Chapter 1 From: The Wedding Raffle
Republic of Texas -- 1843
A lanky, bowlegged cowboy burst through the swinging doors of the Golden Slipper Saloon and hollered out for quiet. "Listen up, boys," he said, excitement shining in his eyes. "You're not gonna believe this. She's up at the hotel. Gonna draw the winning ticket early. Gonna draw it herself. The Widow Duvall has done come to town!"
The piano player reached for a high C and hit a B flat. A dealer mishandled his shuffle, spewing half a deck of cards into the air. A gambler dropped his dice, a dancer snapped her fan, and a drunk lifted his head from the bar and drawled, "Well, I'll be dipped."
Luke Prescott eyed the generous bosom of the whore leaning over the second-floor banister and decided to raise his bet on a pair of aces.
Glasses hit the bar as the patrons of the Golden Slipper made a rush for the doors. Two men in the game at Luke's table abruptly dropped their cards, pushed to their feet, and scurried from the saloon. Luke's friend, Rafe Malone, played out his hand, his concentration obviously suffering. When his attempt to draw to an inside straight failed, he folded his arms, settled back in his chair, and mused, "Honor Duvall here in Bastrop. Don't that beat all?"
His voice all but echoed in the nearly empty room.
Dust from the patrons' hasty exit floated in the air as Luke gathered up his winnings and deposited a thick stack of bills inside his wallet. The dumbfounded expression on Rafe's rugged face made him grin. "Sure seems like a lot of fuss for a raffle drawing. What's so special about Honor Duvall?"
Rafe brushed a smudge of dirt from the sleeve of his plaid gingham shirt. "Special? That's one way to say it, I guess. Notorious is the word that comes to my mind."
Luke arched a curious brow. "Notorious?"
"Haven't you heard about the Widow Duvall? And here I thought the Rangers kept close tabs on the suspicious characters who inhabit the Republic."
The words stung like whiskey on a raw wound. Luke hadn't been a Texas Ranger for six months, but Rafe didn't know how much that fact bothered him. Nobody knew. Luke had made sure of it. He hid his irritation behind a dry observation. "To do that, the Rangers would need a million-man army. Texas is overrun with suspicious characters, present company included."
Amusement gleamed in Rafe's green eyes. "Hey now, I'm a reformed man. You know that. Ignoring Luke's sport of disbelief, he added, "It's just that I'm surprised you're ignorant of the Widow Duvall."
"Ignorant? You'd best watch your language, Malone." In friendly retaliation, he offered up a fact certain to fire Rafe's curiosity. "Actually, I believe I may have had some contact with the woman," he said, scratching his eyebrow. "I was recently offered a job by a Mrs. Duvall who owns a place called Lost Pines."
Rafe's mouth dropped open and he leaned forward, a lock of dark auburn hair plopping down onto his brow. "That's her, all right. When did this happen? Why didn't you tell me about it? What did she want you to do? Did you meet her? Is she as beautiful as they say? What did you tell her?"
"Still curious as a calf in a new pasture, aren't you, Malone?" Luke smiled smugly as he slipped his wallet into his vest pocket. "She sent me a letter shortly after I arrived in Bastrop, before you talked me into moving from the hotel out to your place. That's been what, five or six weeks?"
"Something like that."
"Mrs. Duvall wanted to hire a gun for protection, someone willing to teach her and her family how to defend themselves. Seems that in the months since her husband died, all the men who worked for him have drifted on to other jobs."
"You mean it's just Honor Duvall, those two boys of hers, and their grandmother out at Lost Pines?" Rafe whistled softly. "Why, it's the most isolated homestead in this part of Texas. I hear it sits on a bluff above the Colorado River, smack dab in the middle of the pine forest. That was his business, you know, lumber. Duvall. Pinery furnished wood for danged near every building west of here. The man had money. Raised racehorses on the side. So, what did you tell her?"
Luke shrugged, eyeing the bartender, whose ear was cocked toward their table. "I'm no babysittin' bodyguard or schoolmarm. I sent her Rip Tulk's name. He'll do it. He hires out his services all the time."
"I wouldn't mind servicing that one," the eavesdropping bartender observed with a snicker. He removed his apron and tossed it onto the bar before hurrying past them toward the door. "Saw her at her husband's funeral. I tell you what, keeping an eye on the Widow Duvall would almost be worth the risk."
