A Lawman for Christmas

By: Karen Kirst
CHAPTER ONE

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

December 1887

Isabel Flores was face-to-face with a bank robber, and all she could think about were the disappointed children across Gatlinburg who’d receive no gifts and no Christmas goose—because this man had helped himself to others’ hard-earned cash.

“You can’t take that.” Her hand tightening on the basket of merchandise she’d just purchased, she pointed to the bulging burlap sack tossed over his shoulder like Kris Kringle. “The Christmas season is upon us. Do you know how many families have scraped and saved the entire year in order to provide a happy holiday for their children?”

The black neckerchief the assailant used to mask his features had slipped below his chin, allowing her a clear view of his weathered face. His shaggy brows slammed down, and his mouth twisted in a scowl.

“Wrong place, wrong time, missy. Bawling brats missing their candy canes is the last thing you should be worried about.” In two strides, he was before her, his fingers digging into her arm. “I’m not ready for my likeness to be plastered across Tennessee.”

Her foolish behavior belatedly registered. Instead of confronting the criminal, she should’ve bolted. Should’ve screamed. Main Street was steps away from this darkened alley behind the bank. Most people were in their homes at this hour, enjoying a hot meal. There was a good chance someone was still at the livery, however.

She drew breath into her lungs.

He jerked her against him and clapped his hand over her mouth. “Don’t do it,” he growled as he tugged the mask back into place. The stench of unwashed hair invaded her nostrils. “What am I going to do with you, huh?”

Various scenarios pulsed through her mind, none of them good.

The distant click of a gun hammer echoed off the buildings, indicating a third person had joined them. Isabel found herself whirled about and locked against the thief’s body. Her basket hit the ground with a thud, bright, fragrant oranges scattering in the dirt. Beneath the callused hand over her lips, she grimaced. The fruit hadn’t been cheap.

“I’d welcome you to town,” the newcomer drawled, “but you’ve already made yourself at home, I see.”

Even without the fat moon’s light washing over the alley, Isabel would’ve known the identity of her would-be rescuer. The deep, velvet voice resonated with lazy confidence. He was hatless, his dark red hair falling into his eyes, giving him a boyish air that didn’t mesh with the grim determination etched on his handsome features.

Please, God, don’t let Deputy Ben MacGregor’s face be the last one I see.

He shifted, causing his coat lapels to fall open. The metal star pinned to his vest announced his occupation.

“I don’t need a welcome from no lawman,” the thief snarled. “I come and go as I please.”

Cold metal pressed into her temple. Fear encased her, numbing her more than the winter temperatures stinging her cheeks. She made a low moan deep in her throat. Ben’s gaze sharpened on her.

Why did it have to be him standing there? Why couldn’t it have been the sheriff instead?

“Not with our citizens’ hard-earned money, you don’t. And certainly not with our women.” His gun was as steady as his voice. “Release the lady, and then we’ll discuss the bounty you’re aiming to make off with.”

“And lose my only ticket outta here? I don’t think so.” He shook his head. “Besides, she caught me without my disguise.”

Using her body as a shield, he lowered the hammer. A muffled whimper escaped before she could stop it. Her sisters depended on her to run the gristmill. Sure, they were old enough to lead their own lives, but they weren’t responsible with money, and Carmen would likely marry the first man who asked. Her mother had endured enough suffering for one lifetime. How would her fragile mind cope when she heard the news of her eldest daughter’s death?

Ben lifted his other hand, palm up, and edged forward. “It’s unlikely she got a clear view. Too dark.” His gaze switched to Isabel, the flicker of concern heightening her unease. “Robbery’s one thing. Trust me, you don’t want murder charges brought against you.”

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