Mystic Creek Series
Harrigan Family Series
Coulter Family Series
Kendrick Family Series
Other Contemporary Romance
Valance Family Series
Coulter Family Series Historical
Other Historical Titles
WALKING ON AIR
Gazing at the woman he'd just bedded, Gabriel Valance strapped on his double-holster gun belt, tested each Colt .45 to be sure it slipped easily from the leather, and then tied the thongs that kept both weapons firmly seated low on his hips.
Grinning sleepily up at him, the young but experienced prostitute murmured, "Merry Christmas, gunslinger. It was nice to have a true gentleman pay me a visit for once."
When was the last time anyone had referred to him as a gentleman? Gabe couldn't remember. He glanced at her again, feeling a familiar compassion. This woman lacked the hard edge he'd seen in most working girls. If she considered him to be cut from fine cloth, Gabe shuddered to think what caliber of man she normally entertained.
"Yeah," he said. "I guess it is Christmas Day, isn't it? Merry Christmas."
She nodded. "I can remember better ones. But thanks." She sat up, letting the sheet fall from her small, well-formed breasts. She reached up to push her brown hair out of her eyes, and for an instant he thought he saw the glint of tears. He wondered how life had turned her down the path of selling herself and condemned her to spending Christmas in a shabby room that smelled of a succession of men she didn't love.
Ambivalence rose within Gabe at the thought of Christmas and all the traditions of worship associated with the holiday. In a vague way, he believed in God, but as a kid, he'd never been taken to church or even taught to pray. The celebration of Christ's birthday each year had barely made an impression on his hardscrabble existence. Christmas was a time for people with homes, families, and faith. Gabe, born to a prostitute who'd died young and sired by a gambler who had acknowledged him only after death, had grown into adulthood as a street orphan, stealing garments from clotheslines to stay warm, sleeping in hidey-holes to remain dry, and scavenging for food to keep from starving. In his experience, only other folks lived in regular homes with families who cared, and did things like celebrate Christmas.
For some reason, the whore's wishing him a merry Christmas triggered a queer sense of something lost. Well, he'd learned long ago not to dwell on might-have-beens. He knew that people exchanged gifts at Christmas, and he could at least make one person happy today. The girl had asked him for two dollars, a high rate even in cities. He slid a hand into his pocket, brought out a five-dollar gold piece, and handed it to her. As she thanked him, her voice tight with some emotion he couldn't identify, he fished out two gold eagles and casually laid his hand on the top of her dresser to release the coins. She'd find them later, after he'd gone. Maybe she'd get herself a new dress. Better yet, maybe she'd purchase a stage ticket and get out of this hellhole town in search of a better life.
Not that other towns would necessarily offer better. In his younger days Gabe had believed that something sweeter existed just beyond the next bend in the trail, but after thirty-three years of disappointments, he'd finally come to accept that it was a grim old world, and a goodly number of folks who walked the earth with him were as hard put to find happiness as he was.
He didn't look back as he left the shabby enclosure and stepped out onto the landing, which was sheltered by only a shingled roof that connected the brothel rooms to the tavern next door. A nice bit of civility, Gabe thought with a grimace. The fine gents of Random, Colorado, could frequent the bar, have a few social drinks, and then sneak like thieves in the night to the upstairs rooms, where all semblance of respectability vanished as they unbuckled their belts. Then, of course, to avoid explaining the expenditure to their wives, a lot of them tried to cheat the whores out of their fees when it came time to pay. That was a fine gentleman for you, long on looks and short on honor. Now that Gabe came to think of it, he didn't take it as a compliment to be compared to one of the bastards.
He stood on the landing, staring at the snow falling just beyond the boardwalk. The flakes melted the instant they landed on the packed-dirt street, but judging by the thickness of the downfall, Gabe guessed the ground would be white within a couple of hours. The upstanding citizens of Random would be pleased to get snow on Christmas. Personally, Gabe thought snow was about as much fun as chiggers in his boot socks, but then, he'd never really celebrated Christmas properly. He'd glimpsed the festivities only through windows, and the way his life was playing out, that was how it would stay. No decorated tree, no wonderful smells coming from an oven, no gaily wrapped gifts. Gunslingers didn't get to enjoy things like that, and he'd learned long ago to curl his lip at all the folderol and pretend he wanted no part of it.
As he started down the steps, he heard a whisper of rushed movement under the stairwell. Stopping dead, he hovered his hands over the butts of his Colts before he continued down the steps. As he neared the boardwalk, he grasped the railing to vault over it and drop to the ground beside the staircase. On edge, he leaned low to peer into the deep shadows not yet illuminated by light of day, still an hour or so away. Narrowing his eyes, Gabe quickly made out a huddled form on the ground— a ragamuffin boy who sat with his thin back pressed into the corner created by the two exterior walls of the tavern and the brothel. The child clutched his arms around his knees in a pitiful search for warmth.
Memories blackened Gabe's mind, for he'd spent many a cold night as a small child under the stairwell that led up to his mother's room— a room where she'd been nice to the gentlemen, frequently abused for her trouble, and, more times than not, had earned too little to feed her child, let alone herself. To this day, Gabe had no idea what kind of sickness had taken her. He'd been— what?— five or six when she died. Much too young to understand death without some adult to explain it to him. A man in a black frock coat had tromped up the stairs, followed by two male helpers, and they had carted Gabe's mother away on a board, her body covered by a sheet, one of her arms dangling. Gabe could remember yelling out, "Where are you taking my mama?" And the man in black, whom Gabe now realized had been the undertaker, turned to say, "She's gone, boy." Gone? Gabe could still see his mother, her slender arm and delicate hand swinging like a wet rag. What did gone mean? How could she be gone when Gabe could still see her, plain as day?
