July 20, 1846
Lord in heaven, what have I gotten myself into this time?
Priscilla Mae Wills stood at the rail of the steamship
Orleans surveying the scattered wooden buildings,
weathered and unpainted, and the unkempt, seedy-looking
men who lined the dock of the strand.
In the distance, the dirt streets of Galveston bustled
with activity, wagons heavy with bales of cotton rumbling
toward the wharf, men and animals clattering along in
confusion. Puddles of mud still dotted the road from a
recent summer rain.
Though the rest of the passengers had already departed,
Priscilla searched the long wooden dock for the hundredth
time, hoping against hope that Barker Hennessey, the man
sent to meet her, had discovered the Orlean's early
arrival and might yet appear.
You're a grown woman, Priscilla. You can do this on your
own. But in all her twenty-four years she'd never traveled
by herself, and even with her Aunt Madeline had never gone
far from home. And she'd certainly never expected the
newly formed state of Texas to be this untamed.
Bedraggled and wind-chafed and tired clear to her bones,
Priscilla scanned the dock in search of anyone who might
be Barker Hennessey. Several brown-skinned Mexican men
singing in Spanish strolled past, but no one that her
fiancÅ½ could possibly have sent to meet her.
Forcing a stiffness into her spine, she stepped off the
wharf onto the wide dirt streets. A hot, muggy breeze
whipped the dark brown skirts of her serviceable cotton
day dress, and with every weary step the stiff white
ruffle around the neck scratched the soft white skin
beneath her chin. Strands of dark brown hair had comeloose
from the tight chignon hidden at the back of her bonnet
and whipped tauntingly in the wind.
Priscilla glanced up the street. The sign for the
Galveston Hotel and Saloon gleamed red and white in the
hot July sunshine beside another large painted sign
advertising Samuel Levinson's Bath House. Barker
Hennessey, the man her fiancÅ½, Stuart Egan, had sent to
escort her on the final leg of her journey, would look for
her at the hotel once he discovered her ship had come in.
And someone from the hotel could fetch the heavy steamer
trunks that contained her trousseau: the finely crafted
dresses she had carefully sewn over the past few weeks, as
well as the doilies and linens and dainty embroidered
tablecloths she had stitched and laid in her hope chest
throughout the years.
Determined to ignore the heat and the tightly laced stays
of her steel-ribbed corset, Priscilla walked the bustling
dirt streets. Weathered batten-board structures crouched
beside a few sturdy establishments built of pinkish-white
The hotel was by far the best-looking building in town,
she thought as she drew near. At least the paint wasn't
peeling and the walk in front had been swept clean. It was
a far cry from Cincinnati, with its sophisticated
brownstones, elegant restaurants, and lavish opera houses.
Still the thought of being inside, out of the blistering
sunshine, made her quicken her pace.
That's when she noticed the commotion out front. A crowd
had gathered, grumbling among itself, then seemed to be
"Look, Jacob--ain't that Barker Hennessey?" a slender man
in a red-checkered shirt asked the small man beside him.
The name registered immediately, and Priscilla glanced
toward the big-boned man at the opposite end of the porch.
"That's him, all right," Jacob said. "Barker's madder'n a
wet hen 'cause he lost his poke to some gambler."
Gambling, Priscilla thought, feeling sorry for the big
strapping man in the black felt hat who stood in front of
the swinging double doors to the saloon, the devil's own
sport. But hearing his name, she also felt a wave of
relief that she had found him so easily.
"Excuse me, please." Nudging her way through the crowd,
she headed for the porch, intent on catching Mr. Hennessey
before he got away. With her mind on the coming
introduction, it took a moment for her to realize he was
"You're a cheat and a liar!" Hennessey called out just as
she stepped on the boardwalk. "I want my money back,
Trask, and I aim to get it!"
At the angry tone of his words, Priscilla swung her gaze
toward the object of his wrath, the tall, broad-shouldered
man standing right beside her.
"I won that money fair, and you know it," Trask said.
"Mr. Hennessey!" Priscilla called out, waving a white-
gloved hand and starting in his direction.
