down, his mother would be happy that one of the Burnett boys was finally married, and maybe she would leave him alone.

He pushed open the front door, and they stepped out onto the wooden porch.

“I know you’re trying to shift my attention to other matters, Tucker, but I really must speak with you about a pressing issue.”

Tucker glanced down at his aging mother and noticed for the first time that she seemed nervous. “What’s wrong, Mother?”

“Well . . . you know, dear, sometimes in the heat of the moment, you do things that later you regret. Things that you know you should have left alone, though you do them with the best intentions, especially where your children are concerned.”

“What did you do, Mother? Travis has not gotten over the fact that you lied about your wedding ring. I hope you aren’t keeping anything else from him.”

“No, dear.” She took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Come sit on the swing with me.”

She led him over to the porch swing, and they both took a seat. His mother picked up his hand and patted it. “Tucker, you have to remember that I was really upset when your brother Tanner disappeared, and then, when it looked like Travis and Rose were never going to get married, well ... I did something I shouldn’t have.”

Tucker felt his heart speed up. Whatever his meddle-some mother had done affected him. “What, Mother?”

“I—I placed an ad for a mail-order bride.” She paused “For you.”

“What?” He jumped up out of the swing, unable to sit beside his mother another moment. She had really gone too far this time. It was bad enough what she’d done to Travis, but she was not going to mess with his affairs.

“Well, things just sort of got out of hand. I started writing to this young woman who responded to the ad and then the next thing I knew, I started signing you name to the letters. And now, well, now, she’s on her way here.” She paused. “To meet you.”

“Me! You’re the one who’s been corresponding with her. You meet her.”

How could his mother do this to him? He could never marry. A gunslinger turned marshal didn’t need a wife, didn’t need to make someone a young widow.

“Now, son, I know you’re upset. But remember, you don’t have to marry her unless you want to. But since I’ve been signing your name to her letters, you would be such an understanding son to be nice to her.”

“This is an out-and-out lie, Mother. What have you been telling her? How can I act like I know what you’ve said?”

“Well, I thought of that, so I’ve saved her letters so you could at least see her replies back to you.” Eugenia threw up her hands. “I never should have done this, but she is such a nice young woman, I just didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth after I got to know her.”

“Mother, she’s going to figure out I never wrote those letters. I hardly think we’d say the same things.” He took his hat and hit the side of his leg with it. “Besides, did you ever consider that just maybe there was someone I was interested in already?”

“Really? Who, dear? You’ve never even mentioned seeing anyone.”

Tucker clenched his fists in anger. Once there had been someone he really cared about, but he wasn’t about to tell his mother. Nothing could ever come from the situation, for he wasn’t a marrying kind of man. And he was not about to give his mother the ammunition she needed, because she would soon have an arsenal.

“Never mind.”

“No, dear, tell me if there is someone else.”

Tucker couldn’t stand this. Now his mother had turned her matchmaking sights on him. He pushed his hat down on his head.

“There’s no one, Mother. Absolutely no one.” He walked to the edge of the porch. He had to get away. He was in a fine pickle now.

“So will you at least meet the woman?” she asked earnestly.

Tucker strode to his horse, his steps heavy and hard. “No. You meet her stage; you marry her.”

“Think about it. You don’t have to give me your answer today. You have until Wednesday before she arrives.”

“That’s just great! When were you planning on telling me, Mother? As we drove up in the wagon?”

“Don’t take that tone with me, young man. This is the first time I’ve seen you in weeks. If you came out more often, I would have told you.”

“Between you and the lovebirds, I’m safer with a jail filled with criminals,” he muttered under his breath.

“What did you say, dear? I couldn’t hear you.”

“Between you and the lovebirds, it’s hard to stay away.”

His mother looked at him, puzzled, and watched as he swung up into the saddle. “Tell Rose and Travis I said good-bye.”

She ran to the edge of the porch and leaned over the white railing. “So are you going to go with me to pick up Beth?”

Beth. The woman his mother had chosen for him to marry was named Beth. He turned his horse toward the gate. “I’m working that day, Mother.”

“But... ”

He shrugged and rode away. Let her stew over the situation for a while. She needed to be nervous about his going with her to pick up this woman. It was the least he could do to teach his mother to stay out of his business.

Hell, Beth probably had buck teeth, stringy hair, and bad breath. Why else would a woman travel hundreds of miles to marry a man she’d never met.