Tomorrow's Lasting Joy - Texas Promise

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His pa named him Cain because his birth was a curse… but what happens when he’s the only one who can save the town?

Anna Mae Harding never thought getting married would be so hard. It’s not that she hasn’t had any offers. On the contrary, it seems like someone is always asking her to be his wife. The trouble is, she up and fell in love with the wrong man years ago, and no matter how much she tries to forget him, no one else she’s met has measured up.

Texas Ranger Cain Whitelaw is happy to leave the town where he grew up behind him forever. Being around his childhood friends stirs up too many old feelings—feelings that are best left buried beneath the cracked desert dirt. The hardest part is seeing Anna Mae Harding. Each time he looks at her, he gets a hankering to sweep her off her feet and carry her to the church for a surprise wedding. But he had too rough of a childhood—and has seen too many things as a Ranger—to ever become a family man. That’s why he’s better off shaking the dust of Twin Rivers from his worn boots and never returning.

When one of Cain’s enemies sets his sights on Twin Rivers and threatens both Anna Mae and his friends, Cain finds himself not only returning home, but facing a choice between his duty to the Rangers and the closest thing he has to a family. And he’s not quite sure who will survive the outcome…

From jagged mountains and green river valleys, to cattle ranches and vivid sunsets, Tomorrow’s Lasting Joy offers a powerful story about loyalty, love, and the bonds that hold us together through the deepest of trials.


Chihuahuan Desert, Mexico; July 1886

She was going to die.

Anna Mae stared down at the giant wound on her ankle and tried to suck in a breath of air, but breathing only seemed to make her lungs constrict.

Calm down. You have to calm down. You won’t be able to get yourself out of this situation if you panic.

She inched herself a little higher, letting the rocky wall of the outcropping where she was hiding support her back, and stared out at the mountains surrounding her.

Bald, rocky peaks jutted up toward a brilliantly blue sky, while the pinks, yellows, and grays of the mountains almost made the rocks look like a gentle, streaked sunset. It would normally be a pretty view, the kind she could look at for hours, taking in the majesty around her.

But seeing how she hadn’t come across a single person since she’d taken the turnoff onto the narrow mountain trail yesterday morning, the view before her only made a sad desperation spring up in her chest.

She was almost out of water, but she couldn’t walk on her ankle to search for a creek. And if she left the little outcropping where she was hiding, there was a good chance the wrong men would find her.

Which meant her odds of surviving another night in the desert were nonexistent.

She gritted her teeth against the fiery wave of heat in her ankle, then leaned her head back against the warm sandstone wall.

She should probably count it a success that she’d survived as long as she had. After all, the men who’d kidnapped her outside of Fort Ashton five days ago could have killed her right away. But instead, they’d tried to cart her clear down to Mexico City, which had given her a chance to steal a horse and rifle three days into the journey and escape them.

In fact, if a woman was going to be kidnapped, everything about her situation had seemed downright successful—right up until a rattlesnake had bitten her yesterday afternoon.

She crumpled her skirt in her hands, pulling it up a bit farther as she looked down at the dirty, burning cut. After she was bitten, she’d hobbled to the little outcropping that formed a shallow cave above the mountain trail and lain down, tucked securely out of view from anyone who might search for her. And she’d sent the horse away, since she’d had nowhere to hide it, and trying to keep it was more likely to lead the desperadoes who’d kidnapped her right to where she was hiding.

Then she’d taken a knife to the bite, hoping to cut out the venom before her ankle swelled overmuch.

But now she wasn’t sure taking a knife to her skin had ended up better than leaving the rattler venom inside her. A thin rim of white was growing around the edge of the wound, surrounded by puffy, pink skin that felt tender to the touch. Inside the cut burned as though it was on fire, and the whole thing had swelled up just as big as it would have without trying to cut out the venom.

Dear God She slid down the sandstone wall until she lay on the single blanket she had—the one she’d taken off the horse before sending him away. Dear Father, please

But the rest of the words wouldn’t come.

What should she pray for? Rain?

Judging by the cloudless sky, there’d be no rain today, and she didn’t have enough water to last until tomorrow, when there was a slim chance rain might form over the mountains in the afternoon.

She couldn’t pray for rescue either, not in such a remote stretch of desert.

When she’d escaped her abductors, getting far away from the large trail that ran from Chihuahua to San Antonio had seemed like a smart choice. After all, it was sure to be the first place her kidnappers would look for her.

But it was also the first place her brother, Daniel, the sheriff of Twin Rivers, would look. And now that she’d been away from Twin Rivers for five days, he and his friends were sure to be searching.