Priscilla felt the tall man's hand on her arm, his grip so
hard it made her flinch. His free hand slapped against the
leather holster tied to one long leg. She saw the bluish
flash of metal, heard the deafening roar of gunfire.
Whipping her head toward Barker, Priscilla breathed the
acrid smell of burnt powder and stared in horror at the
opposite end of the porch.
Barker Hennessey's eyes remained open, his mouth gaping
wide in an expression of astonishment. He swayed on his
feet while his sausage-sized fingers clutched the still-
smoking pistol in his hand. Only a trickle of blood ran
from the small round circle that marked the entrance of
the tall man's bullet--centered squarely between his eyes.
Watching Hennessey crumple to the porch, Priscilla wet her
suddenly dry lips. Her mouth moved as she tried to say the
words that hovered at the corners of her mind, but no
sound would come. Her ears buzzed and her knees felt weak.
The images on the porch suddenly blurred and jumbled.
Heart hammering, she swayed toward the man named Trask
whose painful grip seemed the only thing holding her up.
His angry blue eyes fastened on her face just seconds
before her lids flickered closed, the world tumbled
sideways, and Priscilla sank into darkness.
"Jesus Christ, what next?" Brendan Trask swung the slender
young woman up into his arms and stepped off the boardwalk
onto the street.
"Nice shootin'!" Jacob Barnes called out to him as he
strode toward the shade of an oak tree that grew beside
the watering trough just half a block away.
"You'd better get the sheriff," Brendan called back
without breaking his long-legged stride.
She all right?" the little man asked, catching up and
trying to keep pace without running.
"Just fainted. She's lucky she didn't stop a bullet."
Brendan recalled all too clearly the moment she'd started
to step in front of him. He glanced down at the small
round hole in the full white sleeve of his shirt.
The man followed his gaze. "Lucky ain't the half of it."
"Get the sheriff," Trask reminded him.
"Sheriff got hisse'f kilt last week. I'll see if'n his
deputy's down at Gilroy's Saloon." The man scurried off to
find the law, though Brendan figured what little there was
had probably already been summoned. Galveston might be the
wildest port on the Gulf, but a shooting was a shooting,
and Barker Hennessey worked for one of the most powerful
men in the country.
"Damn." Brendan said the word beneath his breath, wishing
he could have avoided the killing, but Hennessey had left
him no choice. He just hoped to hell there wouldn't be
He'd had enough of that already.
Brendan propped the lady against the trunk of the oak
tree, noting her somber brown dress, high-necked and long-
sleeved, and the tiny waist pulled tight by her corset.
Clothes like that in this heat--no wonder she'd fainted.
Sometimes women didn't have the sense God gave a mule.
Shaking his head at life's little absurdities, Brendan
walked to the old stone trough where a young boy watered
several horses. The animals nickered and blew, sucking in
great gulps of the cool reviving liquid.
"Guess I missed all the fun," the youth said, a boy of
about fourteen. He looked down at the gun riding low on
Trask's hip, unlike the pistols of most men, who wore
theirs at the waist, and noted the flap that had been cut
away from the heavy leather holster for easier access.
He puffed out his chest. "Been savin' my money for a gun
of my own. Someday I'll be able to shoot like that. Man
don't have to clean stalls and tend horses, he kin shoot
rendan flashed him a look that made him take a step
backwards and melted his cocky half-smile. "Better to be
cleaning stalls than lying out there in the street. That
dead man could just as well have been me--someday it
probably will be. You'd best think on that, son.
"Turning away from the boy, Brendan dipped his
handkerchief into the water, wrung out the excess, and
returned to the base of the oak tree. He untied the
woman's bonnet strings and pressed the wet cloth against
At the sound of a soft moan, he wet her dry lips. They
were full, he noticed and a delicate shade of pink. Her
features held a trace of that same fragility: slim,
straight nose, fine chestnut eyebrows, thick dark lashes.
She wasn't really a beauty, but she was definitely
attractive.He thought of Patsy Jackson, the woman he'd
spent the night with. He remembered her full ripe curves,
red-painted mouth, and fun-loving warmth in bed. There was
nothing frail about Patsy, nothing prim or proper. She was
the kind of woman who could pleasure a man, have a
rollicking good time in bed, but didn't give you trouble
in the morning.
