You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Whitaker House (January 4, 2011)***Special thanks to Cathy Hickling of Whitaker House for sending me a review copy.***
Loree Lough is a well-known and beloved Christian romance writer who has published over 75 books, 65 short stories, and hundreds of magazine, newspaper, and Internet articles. A tireless advocate of the inspirational fiction genre, she’s recognized as a leader in the field and is a sought-after speaker at writing seminars and workshops. Loree is a regular contributor to a variety of publications for writers, a columnist for Christian Fiction Online Magazine and keeps in touch with readers through her website and blog, The Lough Down, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Shoutlife.
Visit the author's website.
List Price: $9.99
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Whitaker House (January 4, 2011)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Somewhere along the San Antonio Road
“You behave as though you’re the first woman to have a miscarriage!” Liam scolded Levee. “Pull yourself together. Can’t you see you’re making everyone miserable?”
That had been three days ago, but the memory of it still stung like the gritty, windblown Texas dust. Levee huddled in a corner of the stagecoach and prayed that her husband wouldn’t notice her tears. She’d never been the type to wallow in self-pity, but was it too much to ask her husband to show some warmth and compassion? As a doctor, he should have been able to acknowledge that her reaction to losing the baby was perfectly normal.
Frowning, she tucked her lace-trimmed handkerchief back into her purse—a mistake, for Liam saw and correctly guessed that she’d been crying. Again.
“You’ll never get over it if you don’t at least try to put it out of your mind,” he grumbled.
The impatience and disappointment in his voice hurt almost as much as his earlier reprimand, and Levee heaved a sigh. Oh, if only she could put it out of her mind!
Maybe he had a point. Maybe thirty-four days of grieving her lost baby had been enough. As one of the first women in the country to earn a nursing degree, Levee understood the mental and physical aftereffects of a miscarriage. But could melancholia explain why she felt her husband was too preoccupied about opening his new clinic in Mexico to mourn the loss of yet another baby?
Like it or not, they would arrive in Mexico in a matter of days. Chihuahua, of all places, where she didn’t know a soul, and the people spoke a language she didn’t understand. Where, according to Boston newspapers, outlaw gangs roamed the—
“Hold on to your hats, folks!” the driver bellowed. “Bandits, ridin’ in hard and fast!”
Amid the thunder of horses’ hooves and the report of gunfire, their fellow passenger, who’d introduced himself only as Mack, calmly unholstered two six-shooters. “You got a gun, doc?” he asked Liam as he peeked out through the leather window covering.
Liam clutched his black medical bag tight to his chest. “Yes, but—”
“Then you’d best get ’er loaded and cocked. There’re three of them and five of us. We might just have us a fightin’ chance”—he fixed his brown eyes on Levee—“if you can shoot.”
Just as she opened her mouth to confess that she’d never so much as held a gun, one of the stagecoach drivers cut loose a bloodcurdling scream. Quick as a blink, his body hurtled past the window and hit the ground with a sickening thump.
With a trembling hand, Levee clutched her throat, and Mack groaned. “Make that four of us.” He spun the chamber of the second revolver and, after pulling back the hammer with a click, wrapped the fingers of Levee’s other trembling hand around the grip. “Just aim and pull the trigger, and keep on doing that till you’re out of bullets.”
“B-but how will I know when I’m out of—”
“Are you two God-fearin’ Christians?”
She heard Liam’s dry swallow. “I don’t know what that has to do with anything,” he muttered.
Mack glared at him. “If you want to get out of this mess alive, you’d best start prayin’. Pray like you’ve never prayed—”
His warning was cut short by male voices shouting and terrified horses trumpeting. Gears and brakes screeched as the coach came to a jolting halt.
Then, a deadly hush rode in on a cloud of dust.
The door nearest Levee flew open with a bang. “Throw them guns into the dirt,” growled a masked gunman.
When Liam slid his revolver back into his doctor’s bag, Mack gave a slight nod, then tossed his own pistol out the door. Taking his other gun back from Levee, he uncocked it and flung it to the ground, too.
The bandit raised his rifle barrel higher. “Git on outta there, one at a time, and don’t try no funny business, neither.”
Levee climbed down first, followed by Liam. So much for Mack coming up with a last-minute scheme to save us, she thought as he joined them in the shade of the coach.
A few yards away, two more bandits sat in their saddles. The smooth baritone and well-enunciated syllables of the tallest didn’t fit the rudeness of his words: “Gather anything of value you find on their person or in their valises,” he told the rifleman. And then, using his chin as a pointer, he said to the man to his left, “You. Fetch the money.”