Nobody had visited Gabe's shadowy, damp hiding place below his mother's room to explain that his mother had died. Over the next few days, an older prostitute named Priss had occasionally tossed him a hunk of bread, saving Gabe from starvation, until he'd finally come to understand that gone meant his mother wasn't going to return. She would never again wait until all the men stopped knocking at her door and then sneak him upstairs into her room. Her gentle arms would never again hug him close. The endlessly long, cold nights would never again end in her bed, which had been dry and warm even though it reeked of the countless men who'd lain between the sheets. There would be no more bits of food to make his belly stop gnawing. No loving hands to brush his black hair from his eyes. Gabe's world had ended as if someone had obliterated it with a stick of dynamite.
Maybe it was those memories that prompted Gabe to bend at the waist to get under the stairwell. The boy cowered against the wall, shrinking inside his tattered clothing. Even in the dimness, Gabe could see that the kid's oversize wool jacket was so full of holes that only a few threads held it together. Gabe crouched a distance away, recalling all too clearly how much he'd come to fear adults when he'd been a kid on the street.
"Hey," he said, trying to smooth the gruffness from his voice. "What're you doing down here?"
Nuthin' made sense to Gabe. Long ago, he would have answered the same way. "Where's your mother?"
The boy had dark, dirty hair that fell over his face in oily hanks. With a jerk of his head, he indicated the upstairs rooms. "She used to work up there. Then she went off with some cowpoke, sayin' she'd come back for me. I'm still waitin'."
Gabe had a bad feeling that the kid's mama was gone coon, a cowboy's way of saying gone forever. Maybe the mother had taken sick. Or maybe she'd hooked up with some bastard who'd injured her so badly she couldn't return. In the end, the woman's fate didn't matter. She'd left a child behind, and Gabe understood just what that meant for this boy. The hell of it was, Gabe was powerless to intervene. He couldn't take on a kid to raise, even though the idea had some appeal. Because of his father's belated sense of responsibility as he lay dying, Gabe had been left a heap of money back in Kansas City, enough that, after selling all of his sire's fancy gambling houses, he could live in high cotton for the rest of his life. Sadly, circumstances had never allowed him that luxury. For one, he didn't know how to live fancy, and second, his reputation as a gunslinger kept him on the trail, trying to avoid upstarts who wanted to make a name for themselves. All Gabe had at any given moment was his horse, a saddle, two trail blankets, a little dry food in his bags, and enough coin in his pocket to lie over in some out-of-the-way town until he got the itchy feeling that always told him it was time to move on. Then, if he was lucky— and he wasn't always— he could slip away, ride the trail hard, and spend some time in another town before some man, young or old, called him out into the street. That was no life for a kid. Gabe's existence could end abruptly, and then what would happen to the youngster? Besides, Gabe didn't want this boy's death on his conscience, if the child got between him and a bullet.
The thought made Gabe shudder. He'd been in Random for only a month, but he was already getting that itchy feeling. Tomorrow, with Christmas over and the shops in most towns along the trail open for business again, he'd be moving on. It didn't matter to him that it was the dead of winter, or that he had only the brim of his Stetson to keep the snow from slipping under the collar of his coat. But a boy couldn't endure such harsh conditions.
Still, Gabe couldn't bring himself to walk away. He considered his options. There weren't many. The kid was too young for Gabe to give him a bunch of money. He'd piddle it away or lose it, or it'd be stolen, and in the end, he'd end up under the stairwell again. Maybe, Gabe decided, he could stay over an extra day, guarding his back every second, and talk with the local preacher. Surely there was a family in town who'd be willing to take in a kid and raise him properly— if Gabe offered enough money to make it worthwhile. Money talked. He'd sure learned that. And he'd learned, too, that few people could do such a deed out of the goodness of their hearts. This boy would be an extra mouth to feed, bottom line, and folks with smallish incomes would be unable to say yes unless the boy came with a generous monthly stipend attached.
Yes, Gabe decided, he'd stay an extra day and see if he couldn't get this kid settled somewhere. At present, though, it was a hair before dawn on Christmas morning, when the preacher and his flock would be celebrating the birth of Christ. Nobody would have the time or interest to consider the fate of an orphaned boy until the holiday passed.
Gabe drew a third gold eagle from his trouser pocket and, with the ease of long practice, gave it a toss. The coin landed on its edge and rolled to the gouged and holey tips of the boy's boots, which appeared to be several sizes too small, judging by the protrusion of one toe extending well beyond the sole. Gabe's excellent aim, much to his shame, came from frequently following in his father's footsteps, elbows braced on a poker table in some gaudy saloon. The one and only good thing Gabe could say that he'd inherited from his dad was a gift for playing cards. Learning how to spin a coin on its edge across green felt had served him well over the years. It kept his hands free to go for his guns if some cocky asshole decided to call him a cheat. More than one man had lost his life over a poker game. Gabe had made it a point not to become one of them.
"Boy," he said softly, "there's ten dollars to get yourself some decent clothes. You can't buy any today. It's Christmas and all the shops are closed. But you can get some tomorrow."
The kid snatched at the coin, closed his fingers around it, and stuck a grubby fist into his pocket. The twist of his lips that passed for a smile was clearly visible to Gabe in the charcoal gloom. "Mister, my belly's emptier than a beggar's pocket. Ain't clothes I'll buy."
Gabe lifted his hands. "No need to buy food. I plan to mosey next door for a couple of whiskeys to wet my throat, but afterward I'll take you out for a big breakfast, and you can roll all the leftovers up in a napkin to hold you for the rest of the day."
The kid's unchildlike gaze locked with Gabe's. "Yeah? After a couple of jiggers you're gonna feed me? Hell, mister, thanks for the money, but I know better than that."
Gabe recognized that snort. He'd made it himself more than a few times— mostly as a disillusioned youngster. He stared hard at the kid for a long moment. "I said I'll be back to take you to breakfast. The hotel restaurant stays open for guests. We'll have ourselves a feast. But first, I got a gnaw in my gut for a little whiskey."
The boy nodded indifferently. Obviously, he didn't believe Gabe would return. "You a drunk?"
