by Rachel A Smith
||Western Historical Romance
Rachel A Smith
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Captain Jesse Rivers of the Texas Rangers put everything on the line, daring to court a woman divided from him by breeding, culture and fortune. She promised to wait for him and didn't. When she reappears sixteen years later, she refuses to answer Jesse's questions about the intervening years.
Elena de la Cruz loved her Texas Ranger captain enough to marry another man to save his life. Then she committed murder to save her own and her son's. When fortune leads her back to Jesse, how can she confess her crimes to a man who lives for justice? Especially when her son's life still hangs in the balance...
Jesse felt like he’d been pistol whipped, right between the eyes. The room whirled until he wasn’t sure whether he stood in the doorway between his own parlor and kitchen, or in a large, dim, echoing salon.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Elena’s lips quirked upward in a smile. It was one of her worst qualities, sorely lamented and fiercely discouraged by Tía Drusilla. Her wretched sense of humor found amusement in the most unlikely situations. Elena struggled to conceal it during those long ago afternoon calls, fearing he’d find it inappropriate and ill-bred.
And yet—she was no longer the innocent girl she had been. Widowhood brought one advantage: she needn’t bother with the pretense of
She allowed the smile to show, but kept her tone properly sober, as if answering an ordinary question. “I was hired as nurse and companion to Señora McKenzie for the next six months. Do you not recall, señor?”
“I recall,” Jesse growled. Hell, he recalled it all, in a dizzy flood of memory and old emotion.
The gut wrenching shock to his heart when he’d looked across the crowded street, catching the first shadowed glimpse of face and features, through a sheer, gauzy white veil.
The frantic scramble to stay abreast of the winding procession, shoving through the laughing, shouting throng lining the narrow thoroughfare. Determined not to lose sight of her, he struggled to keep up, asking everyone nearby in Spanish and English, both: whose daughter? Which house? Until someone—he didn’t even know who—answered with certainty.
The frustrating days when he stubbornly, repeatedly presented himself on the doorstep, hat in hand, only to be told again and again that el patrón was not at home.
The pounding terror of entering the elegant study at last. Standing before the massive desk, presenting his scant credentials for review, he’d held his breath after making his request, expecting to be laughed out of the room.
The weak-kneed relief that almost couldn’t comprehend the words, when he was told to return the following afternoon at three o’clock.
The endless moments when he’d trembled on the inner threshold, each and every time. The small, smooth whoosh of the salon doors, opening under the butler’s hands.
Every sight of her as grippingly powerful as the first, stifling the words on his tongue, subduing him into little more than quiet nonessentials, every time until the last time.
And the last time—God in heaven, the last time. Tía Drusilla’s outrage, and his own outrageous joy, that buoyed him into the final rangering job.
And Herman. Herman Jesus Ricardo Carlos de la Cruz Fernández, sneering openly at the end.
She looked—shit, how was it possible? Except for all the black, she looked exactly the same. The same regal profile, the same quizzical, tantalizing smile that caught his eye and heart from the very first. It promised everything and nothing, and left him wondering whether he’d ever know what secretly amused her.
The same smooth skin, the color of burnished gold. The same dark, liquid velvet eyes that haunted his dreams for years. The same proud cheeks, vivid red lips shaping a kissable mouth he never got the chance to kiss.
The same graceful fingers, twisting together in her apron. The same sleek knot of hair on the nape of her neck. The same neat little figure that always left him burning with lust and love.
Elena in his kitchen, wearing widow’s weeds and bearing another man’s name.
“Captain Rivers—” she began. She wasn’t allowed to finish.
“Get out,” he growled.
Elena shrugged, and broke the habit of a lifetime. She said the first thing that came to mind. “The bacon will burn.”
“I don’t give a damn about the bacon!” he roared. “Get out!”
Elena knew better than to argue. Turning aside, she made her way around the table, back to the little bedroom she had hoped to call her own—at least for the next six months.
He followed. He stood in the bedroom doorway, muttering beneath his breath while she moved the lamp aside, opened her trunk and silently began removing her clothing from the chifferobe.
A door opened, elsewhere in the house. Hesitant footsteps pattered across the kitchen floor.
“Jesse?” The señora’s voice rose from beyond his shoulder. Biting her tongue, Elena continued packing.
“You got a lotta goddamn nerve,” he snarled, ignoring the girl’s approach.
“Jesse?” Elizabeth peered into the room, over his shoulder. Still in her nightgown and wrapper, she looked somewhat pale around the edges. Elena straightened from transferring undergarments to the trunk. “What’s the matter? What’s going on?”
