GALAHAD IN A STETSON
Cowboy John Elder needs a replacement crew of cattle hands to drive his longhorns to Kansas—he just never figured they'd be wearing petticoats. Traveling with Moira O'Mara and the orphan girls in her care is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Yet despite Moira's declaration of independence, the feisty beauty evokes John's every masculine instinct to protect, defend...marry?
Moira is grateful for John's help when he rescues her—and she can't deny that his calm, in-control manner proves comforting. But she is determined not to let anything get in the way of her plans to search for her long-lost brother at journey's end. However, can John show her a new future—one perfect for them to share?
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A wife and mother of three, Sherri Shackelford's hobbies include collecting mismatched socks, discovering new ways to avoid cleaning, and standing in the middle of the room while thinking, “Why did I just come in here?” A reformed pessimist and recent hopeful romantic, Sherri has a passion for writing. Her books are fun and fast-paced, with plenty of heart and soul. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website: sherrishackelford.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Fool's End, Indian Territory
If John Elder hadn't been so furious with his mutinous crew of cattle hands, he might have noticed the woman dangling above his head sooner.
Except nothing had gone right since his arrival in the bustling cow town of Fool's End. Night had long since fallen by the time he'd discovered his four missing cowhands. Drunk. In a brothel. He'd fired them on the spot.
As John had circled behind the row of connected buildings, mud from a chilly autumn rain sucked at his boots and slowed his pace. Walking the alley at night wasn't the wisest choice, but he didn't have much time. He'd discovered the men's horses—his horses—at the livery earlier. He was taking back his property before his crew sobered up.
He kept the same rules as his father and his grandfather before him—no gambling, drinking or sporting women until the job was finished.
Moonlight glinted off broken bottles and the stench of sour mash whiskey burned his nostrils. Propped open with a dented brass spittoon, the saloon's rear door released a dense cloud of cigar smoke. John skirted the hazy shaft of light with a grunt. He'd wasted half the day. For nothing.
A scuffle sounded behind him and he pivoted with his fists raised. Only inky darkness met his searching gaze. John dropped his arms. A man couldn't be too careful in this corrupt town.
The space behind the buildings wasn't as much an alley as an afterthought of the hastily constructed cow town. Dreamers and schemers had built Fool's End from one hundred people to five hundred practically overnight. The pains of rapid expansion had ravaged the city's grid work. Hope and despair fought a neverending battle in the red soil, leaving behind an odd carnage. Buffalo hunters, cattle hands and fortune seekers had sprouted opportunity and corruption in equal measures.
A raucous piano ditty spilled from the nearest open saloon door and John's head throbbed in time with the grating tune. If any one of his six older brothers could see him now, he'd never live it down. Halfway from Paris, Texas, to his final destination of Cimarron Springs, Kansas, and he was spitting distance from failure. Again.
Sure, there'd been times in the past when his optimism had outpaced his good sense. But not this time.
John snorted at the irony. He shouldn't have let his temper get the better of him. Firing the men left him with only a cantankerous chuck wagon cook named Pops who was older than dirt and just as talkative, and eight hundred head of longhorn cattle he couldn't drive to Cimarron Springs alone. A small herd by most standards, but too large for two men alone.
It was imperative he reach the Kansas border or forfeit his dreams of starting his own cattle ranch. Fearful of Texas fever, a disease spread by longhorns to other livestock, the state was steadily moving the quarantine line farther west. He'd gambled the line would hold. Farmers and ranchers were filling the state, and their vote was bound to sway the legislature. Which gave John two weeks to cross into Kansas before the vote to close the borders took place.
Time enough for finding a new crew. But not much time.
The faint scuffing grew louder. Pausing, he glanced left and right, then lifted his chin and caught the first blow on his upturned cheek.
"Out of my way," a feminine voice called down.
The heel of her sturdy boot knocked him sideways. Staggering upright, John clutched his battered shoulder. A slender form dangled from a knotted bed sheet above his head.
His jaw dropped.
The girl craned her neck toward the ground, her face an alabaster oval against the darkness. A blur of pale petticoats covered by a dark skirt met his astonished gaze.
Her gaze snapped upward and her red hair shimmered in the moonlight like a wild, exotic halo. "Let out more rope. I'm still six feet from the ground," she hissed.
Her voice was mature. John craned his neck. The harder he looked, the more he realized this was a woman, not a girl. Her body twisted and his heart lurched.
He thrust out his arms and her flailing leg grazed his right hand. "Ouch."
Scooting aside, he reached with his left hand and she smacked that one too. "Take it easy!"
Retreating a safe distance, he assessed the situation. Either this was a dangerous prank or the woman was involved in something nefarious. He didn't care. He wasn't getting involved. No way. No how. Right now he had more problems than time.
