Casey's Gunslinger (The Loflin Legacy: Book 2) by Catherine Wolffe by Catherine Wolffe - Read Online

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Casey's Gunslinger (The Loflin Legacy - Catherine Wolffe

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Prologue

Tyler, Texas, Early Spring 1858

M a g gi e! Charles Harrison’s voice reverberated off the walls before echoing down the long hall of the Shooter Creek ranch house. The heavy Spanish oak door slammed against the jam in his wake. Striding in without invitation, he was a man on a quest. The old walls of the home echoed their sentiment. Words wrought more fire in his gut, so he stalked through the rooms searching for the housekeeper. A young Indian girl made the mistake of stepping into the hall to see who had intruded. His stare zeroed in on her. Where’s Maggie? The young girl’s eyes grew large in her head. She retreated immediately, scurrying away with the other maids.

Soon, Jake Long, the elder foreman, pulled up on his horse outside. The dust flew as he slid from the animal’s back, making his way to the kitchen door. What’s the commotion? Tarnation, you’d think something was burning, the way you stormed in here. I can hear you clear out to the barn.

Trying to regain some of his composure, Charles waited a beat. Not sparing the horse or his temper, he had ridden hard from town to get to the Loflin ranch. He needed answers. Where is she? Where’s Maggie? His voice thundered.

Jake stood, much as he habitually did, with one hip cocked to the side, both hands stuffed in his back pockets and a thin lined scowl on his weather beaten face. The foreman had been a part of Shooter Creek life from the start, signing on when Earl Loflin staked a claim to the first thousand acres of ranch land in thirty-two. His tall, slim body held an authority few could match. Men respected him, a station he’d earned through sweat and blood over the years. Despite the respect, Jake wore the responsibility with humility and the honest nature that had seen him through his sixty-four plus years. No cowpoke upstart crossed his authority without seeing the gate on his way out. No greased, slick thief got one over on Jake without a reckoning. His status as the last word at Shooter Creek went without question. Now he stood in Maggie’s kitchen, the housekeeper’s domain within the great house, with a constricted look on his ruddy face.

She ain’t here. She went to Tyler to find Casey. His tired blue eyes mirrored the hurt mixed with confusion on Charles’ face. Words could explain, yet not mend, the damage done to the lives of the family, who called Shooter Creek home. Secrets uncovered brought them to the point of facing their past, despite the consequences.

He took a step forward, hand out, palm up. Charles, for what it’s worth, we thought it was the best thing we could do for Casey under the circumstances. She was just a few days old.

A cold grief settled in his heart. In some inner chamber, Charles had prayed Jake would tell him it had all been a lie, just a horrible misunderstanding. Letting out a huff, he ran a hand through his hair. All these years, Jake. All these years… His voice trailed off as he stared at the plank floor.

I know, Charles. I know. You gotta understand, we did the best we could. Earl was beside himself over Laura’s death. He locked himself in the room with her for days on end after she died. It was a dark time for him. His mind was on shaky ground. We feared he’d gone loco. When Maggie tried to bring Casey to him, he snarled at the child and shoved her back at Maggie. Earl didn’t want anything to do with the baby. He vowed he’d send us packing if we didn’t get rid of ‘the thing’ as he called her. Staring off into middle space, Jake shook his head. His woeful breath, which finally escaped, held years of sorrow compounded by secrecy.

Did you try? I mean later when he came back to his senses. Did you try to explain? The question, filled with the ache in his chest, sounded hollow to his ears. He was her father, Jake.

Nodding, Jake glanced down at the floor much as Charles had done. With tears swimming in his tired eyes, he acknowledged the man who’d been like a son to him for all the years he’d known him. Maggie and I both tried, Charles. You have to know that. We tried to reason with him, to talk to him about the possibility of bringing her home.

Christ, man! Charles took a step toward Jake. His hand came out, gripping the elder cowboy’s arm. He knew she was still alive? Jesus Christ Almighty! Another rake of his hair and Charles dropped his hand in resignation. Where was the compassion? Where was the humanity?