Their immediate obedience made it clear that this man was one to be reckoned with. Levee’s heart beat harder as his cohorts carried out his orders, but it wasn’t until the strongbox hit the ground with a loud clang that she noticed the other stagecoach driver, hanging like a half-empty flour sack over the armrest of his seat. She could almost hear Mack thinking, And now we’re down to three. Their only hope was the tiny pistol hidden in Liam’s bag. But even if by some miracle the cowboy managed to retrieve it, would it be enough to disarm all three thieves?
The second bandit fired one round, demolishing the heavy iron lock on the strongbox. If he noticed Levee’s tiny squeal of fright or Liam’s gasp of shock, it didn’t show. “Must be fifty thousand dollars in here!” he said, pawing through the contents. He gave a rousing “Yee-haw!” and saluted his leader. “All’s I can say is, you sure know how to pick ’em, Frank!”
“Shut up, fool!” bellowed the rifle-toting robber. “Now we’ll hafta kill ’em, so’s they won’t be able to tell the rangers they was robbed by the Frank Michaels Gang!”
The Frank Michaels Gang? Why did that sound so familiar? Levee’s question was quickly extinguished by a sickening admission: in her twenty-two years of life, she’d never given a thought to how she might leave this earth. Until now.
“No need to get your dander up,” Mack drawled. “Y’all just keep right on helpin’ yourselves to everything we’ve got. Think of us as the three wise monkeys. We didn’t see a thing or hear a thing, and we won’t speak a thing, either.”
“That’s right,” Liam quickly agreed, “even if the Texas Rangers ask questions—an unlikely event, since we don’t plan to seek them out.”
Levee looked up at her husband, unable to decide which surprised her more: the fact that he’d opened his mouth or that he’d opened his medical bag. But in one beat of her hammering heart, his hand disappeared inside it. In the next, his puny revolver dangled from his fingertips. “I think you boys should—”
One shot rang out, and even before its echo fell silent, Liam slumped to the ground. “No-o-o!” Levee wailed, dropping to her knees. She cradled his head in her lap and, for the first time since graduating from the New England Hospital for Women, regretted her nursing degree. Because one look at the bloody wound in the middle of his chest told her that although he wasn’t dead yet, he soon would be.
Liam gasped for breath. “I—I wanted to—give them—the gun,” he sputtered, “to p-prove we—c-could be trusted—”
“Hush, now,” she whispered, finger-combing dark curls from his forehead. “Shh.”
Mack threw his Stetson to the ground and kicked it. “Of all the….” Arms whirling like a windmill, he kicked it again. “Did you hear what the man said? He’s from Boston, for the luvva Pete. He meant you no harm. Why, I doubt he could’ve hit the broad side of a barn with that pea shooter of his, even if he’d tried!”
“Looked to me like he was aimin’ to shoot,” one of the bandits insisted, “an’ nobody takes aim at Frank Michaels whilst I’m around.”
The rifleman cursed under his breath. “Thought I tol’ you to shut up, Tom.”
“All of you shut up,” Frank snarled.
But Levee paid him no mind. “Fight, Liam,” she urged him. “Stay with me! You promised that as soon as we were settled, we’d—”
His eyelids fluttered open, and an enormous, silvery tear leaked from the corner of one eye. “S-sorry, Levee,” he rasped, grabbing her hand. “S-sorry….”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for, Liam. You’re going to be fine.” Oh, please, God, let it be true! “Just fine! Do you hear me?” No sooner had the words passed her lips than his body shuddered once, and the fingers that had been squeezing hers went limp. A dribble of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth to his chin. Then, one grating, ragged breath later, he was gone.
Levee couldn’t help feeling guilty about her role in his death. These horrible men had murdered her husband, but if she hadn’t put her dream of a nursing degree ahead of their wedding plans, they would have had a house to call their own. If she hadn’t spent so many hours on her feet at the hospital, they would have had a child or two, instead of two unfruitful pregnancies to mourn. Perhaps, with a family to occupy his time and fill his heart, Liam wouldn’t have reacted with such enthusiasm to the article in the Boston Globe that spoke of the need for doctors in Mexico. Why had she let him talk her into this move? And why had she bowed to the dictates of society and the Good Book regarding wifely submission? If only she’d been stronger and less self-centered!
She watched the thugs help themselves to Liam’s hard-earned savings. Watched them poke through her small suitcase as Frank Michaels tucked Grandpa O’Reilly’s gold pocket watch into his vest. He looked up, caught her staring, and touched a finger to his hat brim. “My apologies, ma’am,” he said, aiming a steely smile her way. “And to prove my sincerity, we aren’t going to kill you. You have my word on that.” A grating chuckle passed through the red and black fabric of his bandanna. “At least, not today.”