Risk? What risk? Just who was this woman? Luke gazed around the vacant saloon and shook his head in wonder. "What did he mean by that?"
Rafe's chair tipped on its two hind legs as he shoved it back and stood. "She's had three husbands die on her." He lowered his voice. "People speculate about the coincidence of it. This last husband turned up his toes not long ago. Drowned in his own bathtub."
Duvall. Luke recalled the printing on the raffle ticket he'd purchased from a redheaded youngster earlier that day: One chance to win Starlight, the prizewinning quarter-miler offered by the estate of Armand Duvall. "Armand Duvall," he murmured.
"You know about him? Did the Rangers investigate his death, too?" Rafe donned a straw palmetto hat.
"How the hell would I know?" Luke replied, his control slipping as he thrust himself awkwardly to his feet. Eight months ago he would have uncoiled from his seat, as graceful and dangerous as a rattler. Six months ago he'd been ambushed by some east Texas horse thieves. Shortly thereafter, at the ripe old age of thirty-two, he'd been officially and forcibly retired when a doctor examined his buffet wounds and expressed doubt he'd ever walk again. Luke had made it his goal to prove the sawbones wrong and for the most part he'd succeeded. The limp had yet to totally disappear.
Rafe didn't pursue the question. Instead, he tugged his hat low on his brow and led the way out of the saloon into the April sunshine. "Damn but I'm glad I talked you into coming into town this weekend. We'd have missed all the excitement if we'd stayed out at the farm."
"But we'd have gotten the doors hung and the windows put in on the new place. You'll be sorry if a family of 'coons moves in before you do." Luke was helping Rafe build a house on land he'd claimed as his headright west of town. After months of being laid up in bed, he both welcomed and enjoyed the physical labor, considering it therapy for both body and soul.
Rafe waved away Luke's comment. "Animals are preferable to some people I've shared a roof with over the years. Besides, I wouldn't miss this raffle drawing for nothin'. How about you? Have you purchased your tickets for the widow's raffle?"
Sucking in a breath of cedar-scented air and finding it pleasant after the smoky, stale odor of the Golden Slipper, Luke nodded. "A freckled-faced youngster browbeat me into buying one ticket. Actually, I wouldn't mind owning that horse. I saw her run in Austin last summer. She must be the fastest filly this side of Indian country."
"Yep. And I'm gonna win her, too." Rafe patted his vest pocket. "Me odds are all on my side. I bought me fifty chances. Sorry, friend, but you wasted your money just buying one ticket."
Rafe kept his pace to an amble as he led the way up Main toward the hotel. Luke knew he walked slowly to accommodate him, and it annoyed him like hell. Damned leg. But at least he still had his brains, which, under the circumstances, was more than he could say about his friend. "You spent a hundred dollars on raffle tickets?" Rafe nodded and Luke shook his head. "You could buy a right fine horse for that amount."
He was right about that, but a hundred-dollar gamble on a raffle drawing? "You always did have more money than sense."
"I'm gonna win."
"Win the prize for the biggest fool, maybe. The odds are still against you."
"Whoa!" Rafe made an abrupt stop and brought his hand to his chest dramatically. "This can't be the Captain Luke Prescott of the Texas Rangers talking to me about odds. This from the man who made a career out of playing long ones?"
Luke reached into his pants pocket and fished for the small tin of lemon drops he habitually carried. Removing a candy, he tossed it to Rafe, saying, "Suck a lemon, Malone. It'll keep your mouth shut."
Rafe popped the sweet into his mouth and grinned. The two men continued their stroll toward the hotel.
As he walked, Luke thought about the upcoming drawing and the lone ticket tucked inside his wallet next to his card winnings. Maybe Malone had a point. Maybe he should splurge on another ticket or two. A man couldn't ask for a better foundation for a breeding operation than the horse Lost Pines offered up for raffle.
He stepped on a rock, jarring his leg, and the slash of pain reminded him he might as well save his money. Horse ranching wasn't in his future, despite what he told those who questioned his plans now that his Rangering was done. Luke had other business to attend to. He had honor to reclaim.
Honor, hell. Had he ever known the meaning of the word? The old, familiar shame clutched at his gut, overwhelming the lingering pain in his leg. Every day he lived with the fact of his cowardice. Each night, the ghosts of those whom he had failed haunted his dreams -- his wife, his children, the one-hundred-eighty-nine men who'd placed their trust in an unworthy man.