Jake slowly shook his head. Earl blamed the baby for Laura’s death, I suppose. He never got past losing her. Never talked about what happened. Looking tired and older than his sixty-four years, Jake slumped into a nearby chair. With his Stetson in his hand, he examined the brim absently. Maggie and I decided the best we could do was take care of her ourselves. Keeping her away from Earl was for her own safety. He’d fly into a rage anytime one of us mentioned the girl child, so we hid Casey’s identity and sent her to stay with Father Samuel at the orphanage. As far as Earl knew, we sent her to live with the Comanche.

Did it ever occur to you she’d go looking for her parents?

Jake cut a woeful gaze at Charles. We lived with the fear daily, Charles, for more than twenty-five years.

Turning, Charles walked toward the counter. With both hands resting on the cool surface, he focused on nothing, while trying to make sense of the whole mess. "Well, your chickens have come home to roost, Jake. Casey confronted Earl last night at the Silver Spur. She told him he was the lowest form of snake and she hoped he died a horrible death knowing he’d abandoned his daughter. Her exact words were, ‘I hope you burn in Hell, you bastard’."

A tear rolled down Jake’s face. We never meant to hurt her.

Staring blankly at the counter, Charles sighed. You did the best you could, old friend. I know what a mule-headed old coot Earl can be when he gets an idea in his head. The man’s the most cantankerous cowboy I’ve ever known, except for my old man.

Jake faced Charles. You know then what her life would have been like if we’d tried to expose her to his hatred, don’t you?

Understanding perfectly what Jake meant, he turned back. Yes, yes I do. I understand. Casey doesn’t. She’s vowed to run the name of Loflin into the ground. To go to any length necessary in making sure everyone knows what Earl did to her.

Lord, watch out for her. Jake cast sad eyes out the kitchen window toward the sun slipping behind the horizon.

Yea, my thoughts exactly. She quit her job as my assistant. Said she’s going to work full time at the Silver Spur. She’s gonna rent the shack out back of the saloon. I tried to stop her, to reason with her. She has her daddy’s stubborn streak though. She’s a true Loflin.

Does Seth know? The discomfort of more secrets laced Jake’s question.

Her brother does now.

I gotta go talk to him. Where is he? Jake’s jaw firmed as he settled his Stetson on his head before reaching for the door.

Better let that alone for now, Jake. He’s a Loflin too.

Dropping his hand, Jake turned away. Damn, I’d hoped this day would never come. Guess that was an old man’s pipe dream.

The chickens squawking outside alerted them to another rider entering the yard.

They met Tyron Loflin as he leaped from the back of the horse. Raw hurt glittered in his black eyes. It’s Earl. He glanced outward toward the field and the cloud of dust settling after his horse galloped through the dirt. He’s…he’s… Gathering his wits, the youngest Loflin brother swallowed hard before blurting out his news. Paw’s had a heart attack. Doc says he don’t have long. You better come. With that, he wheeled, straddling the horse’s back in a leap before putting leather to hide and tearing out of the yard toward town.

Chapter 1 - Of Charity

One Month Earlier

Charles Harrison, attorney-at-law and confirmed bachelor, enjoyed a good cigar more than anything. The only thing more pleasurable than a quality cigar was a member of the female persuasion. He could spend a considerable amount of time enjoying a pretty woman. Watching a lovely lady stroll away was a favorite pastime. The way her hips swayed causing her skirt to swing side to side in a lazy, come here cowboy, kind of way always entertained him. Yes, a pretty woman was special. He didn’t like to brag, but he had to admit to being intimately acquainted with the majority of the ladies in Tyler. Smiling to himself and releasing a tight circle of fragrant cigar smoke, he leaned against the wall in front of Jones’ Mercantile. Yes, he’d certainly enjoyed his fair share. Glancing down at his pocket watch, Charles sighed. The stage was right on time. Settling the chair on four legs, he stood, stretching. Several passengers were already gathering their belongings. He was to meet a client, a special client, to be sure. A client of questionable credibility though.