Gabe nearly smiled. He tipped a glass now and again, but he wasn't dependent upon alcohol. He simply had an inner clock that told him it was still way too early for the hotel to be serving breakfast, and, God help him, one of the few pleasures in his life was a good belt of booze after being with a woman.
"No, not a drunk." Gabe backed out from under the stairs and straightened. "Keep your appetite sharp. I'll be back in a few minutes."
As Gabe turned toward the tavern, he realized how lonely and utterly empty he felt. He wanted so much more out of life, but the good stuff, like taking that boy under his wing, always seemed just beyond his reach. A quiet hopelessness welled up inside him, bringing unaccustomed and unwelcome pain. Things were never going to change. He was never going to change. And the hell of it was, he wasn't really sure he wanted to go on living if this was how it would always be, day after meaningless day blending into equally meaningless nights. Dodging bullets because some punk wanted to be known throughout the West as the fastest draw. What was the point?
A few steps took Gabe to the bat-wing doors of the saloon. He pushed them open, scanned the few men sitting at tables wreathed in smoke, and then walked over to stand at the bar. Behind him, the room fell silent. Well, he was used to that. His formidable reputation with a gun made him fearsome to a lot of folks. "A bottle of your best whiskey and one glass," he told the barkeep.
Bald pate gleaming in the lamplight, the plump older man slung a white towel over his shoulder, pulled the cork on a bottle, and then set it and a glass in front of Gabe. "Merry Christmas."
Gabe nodded as he poured a two-finger measure of amber liquid into the tumbler. After one gulp followed by a whistle through his teeth, Gabe barely suppressed a shiver. Even so, he sloshed another measure of alcohol into the glass, downing it quickly so he'd get the burn over with fast. Though he didn't often overindulge, he knew that drinking rotgut liquor most of the time because nothing better was available meant he'd probably die with yellow skin from liver disease, just like his father. At the thought, Gabe poured another jigger. Why not? It wasn't as if he had one damned thing to live for.
The barkeep moved to the far end of the counter to serve another man, a seedy-looking fellow in a rumpled gray suit. The doctor, maybe? In the month that Gabe had been in Random, he'd kept pretty much to himself and still couldn't recognize all of the town's residents on sight. He studied the man in the mirror that lined the opposite wall, which, by power of reflection, made the establishment's liquor stock look a lot more ample than it was. The fellow had a thin, haggard countenance, a large nose to support his wire-framed spectacles, and a prominent Adam's apple that bobbed with nervousness above his dingy white shirt collar, which sported a limp, off-kilter red necktie, the loops escaping from a tarnished stickpin. His blue gaze locked with Gabe's in the mirror. Recalling his manners, of which he had few, Gabe looked away and found himself staring at his own reflection.
Christ on crutches. He looked like the very devil, his attire all black from his Stetson on down. His jet hair needed a trim, the shaggy ends shining in the light where they curled over his collar. His eyes, the color of thrice-boiled coffee, glittered like polished stones in his sun-darkened, sharply chiseled face. No wonder ladies veered off the boardwalk to avoid encounters with him, and people fell silent when he entered a building. He had the look of a coldhearted killer.
Well, that was fitting. He was a killer, though he'd never set out to be— or had a choice. Some people believed they were in control of their lives, but Gabe had learned the hard way, and at a young age, that fate was as fickle and inconstant with her favors as a dance-hall girl.
Remembering his breakfast date with the ragged, hungry boy, Gabe corked his bottle, asked the barkeep to put his name on it, tossed a coin on the bar, and left the saloon. As he pushed through the doors onto the boardwalk, he saw signs that people were awakening to celebrate Christmas. Scattered ribbons of chimney smoke canted upward into the gunmetal gray sky. He fleetingly imagined the interiors of the homes from which the smoke came. Sleepy children staggering downstairs to stare in wonder at the gifts left for them under the Christmas tree. Cheerful fires crackling on brick hearths. Gaily decorated stockings stuffed with sweets. Women stoking their stoves to roast stuffed turkeys. Was that really what Christmas was like?
In comparison to the cozy pictures in his mind, Main Street looked funereal, the windows of the shops dark and bleak, snow drifting listlessly through the gloom. Only one spot of brightness shimmered in the dreariness, the windows of the milliner's shop a half block away. Candles flickered on the interior sills, warm beacons to a lonely man. Gabe bypassed the stairwell where the boy waited, thinking he'd come right back, and strode slowly toward the light, yearning to catch just one brief glimpse of Christmas before it turned daylight and he'd be caught staring through windows.
Several yards before he reached his destination, Gabe heard a man call his name. The hairs on his nape prickled. He had lived through this same scene too many times not to know how it always unfolded. Hand hovering over his six-shooter, he whirled to face the danger. He glimpsed movement in the shadows of a building. Then he heard a shot ring out and knew that whoever was lurking in the folds of darkness meant to kill him in an unfair exchange of lead.
For an instant, Gabe welcomed the thought and didn't go for his weapon. But then his instinct to survive took over. He slapped leather and fired at the black blur of a man . . . and felt a slug of lead plow into his chest with such stunning force that he was knocked backward and off his feet before he heard the second report of his opponent's gun.
Lying motionless on the frozen ground and staring stupidly at the still-dark sky, he felt no pain, just an odd heaviness and an awful coldness.
"I got him!" a man shouted. "I shot Gabriel Valance! Me! Pete Raintree!"
Gabe managed to turn his head slightly and saw a thin young man staggering toward him, crimson already staining the front of his jacket. The youth's legs gave out just before he reached Gabe. He fell to his knees with a bewildered expression in his eyes and then touched the blood on his jacket as if he couldn't quite believe it was there.
"Dammit, you went and kilt me, mister."
The younger man no sooner uttered the words than he pitched face-first into the frozen mud, dead before he ever hit the ground. Gabe tried to sit up, but his limbs wouldn't work and there was no air.