How did a man atone for such a sin?
Becoming a Texas Ranger had been an attempt. Serving the country for which his comrades had died had been a start, a small start, a penance. While others viewed his Ranger's star as a badge of courage, Luke knew the difference. He'd worn it as a daily reminder of his fear and foolishness, his cowardice and failure.
But now he no longer wore the star. His Rangering days were done, and he was forced to search for another way to earn his peace. It was all he'd thought about while lying up in bed. He'd considered and discarded a hundred different possibilities, but he knew in his heart that nothing short of extraordinary circumstances would do. He needed one great, monumental cause to fight for, one opportunity to make a genuine difference. For Texas -- the country he loved so much. He would fight for her people, the strong, scrappy folk determined to carve a future from land that so often fought back.
Luke needed one chance to save lives instead of taking them. He needed to redeem himself even if it killed him, and at times he prayed for that sweet relief.
He inhaled a deep breath into his lungs and lifted his face toward the warm sunshine. Some of the chill left his soul as determination filled him. He'd find his opportunity. He didn't know when or how, but it would happen. He'd make it happen.
Ten yards ahead of him, Rafe hailed an acquaintance and forced Luke's attention back to his surroundings. People crowded the town's wide, dusty street. Perhaps fifty curious faces were now collected in front of the Bastrop Hotel. The air hummed with talk of the imminent drawing.
Snippets of conversation swirled around him like ribbons on the breeze. Luke listened in, rather than dwelling any longer on regrets and remorse, his forfeited career, and the fact that he could no longer physically keep up with his childhood friend -- a friend he'd run to ground and arrested on three separate occasions.
A boy's voice sounded from behind him. "My pa says Mrs. Duvall buried her first husband in an abandoned silver mine up north of here."
"She killed her second husband stone cold dead," declared a feminine voice. "Put poison in his food."
"Same could happen to me if you don't quit fixin' those chicken gizzards," a sardonic voice replied.
"I cannot believe her name is Honor. How inappropriate!"
"I hear she's beautiful."
"Damn, I hope I win that horse."
"They call her the Black Widow."
"Those stepsons of hers talk nice about her. Her mother-in-law, too."
"Duvall's mother is still alive?" A grizzled older man blew a long whistle. "Hell, she must be seventy if she's a day."
"Luella Best is the second husband's mother."
"Surprised the Black Widow hasn't poisoned her off, too."
"If I win Starlight I'm gonna take her up to Nacogdoches and run her in the Summer Stakes."
The voices ebbed around them and Luke glanced at Rafe. "I'm beginning to understand why the lady has caused such a stir."
Batting a ladybug away from his face, Rafe nodded.
"They say you can count on one hand the number of times she left Lost Pines to come in to town since she and Duvall moved here from east Texas three years ago. Folks have always wondered about her, but they never paid too much note until Armand Duvall died."
"Because of this raffle?"
"That and the dress." Rafe pulled a Havana from his breast pocket, rolled it between his fingers, and sniffed it. "It was the dress that did it."
"Folk here in Bastrop simply did not approve."
Luke questioned him with a look.
"It was yellow."
"Bright canary yellow silk, I'm told. Lots of ruffles. Cut down to here." He made a deep scoop across his chest with his finger. "A real party dress. She wore it to her husband's funeral. Don't that beat all?"
Luke burst out with the first honest laugh he'd had in months. "That must have gone over like a fly in the buttermilk."
As Rafe nodded sagely, Luke lifted his chin and gazed over the heads of the throng congregated in front of the Bastrop Hotel, not a difficult feat since he stood a good four inches taller than most men around him. Suddenly he was as anxious as everyone else in the central Texas town to spot the wicked widow.
He was intrigued. Beauty and daring. A dangerous lady. Honor Duvall sounded like the type of woman who played honey to a man's sweet tooth.
Rafe stuck the unlit cigar in his mouth and spoke around it while he checked his pockets for matches. "Don't know why she didn't just up and sell the horse. I know she received plenty of offers once she put out the news she intended to get rid of Starlight."
Luke thought about the ticket in his pocket and the fifty in Rafe's. Eyeing the crowd, he completed a rapid series of mental calculations. "Did she sell tickets anywhere other than Bastrop?"
