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Main Street, Fort Worth
Friday, January 1876
Snow whirled in the cold dawn air as the town seemed to come alive like a sleeping giant who’d given up bathing for the winter. Cook fires and coal smoke blended amid the smell of garbage and too many people crammed together. A good three-day rain wouldn’t whitewash this place enough to make it presentable, Rose McMurray thought as she stepped from the rented carriage and fought to keep from covering her mouth. She noticed shadows of people scurrying like rats down the walks and wagons fighting their way through the traffic. The movements of horses and carts didn’t frighten her; she’d survived the train and the night.
“This is it, miss. The best hotel in town. The Grand,” the driver yelled, but didn’t move to help her down. “Point the doorman in my direction and I’ll see he gets your luggage.”
“Thank you,” Rose managed to say, although she wasn’t sure for what. The ride was barely tolerable and she had no doubt she could have handled the team with far more skill; after all, her family owned a horse ranch.
Reaching into her glove, she pulled out the amount they’d agreed on for the fare plus two bits for a tip.
When the driver took the money, he lost his grip on the horses, and the carriage jolted forward a few feet.
Rose tumbled off the step almost falling in the mud as she fought to keep her balance with a bag in one hand and her hat in the other. Her skirts snagged on the rough board of a carriage step, catching the lace of her petticoat between splinters and nails.
The driver held the team but offered no help.
Rose tugged on the lace as people swirled around her. Fear threatened to consume her as it had in the night.
Five, maybe six, steps and she could be inside the hotel. She’d be safe. She moved the bothersome hat to join her carpetbag, not daring to set either down in the street, but even with one free hand, the lace wouldn’t give.
She hated traveling. No matter how well she planned, there was always the unexpected. Big towns like Fort Worth reminded her of her childhood years in Chicago. She remembered swearing she’d never go anywhere by herself, and with her huge family she’d thought she’d be able to keep that promise . . . until now.
She’d come alone, on a mission that made no sense. Yet she’d come, fighting down reason and fear because her friend had sent word that she needed Rose. After weighing the risk, an overnight train ride, and a dawn carriage ride to the hotel, she’d come to help.
Only she hadn’t planned to be tethered to a carriage step in the middle of the Main Street.
Glancing at the hotel door, she tugged again. She took a deep breath, reminding herself that this was in the middle of town and she was not facing down gunfighters or being lost in a stampede. The people almost bumping into her as they passed weren’t even noticing her; they were only rushing to work.
The driver yelled, “Hurry up, lady, I ain’t got all day.”
Rose froze as several people turned her direction. Strangers were staring, some smiling, some laughing, a few looking as if they were sorry they didn’t have time to stop and help. She felt like she’d been tossed in a river and was about to drown if she didn’t act fast.
“May I be of assistance, miss?” a tall stranger in black asked in a tone that seemed more bothered than willing.
Rose detested even the thought that she might be in need of help. She was always the one people turned to on the ranch. “No thank you, sir,” she said without really looking at him. With a firm jerk she felt the lace rip. “I can manage on my own.”
The lace gave and she tumbled backward, finally free but off balance.
The tall stranger’s arm went around her, breaking her fall before she hit the mud. “Careful now, miss,” he said calmly as if her tumbling were an ordinary event in his day.
Rose straightened and pulled away. “I’m fine.”
The stranger tipped his hat and grinned. “I can see that. My mistake to have even attempted aid.”
As if by instinct, he offered his hand to assist her from the street to the walk, but Rose ignored it as she pulled her bag and hat close and rushed for the hotel entrance.
When she reached the huge double doors, she turned feeling obligated to thank him for his help.
Hard gray eyes stared at her a moment before he disappeared into the crowd. Winter eyes, as frosty as the day.
He’d been handsome in a cold kind of way and maybe a bit offended that she hadn’t accepted his help or even thanked him. She was surprised to see such a gentleman in this wild, untamed town. In the menagerie of people, he didn’t seem to fit in somehow. Too clean, too polished.
“May I take your bag?” The doorman reached for her luggage as he touched the brim of his hat.