This is it, Gabe thought, and returned his gaze to the sky. The air around him smelled faintly of gun smoke, whiskey, and the metallic sweetness of blood. A fitting end. The chill of Gabe's gun butt lay against his palm, his fingers limp around it. He regretted that he'd ever pulled the damn thing from its holster. The dead youth beside him was barely old enough to be dry behind the ears, yet Gabe had snuffed out his life. And all for what? So he could lie in the street and die with snow pelting him in the face?
It hit Gabe then that no one would mourn his passing, not even the boy for whom he'd promised to buy breakfast. As the fog of death closed in around him, as the effort to breathe became exhausting, he felt a clawing regret. He wished that just one person would cry for him, that just one person might miss him. Just one. But in all his miserable life, not once since his mother had died, had he known or earned that kind of sentiment. He'd caused plenty of tears, he guessed, but none of them had been shed for him.
His world was growing colder and darker. Why couldn't things have been different? Why, despite all his efforts and good intentions, had he been unable to change? It's Christmas, dammit. People shouldn't die on Christmas. His unsteady gaze searched for the brightly illuminated windows of the hatmaker's shop. In the moment of brilliant clarity that comes right before death, he managed to focus. Candlelight beamed in the window, casting a cheerful amber glow over the artfully draped fir boughs that framed the glass. The greenery outlined the face of a woman, her solemn gaze fixed on Gabe, her blond hair shimmering like a halo. She was so beautiful Gabe wondered if he wasn't already dead and seeing an angel.
Dark spots dotted his vision. Her sweet countenance began to swim in and out, clear one moment, gone the next. With every ounce of his remaining strength, Gabe tried to keep his eyes open, but the blackness grew thicker until it settled over him like a blanket, wiping out everything, even awareness.
Gabe jerked back to fuzzy consciousness, then blinked, startled half out of his wits to find himself standing outside a wooden shack with a closed rickety door hanging slightly awry from rusty hinges. He clamped a hand over his chest, expecting to find blood, but felt only the front of his shirt and firm, unwounded flesh under the cloth. I'm dead, he thought. Only this isn't how it's supposed to be. Where the hell are the pearly gates? Maybe better people got pearls and streets paved in gold, while others, like him, were sent to the back entrance. Just deserts. After the life he'd lived, he couldn't expect a grand reception. Not that he'd ever believed in, or even heard much about, the pearly gates. His lack of faith undoubtedly accounted for the fact that the door was closed, barring his entrance.
So now what? Where was he supposed to go? He turned, glanced down, and felt his heart skip a beat when he saw that his boots rested on what looked like a wispy cloud. He stepped sideways, but there wasn't any earth. Jumpin' Jehoshaphat. What was holding him up? He felt his chest again, to reassure himself that he still had a body.
Suddenly two men appeared outside the shack. They wore long, flowing white robes and had rope sandals on their feet. One blond, the other brunette, they each sported long hair falling to just below the shoulder. Gabe assumed they were some sort of entrance attendants— only, the entrance to where? Given that he'd killed a young man only moments before dying himself, he didn't care to explore the possibilities. He wasn't all that sure heaven even existed, but he knew from personal experience that hell certainly did, even though the hell he'd lived in since early childhood had been on earth.
Without a word, the two men— were they angels who'd forgotten their wings?— entered the structure and gestured for Gabe to follow them. Gabe wasn't real sure he wanted to. What was in there, a yawning hole that led to an eternity of fire and brimstone? But he couldn't spend eternity standing outside a stupid shack that looked like a good sneeze would blow it over. Feeling shaky, which was unusual for him, he stepped inside but left the door hanging open behind him, just in case he needed to make a quick escape. His boots made no sound on the floor, and Gabe, bewildered by the lack of noise, looked down to discover that he still stood on clouds, not wooden planks, as he'd expected.
The men had taken seats behind a paper-strewn table that looked highly unorganized, and then they proceeded to quarrel heatedly over Gabe's identity, one of them convinced Gabe was someone named Abe Van Horn, the other insisting he was Pete Raintree, the boy Gabe had just shot. Trying to look as if he didn't resent being talked about as if he weren't there, Gabe averted his gaze and found himself staring stupidly at the men's bare knees and lower legs, revealed beneath the table. Apparently they'd hitched up their robes to get more comfortable.
Holding up a hand, Gabe forced himself to look them in the eye and said, "Hold it! My name's Gabriel Valance. I'm guessing you two are angels. Right? But where the hell are your wings? Do you dress different to greet newcomers or something? And am I at the wrong entrance or is this the back way into hell?"
Gabe had never pictured male angels with bony knees and hairy legs. Now that he thought about it, he'd always had a vague idea that angels were female. And he wasn't any too sure he wanted into heaven if it meant he'd have to wear one of those girlish-looking robes. Not that he was likely to get an engraved invitation, anyway.
The two men began shuffling a little frantically through their papers. Their eyes widened as they scanned Gabe's life history. With an appalled expression on his face, the blond angel glanced up and asked how a man with a respectable name like Gabriel could have led such a deplorable life. Gabe suspected he was face-to-face with the archangel Gabriel— a biblical figure almost everyone had heard of, even if they didn't go to church. Apparently the angel was none too pleased that one of his namesakes had been such a miserable sinner.
Still, delivered by an angel or not, such a sweeping condemnation seemed uncalled-for. Gabe felt a little indignant. "Come on," he said. "I haven't lived that bad a life. Aside from killing a few people, of course. But that was in self-defense, and I never really had a choice. It was shoot back or die myself. You going to hold that against me?"
The two men assumed stern expressions, making Gabe feel like a boy about to be dressed down by the schoolmaster, not that he'd ever been fortunate enough to experience that dubious pleasure. Even so, he wasn't far off the mark. From out of the clouds surrounding the shack, Gabe suddenly heard voices. After listening a moment, he realized they belonged to people from his past, a recounting of conversations they'd once had about him. In nearly every exchange, he was either cursed or greatly feared by the speakers. Only a couple of old ladies who knew him as a boy had anything good to say, and that was more pitying than anything else. Poor little Gabriel Valance. That boy doesn't stand a chance.
