Welcome to the final stop of Sara Walter Elwood's Book Tour for Gambling on a Dream! There are several stops on this tour so please be sure to check all of the below listed stops in the coming days. Plus every stop that you leave a comment at gains you one entry to win an Amazon or Barnes & Noble $25 gift card. Until then, Sara shares with us a peek at Chapter One!
I’d like to give you a sneak peek of the first chapter of my latest release, Gambling On A Dream. Although this is the third book in a series, it is a standalone novel.
Gambling On A Dream
©2015 Sara F. (Walter) Ellwood
“What the hell’s going on?”
Interim Sheriff Dawn Madison closed her eyes and swallowed as she rested her hand over her lower abdomen. How would she tell him his son was dead?
She stood from where she crouched by the body of the seventeen-year-old boy, lying on the litter-strewn gravel next to the Dumpster reeking of day-old beer bottles and spilled whiskey. The rusty chain link fence trapped the body like the dirty newspapers stuck against it. She wasn’t sure if the dark stain under the boy was from his blood or years of grease and liquor spilling out of the trash.
“Where’s Chris?” Julie Larson’s footfalls on the wood stairs from her second floor apartment to the back porch of the Longhorn Saloon she co-owned with her brother hammered through Dawn. “What’s goin’ on, Sam?”
“Don’t know.” Sam stopped to wait for his younger sister, but he never took his gaze from Dawn and her deputies. “I just got here and saw all the commotion. I can’t find Chris nowhere. He ain’t answering his damned phone. I started wonderin’ where he is and came looking for him. He’s supposed to be cleaning the bathrooms, but he ain’t there. Doesn’t look like he did a damned thing since closin’.”
A group of curious bystanders was gathering on the side of the weathered clapboard bar near the customer parking lot. Dawn walked over to her lieutenant as he finished zipping up the body bag. She pushed down the fear and pain of telling a father he’d lost his child and pointed toward the growing crowd. “Tilly, get those peepers out of here. I don’t need the grapevine going crazy over this.”
With a grunt, he stood and adjusted his tan Stetson. “On it. What you gonna tell Sam and Julie?”
Wishing she could tell them anything but what happened, she glanced at the brother and sister coming closer over the weedy gravel parking lot. She fisted her hand over her lower belly, her baby hadn’t been born yet when a drug dealer took him from her, and she still woke up at night from the grief. The thought of what she’d have felt if he’d been seventeen when she’d lost him made her sick. “The truth. Well, enough of it, anyway.”
“Wouldn’t want your job, Sheriff.” Tillman “Tilly” Kennedy jacked up his gun belt and headed to do her bidding with the bystanders.
She glanced at Deputies Chet Hendricks and Doug Grant. They searched for evidence in the dry weeds, struggling for life in the greasy gravel surrounding Christopher Larson’s black shrouded body.
Why did she do this to herself? Why was being sheriff of this town so important? She’d been appointed interim sheriff after Zack Cartwright hung up his shiny tin star for a branding iron last month. She was in charge, but not uncontested for the election next month in November that would decide whether the county wanted her or Chet Hendricks as sheriff. Anger twisted with grief as she looked upon the black heap of a teenager’s brutally murdered body. Whether she won the election or not, she had to find the killer.
She turned away and intercepted the Larsons before they could get any closer. At least the man couldn’t see what had happened to his son. The coroner was on the scene, and Lucinda Hudson, a local photographer who worked part-time for the county, had already taken pictures. Sam stared over her shoulder, not a difficult task since he towered over her five-foot, six-inch frame.
When he swung his gaze down to meet hers, she couldn’t miss the fear within the brown depths. “What’s goin’ on, Dawn? Tell me straight.”
Julie clung to her brother’s big arm and bit her bottom lip. In her trembling free hand, she held a smoldering cigarette. Her hair, which was red this week, was pulled back into a ponytail. She looked as if she’d just gotten out of bed in her oversized T-shirt and nothing else.
Sam was dressed in his usual white T-shirt and jeans. The early morning sun glistened off his bald head.
The knife of anger and grief twisted in her heart. Most people had put the Larsons--Sam and his sisters, Ella and Julie--down all of their lives. Over the years, they’d crawled out of the gutter by co-owning the Longhorn Saloon and now Ella’s Diner. The family had already gone through hell back in July when Ella had been murdered by her daughter’s biological father--none other than the richest man in the county, oil tycoon, Leon Ferguson.
The last thing she wanted was to add to their misery only three months later, but this was her job now. The job she’d always wanted. “Sam. Julie. Let’s go inside.”
Glancing at the body bag, he lowered his brow. “Okay.”