Rose slipped her carpetbag to her other hand and frowned. “No, thank you, but I’ve a trunk you might pick up before the driver leaves.”
The doorman nodded and waved his gloved hand toward a younger man waiting in the corner. “Of course, miss. You’ll be staying with us then?”
“I’m expected.” Rose walked through the door he held open wide. “I’m with the Chamberlain wedding party.”
The doorman raised an eyebrow. Rose wondered if he’d met the bride, Victoria Chamberlain, and pitied anyone arriving for her wedding. Tori, as Rose and her sister Emily called Victoria, was her own brand of complicated. She’d sent a telegram to Whispering Mountain twenty-four hours ago sounding near panic.
One week until the wedding and big problem. Come quickly. I may not live to wed.
Rose was the only one able, or maybe willing, among the McMurrays to answer the cry for help. She’d tried her best to talk everyone on the ranch into coming with her, but no one felt at twenty-five she needed a companion. Her father insisted she take extra cash. Her mother gave her advice and her best hat, and her uncle, the Texas Ranger, gave her a gun that fit nicely in a hidden pocket of her skirt. They all knew Tori and had decided years ago that Victoria’s crying wolf was more a theme song to her life than any real alarm.
Rose started to question her judgment as she signed in at the desk while the doorman headed upstairs with her trunk. She couldn’t help but wonder what Tori had gotten herself into now. At school, crisis followed her like an echo.
Though they’d been roommates in finishing school, she hadn’t seen Victoria but once since graduation. Rose had been excited to bump into her in Austin at the Governor’s Ball year before last. At twenty-three they might have been much changed from the girls of sixteen, but the friendship was still there. They’d chatted during the ball, loving the closeness between them that remained intact.
Rose remembered being surprised when few men asked Tori to dance. She’d even made her cousin Duncan dance with her friend, but neither looked like they enjoyed the one waltz.
It seemed Victoria Chamberlain, always a beauty, had become polished glass. Men admired her as though she were a painting and not a person. Her friend looked sad even while dressed in the newest fashions.
They parted that night, promising to write, and had every month since the ball, but Tori’s letters grew formal, without the warmth Rose felt when they’d talked face-to-face. Something was wrong. Rose felt it in the letters. Tori was lonely, so lonely she may have rushed into first an engagement and now a marriage.
Rose had been shocked last month to get a wedding invitation. Tori claimed that since Rose was her closest friend, her husband-to-be, August Myers, had agreed to one bridesmaid and, of course, one wedding guest to attend with her. Tori went on to explain how they wanted to keep the wedding small.
So, here Rose was in the grandest hotel in Fort Worth a week before the wedding. Rose was a person of order. Emergencies bothered her. Worry seemed the constant side dish to her life, and with friends like Tori and cousins like Duncan McMurray, the servings were large.
The hotel clerk made Rose jump as he read her signature on the ledger and rushed around the desk. “You’re Miss McMurray? The major told us to expect you early this morning. We have your rooms ready.”
Exhaustion tightened her shoulders as she climbed the stairs. She hadn’t slept on the train. If she calculated correctly, she’d been up twenty-seven hours. Maybe that would explain why she was so on edge. She was no longer a child; big cities and strangers shouldn’t frighten her.
“Your suite of rooms is on the left, Miss McMurray, with a connecting door to Miss Chamberlain’s suite off the sitting room.” The clerk rushed ahead to unlock the door. “Miss Chamberlain’s maid instructed me to tell you her mistress should be back by lunch. She’s at fittings this morning, but the maid is pressing your bridesmaid’s dress for your fitting this afternoon. She said she’d bring it up before Miss Chamberlain and her father, the major, get back.” He leaned forward slightly as if whispering a secret. “All they’ve done since they arrived two days ago is shop.”
Rose let out a long breath and felt the weight of the Colt in her pocket for the first time. It seemed Tori was in no immediate danger other than being gossiped about by the staff. If her father were with her, Tori couldn’t be suffering any pain . . . other than being talked to death. The major’s two favorite pastimes were spoiling his only child and rattling on about politics.