Gabe figured that just about covered his life story, and since he was clearly dead, his chance to make amends was gone. Never a man to put off the inevitable, he asked, "Where is hell? Sounds to me like I may as well make tracks in that direction. As you two have pointed out, I've killed fourteen men, counting the one this morning. Why bother reading the rest of my history? I don't want to wear a damned robe, anyway."
The two men regarded Gabe with saddened expressions, and in a flash, the clouds around Gabe's ankles turned to flame.
"Ow! Holy hell, that's hot!" He lifted his feet, trying in vain to escape the heat. "This isn't fair. I shouldn't have to go through this until I actually get there!"
Before Gabe felt any real sting, the angels waved away the flames. "Do you still have an aversion to wearing a robe?" the blond asked.
"Rather than roast like a bird on a spit, I'd wear just about anything, petticoats included," snapped Gabe, belatedly tacking on a respectful, "sir." Relieved that the flames were gone, however temporarily, Gabe added, more to himself than to the angels, "I can't believe hellfire actually exists. How can God call Himself merciful and yet sentence sinners to burn for eternity? I've got a hell of a lot of faults, but I wouldn't be that cruel to a dog."
The dark-haired man studied Gabe with solemn brown eyes. "It is indeed a very harsh punishment, but it isn't of God's making. The flames are Satan's creation, which is why Gabriel and I— Michael is my name, by the way— are assigned to heaven's gates. It's our job to save everyone we can, even men like you."
Gabe gave a bitter laugh and gestured at the shack. "Gates? What gates?"
Michael shrugged. "It's also our job to make every new arrival feel comfortable, and because you don't truly believe in the existence of ornate gates to heaven, we felt a shack might be less intimidating."
Gabe didn't like the fact that these two fellows seemed to know what he believed in and what he didn't, but he was relieved to hear that they were there to save him. Hey, if anyone needed saving, it was definitely him. He wasn't about to say so, though, and he sure as shootin' wasn't going to act cowed. "So, if your job is to save everyone you can, what do you have in mind for me?"
The two angels resumed their perusal of Gabe's life history, shaking their heads and clucking their tongues. The angel Gabriel glanced up. "Do you realize you have intimately consorted with one hundred and fifty-six women, all without benefit of matrimony or any feelings of genuine affection?"
That couldn't be right. Now they were insulting his manhood. Gabe grabbed the paper from the angel's hand and scanned it. "This isn't correct," he said indignantly. "You left off a bunch of names. And for your information, I was damn good at it." He ran his gaze down the list, then slapped the record with the backs of his fingers. "There, you see! You forgot to list the gal I made love to last night, proof that you might have left out others."
Michael's dark brows snapped together. "We haven't had time to add the name of the woman last night." His expression grew accusing. "So we'll make it a hundred and fifty-seven, and ask you again what you have to say for yourself. This isn't something you should be bragging about, Mr. Valance. Your flagrant disregard of nearly all of the Ten Commandments is shocking."
Gabe couldn't understand what they were so het up about. "I wasn't bragging. I was being accurate. And I never touched a married woman in my whole life. No adultery. You can't pin that one on me."
The angels sadly shook their heads. The golden-haired Gabriel took over the exchange. "Did no one ever explain to you that the seventh commandment encompasses far more than just adultery? Sexual intercourse with prostitutes falls under that rule, not to mention countless other things."
"Holy hell," Gabe replied. "Next thing I know, you'll be outlawing booze. Just because a man has the good sense never to get married, that doesn't mean he wants to live his entire adult life without getting a little now and again."
The angel Gabriel sighed. "You are a challenging case indeed." He turned another page of Gabe's life history and once again did a head waggle. "Have you done nothing with your life to commend yourself?" he asked. "Did you perform no acts of kindness?"
"Oh, hey, I'm good on that one," Gabe said. He felt on firmer ground now. "Take the whores, now. I always paid double their rates, even if the service was bad. You two probably don't have any experience with working girls, but that was definitely unusual, you know? A lot of men fasten their flies, bolt out the door, and don't even pay the tab." On a roll, Gabe stabbed a finger in their direction. "And let me tell you, that isn't all they do! Most whores get knocked around more times than not, and even then the bastards who're fond of beating on women don't pay for the privilege. I not only paid that last gal's fee, but I gave her twenty-three bucks extra. That's a lot of money!"
Michael's brown eyes bugged slightly. A hooded expression slipped over Gabriel's blue-eyed countenance. Gabe could tell this wasn't going well. Shifting his feet quickly, he said, "And don't be forgetting the ten dollars I tossed to that kid in the street right before I got shot. Hell, I was going to take him out for breakfast and stay over a day to see if the local preacher could get some family in town to take him in."
Michael lifted his hands. "For a man of your immense wealth, the paltry sum of ten dollars hardly offsets all the bad things you have done. Nor does the fact that you planned to give any family who would take the boy a generous monthly stipend."
Gabe felt sweat tricking from his armpits and down his ribs. If he was truly dead, how could he possibly be perspiring? Again, he shifted his feet uncomfortably. These guys wanted to help him out; he could sense that. But so far, things weren't looking good for him. He desperately tried to recall some good things he had done. "I like dogs. Does that count?"
The angel Gabriel nodded. "It certainly does. Did you ever rescue one from cruel treatment?"
Gabe had done enough gambling to know when he'd just been dealt a winning card. "You betcha. I even got into one hell of a fight with a man once for beating his dog." He quickly recounted the tale to the angels. "That's kind, ain't it?" Damn, he was so nervous that he was slipping back into using poor English. Old Mrs. Harper, an ex-schoolmarm who'd taken him in once and tried to smarten him up, the one and only person in his life aside from his mother who'd ever done him a truly good turn, was probably rolling over in her grave. "I stepped in, regardless of the risk to myself, and saved that poor dog from one hell of a working over."
