KING OF HEARTS
(The Gamblers Book 2)
by Pat Pritchard
A Western Romance Novel
Lawman Wade McCord is on the trail of a cold-blooded killer, which leads him to a small stagecoach station in southern Missouri. Pretending to be a down-on-his-luck gambler, Wade convinces Lottie Hammond, the station manager, to give him a job. Although he suspects she's involved with the man he's vowed to bring to justice, Wade finds his beautiful new employer irresistible.
Lottie has learned to mistrust men, thanks to her wastrel father and her outlaw brother-in-law, who is the father of the two children she has claimed as her own. She's not sure why she offers the handsome stranger a job, especially knowing that Wade's presence puts both the children and her secrets at risk.
As Wade's investigation continues, danger draws ever closer to them all. When violence erupts, Lottie learns the brutal truth about Wade and why he has invaded her home. She can't live with another betrayal by a man who matters to her. The only problem is that her heart can't live without him.
Damn and damn again. Wade fanned his cards out and then cursed some more. The only thing he hated more than playing poker was losing at poker. Even when he did so by choice.
And of all nights, Lady Luck had picked this one to show up. Making matters worse, she'd just offered him a gift, and he was going to throw it right back in her face. He could only hope that the lady in question didn't hold grudges, at least not for long. With no little regret, he plucked the pair of queens he'd been dealt and threw them face down on the table.
"I'll take two."
Drawing a careful breath, Wade picked up their replacements and added them to the other three cards in his hand. When he slowly spread them out, two tens stared him in the face. Added to the pair of deuces that had escorted the queens, he could very well win the hand. Shit.
It wasn't hard to feign disgust as he tossed the small pile onto the table and waited for the others to play out the round. Ignoring Lady Luck's generosity was bound to cause him grief. Everyone knew she was both fickle and vengeful.
He'd learned that lesson firsthand years ago when he lost both his ranch and the woman he loved because of a poker game. Cal Preston, the gambler who'd won them both, had taught Wade how to court Lady Luck and win. He'd called it a matter of survival.
However, the price for this evening's work could very well be Wade's life. With grim determination, he set about losing every dime he had.
A few hours later, Wade staggered out of the saloon, deliberately stumbling into a couple of cowboys who were just arriving. They gave him a not so gentle shove to help him on his way. On the whole, his act was a convincing one, even if he did say so himself. Hell, he even smelled like a drunk, down on his luck and reeking of cheap whiskey.
Whistling an off-key rendition of the song the piano player had been hammering out with enthusiasm and no real talent, Wade wandered in the direction of the local stage office. He didn't have the money for a ticket, but that wasn't going to stop him from catching a ride to his planned destination.
He paused long enough to look up at the night sky and immediately wished he hadn't. A falling star flashed and burned out in a single breath. As his eyes followed its path, old memories immediately cluttered up his thoughts, hurting as much as they always had. In his mind's eye, he pictured Lily standing on the front porch of their house.
She used to send her heart's wishes soaring with the stars as they flew across the night sky. With her dark eyes squeezed tightly shut, she'd murmur some small request. Afterward, she always laughed at herself for being silly. But he'd never laughed.
He drew a calming breath. Considering how happy Lily was these days, the old superstition had definitely worked for her. But wishing on a star of any kind hadn't helped Wade at all, not once, no matter how many times he'd tried. He knew that for a fact because if the stars had ever smiled down on him, he would be the one that Lily had married and given her the baby she was due to have in a few weeks. It would be her third.
It took some effort to shove that idea back into the shadowed corners of his mind. He'd been down that road too many times, and nothing ever changed. Seven years ago Lily had married Cal Preston, and Wade had lost everything that had ever mattered to him. Before that, it had been just Wade and Lily struggling together to build a life, but then a turn of a card changed everything for them both.
She'd begged and pleaded with him not to leave the ranch they owned jointly, but the friendship she offered him was worse than her not caring at all. It had been a long time since he'd let anyone close enough who could cause him that kind of pain.
It would be a cold day in hell before he would again.
Time to get moving again before anyone took too much notice of him. Staggering and mumbling to himself, he wandered down the street. Once he'd made sure that no one was watching, he slipped off his drunk act as easily as he could shed a shirt. Moving quickly, he followed the shadows around to the back of the building where the horses and stagecoaches themselves were stabled. He already knew which coach would leave for the Oklahoma Territory at first light.
He'd hidden his saddlebags in a convenient pile of hay behind the barn the night before. After retrieving them, he checked the contents to make sure that nothing had been touched. Satisfied that his guns, spare shirts, and his badge were right where they should be, he tossed his few belongings into the stagecoach and climbed in after them.
With luck, the driver wouldn't know how many people he was supposed to be taking with him in the morning. Wade's boss had promised him that the right people would be bribed into turning a blind eye to an extra passenger. The plan seemed sound, but there was always the chance something would go wrong. If so, he'd deal with it; he always did.
Tomorrow and its problems would come soon enough. For now, he settled into the far corner of the back seat and willed himself to sleep. With luck, he wouldn't dream.