Late May, 1868
Klint St. John stared at the exquisite creature ushered into the Tonica Bank with as much care as if she were made of the finest spun glass. A stooped, weathered cowhand and Kennard Bailey sheltered her on their passage through the foyer to Richard Bailey’s office.
“Coffee and refreshments, Mr. St. John, for our guests. There is a second service set in the back room.” Kennard barked over his shoulder, and then closed himself in his brother’s office with the pair.
Klint leaped out from behind the bank teller’s cage. The best coffee set had already been pressed into service for the meeting currently underway in the conference room. That meeting required the ultimate in decorum and tact, he supposed. After all, a man’s life was on the line. The aroma of Karen Bailey’s freshly baked scones filled the seldom used room.
If there was a second coffee service in this room, it was well hidden. Klint rummaged through the cabinets, attempting to create what would appear to be a full complement from the odds and ends. He poured freshly brewed coffee into the pot, arranged three fine china cups—at least the three cups that matched one another—on a platter, and added the sugar bowl. He then filled the creamer, settled spoons and jelly knives next to the cups, and lastly placed several of the still warm scones into a fabric lined basket. A survey of the cabinets added to his belief the Bailey special recipe marmalade had not been replenished.
Miss Abby’s wild berry jam would have to suffice.
Before he carried the platter and basket to Richard’s office, Klint paused long enough to tug his tie. Without a mirror in the small storage room, he could only hope it wasn’t too crooked. He carried the platter and basket to Richard’s office and delivered a polite but firm single rap to the door.
Kennard opened the door and gestured to the desk. “Just leave it there. If we need anything else, I’ll let you know.”
Only with the sheerest force of will did Klint keep from rolling his eyes and snapping at the oldest Bailey brother; he was neither a butler nor a house servant. “Yes, sir, Mr. Bailey.”
He placed the service on Richard’s desk and glanced at the old man. If the leathery, tanned skin, coat that was decades out of style, and the ingrained dirt marking the man’s knuckles could be any indication, the stooped figure was most likely a dirt-poor farmer. The desperation lining the weathered features of the old man was as tangible as the stench of an angry skunk. He’d never known any bank to be so deferential to any fool who came hat in hand, begging for money.
His gaze skipped over to the woman sitting in the depths of the shadows the dark room harbored; and for the first time in his life, Klint St. John found himself totally and completely tongue-tied. If an angel ever again came down to earth, that being would have nothing on the ethereal woman who graced him with an uncertain smile. Sweet heavens, what color were her eyes? A shade of gray and silver, perhaps the faintest coloring of blue—like robin’s eggs. And her hair. It wasn’t white. She was much too young for that. It was a shade of blonde so pure, so perfect it truly was silver.
“That will be all, Mr. St. John.”
Klint startled with Kennard’s terse dismissal and managed a nod to the woman. “Ma’am.”
She graced him with another tentative smile. Klint backed from the room, unwilling to take his gaze off her a moment sooner than he absolutely had to. A soft, delicate pink—like the very first hint of a beautiful spring sunrise—touched the slope of her cheeks and she bent her head to the table and away from his gaze.
Klint pulled the door to Richard’s office closed. He stared across the empty foyer of the bank, struggling to understand his reaction to the woman in the bank president’s office. Never, not once in his whole life, had any woman affected him as she did. His heart raced, sweat wet his palms, and he struggled to form a coherent thought.
Richard Bailey walked into the bank. His mouth thinned into a harsh line when he met Klint’s gaze.
“Are they all here?” the banker asked.
A firm mental shake cleared Klint’s thoughts. “If you’re asking about the sheriff and that group, they’re all in the conference room. Your brother, the old man, and the young lady are in your office.”
A single nod from the middle Bailey brother acknowledged Klint’s words. Richard’s office door opened, and Kennard emerged. He stood guard at the closed door, arms folded over his chest. Richard inclined his head to Kennard. “You’ve got the horses?”
Kennard nudged his head to the back of the building. “Saddled and ready to go, if they’re needed.”
Richard walked past Klint and entered the teller’s cage. “Has the sheriff asked for your assistance in this endeavor?”
“Victoria has. I closed out the English account first thing this morning.” It was always a bit disconcerting to reference the woman who filled the office of sheriff for this small town. Klint joined the bank owner in the cage. He pushed a leather envelope to Richard. “It’s all there and as per her request, most of it is in gold coin and the rest in treasury issued bills. I still say they look like horse-blankets.”
Richard nodded and picked up the envelope. He hefted it, causing a muffled clattering from the coins, and then tucked the leather envelope into an inside pocket of his frock coat. “Klint, if you want to back out now, it’s not too late.”
“What’s the worst that can happen? We get charged and convicted with assisting a felon to escape? So, I might end up breaking rocks somewhere in Indian Territory.” Klint allowed a grin to form. “We’ve been in tighter spots before.”
“We certainly have been.” The banker looked at his older brother standing guard. “Have our guests been offered coffee and a light repast?”
Klint nodded. He shifted his gaze to Kennard, also. “Who is she?”
“Varina Carroll.” Richard fiddled with the pen in its well. “She’s probably the only one who can keep Jonath—Jon—whoever he is out of Colbert’s prison, and certainly the only one who can keep his neck out of a noose.”
A chill brushed across the back of Klint’s neck at the mention of the portly prison warden currently in the conference room with Sheriff Victoria, Judge Davis, and the man most people in Tonica thought to be the sheriff’s long presumed dead husband. The things Colbert and his two ghoulish compatriots hinted at would be Jonathan English’s–or was it Jon Andrews’s?--fate on his return to the prison in Indian Territory knotted Klint’s gut.