"We haven't any more slack," a thin voice replied from the upper window. "That's all the sheets."
A dark-haired girl, no more than twelve years old, thrust her head into the shaft of light from the second-story window.
A blonde of the same age appeared at her right and stretched over the sill, her brilliant pale hair curtaining her face. "Maybe we should pull Moira up. This was a bad idea."
John rolled his bruised shoulder. "That's an understatement."
Their casual assessment of the situation confirmed his first instinct. This was some sort of childish prank. And the woman suspended above him was old enough to know better.
The girls chattered away, their heads bent together, complaining about the lack of decent bed sheets while completely ignoring both him and the dangling woman.
John shook his head. Of all the irrational sights he'd seen in this cow town over the past two days, this topped the list.
While yet another young lady joined the overlapping discussion, the woman above his head struggled for purchase on the rough clapboard walls. Her feet slipped up and down against the chipped paint as though she was running in midair.
John heaved a sigh. He had a singular way of sizing up a situation and predicting the outcome. Even his brothers grudgingly admired his innate ability.
He reached up and patted the woman's foot. "Let go and I'll catch you."
"Everything is quite under control," she replied primly.
"Lady, I don't know what kind of stunt you're pulling, but I see four girls in that window, and not a one of them realizes your arms are shaking and you're about to break an ankle. Or worse."
"This is none of your concern," she announced, her voice strained. "The plan is sound. I simply miscalculated the sheet length. I think it was the knots. Yes. That's it. The knots took up more slack than I expected."
"Either way, you're in a pickle."
The females in the window giggled.
"Be quiet up there," the woman ordered, a sense of urgency lacing her words. "If they catch us—"
She lost her grip and John dove forward. He grasped her around the waist and staggered, his feet held immobile in the mire. Keeping a tight hold on the squirming woman, he teetered backward and sat down. Hard. Icy water oozed through his canvas pants and chilled his backside.
The woman scrambled in his loose hold and her elbow cracked his ribs. John flinched. So much for playing the gentleman. She didn't appear at all grateful he'd taken the brunt of the fall—and soaked himself in the process. As she squirmed, her toe dug into his bent ankle.
He yelped and circled her waist with one arm. "Take it easy."
The woman whipped around, battling against his protective grasp. Her eyes widened. "Let go of me this instant or I'll scream. Please!''
Sensing her terror, John obliged. With her arms braced against his chest, his sudden release propelled her backward. She sprang from his embrace and landed flat on her back, sprawled in the oily puddle.
A chorus of titters sounded from above.
The blonde girl swung her leg over the sill in a flurry of white petticoats. "I'm going next."
John scrambled upright, slipping and sliding in the muck. "No. Wait."
While his gaze swung between the prone woman and the knotted rope, the second girl crawled out the window. She shimmied down the length until her feet swayed just out of reach.
John caught sight of a third girl straddling the ledge and his heartbeat quickened.
"Stop!" he ordered ineffectively.
The blonde dropped into his outstretched arms and he caught her slight weight against his chest.
As he set her on her feet, she tipped back her head and struck his jaw. John saw stars. He was going to be black-and-blue by the time this was over.
"Thanks." The girl sketched a wave and scurried aside. "I'm Sarah. I'll help Moira while you catch the others."
A pair of short boots descended into view, and John rubbed his sore chin.
He slanted a glance at the woman he'd rescued first. "Lady, please tell me someone up there has some sense."
"Don't count on it." She avoided his searching gaze and stretched her right hand toward Sarah. "And you may call me Miss O'Mara."
John hid a grin as Sarah awkwardly assisted Miss O'Mara onto unsteady legs. For a wild moment the two clung to each other like a couple of drunken sailors on a pitched deck. The moment the woman regained her footing, they sprang apart.
Miss O'Mara shook the mud from her back, then tugged her dark skirts lower. They were too short, showing a good bit of her worn boots and sliver of ankle. Together with her innocent face, it was easy to mistake her for an adolescent at first glance. On closer inspection, it was obvious she was in her late teens or early twenties.
"You'd better stand firm," the woman ordered, swiping the back of her hand over her mud-splattered face. "That's Darcy and she's the heaviest."
Distracted by the enticing smudge on Miss O'Mara's cheek, John didn't see the third escapee release her hold. His inattention cost him. A sharp elbow hammered his head and a boot scraped along his cheek. Blindly lifting his arms, he groaned beneath the girl's weight and managed to set her aside before another, much smaller, pair of boots descended into his vision.
A curly-haired child hugged the knotted sheets, her ankles crossed.
John reached out. "Let go. I've got you."
The youngster shook her head, her dark curls almost black against the moonlight.
Miss O'Mara stomped forward, her fisted hands planted on her slim hips. "Hazel, we haven't much time. Let go this instant."
