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HIS HIGH-STAKES BRIDE
Texan Brides #3
by Martha Hix
Genre: Historical Romance
Win, lose—or fall in love . . .
After losing her mama and all she has, vagabond Patience “Patty” Sweet dreams of reuniting with her father in the New Mexico territory. So she teams up with a no-good gambler whose winnings enable her to get her closer to her destination. Patty hates hanging around saloons and poker parlors, pulling dishonest deeds. But when a game of five-card draw goes wrong in Lubbock, Texas, Patty gets offered up as collateral—to a handsome stranger who’s about to turn the tables . . .
Lawyer Grant Kincaid has no intention of claiming his prize—a nearly nineteen-year-old petite beauty with sweet eyes—who has a hold on him he can’t deny. But as he tries to help Patty untangle herself from her shady partner, he discovers she’s not as innocent as she seems. For starters, she’s already stolen his hardened heart . . .
Martha Hix grew up in Texas and didn’t mind listening to stories about how her ancestors had been in the place for a long, long time. Well, in Texas that just meant more than a hundred years. This weird kid soaked up the stories and became an ardent student of family and general history, which came in handy when she took to writing both fiction and non-fiction. Eventually, her romance novels were translated into many foreign languages, some of them very foreign, like Japanese, Greek, and Turkish. On the home front, she lives in the fabulous Texas Hill Country with her husband and their spoiled four-legged kids. Visit her on the web at marthahix.com.
Lubbock, Texas, 1910 Under a full moon
It is a sad day in a woman’s life when she comes to grips with weakness of character. Today might have been that way for Patience Eileen Sweet, but she couldn’t dwell on something like that. Not this day, which had turned into a warm autumn night in 1910. Not when she intended to escape the mess of her own making. Her papa would have told her, “Patty Cake, proceed with caution.” He always claimed full moons bring babies, lunatics, and any number of disasters, particularly mine cave-ins.
Tonight would bring change; that she knew beforehand. This night unfolded for Patty in a saloon. By the midnight hour the floozies had served their last drinks and were nowhere to be seen, most of the customers having cleared out. The bartender did nothing to cover his yawns. Cigar smoke still curled toward the tin ceiling. Gaming chips still pinged. Three gamblers refused to give in or give up.
Still and all, it would be over soon.
Looking up from her mending, she meant to steal a glance at her “stepbrother,” but she locked gazes with one of the gamblers instead, and not for the first time this evening. The three were close enough that she could get a good look—he was the handsomest man she’d ever seen. As he had the other times, he nodded once. There was a puzzled, curious look to his fine features, certainly not the nasty-old-pervert leer that Dorinda had warned her to look out for.
She did like this man’s black-haired, blue-eyed looks. He wore the garb of a West Texan—a yoked shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons and denim britches that hugged him just right. His boots were the same kind that cowboys wore, only this ’poke’s weren’t scuffed or worn out. His clothes looked too clean, his hair and chin too smooth for a man of the land. He looked rich.
Patty moved her line of sight to her partner-in-crime, Chet Merkel. It was his turn to deal, and she could tell he was losing at five-card stud. They couldn’t afford for him to lose, not even for one evening, yet she prayed for his bad luck.
She knew what his next move would be. He’d barter her virginity. For the third time.
Twice before to two different men in two different towns.
Tonight it was Scarlet Garter Jenny’s Saloon. The “winner” would be a short, dark sheriff wearing a big, thick wedding ring. Or else the winner might be that curious fellow—the smooth-shaven pretty boy that the drunkards, gamblers, and preening waitresses called “counselor” and “mouthpiece,” with “Grant” or “Kincaid” thrown in from time to time. Well, the painted ladies usually said “Sugar.”
Neither of these men looked as gullible as the previous winners of her so-called prize.
Anyway, Patty knew how to get out of being the night’s reward. Did she even want to? Just looking at Grant Kincaid had her in a tizzy. One way or another, things would be different tonight. She was cutting all ties to her double-dealing snake of a “stepbrother,” Chet Merkel.
Definitely, she wouldn’t be rendezvousing with Chet later.
* * * *
Grant Kincaid spent many nights at the poker table. As a bachelor uninterested in ice-cream socials or musical recitals performed by the boring flowers of Lubbock society, he lacked choices beyond reading and visiting friends or relatives. Not that he had any local relatives, beyond the Kincaids of the High Hopes farm and ranch and their relatives, the Craigs. He hailed from the shoals of the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama. Besides, he enjoyed playing cards. After the last hand of an evening, he sometimes got lucky with one of the tarts, two if he was really lucky. He liked ’em ripe, filled out, and hotter than a thin-skinned jalapeño pepper under the broiling Texas sun.
Tonight, he’d been leery of the tinhorn already at the Garter when Grant arrived for Thursday night poker. The odd-looking fellow, who’d shown up with an adolescent sister in tow, wanted to join the game between Grant and the general store proprietor, a local rancher, noted baker Mrs. Jewel Craig, and Sheriff Wes Alington, who played whenever his mother went visiting in San Angelo.