Her name was Cassandra St. Clair. The name exuded sensuality, he decided. No country bumpkin with a name like Cassandra. No, this was a refined lady of class. He’d checked out her background. She’d been an orphan raised at the Tyler Mission near Fort Tyler. Father Samuel at the mission hadn’t been forthcoming with any more information concerning the girl, only that she’d gone to school at St. Mary’s School for Girls in New Orleans, graduating several years ago before staying to teach. He did learn she had a benevolent benefactor who provided her with a monthly check.

She’d contacted Charles asking him to locate her birth father, Earl Loflin. The task hadn’t been hard at all. Charles considered Earl his mentor, and surrogate family. He’d saved Charles from jail and the gallows years ago. Insisting he go away to West Point with his son, Seth, Charles had gotten an education before becoming an attorney.

His decision to take on her request personally instead of handing it over to a private investigator centered on the reason Miss St. Clair wanted to find her father. He couldn’t say with all honesty he trusted the woman or her motives. Earl Loflin owned more than half of Smith County. She needed to prove to him without a doubt she was who she claimed to be. His interest pricked when he discovered she received regular visits from Maggie McCready and Jake Long, long time employees of Earl’s. Why hadn’t Father Samuel told him about their relationship with the girl? He searched the passengers again for the woman.

A female voice caught his attention. A delicate young thing in a blue traveling suit stepped off the noon stage from Shreveport. Charles’ heart jumped.

Her blond hair showed white in the sunlight. Her trim figure bordered on petite. Yes, a delicate little lady to be sure.

The Wells Fargo baggage handler tossed her bag in the dirt.

Only a moment passed before her mouth thinned in a tight line and she folded her arms across her chest. He thought he could hear her tapping her toe from his post across the street. The disbelief showed ripe on her face. Charles grinned around the cigar clamped between his teeth.

The prank was one the baggage handler used often, usually on the least suspecting passenger. The simple fellow found it amusing, he supposed. Laughing to himself, Charles tucked his thumbs in the watch pockets of his brocade vest. Smoke curled lazily upward in a spiral as misleading as his smile. If he wasn’t completely mistaken, this young thing was his client. The day was about to get interesting. She sashayed with a purpose up the steps of the Wells Fargo office. Any fool could see that. Rapping smartly on the ticket window, she turned slightly, pointing to her bags lying in the dust before glaring at the man atop the stage, and with another jab of her finger, proclaiming him the villain.

Watching the scene transpiring across the street, Charles had to agree with the idea he was lucky to be present. No one he was acquainted with could hold a candle to the fine boned, yet curvy blonde with the rosebud mouth, tiny waist and breasts which could fill a man’s hands nicely. Oh, yes, things were definitely looking up. He tugged at the bottom of his brocade vest before straightened his coat. With a quick smooth of his hair, he took a step off the board sidewalk before squinting left and then right, an old habit. One he wouldn’t lose anytime soon. The hand, resting comfortably on the revolver strapped to his right leg, checked, making sure the strap was off as he walked out into the street.

I said the baggage handler threw my bags on the ground. With a huff of frustration, she repeated her question. Did you hear me, sir? Her voice rang with irritation. Continuing to point toward the Wells Fargo employee, she did her best to get the ticket clerk to understand, she’d been rudely treated and demanded an apology. Her chin jutted. Emphasizing her displeasure, she glared at the bumpkin with her hands fisted on her hips.

Charles had to admit, she cast quite a sight standing there in the noonday sun.

Reminding himself to breathe, Charles stepped up to introduce himself. Pardon me, miss. With a tip of his dark Stetson, riding low across his forehead, Charles bent in a customary gentleman’s bow. When he straightened, he was assailed with the most angelic face he’d ever seen. Normally, he’d share his name and title with the potential conquest. However, he couldn’t get the words out. His throat had gone bone dry and he feared he might choke on his tongue.

