Book 4: Cahill Cowboys, Texas Finest
Harlequin Historical #1075
Available in print and e-book.
Bounty hunter Chance Cahill blows into town like tumbleweed, a rootless drifter with danger written all over him. For this man doesn't care whether he lives or dies. It's what makes him so fearless—and so deadly.
Ellie Jenkins, plain as brown paper, is determined to marry for love. It's only when she comes face-to-face with childhood friend Chance that she realizes what she's been waiting for.
But then Ellie sees the empty look behind his eyes, and she knows that to win this cowboy's heart will take a risk so big it may destroy them both.…
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"Four Stars: Kernan brings the last Cahill brother home to find love — and the solution to a mystery that holds the series together."
RT Book Review
"Great conclusionto the series."
Susan Franks, GoodReads
"I had a very hard time putting this book down. I can't wait to read more!"
Ruth Smithson, GoodReads
"If you’re looking for a quick, fast-paced read I would definitely add this one to your list."
Kim Denny-Ryder’s, Reflections of a Book Addict
Chance Cahill arrived in Cahill Crossing by rail on the second Friday of October, dirty and sorer than he’d ever been from riding. He wondered if his horse had fared better as he stared out the passenger car window at the familiar landscape not realizing until now he’d missed the green rolling hills of his boyhood home. It was strange to ride through the 4C in a passenger car.
The engine slowed and Chance peered at the town that had arisen where once there had been only ropes and stakes.
The very first building he spotted was three-stories tall with a sign above the porch roof reading: LEANNA’S PLACE, all capital letters.
Chance smiled. He’d found his little sister without even getting off the train. The locomotive rolled slowly past a string of impressive new businesses lining the tracks, blasting steam across the platform. Beyond the gaming hall stood Sutler’s general store, then a boutique, a bakery, Steven’s Restaurant and then the biggest damned hotel he’d seen since Dodge City.
THE CHATEAU ROYAL, said the sign in flowing gilded script. He gave a low whistle. Things sure had changed.
He disembarked, checked on Rip, paying the porter to take his horse to the livery. Then he stepped along the new planks which still smelled of sawdust and into the hotel, pausing to stare at the glittering interior, taking in the huge crystal chandelier, sweeping staircase, opulent furnishings set before a fireplace upon a large oriental rug. Generally you had to be in a high class whorehouse to see this much flash.
But why was it so empty?
The answer came an instant later when a gunshot cracked somewhere beyond the grand staircase.
Chance drew both pistols and stepped into the lobby. A thin man in a black suit and dark hair slicked to his head cowered behind one of the red velvet sofas. To the left was a reception desk behind which crouched another man with a brown mustache and goatee, raised pistol and a nervous expression. He glanced toward Chance revealing the silver star pinned on the front of his hat band. It made a fine target.
He turned to the man behind the sofa.
“What’s going on?”
“A gambler’s trying to kill his wife.”
"Where’s Bowie?” His older brother was now Marshall and should be handling gunplay.
“He’s not back yet. But Glen Whitaker’s pinned by the stairs.”
“That his deputy?”
The man nodded. “The gambler is shooting at anything that moves.”
Chance made it to the deputy without another shot fired, but he heard someone pounding on a door.
“Whitaker! His wife still alive?”
“Don’t know. Ellie Jenkins locked them in a room and he can’t get at them.”
Ellie Jenkins was Leanna’s best friend.
Chance recalled a girl in pigtails tied with yellow ribbons. She’d lived in Wolf Grove with her folks in the hotel they owned, but spent a lot of time at the 4C with Leanna over the years. Chance didn’t mind Leanna’s company, but he cleared out when there were other females about. Except for Ellie. That girl interested him. When Ellie was around, she and Leanna could disappear in broad daylight and he never could find them unless they wanted to be found. She didn’t seem a stupid girl but locking yourself in a room with a woman whose husband is bent on murder didn’t seem wise.
Chance made it to the stairs, peering through the gaps in the balusters seeing nothing.
“Don’t go up there,” whispered Whitaker as he flopped his empty hand at Chance.