The last seat was occupied by a cotton-gin salesman from Dallas. Since the High Hopes Ranch showed that cotton could be successfully grown in West Texas, cotton had become a popular way to make money in the previous decade.
Tonight, the table cleared early with the less-than-dapper newcomer— he introduced himself as Chet Merkel—taking several hands. Jewel the baker bowed out first. Next went the general store man and the rancher. The cotton-gin representative took his leave after his third bad hand. That left Alington, Grant, and the tinhorn.
Luck started going Grant’s way, then the sheriff’s.
Always cool and quiet at the table, the compactly built lawman wore black and a shiny silver star, but never a sign of his wealth. His history with card playing didn’t reach far back. After he’d married a Valkyrie from the Hill Country, he’d taken up gaming. His mother had and would object to just about anything that might have “enjoyment” tacked to it, but the missus advised Alington just to do what he wanted, as long as he was smart enough to hide it from Mother Dear and it didn’t involve cavorting with other women. That was laughable. The sheriff had eyes only for his Lisa-Ann. Grant hoped when he found a wife that he could love her even half as much as Alington idolized the blonde from The Divide.
“Do you plan to answer my bet, Mr. Merkel?” Wes Alington pointed to the five green chips he’d slid to the center of the baize-covered table.
A bead of sweat popped on Merkel’s temple. Carelessly flicking cigar ashes on the floor, he cast a glance at his sister who sat primly in a straight chair in the corner, mending a garment that looked to be a shirt.
Grant eyed the girl, as he had several times. This dimple-cheeked young lady had long titian-hued hair held up in a big white bow. Dressed in the childish style of a sailor, she wore leggings that covered her slender calves, and her hems were short, befitting a little girl. He would bet every last chip in front of him that she wasn’t a day over sixteen.
She was too young to be candy to the senses. Most men of his age wanted to marry girls of sixteen or seventeen—often even younger, to pluck a cherry from the tree—but this man preferred women to girls, and he wasn’t angling for a wife.
That’s what he liked to tell himself. In truth, he yearned to find the ideal lady to fill the emptiness of his heart and home.
“See your bet, Sheriff, and raise you a hundred.” The girl’s brother tossed the required chips atop Alington’s last bet.
One hundred? A ridiculous bet for a friendly game. It was time to end this nonsense. Given his excellent hand, Grant figured the only call for Merkel was “quits.” He said, “Raise you two hundred.”
It turned out that Alington had bluffed with two jacks. He folded, saying, “Too rich for me. And it’s past my Lisa-Ann’s tuck-in time. Don’t want to miss that.”
He took his leave; then Merkel covered the bet.
“Raise you five hundred,” Grant challenged, feeling confident with his four-of-a-kind and ready for bed himself. Circuit court would convene this Saturday and he had a pair of cases to review tomorrow.
The stranger sucked his cigar, squinting at his challenger. He was squinty- eyed to begin with. “Look, I’m short on chips. I can cover your bet, but I’ll have to collect the cash from the hotel’s strongbox. Tomorrow morning.”
“That’s not the way we play poker in Lubbock, my friend.” “I have…collateral.”
“How is that?”
“That girl—I mean, lady—over there.” The way he spoke, a person would think the room had dozens of females. “That lovely brown-eyed lady. She’s my collateral.”
“You don’t like women?”
“Don’t go there, my friend.”
“I’m asking for a break, sir. I’m trying to bet a good hand. A hand so pat that I’m willing to put up my own sister as my stake.”
“Your sister.” Grant saw absolutely no family resemblance. Of course, this was Texas, where families socialized in barrooms, and even brought their little children along. “Same mother, or same father?”
“Same mo—same father.”
That stumble gave Merkel away as a liar. Grant saw no need to tread that avenue. “I don’t know where you’re from, but brothers don’t bring their sisters to places like this, not one on one.”
“I beg your pardon, sir. She’s my sister. My one and only. What was I to do with her? Leave her alone in the hotel tonight?”
Grant took another look. Earlier, he’d seen Jewel Craig buying the girl a glass of milk that went untouched. “Don’t you think she might enjoy a root beer, or at least a cup of water? She’s been sitting there for hours.” While you’ve swilled several beers.
“If Patience wants something, she’ll find a way to get it.”
If a man said something like that in Alabama, a gentleman would jump to the young lady’s rescue to fetch her a refreshment, if he didn’t have a servant to do it. He would certainly want to know what part of the North the uncouth toad hailed from. This wasn’t the Deep South. Grant asked, “Are you going to take my raise or not?”
“What about my problem? I’ve got money. Plenty. Oklahoma money. Forty-sixth state money. That’s where we’re from, Oklahoma. Tulsa. Oil country. I just made a stack on mineral rights.”
“Is that so?” Grant didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the newest state, although his friend the sheriff had mentioned Oklahoma being a place that gushed oil.
Merkel flicked his index finger along the top of his hand of cards, ruffling the five. “I’ve got a hand I believe in. Allow me to stay in the game on the strength of an evening with my sister. Just think. My sweet, untouched sister, right over there, preparing you a tasty breakfast in the morning. Could happen. Or not.”