But it was almost as though this stretch of desert, with its wild and craggy mountains, had been forgotten by every living person.

She pulled up her skirt a bit more, then stared down at the red lines streaking from her wound up her leg, inching ever closer to her heart. If only she had something to clean the wound with, but she couldn’t afford to even dribble a few drops of water on it, not when she needed every last bit of water for herself.

Sweat beaded on her forehead, and she slid her tongue over her cracked lips in an attempt to moisten them, only to find her tongue itself was too dry for that. Her stomach was starting to feel ill, too, and her head had been pounding for several hours—sure signs that the heat was making her sick.

She rolled onto her side, wincing at the burst of pain in her leg but managing to shift just enough to look up at the scorching sun from beneath the shaded outcropping of rock.

Should she ask God to spare her life for another day?

Or was it pointless even to try?




“What do you mean she escaped?” Ranger Cain Whitelaw grabbed the youth by the shoulders and dragged him close enough that the boy’s shaky breath fanned against his chin.

The sun beat down on them, its unrelenting rays brutal in the July heat. But Cain didn’t give the summer heat a thought as his hard gaze bore into the brown gaze of the boy who wasn’t quite old enough to be a man.

He needed to calm down. This was just another missing person. Just another body needing to be found in the desert.

If he’d done it once, he’d done it a hundred times. His mission was simple. Track down the missing woman, recover her body, and bring it back to her family.

Except it didn’t feel nearly that simple, because it wasn’t just any missing woman. It was Anna Mae Harding.

A curse nearly rose up in his chest, but he tamped it down. This was exactly why his father had taught him not to get too close to people. Not to care. To shake the dust of his hometown off his boots and never return.

Because caring made a man weak, and a Ranger couldn’t afford to be weak.

So Cain tried not to let himself care about the boy’s answer, tried to pretend that the search for Anna Mae was no different than searching for any other woman who’d been abducted. Tried to pretend that he didn’t know how it felt to run his hands through the soft, silky strands of her hair or press his lips to hers.

Confound it! He was never going to find her if he kept letting himself get distracted.

It didn’t help that her brother was with him. As sheriff of Twin Rivers, Daniel Harding had put together the posse to search for Anna Mae, and ever since Cain had joined him, he’d wanted to know every last detail about how Cain planned to find his sister.

Even now, Daniel was edging steadily closer to where Cain stood with the boy, likely trying to hear every word of their conversation.

Not that Cain could blame him. If someone else was running the search for Anna Mae, he’d behave the same way.

It also didn’t help that three of the other seven men in the posse were Cain’s childhood friends. In fact, it seemed every last man in the posse cared far more about what happened to Anna Mae than was advisable given the situation.

The best way to find a hostage was to stay unemotional and logical. That was true for every lawman, whether a Ranger or a Marshal or a sheriff.

But there was nothing detached or professional about their mission. Every time they searched a canyon and found nothing, or shook out their bedrolls to get some shut-eye, Cain felt the disappointment of seven other men piling on top of his own.

It was almost too much for a man to handle.

“Answer me!” Cain snapped at the boy, who’d spent far too long staring at him and far too little time giving him answers. “How did she escape?”

Something in his gaze must have told the boy he was serious, because the youth licked his lips and started yammering. “W-we woke up one night and she was gone.” He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder to where three older men sat tied up on the dry desert ground. “Just ask them. We didn’t do anything to her.”

Cain looked at the men. His posse had ambushed them in a narrow canyon a quarter hour ago.

“I wouldn’t call kidnapping her not doing anything.” Cain’s hands involuntarily tightened around the boy’s shoulders, and he glared into the youth’s dark eyes.

Two splotches of color appeared on the boy’s cheeks. “I meant, we didn’t hurt her any. El jefe’s orders. We were just taking her to him.”

“That’s still a crime in Texas and Mexico.” Did the boy really think not hurting Anna Mae somehow made it all right for the men to abduct her?

His jaw clenched.

“Tell me about the horse.” He jutted his chin toward the old beast that the desperadoes claimed Anna Mae had stolen from them when she escaped two nights ago. “Where did you find it?”

“’Bout a half mile back.” The boy nodded toward where the trail disappeared around a mountain. “That’s why we’ve been searching.”

Cain followed his gaze. He didn’t like this. Not one bit. Oh, he could believe the part about Anna Mae escaping her abductors. If anyone was bound to give a gang of kidnappers trouble, it was Anna Mae Harding.

The woman might be beautiful, but she had a tongue sharp enough to peel the skin off a rattler. She wouldn’t have made a compliant hostage for a single minute.