Chance ignored him and headed around the newel post and up the stairs two at a time, guns out, chin down. Someone fired a shot from the dark hallway above. Chance started shooting, aiming for the barrel flash. Someone yelped and then ran. Chance pursued, running now.
The gunman must have knocked out every lamp on the floor and drawn the heavy curtains over the window at the end of the hall. A beam of light knifed between the two drapes sending a ray across one wall. Chance searched for the shooter as his eyes tried to adjust to the gloom.
Next came the sound of splintering wood as a door crashed open and light spilled into the hall.
Two women screamed.
The gambler had reached his target. Chance ran down the hall and into the room.
He took in the scene at a glance. There stood a beefy man holding a Colt repeater aimed at Chance and a derringer aimed at the two women huddled in the corner of the room. If he shot the gambler, the man might still pull the trigger as he fell.
His gaze flicked to the women. The braver was small but slim as a willow branch, wearing an ordinary navy blue skirt with a small fitted jacket. Her white starched blouse had an unfortunate cascade of ruffles that tumbled like a waterfall down the front of her bodice, completely obscuring her shape. Her dark brown hair was gathered in a functional little bun that made her neck look long and slim. Chance stared into big hazel eyes. Ellie? The other woman cowered, behind her, clinging and shivering in a fitted pink jacket, matching skirt and a hat rimmed with ostrich feathers dyed to match. She looked like an entertainer. His gaze flicked back to the husband.
Chance stepped forward.
“She cheated on me,” he said.
Chance looked past the barrel of the raised pistol leveled at his guts to the man who stood no more than eighteen inches away. “Don’t care.”
“Another step and I’ll shoot.”
Would he? He was sweating like a long distance runner.
“You gonna shoot me? Then aim here.” Chance tapped his chest with one of his pistols. “Not my guts. I can still kill you with a belly wound.”
Ellie gasped. He didn’t look at her.
The man’s hands shook like an old drunk on Sunday morning. “I got no quarrel with you, Mister. Clear out, now.”
Chance shook his head, waiting for the bullet. Waiting for the peace that would come afterward. But the shooter swung both weapons toward the women.
Chance fired. The bullet passed through the man’s forehead and out the back, leaving a hell of a mess on the bed coverlet and rug. He crumpled to the ground as the wife started screaming.
“Bobby!” She fell across his chest, then glared at Chance. “You killed him!”
“You’re welcome,” said Chance. He turned toward the hall. “Deputy! Come up.”
Ellie stepped forward as Chance holstered his gun. Her brow descended over her hazel eyes. She looked different than he recalled. Taller certainly, and the sunlight pouring in the open window gave her brown hair a reddish cast. Her upper lip was full and the corners of her mouth tipped down in disapproval. Likely he’d catch hell over the blood and such.
“Chance?” she whispered.
He nodded, holstering his repeaters, surprised she could recognize him under the dust and stubble.
“Oh, Chance!” She threw herself into his arms.
Now this was more like it. He tucked Ellie close, feeling her curves pressed to him as he held her tight. She clutched the lapel of his rumbled duster and made a choking sound. His hand swept down the velvet of her nape and down her narrow back, feeling a wellspring of unexpected tenderness for the woman who was his sister’s best friend. What was happening here?
Ellie straightened and her hazel eyes narrowed as she stepped back. Chance didn’t want to let her go but he did.
“That was a crazy thing to do.”
Why had he expected thanks?
“No crazier than locking yourself in here. Why didn’t you head the other way?”
She raised her chin. “Why didn’t you?”
The corner of his mouth twitched. He still liked her. She had more spunk than he recalled and was a damn sight prettier. Her pale skin positively glowed in the sunlight, revealing the lovely pink dusting her cheekbones.
“Sorry about the carpet.”
Footsteps sounded in the hall. A moment later Bowie cleared the doorway, pistol drawn, looking mean and deadly as hell.
Chance raised his hands. Bowie holstered his weapon.
“Hells bells, Chance.”
“Nice to see you, too, big brother.”
Bowie’s clear blue eyes flicked about the room and settled on Ellie. “You two all right?”
The woman on the floor wailed. “He killed my Bobby.”