Michael waved a hand, and the clouds that drifted in a heavy layer over the shack floor opened to reveal that particular scene from Gabe's past. Gabe was fascinated. It was like attending a play, only he was one of the actors. He watched himself beat the stuffing out of the dog's owner, then shove the man's head in a horse trough. The angels sighed when they saw Gabe hold the fellow's face underwater until he stopped kicking.
"The bastard isn't dead," Gabe pointed out quickly. "See? He's moving now that his head is out."
"But you nearly drowned the poor sot," the angel Gabriel sternly pointed out.
Gabe lifted his hands, palms up. "So I let my temper get the better of me for a few seconds. That doesn't mean the miserable shit didn't have it coming. He was gonna kick that dog to death. You saw him." Gabe raked a hand through his hair and then settled the Stetson back on his head. He briefly considered removing the hat out of respect, but they were being so nasty, he resisted the urge. "I have a pretty bad temper when I get riled, but surely that's forgivable under those circumstances."
"Your heart may have been in the right place," Michael conceded, "but your failure to control your temper negates that particular good deed. Have you anything else to say for yourself?"
Think, Valance, he told himself. You're in serious trouble here, man. "Uh, well . . . I was always real kind to my horse. After hitting town off the trail, I always took care of him first. He got washed and rubbed down before I even thought about a bath for myself. He got water and food long before I did." He frowned, realizing that he was getting a rip-snorting headache. How was that possible if he was dead? "I have to admit that Brownie never got sex during our layovers, but he was a gelding, so that kind of fun wasn't an option for him. Otherwise I would've found him a mare to visit with on occasion."
Judging by the stares and glares that greeted this remark, he could tell he was delivering the wrong address to the jury. What did these angels want from him?
"To men of your time," the angel Gabriel said, "being good to your horse is considered a necessary kindness. Where would a man be without his horse?"
"On foot," Gabe replied. "Do I get any points for being honest?" No reply from his judges. "Okay, I'll take that as a no." Gabe could almost feel the heat of hellfire inching up around his ankles again.
Michael looked at him, and the unexpected compassion in the angel's eyes punched Gabe in the gut like a mule's hind hoof. It hurt. "Okay, okay," he said. "Looking back over my life, I haven't done much you could consider, you know, saintly. I guess I'm what you fellows would call a lost soul." A lump had grown in his throat, and he struggled to speak past it. "I . . . didn't live a very good life. I wanted to. Trust me on that, but most times, when I tried for something better, I got a kick in the teeth. If that happens enough, you quit trying, you know? That's how it goes for some of us down there. If we don't have bad luck, we don't have any luck at all."
The angels conferred for a moment, then turned in tandem to regard Gabe with thoughtful eyes. The golden-haired Gabriel assumed the role of pronouncing sentence. "It is clear to us, after reviewing your life history, that you actually were among those rare individuals who truly weren't given many opportunities to redeem themselves. Abandoned after your mother's death, unacknowledged by your father, forced to live in poverty on the rough streets of Kansas City as a boy, you never had much of a chance to be anything but what you became, a worthless individual who lived his entire life without leaving a good mark on the world or improving it in any way."
Gabe opened his mouth to argue but couldn't think of one damned thing to say in his own defense, so he just closed it again, braced his shoulders, and prepared to face his punishment. Worthless? As much as it rankled to admit it, maybe they were right about that.
"In rare instances," Michael said, "we angels have the authority to offer people one more chance. Would you be interested in going back down there for a specified period of time to give life another try?"
Gabe could scarcely believe his ears. Given his recent encounter with hellfire, he figured only a fool would say no. "What would I have to do?"
Gabriel replied, "You will be given an opportunity to save a lost soul. If you succeed in your mission, if you manage to drastically alter that lost soul's life, then you will have earned salvation. It won't be easy. You may have to sacrifice a great deal, and self-sacrifice has never been one of your strong points. Are you willing?"
Willing? After standing there with his feet on fire? Of course he'd be willing. "Yes," he said firmly.
The golden-haired angel swung a hand to part the clouds again. He gestured for Gabe to peer down through the hole. "There you see Tyke Baden, a lonely, embittered old man who has lived most of his adult life in Random."
Gabe bent at the waist to have a peek and got the eerie feeling that he had fallen into the old man's sitting area. He could smell the stench of an unwashed body, rotten garbage, and newly cooked food, a blend that turned his stomach. The room was a maze of trash piles— stacks of newspapers, periodicals, and all manner of other stuff that only someone out of his mind would keep.
"Tyke was once happily married with several children," Michael said. "He lived and worked hard for the welfare of his family for many years. Then, when his children were nearly grown, disease struck his household and only Tyke survived. After grieving, he grew angry at God and everyone else in town who hadn't died from the contagion. Sadly, his only solace was found in a whiskey bottle. He is now alone, lost, wishing for just one person to care about him, but when kindly townspeople attempt to enter his home, he yells, uses foul language, and frightens them away."
"Foul language don't make my ears burn." Gabe winced. He'd done it again, allowing nerves to push him back through the years to a time when he hadn't known how to speak proper English. "If all he needs is someone to care, I could clean him up and make him feel better."
"But could you love him?" Gabriel asked. "Truly love him? That is what Tyke needs in order to find salvation, to love and be loved again."
Gabe's nostrils burned from the stench, but he figured a little elbow grease would set the house right. "How long do I get to learn to love him?"
"A month? Isn't that a pretty tall order?" Gabe gestured downward. "It'd take me a month just to clean up that rat's nest." Then, hearing what he'd just said, he backtracked. "I'll take him. No worries. I found a dirty, stinky dog once that I learned to love real quick. He up and died on me, but it wasn't for lack of caring on my part."
"Don't choose hastily," Michael interjected. "There are many lost souls in Random. We've selected three for you to consider, and then you can reach a decision."
With a flick of his fingers, Michael changed the scene below, and Gabe saw the boy who now spent half his life huddled under the whorehouse stairwell, waiting for his mother to return. Before he thought, he said, "He'd be a tough one to save in thirty days. He's bitter, suspicious, and been done wrong so many times he has no faith in human kindness. Boys like him don't normally turn to melted butter just because somebody's nice to them."