"Yeah. I heard a fellow from Austin talking about his chances earlier at the shaving saloon. I'm pretty sure he said he bought his chances at home." Rafe yanked the smoke from his mouth and frowned. "Since she sold tickets that far away, I wonder how many were bought? My fifty might not be nearly enough."
Beautiful, daring, dangerous, and intelligent, Luke amended with a grin. He'd bet she netted five times the sale price by staging a raffle instead of a sale.
Luke ignored the ache in his leg and walked a little faster. For the first time since the horse thieves shot him full of holes, he was interested, truly interested, in the events taking place around him. He couldn't wait to get an eyeful of the notorious Widow Duvall.
He wondered what color dress she'd wear to a raffle.
Honor Duvall plucked nervously at the bodice of her printed muslin gown as she pushed back the curtain of the second-floor hotel window and peered outside. Main Street was filled with people, and the sight caused her stomach to take a dip. "Oh, Luella, they will hang me for sure."
Seated at the vanity, Luella Best leaned closer to the mirror and smoothed an eyebrow with her fingertip. "No they won't, dear. Our plan is brilliant. Everything will work out fine."
"That's what you said when I went to build the coffin."
"So you're not a carpenter," the elderly woman replied. "That has no bearing on what happens here today."
Honor sighed and turned away from the window. Crossing to the bed, she gathered up her petticoats and kicked off her soft boots before climbing onto the mattress. Sitting cross-legged, she leaned back against the headboard and closed her eyes. "I can't. I can't quit worrying and I can't forget. I keep seeing it happen all over again."
"Oh, Honor." Luella sympathetically clicked her tongue.
"I'd never made a burying box before and it showed." Honor pictured the huge pine crate where it sat in the near north pasture out at Lost Pines. The coffin was a sorry construction of misaligned boards and bent nails. She had done a crude job of patching a board that split when they'd loaded the corpse. She blurted, "If not for the coyotes we could have used a tarp. But under the circumstances, what else could I do? And what if he wants to move it? I'm afraid the coffin will fall apart."
"Would you forget about the dad-blamed box!" Frustration filled Luella's voice. "Why, I swear, Honor Duvall. You are becoming downright morbid."
Honor glanced toward the mirror and met her mother-in-law's glaring gaze. "Not morbid, Luella. Afraid. I'm worried I've made a terrible mistake this time."
"Child, we have talked this to death already. What other option do we have? You've already sent the raffle proceeds to South Carolina. Despite all the pretties filling the house at Lost Pines, we don't have two coins to rub together. We wouldn't make it as far as Washington-on-the-Brazos if we tried to run now. What we do here today will buy you time to convert some more of your assets to cash."
"Will it? Money is scarce as hen's teeth in the Republic of Texas. I could trade a painting for a pig, but I can't sell it for the money I need to take y'all to safety."
Luella sniffed. "That may be so, but you have seven more mares and that magnificent stallion of Armand's. Texians might not spend their coin on parlor chairs, but fine horseflesh will wring the money from their hands every time. Look down in that street and tell me it's not true."
Honor rubbed her temples with her fingertips. "If only I hadn't spent the Starlight money, we wouldn't be in this mess!"
"Darlin', you can't think like that. You had a good plan for our future, one I didn't care for, maybe, but that's neither here nor there. I'm blessed that you'll take care of an old woman like me. My grandsons, ornery cusses that they are, are lucky you didn't wash your hands of them when their father died."
"Luella!" Honor straightened her back. "Don't start that with me. I may not have given birth to them, but those boys are my sons. And ever since I married your Philip nine years ago, you have been my mother."
The elderly woman flashed an impish smile. "I know. I just like to hear you say it."
"And you, Honor, are the head of this family. The decision to leave Texas was yours to make. Don't second-guess yourself now. The money is no longer available. The winning ticket must be drawn."
"It has been drawn. I put the real winning ticket in the Chinese urn in the parlor. I'll make it right someday, Luella. I swear. I don't like what I'm doing today."
"I know that, dear."
Honor watched as her mother-in-law grasped a silverhandled hickory cane and pushed slowly to her feet. It required great effort of will on Honor's part not to reach out a helping hand, but she knew better. Though all but crippled with rheumatism, Luella steadfastly refused assistance, snapping testily as she did so, claiming the fight helped make life worth living.