But having the horse show up on the trail without Anna Mae could only mean trouble.

Another woman might have been careless tying the horse while stopping for water and allowed the beast to get away. But not Anna Mae.

Daniel had finally inched himself close enough to hear everything being said, and the dark look in the sheriff’s eyes told Cain that his friend was thinking the same thing about the horse appearing without Anna Mae.

Had she run into another group of bandits? Or maybe more of Velez’s men had found her, but the horse had gotten away?

Or was she lying dead somewhere, waiting for him to stumble upon her sun-bleached body?

Cain gulped in a breath of air, trying to shove away the image filling his mind.

“Bryce,” he called to Daniel’s deputy, who was standing guard with the rest of the posse. “Take him back to the others and tie him up.”

The lanky lawman strode forward and grabbed the boy, then jerked him toward the others.

“We need to keep searching,” Daniel said the moment the deputy led the boy away. “She’s got to be out there somewhere.”

“After five days, she’s likely not alive.” Cain kept his voice firm, his gaze steady, trying to shove aside that they were discussing the woman with wavy, dark hair and vibrant eyes who used to share her lunch with him at school because his ma never bothered to make sure he was fed.

The woman who’d invited him to Easter dinner this spring as though he somehow belonged in a room full of smiling, happy people. The woman who’d come to his tent the last time he’d ridden into Mexico and told him she was worried about him.

As though his life mattered enough to worry over.

Cain swallowed, doing everything he could not to let loose a string of curses, then scanned his sorry-looking posse and the four outlaws they’d somehow managed to capture.

When he’d ridden into Mexico last time, he’d been on official Ranger business and had thirty Rangers with him, plus the posse Daniel had rounded up from the border town of Twin Rivers, Texas.

Yet he wasn’t on Ranger business now. If anything, the director and assistant director back in Austin would be furious with him. It wasn’t every day a Ranger captain left his post, which was currently Alpine, a town about two days north of Twin Rivers. But when he’d gotten a telegram that Anna Mae had gone missing, he’d simply had to leave his lieutenant in charge and ride straight to Twin Rivers.

Evidently his previous assignment wasn’t quite as finished as he’d thought in June, when he and his men had packed up camp and left.

Daniel and his posse had already been searching for Anna Mae south of the border, but none of them had spent the past thirteen years tracking down criminals like he had. They’d searched the main roads and obvious places where desperadoes might hide.

“My sister’s still alive,” Daniel quipped. As though there was no other option for how they might find Anna Mae. “The desperadoes said they had her three days ago, and she escaped that night. Anna Mae can survive two days and two nights in the desert on her own.”

“I agree,” another voice said.

Cain looked over to see that Harrison Rutherford had sauntered up behind them.

Being a Ranger, Cain didn’t often claim he had friends. But if there was one man in all the world he could still call a friend, it was the dark-headed lawyer who’d insisted on accompanying him into Mexico with the rest of their childhood friends, Sam, Wes, and Daniel.

Harrison repositioned his dark hat on his head, better shielding his face from the sun. “If anyone can survive this long in the desert, it’s Anna Mae.”

“If she has water,” Cain shot back, his throat suddenly thick. Because if she didn’t have water…

He shook his head. “The lot of you will need to take these desperadoes back to Twin Rivers. No plea deals this time. That young one was arrested before.”

“I remember.” Daniel sent the boy a dark look.

“The men said Velez was behind this?” Harrison asked. “I thought this business with Velez was over.”

“Reckon it ain’t as over as we thought.” Cain raised his eyes to the mountains surrounding him, scanning them for any sign that more of Velez’s men might have found them and were planning an attack.

For half of last year and the beginning of this year, Cain had spent nine months stationed in Twin Rivers with his men, trying to root out cattle rustlers that had moved into West Texas and driven thousands of cattle over the border. But no one had realized just how powerful the man behind the rustling was.

Or rather, there was more than one man behind the cattle rustling. Harrison’s father Bartholomew Rutherford, had been powerful too. He’d owned a trading company that transported goods that crossed the border from Twin Rivers to San Antonio. When Bart Rutherford had joined forces with Javier Velez and launched a massive cattle rustling operation, Rutherford had seen it as a way to make easy money. Velez had seen it as a way to steal Rutherford’s shipping contracts before ultimately poisoning the man.