“What took you so long?” asked Chance.
“Drowning upriver. The tanner’s little girl. They’re bringing her into town now.”
Ellie gave a startled cry at this.
Bowie’s nod confirmed it. Chance knew the family. They’d lived on the river as long as he could recall.
“That’s a pity,” he said.
“Get Ellie out of here. But don’t go far. I got to talk to you,” ordered Bowie.
Chance frowned. Mostly his older brothers talked at him, not to him. Seemed nothing had changed in that regard.
Chance motioned to Ellie. She preceded him out of the room, turning toward the windows and drawing back the thick velvet draperies. He waited, they walked side by side down the empty hallway.
“Welcome home, Chance,” Ellie murmured.
He nodded, thinking about hugging her again.
“I’ve heard you’re a bounty hunter and that you’ve killed over a dozen outlaws.”
Chance said nothing to this. Did the number impress her or sicken her?
“But not one person mentioned you had a death wish.”
Chance drew up short. Ellie halted beside him regarding him with a disconcerting fixed stare. It took him a moment to mask his surprise.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I saw you back there, Chance Cahill. Are you trying to kill yourself?”
He gave her a look that made grown men run, but she continued to stare, her thin brows now descending low over her eyes. This was Ellie, and she knew him or had known him back when he was another person. The little spitfire didn’t retreat. Instead, she stood toe to toe and lifted her chin in a defiant attitude. If a man looked at him like that, he’d knock him down. As it was he’d a good mind to kiss her, just to teach her a lesson.
“Why do you care?”
“Your mother would roll right over in her grave if she saw what you pulled in there. You were going to let that man shoot you.”
He folded his arms across his chest. “What do you want me to say, that sometimes I think about it? Well, I do. Now get out of my way, Ellen Louise, or I swear you’ll be sorry.”
Her jaw dropped open, though whether from the threat or what he had said before that, he wasn’t certain. He left her there, wondering what possessed him to tell her the truth. And why was it that Ellen Jenkins was the only one who had noticed that he no longer cared if he lived or died?
Her voice followed him. “What’s happened to you?”
He kept walking.
Ellie descended the stairs on legs that suddenly felt wobbly and found Chance Cahill already gone and her father speaking to the deputy. He left Glen Whitaker to meet her as she reached the bottom step. Oscar Jenkins had once been the best of the Confederacy’s blockade runners, and was thin and tough, with deep brown eyes now filled with concern for his daughter. Ellie threw herself into his strong arms.
She had expected her father to rescue her, and was holding out until he could return from his morning business at the bank. But Chance had gotten there first.
“Ya’ll right, Buttercup?” He gathered her in.
“Chance all right?”
“He killed Mr. Rogers.”
Her father tucked her under his arm and headed toward his office. “I hear Mr. Rogers killed himself when he decided to draw a gun at the Royale. I owe that boy my thanks.”
“Mr. Rogers thought Mrs. Rogers was cheating on him,” said Ellie.
“You always know what’s going on here, don’t you? I’ve said before that you would have made a fine spy for the Confederacy.” Did that mean her father also thought her plain enough to blend into the background?
“You could have slipped through enemy lines with a thousand vials of morphine sewn into your petticoats and not a one of those Yankee boys would have lifted an eyebrow.”
“Or a skirt?”
Oscar chuckled. Ellie liked the sound of his laugh; it was as comforting as rain against her window pane.
“Papa, is that just a nice way of saying I’m invisible, just like mother always says.”
Oscar stopped abruptly. “No, Ellie, that’s not so. Being quiet and observant, that’s not the same as disappearing. I figure you just haven’t met anyone yet who makes you want to step into center stage.”
Her mother, Minnie, emerged like a prairie dog from her burrow.
“Is it safe?” she whispered.
Oscar nodded. “Chance Cahill disarmed him, Minnie.”
It did not escape Ellie that her father had omitted telling his wife that Chance had shot a man in her establishment. He often did this kind of half-truths, but Ellie was sure that her mother would get to the bottom of the matter right down to the last bullet hole in her new wallpaper.