Michael nodded. "He is a difficult one, if not impossible. Which is why we've given you three lost souls to choose from."
The angel Gabriel flung his hand to change the scene below. "Here is our final lost soul for you to consider. Nancy Sullivan, now using the surname Hoffman."
Gabe almost lost his balance when he looked down and saw the young woman who had stood at the hat shop window, watching him as he lay dying. Now she was in her bedroom, wearing only a thin chemise, bloomers, and corset as she prepared to change dresses for church. Shooting a furtive glance at the angels, Gabe inched closer for a better look. Great legs, tight little ass, breasts to make a man's mouth water. She had a very interesting freckle— or maybe a small mole— on the swell of her right breast that peeked at him over the low scoop of her chemise. Without intending to, he leaned so far over the parting in the clouds that he nearly lost his footing.
"That's the one!" he proclaimed loudly. Hell, if he had to save a lost soul, he might as well have a little fun while he was at it.
The angels frowned in disapproval. Michael spoke up. "You're free to choose whichever mission you like, of course, but looks can be deceiving. Miss Sullivan, currently known as a widow, doesn't exactly cotton to gentlemen, and of all the souls you might choose, she will probably be the most difficult to save. She distrusts men, has sworn never to let herself love one, and abhors the institution of marriage. In short, she is a lonely, unfulfilled spinster who has denied herself the joy of marriage and bearing children because she is terrified of letting a man, any man, have authority over her. She has no true friends and ventures from her shop only for necessities and to attend church. She also has a weak sense of humor. Her only pleasures in life are her little sister and her work, the latter of which she engages in from dawn until well after midnight, seldom taking a moment for herself, not because she enjoys being exhausted, but because building her business has been a constant struggle and she is afraid to sleep."
Gabe shrugged. "I have great respect for people who work hard, and I've yet to meet a person who can't learn to laugh. Why the hell is she afraid to sleep?"
"Nan Hoffman may not give you an opportunity to teach her how to laugh. She lives in fear of discovery. And if you take her case, you will learn only from her why she has trouble sleeping."
"Discovery of what?" Gave demanded. "You say she lives in fear?"
Michael sighed. "It's a long story. Nan wrongly believes she has a murder charge hanging over her head, and she is consequently running from her past, which will make it extremely difficult for you to gain her trust. Are you still interested?"
Gabe gave Nan Hoffman's tantalizing figure another long look and flashed a grin. "I love a challenge, especially when it comes packaged like that."
The angels folded their hands and studied Gabe with somber intensity. Michael said, "This isn't a game you're engaging in, Gabe. Nan Hoffman lives in a prison of her own making, and it will be your assignment to help her escape from it. It is heaven's standard policy that lost souls be given only a month to redeem themselves. Judging by your record, you aren't exactly an expert in affairs of the heart, and making a woman like Nan Hoffman fall in love with you may be beyond your ability."
For a moment, Gabe thought he'd misunderstood the man. "Wait a minute. If I only have a month to be back on earth, why in hell would you fellows want me to make some poor woman fall in love with me? Isn't that unfair to her?"
"Because," the blond inserted, "experiencing true love, however briefly, is the only way Nan Sullivan will ever be convinced to risk falling in love again. It will be your job to help her heal in the month you're allotted, so that after your second death, Nan will be able to lead a normal life, remarry, and have children of her own. If she doesn't do that, her life will count for far less than it should, and that is a waste that our heavenly Father simply can't countenance."
Gabe threw up a hand. "Whoa, there. Did you just say remarry?"
Both angels raised their eyebrows. Michael took over again. "Your marrying Nan will be absolutely necessary if you hope to completely banish her fears. As it stands, she abhors the institution of marriage, convinced that once a man gains authority over her, he will turn domineering and possibly become abusive. It will be your mission to show her how wrong she is."
It was Gabe's turn to raise his eyebrows. "With only a month to gain the woman's trust, how can you possibly expect me to convince her to marry me? And after I manage that, I'll need some time to prove myself. A measly month?"
Despite Gabe's objection, which he felt was reasonable, the angels remained firm. "One month," Gabriel repeated. "It's standard policy. If you take this assignment, you'll simply have to work fast. How you go about it will be entirely up to you. By fair means or foul, all that matters is that you accomplish your mission. It will be difficult, yes, but not impossible. If you decide to take this assignment, you will be armed with enough ammunition before you return to earth to coerce Nan Hoffman into marrying you."
"Coerce? Did you say coerce? I've never done that to a woman in my life!" Whether his own redemption hung in the balance or not, Gabe was no longer sure that he wanted to tackle this project. He liked the ladies willing, thank you very much. "What kind of angels are you fellows, anyway? It sounds to me as if you're giving me free rein to turn that poor woman's life topsy-turvy. What if I bungle the job and leave her more afraid to trust men than she already is? What if . . . Well, the possibilities are endless, and none of them make you look too good. Do you guys pull this kind of shit very often? If so, it's little wonder so many people down there walk around asking, ‘Why me, God? Why me?'"
The angel Gabriel smiled. "It isn't God who turns people's lives topsy-turvy on a regular basis. It's the influence of evil and the actions of humans who make the lives of other people miserable."
"But this time, in Nan Hoffman's case, it will be God raining misfortune on her head," Gabe pointed out.
Michael nodded. "Yes, this time it will be our heavenly Father helping to orchestrate events, but I assure you, this sort of measure is taken only in extreme cases. As for your making things worse than they already are, if that should happen, we will simply erase from Nan's memory all that occurs during your visit back to earth. Things will return to the way they are right now, with you dead and doomed to hell, and Nancy Hoffman living a pathetically sad life without any hope of ever leading a fruitful one."
"In short," Gabriel interjected, "if you fail, Nan will recall nothing of what transpires and no damage will be done. Except, of course, to you, Gabe. For you, failure means eternal damnation."