“We’d better get moving.” Daniel glanced up at the sun, likely judging how many hours they had left until darkness fell. “We’ll split the group. I’ll have Bryce, Sam, and Martin take the outlaws back to Twin Rivers while Harrison, Wes, you, and—”

“No.” Cain glanced over his shoulder at the outlaws. “I’m not going to send four seasoned criminals back with only three men. Everyone goes back—except me.”

Daniel’s lips pressed into a flat line. “If you think I’m going to tuck my tail between my legs and stop searching for my sister—”

“You’re not going to tuck anything anywhere. What you’re going to do is take these here men back to Twin Rivers. Leastways, that’s what you’ll do if you don’t want the rest of us to end up dead. You understand?”

“Don’t see how we’ll end up dead.” Daniel’s eyes bored into him. “They’ll be three of us plus you left here.”

“And how many men are in the other group of desperadoes looking for Anna Mae? At least four. And who knows this section of desert better? Them or us? And who’s to say the other desperadoes didn’t ride to La Colina or Chihuahua or wherever Velez is running things to get more men?” Cain gave his head a shake. “No. The lot of you are going back to Twin Rivers. We’ve got men in need of a jail cell.”

“But we don’t have my sister,” Daniel growled.

“Her body. We don’t have her body.” Cain jabbed a finger into Daniel’s shoulder, his gaze flat and hard. “Don’t go getting your hopes up about things that aren’t likely to be.”

Daniel’s jaw turned to granite. “I refuse to believe she’s dead.”

“Fool man.” Cain dropped his hand, then dragged a breath of hot desert air into his lungs. “Alive or dead, none of that changes the fact that I’m the best tracker you know. If more outlaws come looking and it’s just me, I can disappear. It’s a heap easier to hide one man in these mountains than four.”

“I don’t like it,” Daniel growled.

“Neither do I,” Harrison agreed.

Cain took a step closer to Daniel, bringing them nose to nose. “Do you want my help or not?”

Daniel met his gaze evenly, his face haggard from too many sleepless nights and endless days spent under the hot desert sun looking for his sister. “I want to do what’s best for Anna Mae. Leaving only one man to search for her isn’t it, and you’re not going to convince me otherwise.”

“And just how much experience do you have finding abducted women?”

A muscle pulsed at the side of Daniel’s jaw, and his hands clenched into fists.

“I get at least three cases like this a year,” Cain drawled. “Sometimes as many as five.”

“How successful are you at recovering the women?” Harrison asked.

Cain sighed, then reached up and dabbed at a streak of sweat trailing down his cheek with the bandana knotted about his neck. “I’m always successful at recovering them—or rather, their bodies. And then I track down the men who killed them and bring them to justice.”

Daniel pressed his lips together, his gaze sharp enough to cut through the boulder that the desperadoes were sitting beside. “Fine. I’ll leave you here alone like you ask, but you better bring my sister back, and I expect to see her alive.”

He spun on his heel and stalked off, his hands still clenched into fists and the rocky ground crunching beneath his boots.

Cain rubbed the side of his jaw, thinking he should probably count himself lucky Daniel hadn’t swung one of those fists at him.“She’s his only sister, Cain.” Harrison drew in a breath beside him, his shoulders slumping. “Go easy on him.”

“I can’t. There’s nothing easy about any of this. And the last thing I’m going to do is stand here and lie to him about the likelihood of seeing his sister alive.”

“You really think she’s dead, don’t you?” Harrison lowered his voice, even though there wasn’t anyone close enough to overhear them.

Cain frowned. “I’ve been a Ranger too long to imagine any other outcome five days into an abduction, but I promise you I’ll do what I can. Now please, get the desperadoes out of here before nightfall. This stretch of desert has far too many mountains and canyons that would make for a good ambush. I don’t want a one of us here after dark.”

Harrison heaved out a breath, his deep-brown eyes scanning the jagged peaks surrounding them. “I don’t see things like you do, I suppose. Neither does Daniel, and he’s a lawman who was raised in a lawman’s home. The rest of us, we look out over the desert and mountains, and we just… We don’t see where the bandits might be. We don’t know which route they’re most likely to take. We don’t…”

Cain settled a hand on the back of Harrison’s shoulder. “Few men do. But I promise you here and now, I’ll do everything in my power to bring Anna Mae back to her brother.”

Harrison sighed. “Do you think there’s still some chance, any chance she might be alive?”

Cain wanted to shout the word no and release a string of blistering curses. But there’d been hope in Harrison’s voice when he’d asked the question, just as there’d been in Daniel’s. And it was flickering in Harrison’s eyes, too, much the same as it had in Daniel’s.

It also made him dread what was going to happen when he rode into Twin Rivers with Anna Mae’s body in a few more days.

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