The girl frantically shook her head. John rolled his eyes. Logic and orders weren't going to convince Hazel of safety.
Stepping back a pace, he caught the little girl's frightened gaze. "Almost there, Hazel. I'll catch you." The frightened child sniffled. "Promise?"
John swiped his index finger in an x across his chest. The childish display of fealty captured Hazel's attention.
After a moment's hesitation, she tumbled free and he easily caught her slight form. The instant he set her safely on the ground, she giggled. "That was fun. Can I do it again?"
"No!" Moira and John shouted in unison.
The last girl descended the rope and waved him aside. "Don't need your help, mister."
Unlike the previous girls, she released her legs and worked her hands down the length until she was only a few feet above the ground. John crossed his arms and stepped back as she easily dropped the abbreviated distance.
Straightening from her crouch, the girl dusted her hands together. "Thanks for helping with Hazel. I'm Antonella. But everyone calls me Tony."
The girl pumped his hand once and stomped off.
John searched the empty window. A red velvet curtain flapped gently in the breeze. "Is that all of you?"
Miss O'Mara gathered her charges. "That's four. Darcy, Sarah, Tony and Hazel."
Scratching his head, John studied the motley gathering. "What are your ages, girls?"
Darcy boldly elbowed forward. "I'm fifteen next month."
"Thirteen," Sarah replied.
"Twelve and a half," Tony chimed in.
The littlest girl, Hazel, glanced up. "I'm ten."
John caught Miss O'Mara's gaze and lifted an eyebrow.
She pursed her lips. "My age is none of your concern."
Over twenty, he surmised immediately. Over twenty was about the age when a single woman ceased advertising her age. Little did she know. He'd give anything to be in his early twenties once more, when he'd still felt invincible.
Hazel tugged on his pant leg. "Are we safe now?"
The hairs on the back of John's neck stirred. Each building had a distinctive look from the front, but facing the alley, they blended together into one indistinguishable row. He counted the doors from the corner and his chest tightened.
"Hey," a slurred voice called from the open window. "Get back here."
The girls shrieked and spun away.
Summoned by the commotion, a bearded man stuck his head out the saloon door and spit into the mud. "What's goin' on?"
A clamor sounded from the far end of the alley. Miss O'Mara ushered the girls deeper into the darkness without even a backward glance. John split his attention between the growing cacophony of voices and the escapees.
Indecision kept his feet immobile. The girls hadn't asked for his help. He could leave without an ounce of guilt. Considering they were obviously up to mischief, he'd already done more than most men would have.
"Hey, mister." The drunken man smacked his palms against the sill. "Stop them girls. They stole my money."
Of course. John mentally slapped his forehead. He should have known. He'd nearly been taken by a similar bunch in Buffalo Gap. Hastily stuffing his hands into his pockets, he breathed a sigh of relief. His fingers closed around the cool metal of his money clip. At least they'd rewarded his assistance by leaving him with the contents of his pockets intact.
Desperate children forced into desperate measures.
But what punishment did they deserve? John clenched his jaw. It wasn't for him to decide.
A flash of yellow caught his attention. Half immersed in the mire, a rag doll lay forgotten. He pinched its yellow yarn braid between two fingers and held it aloft in the moonlight.
Above him, the shouting man worked his way down the rope. The sheets held firm and a grudging admiration for Miss O'Mara filtered through John's annoyance. She tied knots like a trail boss.
"Well, mister," the man demanded, his breath a fog of alcohol fumes. "Where'd them little thieves go?"
What now? If his brothers were here, they'd shove John aside like a pesky obstacle. They'd take charge and assume he didn't have anything to offer. Like a herd of stampeding cattle, they'd wrestle all of the decisions—right or wrong—out of his hands. When his brothers were around, he never had to bother with taking responsibility.
John squinted into the darkened alley.
The inebriated man shoved him. "You deaf? I asked you a question."
John clenched his jaw. The sooner he put Miss O'Mara out of his thoughts, the sooner he could continue his journey. Heaven knew he hadn't even proved himself worthy of caring for a herd of cattle. A motley group of pickpocket orphans and a beautiful woman with fiery red hair were problems well beyond his limited resources.
Miss O'Mara and her charges were knee-deep in calamity and sinking fast. Moira required someone with the time, focus and connections to unravel her difficulties. Someone with the resources to steer her charges toward a respectable path. A hero. She'd gotten him instead. Maybe she'd have better luck down the road.
The drunken man took off in the direction Miss O'Mara and her charges had escaped. John snatched the man's arm and pointed the opposite way. "I'd check down there."
Moira heard the cowboy's betrayal and her heart lodged in her throat. She tugged on Hazel's arm and quickened her pace. Wi...
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