The young woman acknowledged his presence with the slightest flicker of her cornflower blue eyes before stepping backward. She lost the support of the platform and started clutching at thin air. Since the platform rose several feet off the ground, her apprehension developed quickly. A panicked whimper of alarm erupted from her lush lips, as those lovely eyes grew wide in a plea for help.

Reacting on instinct, Charles’ hand shot out, grabbing her arm before hauling her in against his solid body.

Their eyes met under the shade of his Stetson. The blue in hers had shifted to stormy clouds of confusion and fear. A minute passed before she released the breath she’d been holding and shoved at his chest.

Easy, sweet thing. I’ve got you. Charles had found his tongue. However, he wasn’t sure about the hoarseness in his reply.

Do you mind, sir? Cool and crisp, the words coming from her lips sounded like music to his ears. Never had a songbird sounded sweeter.

It took Charles another minute to understand she’d been able to regain her footing and wanted him to let go. As if waking from a dream, Charles snapped to attention, each fiber in his frame aware of her proximity. My apologies, ma’am. Are you unharmed? Mentally shaking himself, he marveled at his stupidity. Unharmed? The only one not harmed was her. He’d been dealt a mortal blow. A smoldering heat radiated up from his toes all the way to the point on his chest where her breasts had slammed against him a few minutes ago. His gut clinched at the crystal clear glint in her eyes. At the moment, he wasn’t high on her list of respectable people.

I’d appreciate you unhanding me, sir.

He still held her wrist. Christ, she’d most likely have a bruise. Forgive me for startling you. It wasn’t my intention. I hope you’re all right. My name is—

I’m fine, she snapped. Sidestepping him, the young woman tried again to gather herself before heading back to the ticket window.

Dazed and confused, Charles seldom had that particular reaction to anything or anyone. This time being the exception. He’d try again. Surely, he could make amends for such a social blunder. Perhaps a meal at the hotel would smooth her ruffled feathers.

Turning, she came face to face with his wide shoulders. Pardon me, sir. I must retrieve my bags.

With his first two fingers on the brim of his hat, a gesture of gentlemanly politeness in this part of the world, he made the first move. Let me help you with those. Bending, he picked up her bags and with them secured, he turned to her. I’d like to make up for my breach in manners with the offer of a small repast at the local diner. He glanced in the direction of the Hotel Tyler, the only hotel in Tyler and one of only two eateries in town.

I… A mix of irritation mingled with confusion swept across her face. Smoothing her sleeve where his hand had wrinkled the fabric, she composed herself once more. I don’t eat with strangers. She shifted to gaze at the sidewalk where pedestrians strolled along.

How lame of me, miss. My name is Charles Harrison. I’m the attorney here in town. If he had trouble with something as simple as an introduction, why did he think he’d carry on a conversation with her?

Attorney? Mr. Harrison? She tilted her pretty head to the side. You’re the one I contacted about my father. Peering intently at him as if she could deduce the workings of his mind, she asked, Are you honest? The question, filled with pure innocence, could have come right out of thin air instead of her pink lips.

I try to be. The answer wasn’t a lie, he told his conscience. Arguably stretching the truth wasn’t a lie was it? You contacted me. I believe you said you were in need of legal assistance?

Her lush bottom lip protruded for an instant before she clamped her lips between her teeth. With a good shake of those lovely blonde curls, she sidestepped this time to avoid his close proximity. Yes. I wrote you earlier about my quest to find my father. She fanned the air with a tiny-gloved hand. Peering up at the sun beaming down on the hard packed Texas dirt, she wrinkled her nose.

He’d died and gone to Heaven. Never before in his thirty-one years had he witnessed a more perfect combination of innocence and sexuality in a woman. Where in God’s great kingdom had this woman come from?

