Monday, December 12, 2011

Excerpt Monday - Perfect Strangers


BLURB   Lucy and Ambrose Quince share fiery passion in and out of bed; they love hard but fight often, both having opinions and tempers. But Lucy mysteriously disappears in 1874, leaving the Double-Q ranch and all she loves behind. Three years later, scarred in mind and body, Lucy is drawn back to Eclipse and the life she’s forgotten—including a snarling, lustful husband.

Although she claims she can’t remember him, Ambrose hasn’t forgotten a damned thing. Lucy left him and he owes her nothing. Trouble is—his heart remembers too, and Lucy’s the only woman who’ll ever own it.

They rode hard and silently. The stranger didn’t offer his name, and Lucy didn’t ask for it. It was sufficient to know that he was kin to her children and once, to her. She didn’t doubt that at all.

It was midmorning Friday by the time their exhausted mounts carried them into Eclipse, where the day’s entertainment had already begun. Folks were lining the streets—wagons and buckboards served as the gallery.

Lucy and her escort were behind the tightly packed crowd, too far from the gallows to reach it in time, but from horseback she had a clear view of the accused standing with the rope around his neck, feet planted defiantly, ready to swing.

Suddenly she locked gazes with the man about to be executed. Unsheathing the Winchester, Lucy hitched it to her shoulder and took aim.

Her new relative pulled his gun. “Put it away, lady. You’re not shooting anyone,” he warned her.

He had a choice—he could stop her with a bullet and let his brother strangle at the end of a rope or let her take her shot. She didn’t wait to discuss it. Steadying the rifle against her shoulder, Lucy sighted down the barrel and pulled the trigger.

Her bullet found the rope, cutting him loose at the same moment the hangman dropped the hatch. Ambrose Quince plummeted through the trapdoor, landing in a heap on the ground.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” her brother-in-law said, kneeing his horse into motion as Lucy chambered another round, following him through the gantlet of staring faces and the fifty guns trained on her. As they neared the law officials standing by the gallows, the expectant audience quieted, straining to hear the coming exchange. It wasn’t necessary. The sheriff cursed loud enough for all to hear.

“Goddammit, Ham, he’s been tried and found guilty. You didn’t have no call to cut him loose. That was a brand-new rope. Yer gonna pay for it and spend some time in jail for yer interference.”

Lucy paid no heed to the lawman, more interested in the man on the ground staggering to his feet. He was taller than his brother, with the same shaggy black hair and hard features. His picture hadn’t done him justice. He’d only looked stern before. Now he looked savage.

She nudged her horse toward the prisoner, ignoring the loud threats of the sheriff as he harangued. It was a bizarre occasion—her seated on her horse, pushing through the crowd toward an unknown man to whom she apparently was married.

Time hadn’t been kind since the photographer had captured Ambrose Quince’s likeness but when he turned his head and looked at her, she could see it was the same man she’d viewed in the tintype.

Lucy looked around for the children, being more interested in finding them than releasing the cold-eyed stranger she’d just saved. She could feel his eyes following her and like a magnet, her gaze returned to him. She was glad his hands were tied behind his back because even shackled as he was, his fingers opened and closed as though he wanted to strangle someone.

At the moment she had an uneasy feeling it might be her neck his fingers craved. As Lucy stared down at him he drawled, “It took you long enough to come home, Lucille.” Her name—Luseeaal—seemed stretched to ten syllables—hanging in the air between them, mocking her.

The sheriff’s curses piddled out as the crowd abandoned him, closing around her to hear her reply. The Winchester made an impressive noise as she chambered a round.

Leaning forward she asked, “Mr. Quince, where are my children?”

Ambrose looked surprised at the same time the sheriff said, “That ain’t Lucy Quince. It’s someone shammin’, pretending to be her.”

“Why would you say that, sheriff?” It wasn’t an accident when Lucy turned the rifle toward the words and left Ambrose standing, still bound.

The sheriff gulped, noticeably shocked when he faced the barrel of her Winchester. He dropped his hand from the gun he’d been reaching for and said, “Lucy Quince didn’t give a damn about her children when she was here, and if you’re who you say you are, you walked away from them without even a kiss my ass or goodbye. The Lucy Quince I knew wouldn’t have asked about her children.”

Lucy said, “I just hate it when a man tries to beat a woman down with words.” She pulled the trigger and shot a hole next to his foot. Dirt kicked up and splattered both him and her brother-in-law.

Ham didn’t even flinch but the sheriff stumbled back, swearing, “Jesus Christ, Lucy, they’re over in the wagon.” He’d given her children front-row seats.