Not like this one. This little miss would probably pass
out again just thinking about what he had done to Patsy
last night. Pretty as she was, she held little appeal for
him. Brendan liked his women lusty.
Still, in a town where men outnumbered women a dozen to
one, she'd undoubtedly be considered quite a catch. He
wondered which man she belonged to--and why that man
hadn't the good sense to keep her out of trouble.
She moaned a second time, and her lids fluttered open.
Warm-brown, gold-flecked eyes looked up at him in
confusion. Brendan shoved his broad-brimmed hat back on
his head and assessed her pale oval face. If he hadn't
spotted her from the corner of his eye, she'd probably be
dead right now. The thought sent a shudder down his spine,
and a bit of his anger returned.
"Lady, you are some piece of goods." The words came out a
little harsher than he had intended. "What the hell did
you think you were doing? Don't you know any better than
to stroll into the middle of a gunfight?"
"Gunfight?" she repeated, looking more confused than ever.
Her pretty face paled even more.
"Mr. Hennessey," she said, sitting up straighter, "is
he . . . is he . . .?"
"Barker picked that fight, not me. I won his money fair
and square, and I shot him in self-defense."
"Oh, dear," she said, looking ready to faint again. Her
dainty pink tongue wet her lips. "I don't feel very good.
I think I'm going to be sick."
"Oh, no, you don't--" Brendan pressed the cool wet cloth
against her brow. "Just lean your head back and try not to
think about it."
The woman swallowed hard and closed her eyes. Eventually
the color returned to her cheeks, and he noticed again how
pretty she was. Catching the glitter of the sun on wisps
of shiny dark hair beside her cheeks, he wondered what the
heavy mass would look like freed from her wide-brimmed,
"Thank you," she said softly, taking the cloth from his
hand. "I'm feeling a little better now."
Brendan felt a wave of relief, until an unpleasant thought
occurred. "Barker wasn't your husband, was he?" Until that
moment it hadn't crossed his mind that a man like
Hennessey could have a wife. Especially such a young and
She shook her head. "No. He's the man my fiancÅ½ sent to
escort me on to his ranch." Her bottom lip trembled. "I
never met him before, but he looked like a nice enough
Brendan's face went taut. "There wasn't a nice bone in
Barker Hennessey's body. He'd have killed me without a
second thought if I hadn't shot him first."
Priscilla chewed on that for a while and took a long
assessing look at the man who squatted with easy grace on
the stiff salt grass beside her. His hair was as dark as
hers, but a richer, warmer shade of brown, and he wore it
longer than he should have. Several days' growth of beard
roughened a rugged jawline, but his mouth curved nicely
and his eyes, a light shade of blue, watched her with a
look of concern that melted away at the fear she should
How could that be? she wondered. He'd just killed a man--a
man whose help she desperately needed. He was a gambler
and a gunman, yet there was an honesty about him, a sense
of compassion--and something else she couldn't quite name.
Something that told her the words he spoke were true.
"Does that mean the sheriff won't arrest you?"
"Not as long as he learns the truth," he said with
Priscilla had always had a knack for judging people. Since
she was a girl, she could size a person up in only a
meeting or two. On making a new acquaintance, Aunt Maddie
often asked her opinion, though she never admitted
Priscilla's assessment actually mattered.
And this man had saved her life--probably at considerable
risk to his own.He took her hand and helped her climb
shakily to her feet. Priscilla clutched his arm to steady
herself and felt the flex of muscle beneath his shirt.
Though she stood taller than the average woman, Trask
towered above her, his wide shoulders blocking the hot
yellow rays of the sun. Hard-edged, unkempt, and rugged
though he appeared, even in his worn homespun shirt and
frayed blue twill breeches he was handsome.
When he discovered her watching him, Priscilla flushed and
glanced away. "I . . . I can't believe Stuart would have
sent the kind of man you describe here to meet me. We
would be traveling together and I don't think--"
"This is rough country, Miss . . . ?"