Silver-gray tendrils escaped the tortoiseshell combs placed artfully in Luella's hair and fines mapped the years across her face, but her blue eyes remained young, sparkling with intelligence and wit. Not only was she family, she was also Honor's best friend.
Luella moved to the side of the bed, lifted her cane, and rapped the end lightly against her daughter-in-law's knee. "You must put an end to this fretting, Honor. It's bad for your complexion. Remember, you're twenty-nine years old, now. Wrinkles are right around the corner."
"Thank you, Mother Best," Honor replied dryly.
"Well, it's true. And what's done is done. The dead are dead. No sense in you worrying about it now. Everything will work out splendidly. I feel it in my bones."
Honor sniffed. "What you feel in your bones is weather on its way."
"No, my bones feel change on its way. That's what Captain Prescott will be. Change. Change for the better. Now get off that bed. It's almost time to go downstairs, and you've wrinkled your dress."
Anger and despair surged in Honor's blood at Luella's words. "I don't want change. I want my family to be safe. I want to learn how to kill a man properly. That's all."
"I know, dear." Luella gave Honor's arm a comforting pat before grabbing her hand and tugging her to her feet. "And who better to teach you such a skill than Captain Luke Prescott, renowned Texas Ranger, war veteran, and bona fide hero? He's custom made for our purposes. Besides, he's handsome as sin and
I, for one, will enjoy having a man like him to look at over my morning coffee."
Honor couldn't help smiling. Luella constantly bemoaned the lack of men in their lives. It was one of the areas in which she and her mother-in-law disagreed. Honor had had her fill of men. She'd be perfectly happy if she never dealt with one of those creatures again.
That, however, wasn't an option. Her family -- Luella, and Micah and Jason, the two stepsons Honor loved like her own -- were in trouble, so deal with a man she must. "Do you think he'll attend the drawing?"
Luella laughed. "Of course he'll attend. Look down into that street, would you please? Every live body in town and probably half the ghosts are collected to witness this raffle. He'll be there."
"I wish I'd had the opportunity to meet him ahead of time. I should have sold him his ticket, not had Micah do it. I asked him what the Ranger was like and all he said was 'big.'"
"Micah is eleven years old, dear. You need to be specific with boys that age if you want them to pay attention to anything in particular."
Honor glanced toward the window. I wonder if Prescott is a friendly type?"
"Hmm." Luella pondered the question for a moment. "You know, I've only seen him once from afar, but friendly probably isn't how I'd choose to describe Mr. Prescott. Bold, certainly. Courageous. Fearless." She paused, shuddered delightfully, and added, "Male. Very, very male."
Honor smothered a snort. "You spied all that in a single look? Without even speaking to him?"
"I know men, my dear." Luella's pale eyes took on a gleam. "And that man is extraordinary. Wickedly handsome. Big and solid and broad with dark hair and even darker brooding eyes. While I saw no evidence of it myself, I'm told his injury has left him with a limp. It will only make him more attractive, in my opinion. The hint of vulnerability provides a nice balance to that raw, virile lustiness he oozes."
"Well, it's true, dear. I may be old, but I'm not dead yet." She patted her ample bosom over her heart. "Quite a specimen, dear. I was entranced."
Honor tilted her face toward the ceiling as if seeking divine assistance. "I think you should socialize more, Luella. You need a man in your life."
Luella leveled a knowing look at Honor and said nothing. She didn't have to. Honor knew she'd stepped right into that one. Not a week went by that Luella didn't argue with Honor's decision never to remarry. She'd even gone so far as to arrange for a parade of potential suitors to visit Lost Pines in the past few months: a debonair attorney investigating the possibility of breaking Armand's will, a dashing young tutor for the boys, even a brawny carpenter there to build a barn they didn't need.
Honor had not been fooled by Luella's conniving. She'd dispatched each man with alacrity, although when it came time to build the coffin, she'd wished she'd kept the carpenter around for a while.
Of course, this time was different. This time Honor was a full participant in the plot to lure a man to Lost Pines, and this time, marriage had nothing to do with it. No matter what Luella liked to think, this was no wedding raffle. She needed protection for her family and herself until they could manage to escape this Elysium of rogues and scoundrels called Texas. That's what this raffle was about.
That and preventing a hanging. Her own hanging.