Grant Kincaid took the measure of Chet Merkel, seeing a beady-eyed fellow of about twenty. He grew a thin, kinked beard to cover a lack of chin. Pomade slicked the brown hair over his dome. His sartorial effects had been tailored to a larger man. Truth to tell, his observer almost felt sorry for the man. He was not an impressive negotiator. All in all, he came across as hard luck.
Grant eyed the girl again. The needlework now in her lap, she stared back, her eyes big and round. She too looked desperate, with scared mixed in. He eyed Merkel again. Did this idiot even realize what he’d suggested? “What are you doing, bringing your sister into a saloon? She’s a child.”
“It’s not against the law. She’s nineteen.”
“Fifteen. And you’re not her guardian.”
“Says who? And she’s nineteen.”
“Save it, son. I am not fooled.”
“All right. She’s eighteen. You’re correct. She’s not my sister. She’s a stepsister…after a fashion.”
Grant groaned and rolled his eyes.
Merkel ground out his cigar. “She’s Patience Sweet, sir. In December of ’08, her pa left for a mining job in the Territory of New Mexico. He’s not been heard from since. He’s dead, likely. Her mother believes so. She took up with my pa. They live as man and wife. Somewhere in Oklahoma. Exactly where, I cannot say, because Patience and I do not know.”
Grant noticed she dabbed her eye with a hankie. Poor innocent.
“Her ma abandoned her. Left her with the rent overdue. When I arrived to find my father and to collect an inheritance that should’ve been mine, what I found was this young woman. The total of my inheritance, you might say, was the suit on my back and the contents of Patience’s larder—a roach on a reduction diet.”
“What kind of family does she hail from, where they abandon their own?” What an idiotic question. One look at Merkel answered that, really. These folks scraped by. As a lawyer, Grant had witnessed how badly families could and did treat their own.
The mineral-rights money? Dollars to doughnuts, there wasn’t any. Merkel was saying, “Me, I’m headed to Juarez, then on down to Chihuahua City. I’ve got my own mining ideas. It’s a crystal palace, that part of Mexico. Crystals have value in numerous regards and will make me a wealthy man. As soon as Patience got wind of my travel plans, she latched on. She hopes to connect with her father, or news of him, in El Paso.”
“Where’s your problem with that?”
“Not a problem one, sir. How fortunate for you, not knowing what it’s like to be hungry.”
“You don’t know that.”
“True. What I do know is, the Universe favored my mother and me in the form of a dear old gypsy who took us in when my father turned us out. Thus, I owed the universe a favor, so I have looked after Patience Sweet. It ain’t been easy. Somebody latches on; they have to be provided for. That one, she got a toothache. That meant a dentist. She got her womanly, it ruint her dress. I had to buy another. She eats like a horse. You ever fed a horse?”
This tale of desperation had a ring of truth to it, not that cockamamie oil nonsense. “How long has she been…‘latched’ to you?”
Half a year. Hundreds of nights where Merkel begrudged every spent cent. He was now at the point to barter her services. Good God. The villain probably defiled her himself. Grant had to know: “What exactly are you offering, should I win?”
“Whatever you wish between now and breakfast’s end. You meet me back here at, say, ten in the morning. Treat her kindly, sir. Leave no visible scars that will ruin her for the Juarez market.”
Grant looked at the girl. She was listening to the exchange, the poor thing. He turned back to the man who would sell her, as if she were a hunk of meat. “I’m to wager a half thousand gold-backed dollars to spend the night with a scared little girl?”
“That’s the size of it. And you left out ‘virgin.’” “What does she have to say about that?”
“She won’t mind. She takes what comes to her.”
That thought further turned Grant’s stomach. He leaned toward Merkel to whisper, “Is she simpleminded?”
“Pretty much. Has been since her baby sister died while in her care and keeping. Broke her spirit.”
Grant wondered if anything good had ever happened to poor little Patience Sweet.
Merkel was saying, “I’ve offered her to you for the night, because I know in my heart that Patience will sleep in her cozy bed at the Antlers Hotel tonight. And I’ll have my thousand dollars when I reach the Rio Grande.”
“What about her father?”
“If he has my asking price, I’ll do the right thing and let him have her.
I won’t even ask for the full thousand.”
“Aren’t you the gallant?” Grant sneered. “Tell me something. What makes you think she won’t have something to say about this?”
Merkel rolled his stogie from one side of his mouth to the other. He leaned his chair back, propping himself up to grin. “That’s the beauty of it. Patience can’t speak. She’s a mute. She does as she’s told. Except to stay away from me.”
He’s playing me for a fool. The issue became a case of betting five hundred dollars to save her from white slavery.
Grant hitched a thumb toward the exit door. “Forget it. Get the hell out of here.”
“Wait just a minute, sir.” Chair legs banged to the floor, sawdust swirling. “If you don’t take my offer, that means you just want to keep all the money I’ve wagered this evening.”
“This is an honest game. You played. You won for a while. You started losing.” When that didn’t seem to sink in, Grant asked, “Do you not know there are laws against selling women’s favors?”
It was then that he caught sight of the girl again. Standing now, the mending at her feet, her fingers were a steeple beneath her chin, begging his help. She mouthed the word “please.” He knew right then and there he had to win the hand.