She swung her gaze to his. "Wills. Priscilla Mae Wills,
and I believe your name is Trask."
He nodded. "Where did you say you were headed?"
"Rancho Reina del Robles--the Triple R. Stuart Egan is my
Trask's hard features closed up. There was an edge to his
voice that hadn't been there before. "That explains
Hennessey--he's Egan's right-hand man."
"Then you know Stuart?"
He shook his head. "No, but I've heard of him. Most
folks 'round these parts know who he is. Why didn't Egan
come for you himself?"
"Apparently he was short-handed. The ranch is quite large,
"So I've heard." Something flickered in his light blue
eyes. "I'll have someone get word to him and he can fetch
Priscilla's dark brows shot up. "But that would take
weeks! I can't stay here--"
She felt his hand on her arm, halting her protest and
urging her back toward the hotel.
Priscilla let him lead her, trying to gather her thoughts.
From what Stuart had written, the ranch was still quite
some distance away. It would take weeks for a letter to
reach it and just as much time for Stuart to come, or send
someone to get her. In the meantime she'd be alone in this
wild Texas town. A place where people got shot in the
streets! She had only enough money for a few days lodging
and food--what would she do after that?
As they approached the hotel, Priscilla surveyed the porch
in dread, expecting to see Barker Hennessey's lifeless
body sprawled on the boardwalk among a crowd of onlookers.
Instead only a handful of men lounged beside the door of
the saloon. The plinkity plink of a cheap piano and the
high-pitched sound of women's laughter seemed almost
sacrilegious in light of what had just happened.The
scraping of a chair drew her attention.
"Where'd you get the new gal, Trask?" one of the rough-
looking men called out.
"Looks like a real little lady--you always did have a way
with the women." The other two men guffawed, obviously
well into their cups though the day was still quite early.
Trask ignored them, but his grip on her arm grew
tighter.Another man stepped through the swinging double
doors. "Didn't think ya liked your women so proper,
Brendan." The red-haired man swept her with a glance so
raw it left no doubt as to what he was thinking. "This
little gal's so gussied up it'll take half the day just to
get her clothes off." Priscilla's face grew hot and her
feet refused to move another step."Leave her be,
Jennings," Trask warned.
"And that goes for the rest of you men, too." He urged her
on, and Priscilla forced her feet to move ahead.
She'd come by steamboat down the Ohio, down the
Mississippi all the way to New Orleans. She'd traveled to
Galveston by steamship, her stomach tied in knots and
hating every moment on the sea. She'd sold everything she
owned to come west, to marry a man she had never even
seen. But nowhere had she encountered men like these.
"Deputy's expectin' you in his office," the one called
Jennings said. He grinned and cocked his head toward the
hotel. "Better not take too long."
As his meaning hit home, Priscilla's step faltered once
more. She fought to keep her eyes straight ahead, but lost
the battle and glanced again at the men. They probably eat
boiled harness for breakfast, she thought, noting the
greasy canvas breeches, shaggy unkempt hair, and the
scraggly growth of beard on one. How would she survive the
next few weeks alone in a place like this?
Trask tugged her forward, his grip a little harder than it
should have been. "Town's full of men like these," he said
roughly. "What the hell was Egan thinking, letting you
come out here alone?"
"He didn't know I was coming alone," Priscilla defended,
beginning to get angry herself. "My aunt died rather
suddenly and . . . well . . . there were expenses I hadn't
planned on. I couldn't afford to bring a lady's maid, not
that it's any of your business."
"Where you from, Miss Wills?" Trask shoved open the door
to the lobby, ringing the bell, and held it so she could
"I was born in Natchez, but I was raised in Cincinnati. As
I told you, I was on my way to join my fiancÅ½, which,
thanks to you, has just become an exceedingly difficult
task." Priscilla felt like crying. Difficult was hardly
"I suppose you'd prefer I let him shoot me."
"Maybe. Maybe I would at that." Shoulders thrown back,
Priscilla marched up to the desk where a green-visored
clerk leaned over a huge leather-bound guest book."I'd
like a room, please, and I need someone to obtain my
trunks from aboard the steamship Orleans."