She heaved a sigh. "I can't say you've allayed my fears where the Ranger is concerned. Big and solid and broad, you say? I'm more worried now than before. The Luke Prescott you describe doesn't sound like he has a forgiving nature."
The women's gazes met and Honor knew they both mentally pictured the coffin.
Luella licked her lips. "It'll be all right. He'll be impressed with you."
"Why? Because men, fools that they are, find me attractive? You know what I think about that. If Captain Prescott isn't intelligent enough to see past my physical attributes, then he isn't the right man for this job. Maybe you think he'll be impressed because everyone assumes I've inherited a fortune from three husbands? That's almost as bad. Or is it my reputation that will impress him? After all, I'm the subject of rumors wild enough to make a painted lady blush."
"Well, you certainly won't impress him with a gentle disposition," Luella replied with a sniff. "Or your coffin-building skills, either, if you want to be honest about it. Face it. You're as tangle-footed and butter-fingered as they come. That's why we need Captain Prescott. No one else has proved brave enough to stay the course."
"But Luella -- "
"Hush now, I'm not done yet." She fussed with the sleeves on Honor's dress, making them puff. "Captain Prescott is a red-blooded man. He'll appreciate your beauty. I doubt he'll care one way or the other that you are wealthy -- or will be once we've dealt with the problem of Armand's will. As for your reputation, well, I'll have to know the man better to see how he reacts to that. But what will impress the Ranger, Honor dear, is your courage."
"My courage?" Honor asked incredulously.
"Your courage. Rangers respect bravery above all else. Remember what they call Luke Prescott. The Bravest Man in Texas. He will appreciate the same trait in you."
"Pardon my language, but what in Hades is brave about me?"
Luella clicked her tongue. "Come now. It's not every day a man meets a woman who has nerve enough to do what you're doing. Texas raises tougher women than most, but you have to be the bravest woman I've ever had the pleasure of knowing."
Brave? Luella had finally lost her senses. The butterflies in Honor's stomach had butterflies. Grimacing, she rubbed her temples with her fingertips. "If you're trying to make me feel better, it's not working."
"Oh hush. Slip into your shoes and come along. The multitude awaits. And don't forget the ticket basket. You did bring the correct one, I assume?" She stopped and shook her head. "On second thought, I'd better check. Knowing your luck you've brought the basket with the real tickets in it. Hand it over, dear."
"It's the right basket." Honor had disposed of the authentic tickets after drawing a true winning number. She'd stored that coupon away, fully intending to make it right someday to the real winner. If she lived long enough.
Luella simply held out her hand and waited until Honor produced the gaily decorated basket. Choosing three random tickets, she perused the numbers then nodded crisply before returning them to the basket. "Very good. The numbers all match."
As the hotel room door closed behind them, Honor wondered if this was how the condemned felt while walking toward the scaffold. Well, if worse comes to worst, at least I've had some practice.
Luke popped another lemon drop into his mouth and enjoyed the sour bite of flavor as it mingled with the taste of whiskey on his tongue. He damned near swallowed the candy whole when the front door of the Bastrop Hotel swung open and Honor Duvall stepped outside.
He took one look at her and thought: Never trust a widow woman wearing a yellow dress.
As she glided across the boardwalk toward the front steps, he appreciated that a man need not trust a woman to find pleasure in looking at her. The Widow Duvall was exquisite, a classic beauty. Sunshine highlighted streaks of blond in her light red hair. Becoming color tinted her flawless skin as she took a position at the center of the hotel's front steps. Standing some ten feet away, Luke studied her, observing the long, curling lashes that framed deep brown eyes. He spied the faint dusting of freckles across her aquiline nose and thought that her bow-shaped lips looked ripe for a kiss.
No male could ignore that yellow dress. The muslin clung to her generous curves like skin on a peach, displaying the kind of figure that could raise steam from a frozen pond.
"She's a goddess," Rafe breathed. "I'd heard it, but I didn't really believe it." He struck his breast dramatically with his fist and declared, "I do believe I'm smitten."
Luke tore his gaze away from the widow and offered a wry look and a warning meant as much for himself as for his friend. "You sure you don't mean bitten? She is called the Black Widow, remember."
Rafe sucked in a breath. "That lady can bite me anywhere she pleases. I think I could stand a little of her poison."
Privately, Luke had to agree. Honor Duvall was satin sheets and sultry afternoons. No wonder the Golden Slipper had emptied out quick as a hiccup.