Rose almost laughed. She’d wasted hours trying to imagine what might be the problem that had prompted the telegram. Maybe it was nothing more than wedding jitters.
The clerk opened the door and waved her inside as if the small orderly rooms were a grand palace. “You see, you’ll share a lovely seating room facing our balcony. Your bedroom, a bathing chamber, and a maid’s quarters are just beyond that door. The second-floor balconies on this side overlook the gardens and are considered our jewel among—”
“I’m sure I’ll love them. Thank you.” Rose smiled but closed the door giving him no more time to talk. All she wanted to do right now was wash up and sleep until lunch.
Tossing the hat on the arm of the nearest chair, she removed her traveling coat as she stepped into the bedroom. She pulled the Colt from the hidden pocket and deposited it on the dresser, then unfastened her heavy wool traveling skirt and let it fall. The world was getting far too civilized to worry about train robberies these days. The small gun in her purse should be enough; after all, it was 1876.
As she tugged the pins from her hair and let the midnight curls free, she caught her reflection in a ceiling-high mirror.
The long leather-covered legs of a man resting on the bed behind her made her jump for the Colt.
“Before you get any more undressed, maybe I should say hello?” a deep voice said as the cowboy leaned forward until she could see his face. “I don’t think cousins are supposed to see much more of each other.”
For a second, Rose considered lifting the Colt and firing. She could claim she hadn’t recognized him before she shot. But reason won. “What are you doing here, Duncan?”
“Watching you strip. Please, now you know I’m family, continue.” He might be considered good-looking by most, but she’d always thought his grin a bit wicked. His curly brown hair never had any order and his blue eyes seemed to smile even when they were fighting.
“You need a haircut and a shave.”
“You, on the other hand”—he winked—“look perfect, dear cousin Rose, as always.”
“We’re not kin, so drop the ‘cousin’ bit,” she demanded. “I’m a McMurray because my mother married into the clan when I was five and you were found in an outlaw camp and brought home wild as a bear cub. We may be in the same family, but there is no way we are related.” He’d pestered her since the day she first saw him, and two decades later she was still mad at him. His last attempt to marry her off had almost driven her to drink before the suitor Duncan sent finally gave up courting her and left.
Duncan shrugged as if he’d read her thoughts. “Don’t blame me for Weathers; I thought he was a count.”
She glared at him, then grinned. “I’m not sure he could count. But you, Duncan, didn’t even check. You just sent him to meet me.”
“I’m sorry,” Duncan said with little remorse. “I’ll do a better job next time.”
“Forget it. I don’t want a next time. Stop playing matchmaker.”
He nodded, but she doubted he’d stop. All the McMurray men were stubborn. He might not have been born to the name, but he’d been absorbed into the family.
“I still wouldn’t mind watching you undress.” He changed the subject. “Come on, Rose, in twenty years I’ve never seen one of you girls without layers of clothes on. Hell, Martha, that old witch of a housekeeper, permanently dented my head once for even trying to look in on you bathing.”
She fought down a smile, remembering how Duncan used to fight baths when he was little. He’d slip from his clothes when his adopted mother tried to bathe him and run around sometimes for hours before one of the McMurrays caught him and dropped him in a tub. “I’m afraid I can’t say the same about you. I can smell the trail dust from here.”
He leaned back on the bed and crossed his boots as if he wasn’t listening. “How about we both compromise and take off all our clothes. Then I’m willing to call it even.”
“Get your boots off my clean bed, Duck.” She used the name they’d called him as a boy just to irritate him. No one but his mother had been permitted to call him that since he was ten and had been told by Rose that it wasn’t a proper name for a boy. “What are you doing in Fort Worth or, more accurately, in my bedroom?” She knew asking how he got in would be a waste of time. She’d learned a long time ago that if a squirrel could slip inside a place, so could Duncan McMurray.
“I’m waiting for you. I heard you were heading to Cowtown. Emily wrote and told me how you got pushed into coming to this wedding and how everyone back home begged off on tagging along. I was in Dallas delivering two outlaw brothers to the sheriff when I got a telegram from your dad telling me to check on you. So I rode most the night to get here. Just because no one wants to be around Victoria doesn’t mean they’re not worried about you. That crazy friend of yours is her own kind of strange.”
She walked to the edge of the bed. “You’re checking up on me before I even have time to get into trouble.”
He met her eyes and as always Rose guessed that he knew of the fears she tried so hard to hide. He might have been a pest, but she remembered once when they were in the second grade, she’d refused to go into the crowded schoolhouse for a program. When she’d claimed she was sick, Duncan had sat in the wagon with her. He hadn’t said a word. He’d just kept her company. They’d wrapped in a quilt until everyone came back.
Rose didn’t argue with him now. He was probably right about Tori. The whole family met Victoria Chamberlain one summer when she visited the ranch while Rose and Emily were in their second year of finishing school. Down to the dog, they all hated Victoria. She was spoiled, whiny, and demanding. She wanted her breakfast specially made twenty minutes after she awoke. She never picked up anything or offered to help. At fifteen, she thought she was a queen, but when Victoria told Duncan to wipe the sweat off his horse because she didn’t want to look at it, Duncan swore he’d never speak to her again.
“I don’t need any help.” Rose sat down on the other side of the bed and tugged off her boots. “I’m sure Tori was just overreacting when she sent the telegram begging me to come early. But if you really want to help, you could always go to the wedding with me. She said I could have a guest.”
“No way, Rose, and don’t bother trying to talk me into it.” He pulled off his boots. “I may be tired, but I’ll be dead before I ever agree to be in the same room with that woman. That time you made me dance with her, I politely bowed and asked if I might have the honor again sometime. Hell, I was just being nice. She gave me her usual ‘drop dead’ look and said, ‘Not in this lifetime,’ like I’d asked for her hand.”
Giggling, Rose whispered, “Don’t tell me someone finally turned down the handsome Ranger McMurray. I thought you always got the girl. Some say you’ve broken the hearts of half the unmarried women in Austin.”
He thought about it a moment and whispered back, “I haven’t had time to break any hearts in Austin or anywhere else. As far as her turning me down, I might have been hurt if I’d cared one way or the other. I swear, I can’t believe she found one man to marry, even a braggart like August Myers.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Rose leaned against the pillows.
“Nothing, according to Victoria’s father. They’re made from the same muddy cloth, if you ask me. Southerners who don’t think the war is over and plan to bore everyone else alive in the South with their theories about how it will rise again any minute.”
Rose closed her eyes, for once too tired to pester him. “Tell me about the outlaws you caught this time, Duncan.”
He settled his shoulder against hers. “Jeb and Owen Tanner are half Comanche and half German, or so the story goes. Neither race will claim them. Some say they have no idea who their old man was, only that he tanned hides during the days of the buffalo hunts. Hauling them from Waco to Dallas was like trying to march rabid squirrels through quicksand.”
“What did they do wrong?”
“Everything. Train robbing is their favorite target, but they’ll do anything to get money. I swear I should have just shot them when I first saw them. They were arguing over a pair of boots they’d just pulled off a gunfighter before the doc had time to pronounce him dead. I would have probably never caught them if they hadn’t been busy trying to kill each other and all their gang were making bets on which one would survive.”
Duncan kept talking, reliving every dumb thing the Tanner brothers had said. Finally, he swore and added, “I was with a band of rangers who almost caught the gang once. We lost two good men and the Tanners lost a brother in the fight. Soon after that the gang started pulling jobs that took some brains to plan. The two left alive are too dumb to stop a drunk duck, much less a train, so they’re getting advice from somewhere.” Duncan absently played with one curl of her hair. “I asked Jeb if he could read and he answered, ‘What for?’”
Just before Rose dozed off, she heard him say that he knew a driver who’d take her anywhere she needed to go while she was in Fort Worth. He promised to check on her every time he got the chance.
“Promise me,” Duncan said as he bumped her shoulder lightly. “Promise me you won’t leave the hotel without the driver. I don’t trust any of the hack drivers in this town. The guy I picked has never let a ranger down. He’ll watch over you.”
“I promise,” she said as she relaxed into sleep.