The gray-haired clerk eyed her from top to bottom. "You
ain't by yourself, are you?""Well, yes . . . I . . ."
Priscilla lifted her chin. "My traveling companion fell
ill some ways back. I was forced to continue alone." She
glanced at Trask, daring him to contradict, and found his
mouth curved up in amusement.
"This is a respectable hotel, miss. You look proper
enough, but . . . well, let's just say if you're plannin'
anything different, you'd best be headin' next
door."Priscilla flushed crimson. Dear God, what kind of
people are these? "Surely you aren't implying--"
"Get the lady a room," Trask ordered, stepping closer to
the desk, "and be quick about it." The little man
swallowed and shoved the guest book in her direction.
"Yes, sir, Mr. Trask. Sign here, ma'am." Dipping the quill
pen in the inkwell near her elbow, he handed it to
Priscilla, and she signed her name in graceful blue
letters."How long will you be stayin'?" the clerk asked.
She studied the sign on the wall behind him and chewed her
bottom lip. Even at the modest rate posted, she couldn't
stay more than four days.
"I . . . I'm not really certain." She'd expected Barker
Hennessey to see to her needs until she reached the Egan
ranch. She clutched her reticule tighter, wondering what
in heaven she would do when her four days had ended.
"She'll be here at least three weeks," Brendan told the
desk clerk. "It'll take that long to get word to her
people and for them to come get her."
Priscilla swallowed hard. "That . . . that isn't exactly
correct," she said. "As I said before, I'm not quite sure
how long I'll be here." If only she could find someone to
take Mr. Hennessey's place. She could reach the Triple R
as they had planned and Stuart wouldn't have to be
Priscilla glanced at Trask, who appeared ready to argue,
and felt a jolt of inspiration that seemed almost
divine.Trask! Trask could do it! He was obviously well
suited for the arduous journey. He had shot Hennessey, the
tough man sent to protect her, he could take Hennessey's
place. In fact, it was only fitting--Trask should be the
one to take her. He owed her that much.
She flashed him the brightest smile she could muster,
which under the circumstances, wasn't all that much. "Do
you think Mr. Hennessey booked passage in advance for our
journey to Corpus Christi?"
"Probably. But I'm sure they'll be happy to refund the
"How far is it from there to the Triple R?""From what I
know of it--and I've never been there--I'd say a good four-
day ride over some very rough country. Why?" he asked
"Surely you can see, Mr. Trask, the obvious solution is
for you to escort me. It could take weeks for word to
reach Stuart. It would take time for him to make travel
preparations and time to make the trip here. I, on the
other hand, am packed and ready to leave."
"No," he said simply.
"Why not? Since you're the man who . . . who . . . posed
this particular problem, you are obviously the man who
should solve it."
Trask shook his head. "Not a chance, Miss Wills. You're
Egan's problem, not mine. Besides, I'll be leaving
Galveston at dawn. I've got a job waiting for me on the
Priscilla clutched the folds of her skirt, determined he
would not see her cry. "What kind of a job, Mr. Trask?
Some sort of hired gun--or do you plan to make your money
gambling--foxing weaker people out of theirs?"
Trask's look turned hard, his lips becoming a thin grim
line. "As a matter of fact, I plan to do a little bit of
"You owe me, Mr. Trask. Barker Hennessey was here to
protect me. Who's going to protect me now?"
Good question, Brendan thought, for she had just voiced
the problem that had been plaguing him since the moment
he'd discovered she was alone. Who the hell would look
after her? Egan had chosen well with Hennessey. For all
his faults, Barker was loyal to Egan and tougher than a
cob. Now, thanks to Hennessey's too-quick temper, the
woman was left with no one.
He glanced in her direction, saw the worry she tried to
conceal--and a surprising amount of determination. She
wasn't as young as she'd first appeared, but she was still
damned well naive, determination or no. She'd nearly
gotten killed her first five minutes on the street. With
the sheriff out of the way, and considering the kind of
women they were used to, those bastards next door wouldn't
think twice about dragging her off for a little fun and
"Goddamn it," Brendan swore, feeling his resolve begin to
weaken, "this isn't my problem."
