No one asks the dark, brooding stranger about his past. People gossip, but daren't question. He and his young daughter live alone--and that's the way Stuart Taylor wants...needs it to stay.
When the spirited new schoolteacher, Rachel Houston, is touched by Stuart's shy little girl, who's never uttered a word, everything starts to change. Stuart's surly manner doesn't worry Rachel--she can see the vulnerability hidden in the depths of his blue eyes. She's convinced there's more to the rugged, handsome stranger's story. But when the truth comes out, has Rachel the courage to stand by her man?
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November 30, 2007
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Excerpt from The Angel and the Outlaw by Kathryn Albright
Stuart followed Hannah outside and boosted her onto his horse, Blanco. She fidgeted, patting the dusty animal on its withers. He grabbed the lead rope. "See that you don't wiggle right off your perch."
They took the trail that led from the tip of the windy peninsula, four hundred feet above sea level, to the small town on the water's edge. He didn't get into town much, only when supplies ran low, but today was August 10th, Hannah's birthday, and he wanted to make it special for her.
He drew closer to La Playa and his anxiety increased in measure. Surely the risk of discovery had diminished now. It had been more than three years since the accident. Hannah didn't even look the same. She had stretched up into a thin wisp of a girl who seldom stood still. Her naturally pale skin had taken on a golden glow over the long summer days.
He rubbed his smooth chin, remembering the dark beard and mustache that once covered his face. He didn't look the same either. Still, doubts niggled at his mind. Dorian wasn't stupid, and he wasn't a quitter. San Francisco might be five hundred miles away but sooner or later Dorian would find him--and if Dorian found him--so would the law. Perhaps he should think about moving on.
Halfway to town, the trail sloped steeply through a brush- studded canyon. Two small lizards scurried from under the horse's shadow and dashed into the nearby chaparral as he led Blanco around one last sandstone-curve. The harbor opened up before them, deep blue and sparkling in the sunlight. Barely visible through the scruffy bushes to the south lay the whaling port. He raised his face to the wind and sniffed. "Smell that Hannah? Just salt and sage. No whale butchered today."
Turning toward La Playa, he led Blanco past a steamer moored at the new wharf before heading up San Antonio Street and past the Mexican government Custom house. A few odd-shaped buildings, some built of wood and some of adobe, hugged each side of the square like ticks on the ears of a short-haired dog.
Stuart stopped at the community well and filled his canteens, all the while taking in the surrounding sounds the way a deaf man would who for one day is able to hear. Loud clanging rang out from the livery's half-opened doorway as the blacksmith forged a new tool or horseshoe. A thin, aproned woman swept the front boardwalk of the town's only mercantile.
Hannah tugged on his shirt.
"All right, all right. I'm going."
Looping the two canteens over the saddle's horn, he walked back to Morley's Mercantile. Two young women stood at the opened doorway of the store, giggling and whispering behind gloved hands. He glanced up while tying the reins on the hitching rail. Both attractive, especially the blonde. He turned back to help Hannah.
"There on his forehead. Do you see it?"
He slowed in the act of setting Hannah on the ground. So he was to supply their gossip for today. He clenched his hands. He'd hate to disappoint them. Straightening, he leveled his gaze at the two.
The blonde quieted. She must be the banker's wife--or daughter. Her dress was quality through and through, right down to her matching green parasol. He hadn't seen anything so fancy since he'd left San Francisco. Her eyes judged him coolly before she whirled about with a toss of her head and entered the store.
Anger surged through him. Already he could feel people staring at him through the streaked windowpanes. He couldn't care less that they talked about him. But Hannah--Hannah he worried about. She might not talk anymore, but she could hear just fine. He'd like to take her anywhere but into the store right now.
But it was her birthday. And he'd promised this trip for weeks.
He grasped her hand and helped her jump onto the boardwalk before stepping up himself.
The other woman, the one who'd gotten an earful, remained standing in the doorway, curiosity etched in her strong face. He wouldn't call her pretty--yet the sum of her features pulled together in a pleasant way. She wore a plain yellow dress, simple and sturdy, and a straw hat that covered thick auburn hair.
He stepped close--closer than was conventional--and dragged off his seaman's cap, giving her a good view of his scar. He met her unflinching gaze full on--challenging her to speak. She was older than he'd first thought. Fine lines splayed from the corners of her eyes and her nose was sunburned and peeling. He let his gaze wander the length of her until he arrived again at her face, and found himself slightly irritated for enjoying the trip. "By all means, believe everything you hear."
Her cheeks flamed scarlet. With an almost imperceptible nod of her head--or was it actually a raising of her chin?--she stepped aside for him to enter the building.