Gabe resumed gazing down at the Hoffman woman. She seemed to be frozen in place, as if time down there had stopped. He mourned the fact that the angels had turned her motionless after she'd finished dressing. She had a body to make any man salivate, and Gabe had been enjoying the view. Absently, he asked, "Exactly what kind of ammunition were you referring to when you said I'd be able to coerce the woman into marrying me? I'm not pushing any woman around, no matter what you say."
Gabriel smiled slightly. "Before we get to that, you must first commit to the assignment, and to do that, you should be made aware of everything you will be expected to accomplish."
"First of all, you must agree not to die intestate the second time around. You will be expected to leave all your worldly goods to Nan so she will no longer have to work so hard to make ends meet after she is widowed."
"I have no problem with that," Gabe said honestly. "My father's money has never meant all that much to me, and I don't really care who it's left to."
"Second," Gabriel went on, "you will be expected to free Nan from her past, which still haunts her and from which she is still running. Unbeknownst to her, Horace Barclay, the man she believes she killed, survived being stabbed with her knitting needle and is alive to this day."
"She went after a man with a knitting needle?"
Gabe glanced down at Nan with new respect. "She doesn't look like she's got it in her."
"Normally, she doesn't," Michael said. "You of all people should understand how it feels to be backed into a corner. Nan was trying to ward off the unwanted physical advances of Horace Barclay, a much older man to whom she'd been affianced by her father, and she threatened Barclay with the needle to hold him at bay. Unfortunately, Horace tripped on the edge of a carpet, fell on top of her, and impaled himself. Nan couldn't feel a pulse or see any sign that he was breathing, so she believed the man dead. After emptying her father's coffers, she fled with her younger sister, assumed another name, and ended up living in Random, where she's been hiding from the law ever since."
"So she still thinks they're trying to find her and put a noose around her neck?" Gabe asked.
"Precisely," Gabriel replied. "How you impart to Nan that Barclay didn't die and chose to press no charges because the incident was an embarrassment to him— well, that will be entirely up to you."
Gabe nodded. "I reckon I'll know when the moment is right— if I decide to take her on."
Michael shifted on his chair, glanced at a sheet of paper, and cleared his throat. "Third, there is your relationship with Nan to discuss. As we have already made clear, we don't care how you go about it, but you must accomplish several tasks. You must not only get Nan to marry you, but you must also gain her complete trust, make her fall in love with you, and then make physical love to her. The last is extremely important, for in Nan's mind lovemaking is yet another way in which a man exercises his control over a woman. It will, of course, have to be a pleasurable experience for her, no matter how you decide to initiate it."
He was supposed to accomplish all this in a lousy month? And had he just heard right? Once again, Gabe held up a hand. "Are you saying you don't care how I get into the lady's drawers, coercion notwithstanding, as long as I make her enjoy it? This deal is starting to smell worse than last week's fish. Am I having a weird dream or something? I mean, okay, a guy can go to hell up here for adultery, yet rape isn't against your rules?"
The angel Gabriel smiled, a gentle curve of his lips that made his face seem to glow from within. "Of course rape is against God's rules, as are all actions that cause another person pain or sadness. If we believed, even for a moment, that you would ever force a woman to submit sexually, this conversation wouldn't be taking place."
Gabe scratched behind his ear, a habit of his when he grew confused. "Pardon me for saying so, but up until now, you boys didn't seem to hold me in very high regard."
"You're basically a good man," Gabriel assured him. "You've simply never had much opportunity to prove it. That is precisely why you are being given this second chance. How you handle Nan Hoffman will be entirely up to you, just as it would have been before you died. Everyone has carte blanche in life to do whatever he pleases and in whatever fashion he chooses. This situation is no different, except that, because of time constraints, you will be armed with a good deal of knowledge about Nan, so you'll have a better chance of accomplishing your mission within a month."
Michael added, "Matters of the heart between a man and woman come with all kinds of unspoken rules. If you don't know what they are, then God and both of us have misjudged you."
Gabe decided this was no time to plead ignorance of unspoken rules. The closest he'd ever come to tugging a woman's heartstrings was when he paid a working girl double her usual rate. Recalling his brief little dance in hellfire, Gabe sighed. "I'll agree to the stipulations. Of the three lost souls you've shown me, Nan Hoffman is the most appealing, and I think I stand a better chance of success with her than I would with the other two."
Gabe no sooner agreed than the angels began cramming his head with knowledge about Nan's past. The scene at Gabe's feet changed, showing a much younger Nan being cruelly harangued by a man named Martin Sullivan whom Gabe soon deduced was her father, which gave him cause to wonder if maybe he hadn't actually been lucky to be ignored by his own sire. As Gabe watched Nan's life flash by, he began to seethe with anger. Little wonder she shied away from men. Scene after scene unfolded, revealing bits and pieces of her past, none of them pretty. Her father constantly accused her of being stupid, ugly, clumsy. The list of faults went on and on. Gabe could only marvel that the young woman had gathered enough self-confidence to run away from home in the first place, let alone start a business of her own and manage to make a success of it.
Gabe soon realized he was no longer trying to catch glimpses of Nan's delectable figure and instead was becoming entranced by her lovely gray eyes, which seemed to darken with shadows year by year until they began to look haunted and bruised. By the time the angels concluded the viewing, his throat felt oddly tight.
Gabe turned to face the robed men. "So that fat old bastard Horace Barclay didn't die, and Nancy has been hiding all these years for nothing?"
"Do you truly feel her hiding all this time has been for naught?" Gabriel asked with a mysterious smile. "Sometimes God works in strange ways. Because of Nan's flight from home, her little sister, Laney, has been spared the ordeal of growing up in her father's household. She is consequently a happy, well-adjusted girl who might otherwise have been only a shadow of her present self. Now our heavenly Father feels it is Nan's turn to be happy. Are you ready to return to earth and see to that for Him?"
Gabe nodded his agreement. The next instant, a strange, dizzy sensation came over him, he became lost in a whirlpool of darkness, and he felt as if he were falling. Then everything went black.
Order now from: