Honore and the Hangman – Kari Trumbo

Great piles of snow on the path forced Honore Carter’s huge workhorses to strain pulling her home. She hadn’t seen another man or beast in over three days. With shaking fingers she drove her team toward the only town she’d thought of as home since she’d come ashore years ago. Her past was waiting there and it was time to stop running and face it. Pirates rarely got the choice. She shivered so hard the horses thought she wanted to speed up and they both put their backs into hauling her vardo faster. It was all she had left of a life of travels, given to her by a sweet Gypsy friend she’d made when she first went into hiding. The wonderful thing about her friend was that once she’d decided Honore could be trusted, she became a friend for life. Honore didn’t take that lightly. Trust was in short supply. The only other group who’d readily accepted her was the people of Redemption Bluff. They’d never poked into her past and she’d never bothered with theirs. Though she knew they were all reformed gamblers and gun-toters. They had little they could say against her – she’d never killed anyone. But her husband had.

Many, if she were honest. The longer she kept moving, the less she had to think about that past. She tugged on the lines and the horses slowed to a stop, puffing in the cold air as they caught their breath. There wasn’t anywhere to pull off the road but for one small house up ahead. The far-off chimney sent a thin trail of smoke into the sky, meaning it was warmer in there than it was out on her seat. They might even have room for her horses. She had money to buy grain if they had any to spare and if they were friendly. Her neck prickled to life, a sure sign she should slow down and think, but there wasn’t time for that. She’d freeze if she tried going all the way to Redemption Bluff. If only Serina hadn’t gotten married.

Her Gypsy friend’s new husband Marko Boswell didn’t want anyone like her around their house – someone with a price on her head and a man trailing her. Marko had helped her fix the damaged axle on the vardo Serina had given her two years before when she’d gone into hiding, though. Now, much sooner than she’d planned, she was heading back to Redemption Bluff. Maybe for the last time. She cracked the lines over the backs of her horses and flinched. She hated that it took so much to get them moving, but they couldn’t stop for long. If the heavy load seeped into the mud, she’d be stuck there until spring. “Sorry, boys,” she mumbled, her voice trembling in the cold. The house looked friendlier the closer she came, but she couldn’t shake the disturbing feeling that she shouldn’t knock on that door. Malechor couldn’t still be in Redemption Bluff.

He never stayed anywhere long. But no matter how she assured herself, the fear remained. After she’d left, she hadn’t heard a peep from him. Usually, she knew where he was and just how far behind her he happened to be, but not since autumn. It was as if he’d vanished. Or stayed in Redemption Bluff. She pulled the horses to a stop again and wrapped her scarf tighter around her head to hide her loose hair. She’d forgone her trademark pretty printed skirts and bare feet for sturdy boots and trousers. But nothing kept out the insistent cold. Hiding would be useless.

As soon as anyone saw the strange home she pulled along with her wherever she went, they’d know it was her. She just wondered which of Redemption Bluff’s finest lived in this house. Would it be the doctor and his new wife, exactly who Honore was looking for? Unlikely; they had two houses in town. There was no need for one way out here. She pressed on up the drive, keeping her eye on the house to see who might meet her. Would they wait until she knocked for help, or meet her before she even reached their door? Her stomach lurched and her vision blurred. The door swung wide and the barrel of a shotgun leveled at her chest. “Well, I knew if I stayed out in this forsaken wilderness long enough, you’d come back around. Never were that smart.” Her heart didn’t even have the good sense to speed up.

At least that would’ve warmed her. “I was smart enough to evade your lousy hunting for two straight years, Black.” “That’s Mr. Malechor to the likes of you, and it just so happens Redemption Bluff constructed a gallows right before all this blasted snow came. Perfect. We can put them right back up and get done what should’ve happened two years ago.” The bright snow lying as far as the eye could see was too bright for her eyes, leaving a piercing pain in her head. Malechor didn’t understand what she’d been through. He didn’t know the pain or struggle, only that she’d been married to the dread pirate Henry DuBois. She clutched her belly and closed her eyes tightly against the pain.

She didn’t see him approach. “That’s right. You escaped my noose because you told the court you were with child. Then you ran. You ran like the vile criminal you are.” He tugged her down from her seat. Honore took a swing at him, but her head spun. With little effort, he dragged her into his house. She found herself in a chair as waves of heat poured over her from the nearby wood stove. He tied her hands to the legs of the chair and she had no fight left to protest.

“You will stay right there until I get your horses taken care of. Give me trouble and I’ll just leave them. Would be a shame – they’re pretty good horses.” He had no idea. She’d been good at haggling from a young age. It was how she’d convinced her pirate husband to take her along when he’d told her he’d be gone for months at sea. She’d been so innocent back then, knowing only that she didn’t want to be left behind. Sometimes haggling didn’t win you a bargain. Sometimes it gave you more than you’d bargained for. “How can I possibly move from this chair?” she spat after him.

He tilted her jaw up to look at him and her eyes unfocused as her head swam. “Did you hit your head?” He knelt in front of her and looked from one eye to the other. His sudden shift from anger to care left her just as dizzy as being tugged from her seat. She wasn’t sure how to respond to him and those eyes that had changed so quickly from hostility to warmth. “No,” she snapped, wanting to get as far away from the retired hangman as possible. No wonder her body had told her to keep going. He scowled and tugged the scarf off her head. “Give me ten minutes. Then we’ll talk.” Honore’s damp, dark curls tumbled around her shoulders and she shivered as the wet tendrils touched the back of her neck.

Talking with the man who’d pulled the lever to hang her husband and wanted to do the same with her was the last thing she wanted to do on this earth, but he wasn’t leaving her much of a choice. CHARLES MALECHOR SHOVED his arm into his coat sleeve and slammed the door behind him. Two years of heavy chasing and all he’d had to do was stop. He’d gotten a feeling as soon as he’d seen that cart in Redemption Bluff that she’d be back. Most places she didn’t return, but that cart was as close to roots as he’d found of hers. So he’d waited. And now his patience had paid off. He rubbed his hands together as he approached the giant workhorses Honore had hitched to her wagon. He’d never seen such a cart. It was a homelike shape, with a rounded top and a red canvas roof, but not like a Conestoga.

The wood for the sideboards was of good quality, probably oak, and intricately painted. On the back was a box with a lid and a set of stairs that folded up when the cart was in use. It looked neat as a pin. Curiosity about the wagon wouldn’t leave him be. He slid the latch holding the steps to the door of the rig and went inside. Along the right wall was a built-in bed with a mattress that looked much softer than his own. There was a small wood stove in the front where she could cook. Opposite the bed was a built-in tufted sofa seat in dark red velvet and on the other side of the door was a similar chair. Everything was shiny and clean despite her travels. Nothing moved or shifted as he went through the little dwelling; everything from cookware to toiletries was secured.

She traveled all the time, so this made complete sense, but it was still a wonder. He’d never seen anything like it. Since nothing had been left out and he couldn’t immediately see any hidden storage places, he left the cart to care for the horses. They were a well-matched team, each seventeen hands high at least. “Where in the world did she come by you two?” he said softly as he unhitched the pair. The lead horse puffed at him and his dark eyes didn’t wander. The gelding obviously didn’t like strangers any more than his owner did. “Don’t you worry, I’ve got a warm, dry place for you. Not sure what we’ll do with you after …” He didn’t finish. Saying what he intended for Honore out loud seemed cruel.

He led the first horse by the bridle toward his barn and the second followed right behind. How could a woman on the run from the most feared hangman in the East manage to get her hands on such a nice traveling home and team without stealing them? “Well, she was a pirate, you dunce,” he mumbled to no one. She’d been soundly convicted along with the man she traveled with. Both were set to be hung, but the week before the scheduled date, she’d pled with the warden, telling him her execution should be stayed because she was pregnant. He’d taken pity and assigned a deputy to take her to the doctor. The deputy had been found in an alley with a knot on his head. He wasn’t seriously hurt, but Honore had disappeared. He’d watched for her the day he’d hung her accomplice, and he’d vowed to the huge crowd that no one would escape his noose. He’d find her. Now he had.

What he hadn’t planned on was getting snowed into a little town in Kansas. How would the people back home know he’d kept his promise unless he brought her back? If he did, would he lose her again? She was as slippery as the side of the evil ship she’d been taken off of. He’d lose her for sure. When he finished providing for the horses, he went back to the huge cart. He couldn’t move it in the snow and it was made to be in the weather, so he left it. If someone from Redemption Bluff finally came out to check on him, they’d see that he’d gotten what he came for. But would they try to take his quarry from him? The sky darkened and heavy flakes tumbled from the sky, increasing until they were like pebbles hitting his face. Whether Charles wanted to be or not, he was stuck with a pirate until the weather decided to clear … and it hadn’t for months. “Blasted long winter.” He trudged back toward his house and the beautiful but highly dangerous woman inside

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