Oscar left Ellie to comfort his wife.
“A shooting at our hotel. I just can’t believe it.” Her mother’s eyes welled up.
“Minnie, darling, he just rescued a woman right here in our place. Don’t you think that will be good for business?”
Ellie stepped back, silent as the furniture. Just two more steps and she’d be out of sight and mind. She had a feeling that when word got out about the shooting, they’d have many more patrons in her restaurant and she needed to rally the kitchen staff and escape her parents.
“Shooting, good for business?” cried her mother. “Honestly, Oscar, you have absolutely…” Minnie stared at Ellie.
“What’s that on your face?”
Ellie lifted a hand and rubbed it over her cheek. When she pulled it back she found a tiny smear of crimson on her index finger. Her stomach gave a lurch. Her father took hold of her elbow and steered her toward the kitchens.
“Is that blood?” cried Minnie.
She followed them into the kitchen where Oscar offered Ellie a wet towel and the following words in a hushed voice, “Don’t you faint, now. It will frighten your mother.”
Ellie’s mouth suddenly began to fill with saliva and she knew she would not faint because she was going to be ill.
She dashed outside and made it only as far as the back porch before losing what remained of her breakfast. Her mother’s raised voice followed her. Ellie used the wet cloth to bathe her hot face and lifted her chin to the cool breeze.
Ellie stilled. No. No. Please let that not be Chance Cahill out there in the yard, by the wood pile. But it was and he’d clearly witnessed her humiliation. He stepped into view and she descended the stairs to meet him, still holding the cloth to her burning cheeks.
He looked dangerous, dark and forbidding. She had to remind herself that this was Chance, a man she’d known her whole life.
“Seeing a man killed does that to a lot of folks. Surprised you lasted this long.”
“I’ll have you know I have had a stomach ailment since yesterday.”
A grin teased at the corner of his sensual mouth and his blue eyes sparkled like sunlight on a lake. “You’re a pretty fair liar, Ellie Jenkins.”
She stood gawking like the school girl she no longer was. Something about Chance always made her pulse jump and the inside of her belly quiver like minnows in a bucket. Was it his clear blue eyes or that bad boy smile? She dropped her gaze and discovered her mistake. The man wore no kerchief, perhaps because he no longer drove cattle and so she stared at the healthy bronze skin at this throat and the crisp black hairs at the v of his shirt.
She had known Chance Cahill for many years, yet just now they felt like strangers. His name wasn’t really Chance. It was Earl, but no one called him that. He’d been named after his father. Chance was a nickname given to him by his ma after the doctor told her that this little baby boy didn’t have much of a chance of living. He’d proved that doc all wrong, growing tall and straight as a corn stalk. Too strong to die, but now he didn’t seem to want to live. It troubled her greatly. She cared about him, even if she scarcely crossed his mind.
When she’d visited the ranch, he paid her as much attention as Quin and Bowie, which is to say, none at all.
But she had noticed him. It was hard to ignore eyes that blue, or a mouth that sensual. His beard now covered the cleft in his chin, but it was there, she recalled it. He moved closer and then placed a dusty boot on the woodpile, looking down at her with those crystal clear eyes. Her stomach gave a jump and quiver that she hadn’t felt since the last time he’d stared at her years ago. Then as now, she’d fought to keep from making an utter fool of herself before him. And now he’d seen her throw-up. Her cheeks burned clear up to her tingling ears. Ellie twisted the damn cloth in her hands in frustration.
“You’re face is flushed,” he said.
She decided her best course was to run him off and the easiest way to do that was to pepper him with questions. That strategy had generally worked in the past on more than one occasion.
“Why are you out here?”
“Hiding from Bowie.”
“You’re not afraid of him. Are you?”
“I’m not afraid of radishes, either. Just know they give me a hives every time I get near them.”
She laughed at that. He could usually make her laugh if he tried. “Might be different after all this time.”
Chance grinned. “I just killed a man. Bowie is town marshal, so I guess he feels like shooting folks is his job. Expect he’d take offense.”
“You saved our lives, back there.”
He leaned his mouth a few inches from hers. “You want to show me your gratitude?”