“I’m going to keep Miss Carroll and her father company.” Richard left the teller’s cage and crossed the floor to his office. Another single, terse nod to his older brother was the only communication Klint saw between the two brothers before Richard let himself into his office.
The grandmother clock on the counter behind him ticked off the seconds, which turned into long minutes. Klint looked out the windows at the front of the bank. Though most of the citizens of Tonica appeared to be going about their daily routine, not a soul entered the bank. He barely quelled a snort of amusement. As much as he knew of Tonica’s woman sheriff, he wouldn’t have put it past her to tell the people she felt responsible for to stay out of the bank this morning.
A woman sheriff, a woman undertaker, a woman barber, a woman blacksmith and farrier…Not that he could articulate what he had been expecting when he arrived–but Tonica, Texas certainly hadn’t been anything like he envisioned when he answered an advertisement to come to the town as a replacement teller in Richard Bailey’s bank.
Upon his arrival, he had decided within moments of meeting Miss Lavender DeLilly that no matter what either of them did, there just couldn’t be anything between the two of them. Lavender was sweet enough, and witty, but her affinity for collecting every single stray dog and cat she could find was something he knew he couldn’t tolerate. He didn’t mind a dog or two underfoot. He wouldn’t even object to a single housecat. He ended any thoughts for her part by announcing he didn’t like cats, he had never liked cats and he never would. Lavender reacted as if he struck her across the face and she had so far refused to even speak to him.
And, then there was Helga Waggner. He was fond of Helga, but they both acknowledged a marriage between them just wasn’t in the cards. Helga was mature enough and sensible enough to understand after he had escorted her to church services twice and to one ice cream social there wasn’t anything to build a marriage on. In his estimation, Helga was a handsome woman, but that “handsomeness” was the problem.
He turned his gaze to Kennard and the closed door the oldest Bailey guarded as if the room held the entirety of the Confederate treasury. Handsome would never be used to describe Varina Carroll. Breath-taking. Gorgeous. Ethereal. Angelic.
For the first time in his life a member of the fairer sex left him tongue-tied and flustered. A jolt ran through him. Was it possible he, Klint St. John—the ne’er do well, illegitimate son of a Texas cotton broker, raised in a succession of boarding schools because his Maman didn’t want him growing up in a bawdy house in New Orleans, disowned when it became known he was a sharpshooter for the Confederacy—had fallen head over heels for the exquisite Miss Carroll? He snorted again. Impossible. Love was a promise made and meant to be broken.
The door of the conference room opened, and Kennard’s demeanor became even more tense. Not a single word passed between Sheriff English and Bailey, though the oldest of the Baileys turned and entered his brother’s office. A few moments later, Kennard emerged with Miss Carroll’s hand resting on his arm, the old man following less than a pace behind. Richard completed the procession, but he followed no further than the opened door of his private office.
Richard returned to his office when the door to the conference room closed. Klint busied himself with counting and then recounting his drawer, each bill slipping through his fingers to the counter in perfect time with the tick-tock of the grandmother clock. If that beautiful creature couldn’t sway the judge in English’s—or was it Andrews’s?—favor, Klint was much too aware the sheriff’s alternate plan to keep Andrews’s neck out of a noose was rife with disaster. While they probably wouldn’t be shooting their way out of town, running across the border would put every bounty hunter and most lawmen hot on their heels. And there was still the possibility Colbert or one of his two hired killers could still manage to snap off a few shots.
Klint looked over his shoulder at the clock steadily and methodically ticking. He could have sworn the clock had ticked off at least an hour. During the war, operating as a Sharpshooter and holding a position for what would have felt like an eternity to most people, he had become very adept at measuring time and even more comfortable with clearing his mind of any and all thoughts other than the need to draw a bead on his target. Five minutes. That was the miniscule passage of time delineated with the remorseless tick-tock.
Richard left his office and wandered into the back room. In the thick silence punctuated by the ticking of the clock, the metallic clanging of the bolts at the back door pierced the air as they were slammed into an unsecured position. Richard returned and joined him behind the teller’s cage. Without any preamble, the banker asked, “You have a weapon with you?”
“In all the time you’ve known me, have you ever known me to not have some advantage or the other?” Klint allowed a tight smile to cross his face, even as he unbuttoned his long frock coat and parted the jacket to reveal a custom-created shoulder holster housing his heavy LeMat revolver.
“I had to ask.” Richard lifted a shoulder in a negligent shrug. “Force of habit.”
“It’s what made you such a good commanding officer. You always made sure to dot the i’s and cross…” He trailed off, his gaze drawn immediately to Kennard and the delicate, beautiful Varina leaving the conference room. The eldest of the Baileys ushered the woman out the door, immediately raising a dark colored parasol over her. A hard, mental shake brought him back to the conversation. “…and cross the t’s.”
Richard barely twisted his head over his shoulder before he returned his sight to Klint with deliberation. “She isn’t like your other play-things or those fancy girls you favor. Tread very carefully, Corporal St. John.”
He doubted Richard even knew he’d addressed him by his former rank in the Confederate forces, but it did pull him up. He’d never been considered for an officer’s rank because he sure wasn’t a gentleman and while he had enough money to buy his way into the officer corps, he felt his resources were better spent elsewhere. Even men like Nathan Forrest looked down on him, though Forrest was quick to utilize the services of the Sharpshooters. Both sides despised Sharpshooters, and both sides were damn quick to put men to work picking off one another. Cowardly and dishonorable were the most generous terms he ever heard applied to a Sharpshooter. As if rushing headlong into withering rifle fire, devastating cannon blasts, and lethal grapeshot was the measure of a man’s courage and honor.
“I would assume she is a lady. I know my place, sir.” Klint added what he hoped to be just enough emphasis to the last word.