If the sheriff hadn’t pointed at them, she wouldn’t have recognized them from the tintype. Three years was a lot of growing time for youngsters. Lucy added another count to the list of horrors committed against her. She’d lost time with her children.

She faced them from the back of her horse, suddenly devoid of the courage needed to climb down and stand before them.

The girl, who had neatly braided hair the same brown color as her mother’s, glared at Lucy from aquamarine eyes that matched her own. “You’re not my mama. Mama was a lady and she was beautiful. You’re not my mama. My mama’s dead.”

Lucy judged the little girl to be about eight years old. Her freckles stood out on her round cheeks and she trembled in shock, having just witnessed her father snatched from sure death.

The boy with his arm around her shoulders had changed just as much since his picture. Then he’d been stocky, baby chubbiness not quite melted away. In the picture he’d looked at his mother—at Lucy—with eyes of adoration.

Now, even sitting, she could tell that he’d grown taller, thinning down like his father. His hair was black and he pinned her with an accusing stare that screamed he’d never seen her before. But his words said different.

“No, Brody, she’s our mother all right. And now they can’t hang Pa because she’s alive.”

Lucy was satisfied to see her children had inherited her intelligence. Together, the kids stood up in the wagon and turned to the sheriff.

The little girl spoke first. “Sheriff Bailey, this is our mama. You need to turn loose our pa.” Quivering bottom lip or not, she delivered her order without hesitation.

Lucy turned her rifle and horse back toward the sheriff to lend her encouragement.

Ham had already cut their father free. Now Ambrose stood chafing the blood back into his hands, an almost smile curling his lip as he watched his children take on the law.

There was no doubt that he was grinding his teeth when his gaze swung to her. Curious, she returned his stare. In her other life, she’d apparently taken a predator to husband. Now she tightened her grip on the rifle, thankful for her Mondays of target practice.

He didn’t waste words but mounted the horse his brother led forward. Lucy didn’t know where home was, but the brothers made it clear she was accompanying them there. Her son handed his pa a hat that looked huge in the young boy’s hands but settled on top of Ambrose’s head with a firm fit.

Suddenly the sheriff took it upon himself to lecture and interrogate her. “Lucy Quince, you can’t just ride back into town and take up where you left off.”

She ignored him ’til he demanded, “Where have you been hiding?”

Lucy inexplicably hated the man so much she had to stop herself from shooting him. “That would be none of your business, Sheriff. I’ll take that up with those who need to know.” When the lawman tried to ease closer, she chambered another round, making no pretense about where she aimed.

He backed off fast, sputtering, “I’m the sheriff and you can’t threaten me.”

“I’m not threatening you. I’m telling you a fact. I don’t answer to any man who would sit children in a front-row seat to see their daddy get hanged no matter his crime. If it’s an elected official you are, these people should remember that and send you packing the next time they vote.”

Her finger itched on the trigger of the Winchester every time the miscreant opened his mouth. He took note of that and sidled away.

Unexpectedly, a man rushed from the bank as though he’d just realized he was missing something important. “Here now, here now, what’s this? What’s the holdup? Get on with things.”

Evidently the hanging wasn’t going fast enough to suit him since there were people blocking the bank entrance on what should have been a business day. When he saw her, he stopped in his tracks and backed up, white in the face. “Lucy?”

“Do you know me?” She edged her mount around to face him.

“Of course I know you. I’m the Eclipse Bank President, Stephen Pauley.” His self-important expression turned to doubt as he studied her.

Recognizing which threat was greater, Lucy shifted her rifle enough to keep it steady on the sheriff, dismissing the banker as unimportant. “It appears that people in Eclipse didn’t anticipate my arrival.”

Pauley shouldered his way closer ’til he stood next to her horse, looking up. “I’ll come out to the ranch when you get settled. We’ll talk when we don’t have an audience.” He nodded his head toward the children and the two Quince brothers.

She shook her head, not keeping her rebuff quiet. “If I have reason to need banking services, I know where you work.” Done talking, she backed Sheba to the buckboard, her rifle up and ready if anyone in the crowd decided to dispute the day’s outcome.

While Lucy had made herself the center of the spectacle, the brothers had readied to leave. Now Ambrose rode his horse next to her, nodded at his son and pulled his hat lower over his eyes. “Let’s get on home, Alex.”

The boy picked up the wagon reins and the Quince family set out, leaving the townsfolk to figure out if they were satisfied with the show they’d witnessed.

Lucy had plenty of time to think as she traveled with her silent escorts. Her almost-dead husband hadn’t said another word to her since his greeting, but he kept his horse jammed up close to hers, pushing at her every time she tried to slow down. Ham sectioned her off from the other side and the children bounced in the buckboard as everyone clipped along at a good pace.

She kept her arsenal handy, although she remained unafraid except when she felt the eyes of her children on her. She didn’t have any memory of them or their father. But whoever had knocked her around and disfigured her hadn’t stolen her wits.

First, she’d called herself Quincy Smith. She remembered adding the Smith because Roberta said she needed a last name. But from the time she’d started to mend, she’d had the word Quincy in her brain.

Second, if she’d had doubts before, seeing her daughter eliminated them. Brody was a miniature Lucy without the harsh overlay of life.

Frustration gnawed at Lucy when her memories remained hidden. She knew nothing more than what had happened in the three years since she’d come awake in Buffalo Creek.

Her face had been left untouched, as if her murderer wanted her identity known. The person or persons who had done that to her still remained undisclosed and nobody appeared interested in why or how she’d disappeared.

It occurred to her as she rode between the two grim ranchers that somebody in Eclipse was probably suffering from heart tremors about now. She’d risen and returned from the dead and it appeared her resurrection was an inconvenience for everyone except her family. It was odd to think of the two children and the hard-faced Quince man that way, but impossible to think otherwise.

The day was hot and lather from three horses flecked her skirts as the brothers kept her centered between them. It began to get irritating. After Lucy gave Ham a warning look, he put some distance between his horse and her mare.

Ambrose didn’t show the same respect. Finally, after he’d jammed against her leg for the third time, Lucy shook her boot loose from the stirrup on his side and waited for daylight to show between the horses. Then she lined up and let fly, catching his knee with a solid thump from her heel.

He glared at her but she didn’t care. It had felt good, as if she’d delivered a blow for past injustices. She was satisfied she’d made her point when he kept his distance the rest of the ride. When they reached an open gate that fronted a well-used dirt path, Lucy passed under the Double-Q sign mounted above the ranch yard entrance stoically. Here is where I’ll find the answers to who I am.

Ambrose dismounted and automatically turned to help Lucy from her horse. In former days she would have criticized him for ungentlemanly behavior had he not done so. Today she’d already stepped down and crossed the space separating her from the wagon.

Instead of heading for the house, she took hold of the harness and steadied the animal, waiting for Alex and Brody to climb out. No one thanked her and she didn’t look as though she expected it.

Brody hopped down and ran over to hug him hard, burying her face against his side for a moment. He lifted her high in his arms so she was eye level with him. “Guess the Quinces made it through another one together, Sugar Plum.” Then he caught sight of Lucy watching and set Brody to the ground.

“Take your mama to the house, Brody,” He turned to his son. “Alex, carry her satchel in for her.” Lucy remained outside the circle of conversation, listening as if she wasn’t being discussed.

“Where should I put her things?” Alex posed the question.

Brody answered vehemently, “She’s not sharing my room.”

Ambrose looked at his wife as the kids squabbled over where to put her. The heat of the day, his unexpected survival and the incredible reality of Lucy’s presence all contributed to a dizzy rush. His voice was gruffly hoarse, roughened by the squeeze of the rope earlier and the emotion that clogged his throat now. “Put her stuff where it belongs—in our room.”

Appearing disinterested in the discussion, Lucy studied the ranch yard as though she’d never seen the place before. But when Alex moved to take her satchel, she shook her head. “I need to rub down my mare and grain her.”

Ambrose wanted her in the house, suddenly anxious, as if she might disappear if he looked away. For all his control, he had to keep swallowing to wet his mouth before he could speak to her. “Go on in. I’ll see to the mare when I unhook the wagon.”

Rifle in hand, she silently followed their son into the house, taking time to look around at the weed-infested yard as she walked to the porch.

It did look a shade different from when she’d been here before. Her money had paid for the extras. The paint she’d insisted on covering the adobe block with was chipped and the once-red shutters were a rusty brown.

When they’d first married, he’d tried to explain that the Texas sun would steal the color and the wind and weather would sand away the paint, but Lucy had never been one to listen.

She’d come from back East and she had standards. If he’d heard that word once in his eight years of marriage he’d heard it a thousand times before she’d left. Standards.

There were more changes than a little paint. Her money had paid wages for the housekeeper and her money had bought the fancy cushions and covers on the furniture. Hell, her money had bought the furniture. He’d been land-poor and cattle-proud, and he still was.

When Lucy disappeared, Steve Pauley had been more than pleased to shut off the flow of cash from Lucy’s bank account. Without it, the house and kids had suffered. But they’d made it. At least as soon as we get this herd to market the Double-Q will be solvent again.


Becca Simone said...

Great cover. Great excerpt. Congrats on the new release. Wishing you many, many sales.


Gem Sivad said...

Thank you Becca. I hope readers will discover historical romance in the Old West via my series. If you decide to take the plunge, hope you enjoy.