His implied threat hung on the parched air as Levee looked into her husband’s ashy face. Almost from the moment they’d left Boston, Levee had been afraid. Afraid of ghastly-looking bugs and wild animals, afraid of the unrelenting wind and the dry, desolate land that seemed to stretch on forever. Afraid of the outlaws and bandits she’d read about. Distraught and anguished, she was beyond fear now. A swirl of self-blame, guilt, and shame roiled inside her like a cyclone, putting put her on her feet.
Fists balled at her sides, Levee marched up to the leader’s horse. “You killed my husband for no reason, and you think a phony apology will make things right? You’re—you’re a lunatic, Frank Michaels, and so are these so-called men who ride with you.” Levee wiped angrily at her traitorous tears. “Look at you, hiding behind your masks. Why, you’re nothing but cowards, the lot of you. Heartless thieves and—and cold-blooded killers. You’d better shoot me good and dead, right here where I stand, because the very first chance I get, I will report you to the Texas Rangers, and nothing will please me more than to watch you hang for your crimes!”
Her hysterical tirade silenced even the chorusing insects and chirruping birds. Silenced the amused chortles of Frank and his cohorts, too. The men exchanged puzzled glances, and then the one named Tom said, “You want I should plug her, Frank, or d’you wanna do it?”
Frank rested one leather-gloved hand atop the other on his saddle horn, seeming to consider the idea. “I gave her my word, and I intend to keep it.”
Tom snorted. “She’ll probably die of thirst before she reaches the next town, anyway.” Winking, he added, “If the coyotes don’t get her first.”
Levee had been an unwilling eyewitness of what the mangy canines could do to a deer carcass, and in very little time, too. She pressed her fingertips to her closed eyes to block the grisly image, and when she did, the picture of Liam’s lifeless body took its place. A dozen thoughts flitted through her head. Could she have used her medical training to do something to save him? Why hadn’t she seen the gunman take aim before he fired at Liam? If she had, what might she have done to prevent the shooting?
“Coyotes,” she heard the rifleman say. “You got that right, Tom. No chance she’ll live long enough to tell anybody what happened here.”
Mack’s voice broke through. “That was uncalled for,” he grumbled. “The poor woman just lost her husband.”
As if she needed a reminder! Please, Lord, please, let this be a terrible nightmare. Let me wake up and realize that—
A deafening explosion ended her prayer. She wasn’t dreaming, as evidenced by the whiff of smoke spiraling from Frank’s gun barrel—and the ghastly sound of Mack’s body hitting the ground. “No-o-o,” she wailed for the second time today. “Not him, too! B-but you promised not to—”
“I only promised not to kill you,” Frank said, then coolly holstered his revolver and faced Tom. “Unharness the team.”
Frank and his men had ended three lives in barely more than three minutes, and with three words, he’d dismissed the matter. The howling wind whirled around them, gathering the dust into tiny twisters that hopped across the prairie like jackrabbits. Levee buried her face in her hands, unwilling to let the bandits witness one more moment of her misery. She had the rest of her life for that.
Life. She almost laughed at the notion. Sitting in the middle of the Texas prairie, waiting for only the good Lord knew what to kill her, wasn’t her idea of life.
An idea dawned: perhaps, if she got them good and angry, they’d shoot her, too, and she could join Liam in paradise.
So, Levee began hurling insults and slurs, shrieking like a crazed fishwife, and waving her arms. But she might as well have been a cactus or tumbleweed for all the attention they paid her. Infuriated, she picked up rocks and pebbles and hurled those, too, yet the outlaws continued to ignore her. It seemed they really did intend to leave her out here in the middle of nowhere to wait for starvation and thirst—or hungry coyotes—to kill her. Oh, Father, please let it be coyotes, she prayed. As painful and terrifying as that would be, she’d die faster that way than by nature’s cruel hand. Either way, she’d have ample time to repent of her sins of selfishness.
“You’re no better than the coyotes!” But her words disappeared into their cloud of get-away dust and gleeful bellows. Hugging herself, Levee sunk to the dirt between Liam and Mack and sat on her boot heels, rocking and groaning, groaning and rocking, as she waited for the tears to start.
But not a single drop fell. Not for her husband or the babies they’d lost, not for the brave young cowboy who died defending her, not even for herself, alone and afraid, somewhere in West Texas.
She didn’t know how many hours had passed when the sun began to sink below the horizon like a gold coin disappearing into a slot. A dark chill blanketed the plains, waking snaky shadows that slithered from bush to scrubby shrub. That’s when strange, forlorn moans spilled forth from Levee’s lips, ascended into the blackness, and merged with the midnight cacophony of night birds and bugs and coyote calls.
By the time exhaustion rendered her silent, the moon was high in the sky, and she found herself cuddled up to Liam. And, though his lanky body offered no warmth or comfort, that’s where she stayed, praying that before morning, the Almighty in His loving mercy, would call her home, too.