The temperature must be rising. It was hot as Hell standing there in front of the Wells Fargo office. Here, let me get you out of this sun. You’ll melt. Extending a hand, he moved closer, resting his other hand in the small of her back. The contact vibrated along his arm before striking him in the chest with a force equal to any blow by a man’s fist. Such an itty-bitty woman at barely five feet, he mused. He was a good foot taller than she was. This way— Miss St. Clair, is it? He walked beside her, carrying her carpetbags. The color of her skin wouldn’t stand much of the sun. He’d wait until dusk to take her riding one evening in the near future. The sun wouldn’t be a problem at that time of day. He shook his head at the thought. Where had such an idea come from?

Miss St. Clair? Charles waited.

Uh, yes. Her eyes darted right and left.

Cassandra St. Clair. Each word garnered the same weight on his tongue. Your first time to visit Tyler? Knowing it wasn’t he practiced his brand of interrogation with the easy query. Charles opened the door to the Hotel Tyler, allowing Cassandra to go first. The lobby of the hotel was cool, the coolest place he’d been all day.

No.

Well, you’ve probably eaten here before. You may have sampled their famous pecan pie. Trying for a companionable smile, Charles escorted her toward the red ropes at the entrance to the restaurant located in the rear of the hotel lobby. I hope you like pie.

A booth along the back wall was a perfect place to ease into a conversation with an attractive young lady. Charles commended himself for having a talent when it came to the fairer sex. Apparently, he’d never seen the fairest until now. I don’t mean to be inquisitive, but are you passing through or staying?

When her cheeks flushed with his question, his toes curled in his boots. It depends. With eyes downcast, she toyed with her silverware. The napkin in her lap needed an adjustment as well.

Her jawline held a stubborn line he’d love to trace. Her eyes shined with expression yet she said nothing. This female ignited a fire he didn’t want to extinguish. But of course, your decision will depend on the outcome of your search. Do you have a place to stay?

I… A slow release of breath followed her broken reply. No, I don’t. Is the hotel a safe place for a woman?

Charles eased back in his chair. She’d struck a chord. He could definitely relate to the lack of family in his life. Thankfully, he’d had friends, good friends he could count on. Everyone needed someone they could count on. Let me say this. I have an opening for a secretary in my office. There’s a small cottage out back I rent. It’s vacant. You’d be welcome to stay there if you like.

Her lovely jaw tightened. She scooted to the edge of the seat, sliding her drawstring purse over her arm. I don’t need your charity, Mr. Harrison. I can take care of myself.

Wait a minute. He didn’t understand why he wanted her to say yes, just that if she didn’t, he’d have to kidnap her. It’s not charity if I’m offering you a job. He moved to the edge of his side as well. Don’t you plan on working? Aggravated he sounded like a parent, he tried again. I mean, you’ll need to support yourself. A secretary’s a respectable position.

She stalled out within two steps before turning slowly, as if she were mulling the offer over in her head. What does it pay?

With a smile, he rose, giving her arm an easy tug back to the table. Well, let’s see. The last secretary said I was too stingy with her rate. How does a dollar a day sound?

Those hypnotic blue eyes widened to pools of lapis blue. A dollar a day? You must do quite well. Are you the only attorney in town?

He couldn’t stop the laugh which broke the silence. I am. Do you suppose the fact has anything to do with my success? Grinning despite himself, he motioned for the waiter to order.

***

Casey berated herself. She could have come up with a better excuse when Mr. Harrison approached her at the stage office. Her mind hadn’t clearly planned out what to say to anyone such a short time after arriving. She needed to get her bearings. Hoping she didn’t run into Earl Loflin was as far as she’d gotten. Oh, she’d practiced her first visit with her father, Earl Loflin, time and time again. Still, Charles Harrison hadn’t been on her mind then. He was now.

She’d never met anyone like him. True, she’d led a sheltered life under the care of Father Samuel at the Tyler orphanage, followed by Father Lorenzo at St.