WANTED by J.M. Snyder
Part of the Saddle Up Pax collection!
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Jesse McCray ekes out a hard living cutting cattle from the local beef baron of Defiance, Texas. He's known for his quick draw and his steady aim; no one outguns him. Whenever he and his ragtag group of friends known as the Rustlers ride into town, the local cowboys hold their breaths, waiting for the men to ride through. But one evening, while playing faro at Billy's Saloon, Jesse's attention is drawn to a new face in the crowd.
Ethan Phillips is an idealistic tenderfoot from back East, passing through Defiance on his way to the California coast. He's heard tales of the gold that enriches the west coast, and he's looking for a way to make his dreams come true. When his horse pulls up lame, he offers to sing for the cowboys of Billy's Saloon to earn a few coins, but the men jeer at his song until a man in black quiets them. With one look into Jesse's dark eyes, Ethan finds himself falling for the man.
Ethan's horse heals but he stays in Defiance, enamored by his outlaw lover. But the cattle baron has a grudge against one of Jesse's outlaw friends, and a gunfight in Billy's Saloon puts a price on the Rustlers' heads. Can Jesse protect Ethan from the lawmen gunning for him and his friends?
The first crystal notes from the piano filled the air as Ethan tested the instrument, and Jesse frowned at his cards when the noise in the bar seemed to increase. The more Ethan played, the louder the cowboys got, as if deliberately trying to drown out the music. When Ethan began to sing softly, his voice was lost in the ruckus around them, and Kit laughed. "He ain't getting a penny in this shithole tonight."
The cowboys teased the young tenderfoot, disrupting the song that quivered beneath their raucous catcalls and mocking words. Jesse could barely hear the sound of Ethan's voice, a ray of angelic light cutting through the noise. "Stuff it, pretty boy!" someone cried.
Laughter followed as Ethan's voice faltered on the opening strands of "Nearer My God to Thee."
"Pick up the pace!" someone else shouted, and a few cowboys close to the piano leaned over Ethan, their fingers reaching for the keys. Discordant notes plucked from the instrument to strike the air, and Ethan blushed beneath the rough men pushing him aside. Someone else started up a round of a familiar drinking song, winking at Marie until she laughed like a bell in the crowd.
Jesse had had enough. Tossing his cards into the kitty, he stood and pulled his Colt .45 in one fluid move. Without taking aim, he fired a shot into the air.
The loud report silenced the room.
Diego and Kit looked up at him, Joey turned from Marie, and Ethan's warm gaze enflamed Jesse's senses. He dared another half-smile; the cowboys in the room shifted uncomfortably under the weight of his pale blue eyes. "If you don't mind," he drawled, his voice dangerously low, "I'd like to hear this song."
Someone tittered, and with lightning speed Jesse leveled his revolver at a lone cowboy, sitting with his back to the wall. "The next person who speaks, dies," Jesse promised.
He cocked the gun slowly, drawing the sound of clicking metal out into the sudden silence of the saloon. When he was sure he had everyone's attention, he lowered his weapon and nodded at Ethan. "I'd suggest starting over again," he said, taking his seat. "I missed the beginning."
Clearing his throat, Ethan ventured, "Thank you."
"My pleasure," Jesse said again.
He glared around the room, challenging anyone to meet his gaze or make a sound. None of the cowboys met his gaze, and no one dared speak. Satisfied, Jesse picked up his cards and studied them as Ethan started playing the piano a second time. This time, his young, clear voice filled the saloon, and Jesse let the music fill the hollow places inside of him.
Then he got a good look at his cards, and frowned at Diego. "I had a full house."
"You lie," Diego said softly, spreading his hand out in front of him. "I have a full house."
Jesse sighed and tossed his cards back down. "You cheat," he said, but his voice held no threat. This was nothing new to him.
"You should watch your cards more carefully," Diego pointed out, scooping in the pile of money and chips from the center of the table, "instead of letting yourself get distracted by a pretty face."
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