“This ain’t no nurse,” he snapped. “She ain’t never been no nurse. Somebody hoodwinked Charlie, that’s what’s the matter.”
“Señora.” Firmly brushing past him, Elena took the young woman’s arm. “You should lie down until it passes. I will bring you a cool cloth. Are there crackers in the house?”
“Soda crackers in the pantry.” The mistress surveyed her in some hesitation. “What’s Jesse going on about?”
“We knew one another long ago.” Elena led her back to the central bedroom, which her mind assessed with distant interest as she drew back the sheets, urging her charge down to the wide brass bed. It was a very feminine room, much larger than Elena’s but almost dwarfed by the large dog ensconced on the braided rag rug. The dog and the masculine touches in the room were both rather incongruous. The male garments on the corner clothes rail were at odds with the gowns and aprons draped among them, and with the delicate bamboo dressing screen. All three doors—leading to back yard, kitchen and parlor—were overhung by weaponry: handguns, rifles and shotguns draped above and around them. The arsenal seemed out of place alongside the white painted dressing table, the floral patterned pitcher set, and the cheerful embroidered towels on the washstand.
“And that’s why he wants you to leave?” the señora persisted.
“Captain Rivers will tell you of it,” Elena soothed. “I will bring the crackers and some tea.” Before leaving the room she positioned the wash bowl strategically beside the bed, just in case.
He still stood in her doorway, still glaring, when she returned to the kitchen. She brushed past him again.
“What do you think you’re doin’?” he barked, while she retrieved her medicine bag from the chifferobe.
“My job,” Elena replied as calmly as she was able, exiting the bedroom to the kitchen once more. He pivoted to follow her every move, as if expecting her to transform into some sort of menace before his suspicious eyes. “The job I was hired to do.”
Setting her bag on the table, Elena opened it and swiftly sorted through the contents, finding the particular pouch she sought. She retrieved a clean mug from a shelf, pinched herbs into the infuser, and laid the infuser in the cup, then ladled in warm water from the stove reservoir. Leaving the tea to steep, she took the kitchen lamp into the pantry, locating the tin of soda crackers on a shelf. When she returned to the kitchen he stood beside the table, peering into the mug and sniffing the contents skeptically.
“Tea.” Elena kept her answers brief and to the point. Experience told her he would have faith in her or not, and nothing she could say would sway him. If actions spoke louder than words, her actions had better be shouting now.
What kind of tea? What was there to give for morning sickness? He’d watched Liz struggle with it for months, not complaining, and not completely conquered by it, either, just bothered enough to lie abed late now and then. When consulted, Doc doubtfully stroked his jaw, and sure enough, his usual colic potions had little effect. And Doc Murphy, in Sweetwater—Jesse chased him down one day when Liz wouldn’t, requesting assistance on her behalf. He was told, “It’s an unavoidable fact of pregnancy, Captain Rivers. She’ll survive. Women do.”
He frowned, observing as Elena dampened a clean dishcloth with cool water from the pump, gathered cloth, tea and crackers, and vanished into Liz’s room again. Easing into the other doorway, he watched her smooth the cloth across the girl’s forehead, urging her to nibble a cracker and sip the tea, while placing a pillow beneath Elizabeth’s feet.
“Drink it all, señora,” came the gentle but firm command. “You will sleep a little longer, then. And when you wake, the nausea will be gone for today.”
Jesse caught the wry chuckle and the answer maybe he wasn’t meant to overhear. “That’ll be a miracle.”
“It will be true,” Elena promised, and he heard the smiling reassurance in her soft voice.
Jesse’s frown deepened. He knew the girl struggled, yeah, but maybe he didn’t know how much. That’d be Liz through and through—hiding her difficulty from him and Charlie both, if she could. Especially if she dismissed it as purely a feminine concern, especially if she thought they might bring an outsider in to fuss over her.
Maybe Charlie was more perceptive than she knew. Maybe he was more perceptive than Jesse had been.
Jesse retreated to the table when Elena stepped softly from the middle bedroom, gently closing the door. He cleared his throat.
“Bacon’s burning,” he said.
Actually, it wasn’t quite burning yet. Brushing past him yet again, Elena removed the pan from the stove. With the long handled fork, she drained grease from the strips of pork, and set them on a plate.
“Would you like eggs?” she inquired.
“I’d like answers,” Jesse growled. And then he grabbed her by the elbows, hustling her through the parlor and out the front door. She didn’t protest, squawk or squeak, shriek or pull away. She just scrambled to keep pace with his hurried strides, stumbling a bit when he shoved her onto the porch and shut the door behind them both. He gave her little chance to recover.
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