Priscilla spun on him in outrage. "Don't you dare
blaspheme! If you hadn't been gambling in the first place,
none of this would have happened. Mr. Hennessey would
still be alive, and I'd be safely on the way to my fiancÅ½."
"There's not a damn thing safe about the country you'll be
crossing on the way to the Triple R. And I'll damn well
swear if I want to!"
"I believe you have an appointment with the law, Mr.
Trask," she said with a haughty little tilt of her
chin. "Surely the sheriff will have something to say about
what happened to poor Mr. Hennessey. Thank you for your
assistance, and good day." She whirled toward the man
behind the counter, but Brendan caught her arm.
"I told you I shot him in self-defense."
"You shouldn't have been gambling. It's a sin, just like
swearing. Now Mr. Hennessey is dead, and I'm stranded in
the middle of nowhere with no money and no way to get to
"No money? What do you mean 'no money'? Surely Egan gave
you the money to get here."
Her cheeks turned pink and she looked as if she wanted to
cut out her tongue. "Mr. Egan offered, I refused. I've
never even met the man, I wasn't about to accept his
"You've never met him?""We've been corresponding, of
course, and my Aunt Maddie had met him."
Brendan turned toward the man at the counter, dug into his
pocket, and tossed the man a coin. "Have someone fetch the
lady's trunks up to her room." He turned back to
Priscilla. "I'll pay for your stay. Egan will come for
you, and everything will be just fine."
"Not on your life. I wouldn't accept Stuart's money; I
certainly won't take yours."
"This is Hennessey's money. He would have used it to get
you to Egan so in a way it belongs to you."
She chewed her bottom lip and Brendan thought how soft and
pink it looked, how delicate she looked all over.
"If I do take the money, I'll just use it to hire someone
else to take me."
"The hell you will. You're staying here. I'll pay for the
room in advance if I have to."
"I'm not your prisoner, Mr. Trask. Somehow I'll find a way
to get to Stuart--with or without your help."Brendan eyed
her from top to bottom. She was a fiery little thing when
she got riled up--she just might try it. "You saw those
men out there. Where you gonna find somebody you can
"There's got to be someone. If Stuart's as well known as
you say, there's bound to be someone who'll take me to
him. Stuart can pay him when we get there."
"You're bluffing. You'd probably faint again if one of
those men came near you." But what if she wasn't? What if
she was crazy enough to try it? The likes of Conway
Jennings would chew her into little bitty pieces--after he
and his cronies pleasured themselves with her soft little
Damn her! "This is blackmail, Miss Wills, and I don't like
it one damned bit." Grabbing her arm, he tugged her toward
the door.Priscilla let him lead her. "Where are you taking
"I've got an appointment with the law, remember? You
happen to be a witness. You can tell the deputy what
happened--how I shot Hennessey in self-defense--and on the
way we can discuss our trip.""I didn't see that much."
Just a blur of images, a flash of crimson, then darkness.
Priscilla stopped short. "Does this mean you're taking me?"
"It's beginning to look like I've got no choice."
She still didn't budge. "Why?" she asked warily.Brendan
almost smiled. "Probably because I'm crazy. But you're
right about one thing. Hennessey's dead and I'm the man
who killed him. In a way that makes me responsible for
you. Egan might not get your letter for weeks. In the
meantime anything could happen." And probably would."I'm
sure Stuart will reimburse you for your trouble."
"Word reaches him about Hennessey's death before we get
there, he'll probably shoot me on sight." Brendan tipped
her chin up. "You realize you'll be traveling with a
stranger--a man who just killed another man right in front
Priscilla searched his face. "I trust you, Mr. Trask."
"You don't even know me. Why the hell would you trust me?"
"I have my reasons."
"Such as?"Priscilla flushed but didn't look away. "You've
got kind eyes."
"Kind eyes?" he repeated, incredulous. "You trust me
because of my eyes?"
Brendan shoved his hat back on his head and looked at her
with a mixture of amazement and frustration. "Then, Miss
Wills, I guess I'd better take you. Any woman who's that
big a fool hasn't got a chance in a town like this."