The gathering quieted when the widow held up her shapely hands. The Ranger in Luke noted the cuts and scrapes that covered her palms. Well, well, he wondered. What had the lady been doing to cause such injuries?
"Good afternoon. For those of you who don't know me, my name is Honor Duvall."
Her voice reminded Luke of saltwater taffy -- creamy smooth, slow and sweet. Wolf whistles and catcalls sounded from the back of the crowd, and the blush in her cheeks went brighter. Stoically, she ignored the disturbance. "As most of you know, we had originally intended to conduct this drawing at the next race day here in town. However, sales of our raffle tickets exceeded all our expectations."
Luke leaned toward Rafe and murmured, "Guess there must have been a number of hundred-dollar fools like yourself."
Rafe whispered a crude reply and Luke grinned.
The widow continued, "The fact is, we ran out of tickets. To keep matters simple we decided to end the contest early and conduct the drawing today. My son, Jason Best, will extract the winning ticket from the basket." She looked toward a towheaded boy Luke guessed to be eight or nine who stood near the front of the gathering. "Jason, do you want to come on up?"
Excited chatter skittered through the crowd as people pulled out their tickets, ready to stake their claims. The boy climbed the steps, and when Honor Duvall held out the basket, he began to reach inside.
Luke looked at her expression, and in that moment felt the familiar, suspicious itch at the back of his neck.
"Wait a minute," he called out.
Jason Best froze and Honor Duvall's head whipped in Luke's direction. For just an instant, her eyes betrayed anxiety. "Yes?"
"Pardon me, Mrs. Duvall, but perhaps you'd be better served if someone other than family drew the winning ticket. You wouldn't want any appearance of impropriety, now, would you?"
"Certainly not, Mr....?"
"Prescott. Luke Prescott."
The world seemed to tunnel to just the two of them as she stared at him for a long moment.
Then, flashing a secretive smile, she nodded and looked away. "Reverend Martin, would you like to do the honors?"
The preacher frowned. "I'm not exactly impartial, Mrs. Duvall. I bought a raffle ticket myself."
"I doubt if the people would object." Glancing back at Luke, she lifted an innocent brow and queried, "Would they?"
The crowd chorused their agreement. Luke folded his arms and gave her a nod. At his side, Rafe said, "What's the matter with you? You're acting peculiar again, Prescott." He dipped his head and began thumbing through his tickets. "How many chances do you figure she's sold? I thought I had the odds pretty well covered, but seeing all these people here makes me wonder. Damn, but I want that horse."
As the preacher made his way through the throng, Luke kept his gaze on Honor Duvall's face. She lifted her chin as their gazes connected and held. The boy stepped aside; the man took his place. She shook the basket, requested that Reverend Martin shake it, then asked if anyone in the crowd would like to shake it also.
The gathering erupted with hurry ups and get on with its. Smiling, she held the basket above her head, looked Luke daringly in the eyes, and said, "Reverend Martin, please draw a ticket and announce the winner of Lost Pines's most prized filly, Starlight."
The red tickets were similar in shape to playing cards, and the citizens of Bastrop, Republic of Texas, held their collective breath as Reverend Martin removed a single coupon from the basket. He attempted to read it, then frowned. Withdrawing a pair of wirerimmed spectacles from his breast pocket, he hooked them over his ears, then tried again. "Number three, four, seven, six, two," he announced in his loudest pulpit voice.
Luke waited to hear the winner's cheer. All he heard were groans. Beside him, Rafe flipped through his tickets, muttering all the while. "My numbers all start with four. Every last one of them. Aw, hell, I wanted that horse."
Reverend Martin repeated the numbers. All through the crowd, scraps of red paper were being flung into the air. Luke looked from right to left, ahead of him, and behind him. No one called himself winner. Not a blessed soul.
Rafe, impatient as was his habit, called out, "Well, who is it? Who won the raffle? Who stole my horse?"
The thought struck Luke like sixteen-pound cannon shot. His hand went to his pocket. His gaze sought the widow's. She watched him just a tad too innocently.
Never trust a widow woman wearing a yellow dress.
Luke knew the answer before he read the numbers. Three four seven six two. "Son of a bitch."
"What?" Rafe asked.
"It's me. I'm it. I won the widow's raffle."
Copyright © 1996 by Geralyn Dawson Williams