Once they were inside the tiny back office, she took a deep breath. Sam’s ex-wife should be here for this too, but she lived down in Crawford with husband number three, or was it four?
“I think y’all should have a seat for this,” she said as gently as she could.
The fear in his eyes brightened, and sweat beaded on his head as he sagged into the old leather chair behind a spotless desk. “That body out there. It’s Chris, ain’t it?”
Julie stood behind him and rested a hand on his trembling shoulder. Her hazel eyes filled with tears, and she took a ragged puff on the burned down death stick.
Unable to hold herself up any longer, Dawn leaned on the desk with a hip and pulled off her tan uniform Stetson.
Sam’s dark eyes shimmered with unshed tears. Dawn swallowed and averted her gaze to the hat gripped in her hands as she nodded.
Julie let out a wail and hugged her brother from behind burying her face into his beefy neck. Dawn reached out and took the cigarette from her trembling hand, before she dropped the thing, and put it out in an ashtray on the desk.
Sam shook violently as tears rolled down his ruddy cheeks and emotions twisted his mouth into an ugly sneer.
He clenched his sister’s fingers, and with the back of his other hand, wiped his eyes with a wicked swipe across his face. His chest heaved. “Goddamn!”
Dawn stood and fisted her hands by her side. Memories accosted her. Although her baby boy hadn’t been born yet when she’d lost him, the pain was immense. She sniffed back the burn in her sinuses. “I’m sorry, Sam.”
“How’d it happen?”
She cleared her throat. Dammit, she didn’t want to tell him the truth. “He was beat, then stabbed.”
Sam shook and grabbed onto the desk as he buried his face in the wood. Julie slid to the floor, covered her face, and sobbed, while Dawn rushed forward and rested her hand on his quaking back.
“Oh, God.” Shaking his head, he sobbed. “I should’ve seen this coming. Especially with everything Ella went through with Annie before the Quinns took her in.”
Kneeling before him, Dawn gave him all the comfort she could offer. She didn’t want to ask him this now, but she had to know. “Sam, was Chris into drugs?”
He closed his eyes and nodded. The sigh escaping him came from his soul. “Yeah. That’s why Peggy’s latest husband kicked him out,” he said, referring to his ex-wife. “But Chris… Chris was a good kid.” He turned his tortured gaze to her. “Find the bastard who did this, Dawn. Or you can kiss your dream of being sheriff goodbye. I think we both know who is selling drugs to these kids. That brother of yours has always been a trouble maker.”
She wouldn’t believe her older brother was the dealer.
He couldn’t be.
* * * *
The next morning, Dawn entered the surgical room off the morgue of Forest County General Hospital. At the stench of formaldehyde, embalming fluid, and disinfectant, the pot of coffee she’d drank that morning soured, and her belly rolled.
Stopping at the foot end of the metal table, she stared down at the autopsied body of Chris Larson. His face had been beaten to nearly unrecognizable, and he had a total of seven stab wounds.
Dr. Andy Warren, the county coroner, wiped his hands on a towel as he stood next to her. “The stab to the chest is what probably killed him. It punctured the heart and left lung.”
“When do you expect to get the toxicology results back?”
He shrugged and tossed the towel onto a bloody, instrument-cluttered tray. “Should have it back in three weeks. But from the damage to his liver and heart, I’d say he’s a crack cocaine user.”
“Thanks, Doc.” The last thing Colton needed was a crack dealer. Whatever happened to the days when the strongest drugs around were moonshine and marijuana?
Those days were lost when the Dallas dealers moved into the country to widen their net, and the Mexican drug cartels pumped more coke over the border. The answer whispered to her from the days she was a vice cop on the Dallas PD.
“Have you contacted the Texas Rangers?”
She swallowed hard. The last thing she wanted was the Rangers involved. Not because she couldn’t use their help, but because of who would likely be sent to assist in the investigation.
“Yeah, I called them and the FBI too.” She glanced at her watch. “I have to get back to the office. I’m meeting with the Ranger in an hour.”
Back at the station, she entered the sheriff’s office. The door still had Zack Cartwright’s name painted in gold on the frosted glass of the window. She couldn’t believe the damned fool had gone and resigned.
He’d been like a brother to her for as long as she could remember. When he first started sniffing around Tracy Quinn Parker again, she thought he was nuts. But maybe Dawn had missed her target on that one. She'd never seen Zack happier than he was now that they're back together and engaged to be married at Thanksgiving.
He’d been an amazing sheriff, but his heart had never been in the job.
Zack Cartwright would forever be a cowboy.
After setting a pot of coffee to brew in the old stained Mr. Coffee, sitting on a short metal file cabinet in the corner, she sat in the fake leather chair behind the utilitarian desk. She ran both hands over her slicked back hair and pulled out the band to shake out the bun at the back of her head. Taking a deep breath, she braided and re-wound the thick, long mess back into a knot and secured it with the black band. Playing with her hair wasn’t going to make any of this go away.
Before she had a chance to mentally prepare herself for the encounter coming with Texas Ranger Wyatt McPherson in less than ten minutes, Charles “Chet” Hendricks roared through the open door like a winter storm. The deputy had been interviewing everyone living on Blackwell and Main Streets near the Longhorn.
She doubted anyone had seen anything since the time of death was estimated to be sometime around four AM, but she might get lucky because it had been a Monday morning. Someone might have been heading out to work that early. “Find out anything?”
She couldn’t miss the smugness of his smile. Chet had never been counted among her friends. He and Talon had been classmates, and Chet had bullied her older brother for years over being the youngest bastard son of the notorious Jock Blackwell, until he’d had enough and pounded the hell out of Chet. The deputy hadn’t made it a secret he didn’t want her as interim sheriff, and threw his hat into the election and campaigned against her.
But his dislike went deeper than Talon’s illegitimacy or her ability to be sheriff.
Chet disliked anyone who didn’t check the Caucasian box on the census form.
Despite this, the town loved its veterans, and Chet qualified. He’d gone to the Army National Guard after high school and had done a stint in Afghanistan before getting out of the military.
While her father had been sheriff for over a decade, his tenure as the county’s first Native American sheriff had not been free of scandal. His election had been bought and paid for by his adopted family--the Cartwrights. And he’d been accused of looking the other way in more incidences than one, especially those involving the Blackwells, Cartwrights, Fergusons, and McPhersons.
An excited gleam came into his eyes. “I got a witness that puts Talon Blackwell in the vicinity of the Longhorn at the same time as the murder.”
She leaned back in her chair and gripped the armrests. What the hell was Talon doing on Main Street at that time in the morning? He’d moved back to town two months ago and into the old hunting cabin on the third of the family ranch belonging to him. His big plan was to raise cattle on his part of the M bar C, their family’s ranch, now that he got his share of money from the sale of the Blackwell Ranch.
At four AM, if a rancher was up, he was feeding stock, not cruising through a sleeping town, fifteen miles away.
“I’ll question Talon as soon as possible. He may have seen something.”
Chet’s lips twisted into a sardonic grin. “Yeah, you do that, Sheriff.”
Determined not to let the pissant intimidate her, she stood and leaned over the desk. “I should remind you, Deputy Hendricks, I was appointed sheriff by the town council, and you haven’t won the election. You are very close to insubordination.”
“Hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
Both she and Hendricks turned toward the door. Texas Ranger Wyatt McPherson stood in the opening. He pulled his hat off his head of thick chestnut brown hair. His full lips twitched up in one corner, and amusement caused small crinkles at the corners of his bluebonnet-blue eyes, as if he spent too many years squinting into the sun.
Dawn sucked in a breath and hated that her heart seemed to speed up. Damn, she hated when people snuck up on her. She refused to think about the fact that her heart hadn’t started beating fast until after she’d conducted a full assessment and determined the interruption was harmless.
Well, as harmless as a rattlesnake.
Wyatt ambled into the room with the loose walk of a man who’d grown up riding horses.
“Lieutenant McPherson, welcome.” She pasted a smile on and prayed it looked genuine. The last thing she wanted was either man to know how much Wyatt’s presence affected her. She’d made that mistake last month when he showed up on duty to help catch a gang of cattle rustlers.
The Texas Ranger held out his hand. She shook it quickly and tried to ignore the way his touch caused her skin to tingle.
“Sheriff, it’s good to see you again.”
Yeah, right. Like working together on the rustling case had been a picnic.
“Glad the Rangers sent you, Wyatt.” Chet faced Wyatt with all the self-importance of a bantam roster. “I have a witness that puts Talon Blackwell at the scene around the time of death. I think he should be brought in for questioning.”
Wyatt glanced at her, but she ignored him to glare at Chet and said through gritted teeth, “Deputy Hendricks, you are dismissed.”
With a glower at her, he didn’t say more. He stormed out of the office, then shut the door with a bang behind him. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“I almost need my hunting knife to cut the tension in here. What was that all about?”
She met his blue gaze. “You know you can’t trust us Injuns. Maybe I’ll ride on over to his place later and scalp him in his sleep and hang his mangy pelt on the totem pole in front of my teepee.”
Wyatt chuckled and sat in the chair in front of her desk. He laid his black Resistol hat on the edge. “See, that’s why you’ll make a great sheriff.”
She narrowed her eyes on him. “Better share that with the rest of the town. Chet has them convinced he’d be the best choice for sheriff.”
He shrugged and grinned a one-sided smile, making him look like a sexy cross between a young Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood all rolled up in one. “He won’t win, and Hendricks will either come around, or else once you’re elected sheriff, he’ll quit. At least it won’t be like when your dad was elected. Over half of his deputies up and walked out in protest.”
She remembered the day her father won the election. “Yeah, and Dad wouldn’t have gotten elected if the Cartwrights and your dad hadn’t pulled every string out there. When I win this election, it will be because I earned it, not because someone bought it for me.”
Had she imagined the shadow over his eyes as he lowered his gaze to his hands?
“You’re still just as driven as you’ve always been.”
“When someone thinks killing kids on my watch for drugs is okay, damned right I’m driven.” She folded her arms over her chest. “I just hope the people in Forest County realize the fallout if they put a bigot like Chet Hendricks in the sheriff’s office.”
Wyatt leaned back in his chair. “I told you he won’t win. Give the folks of this town some credit.”
“I’ll be happy when the election is finally over.” She stood and headed for the coffee in the corner.
“So, what was he yapping about concerning Talon?”
She dumped fake creamer into her cup and handed Wyatt a cup of black. “Someone supposedly saw him near the murder scene.”
“We’ll have to question him.”
She sat behind her desk again and sipped the strong, hot coffee. “Yeah, I know.”
“I thought he was living out on the M bar C. How’s he doing these days?”
“Yeah, he’s living there.” She set her favorite bright green mug on the desk and shrugged. Would he recognize it as the one he’d given to her on her thirtieth birthday? She wasn’t sure if she was happy or disappointed when he glanced at it, and his face showed no signs of recognition. “You know Talon. He’s always been a loner. He’s more so since coming home.”
“Prison will do that to a person.”
Talon’s life had never been easy. Their mother married Dawn’s father when Talon was only a baby. Her dad had wanted to adopt him, but Talon’s biological father wouldn’t allow it. Jock Blackwell had insisted Talon carry his name, but he never was a father to Talon, or his other three illegitimate sons for that matter. Her dad had tried his best with Talon, but he’d rebelled early and gotten himself into trouble on a regular basis. Her father always got him out of the misdemeanor stuff--except he hadn’t been able to get him out of the bogus drug charges he’d racked up two years ago in Amarillo.
The day Talon graduated high school, he’d left home to ride the rodeo circuit, until he was thrown from a bull and nearly killed six years ago. He’d moved home to recover, and this time his father wanted to spend time with him. Dawn suspected Jock had wanted to gage his youngest son’s intentions. Of all his sons, Talon was the only one who hadn’t ever cared about getting his hands on Blackwell Ranch. After a few months, Talon and Jock seemed to form some sort of relationship. Then one day, Talon had ridden out over the pasture of his father’s ranch and discovered Jock dead. Her bother never talked of the sight, but it had to have been gruesome. Jock had died from a head injury and lain in the July heat and elements for three days.
She shook her head at the thoughts. “You don’t honestly believe Talon would do or sell drugs, do you?”
Wyatt sipped his black coffee from the Styrofoam cup as if considering his response. “All I know is no one truly decides to be an addict. You know that.”
She stared at the coffee in the mug clutched between her hands. “Talon swore in his trial the coke had been planted on him to keep him from competing in the rodeo. I believe my brother, Wyatt. Talon has always been a hothead and a roughneck, but he has never been an addict, dealer--or a murderer.”
“We still have to talk to him.”
She let out a long breath, sagging with the exhale, and nodded. Wanting to change the subject, she asked about his younger sister. “How’s Rachel? I heard she came home the other day.”
“Rachel’s home, but having a tough time.”
“I’ll have to come over and visit her.” She and Rachel McPherson had been friends in school. But they’d grown apart as high school friends do. Dawn went off to the police academy in Austin, while Rachel went to the University of Texas, graduating as a registered nurse. She ended up joining the Army, being commissioned, and was deployed to Afghanistan. This last deployment had been her third time over there, and it would also be her last. She’d been shot multiple times and had lost her lower leg.
The damned war. Post traumatic stress disorder had screwed up Zack in a big way. He’d all but been an alcoholic, and she believed if it hadn’t been for his little girl, he would’ve put a bullet in his own head after his wife died. His depression, and her fear that he’d go off the deep end, had been what convinced her to talk him into running for sheriff after her father retired, instead of running for the office herself.
“I just wish there was something I could do.” He sipped his coffee and shook his head. “Yesterday, after I brought her home from the Waco VA hospital, Audrey showed up. I love my twin, but I wish she would stay away for a little while. Rachel seemed more depressed after Audrey left, and of course, that upset Mom.”
“Was Lance there too?” What a mess. Lance Cartwright was the last person Rachel needed to see right now.
She understood Rachel’s pain. Nothing worse than being thrown away by a man you loved. Dawn had taken a bullet for Wyatt, costing her their baby’s life. He left her the moment he discovered she’d been pregnant. Like she’d always feared he would, which had been exactly why she hadn’t told him.
“No, he had the good sense to stay away.” Wyatt rubbed the back of his neck. “But my mother thinks everything will be fine and dandy if they all make up. She’s planning a huge dinner Sunday and invited Lance and Audrey over.”
Dawn let out a breath and hugged her mug between her hands, hoping the warmth would take away her sudden chill. “Damn. I mean… This has to be brutal for Rachel. Doesn’t your mom realize how she must feel?”
Not only was Rachel now sterile after being shot in the gut, but there was a time she loved Lance before her sister stole him away by seducing him.
“I think Mom’s in denial. She wants all of us to get along.”
When he looked up, the love for his sister shining in his eyes twisted her heart. He’d always been there for his sisters, but he hadn’t stuck by her when she needed him.
“My baby sister can’t take much more, and without her friends, I’m afraid for her.”
She nodded, but her friend’s welfare wasn’t what had her reeling; it was the man she had once loved.
Gambling On A Dream
Colton Gamblers Book 3 by Sara Walter Ellwood
June 9, 2015
With Everything At Stake…
It’s been years since Sheriff Dawn Madison said goodbye to Texas Ranger Wyatt McPherson. She’s closed the door on the heartache of her past. But when the sleepy town of Colton, Texas, is rocked by a series of shocking murders, Dawn has no choice but to trust the man who broke her heart if she wants to protect the ones she loves…
All Bets Are Off
Four years have passed. But Wyatt hasn’t forgotten the bold, Native American beauty who stole his heart . . . and broke it. Losing her and the life they had hoped to share left him an empty shell of himself. But if he wants to stop the deranged killer terrorizing the innocent kids of Colton, he’ll have to let Dawn back into his life. It’s a risk he’s willing to take, even if heartache is all he takes home…
When the door closed with a resounding click behind her brother, Dawn pounded a fist onto the table with enough force to rattle their coffee mugs. “Dammit, who is he protecting?”
Wyatt glanced back at the door. Her older brother Talon had always had it rough, but no worse than Dawn and their younger brother. Sure, being one of Jock Blackwell’s ill-begotten sons wasn’t something he’d wish on a rabid coyote. However, Tom Madison had treated Talon like a son all his life, even giving him a third of his ranch when he retired.
Talon had changed, and not for the better. His problems didn’t come from how he was raised, or even the occasional bullying. He was a troublemaker, and nothing would have changed him.
He sat in the chair Talon had vacated. “Or the question could be what is he hiding?”
She ran her hands over her dark hair to the tight bun at the base of her skull. With jerky movements, she pulled out the band holding the twisted braid captive. As she ran her fingers through the long mass of raven silk, heat coursed through him at the memories of all that hair covering him like a blanket while they’d made love. When she bent over the table and scratched her scalp in pure frustration, all he could think about was her hair hanging down her back to brush and tickle his thighs as she rode him--her favorite position--to orgasm.
The erection was fast and furious and nearly had him groaning. Thank God, he was sitting. He forced his numbed mind to focus on the case.
“We have to find someone else who may have seen or knows something.” She glanced across the table at him and straightened. If there was ever the perfect picture of a beautiful Indian maiden, it was Dawn with her hair down. Had she ever had the stuff cut? He swallowed hard and shifted in his chair as his jeans strangled his cock. How long had it been since he’d had sex? He couldn’t remember, but refused to believe he hadn’t been with someone since Dawn.
With swift, practiced motions, she broke the trance he was under by daftly braiding her hair and wrapping it into a bagel-sized knot at the back of her head. She snapped the hair band over the bun.
He cleared his throat. “When are we talking to Chris’s friends?” His voice came out sounding a bit husky, even to his ears.
She stood, taking their coffee cups with her, and refilled them. After she dumped that god-awful crap pretending to be creamer into hers, she handed him a mug of black joe. Sipping her coffee from the extra-large, bright green mug he’d given to her for her thirtieth birthday, she returned to her chair.
“Hendricks and Kennedy are getting a list, but according to Julie, he didn’t have many friends in Colton.”
“How about Justin Vaughn? He’s always been a known dealer. Maybe he knows something.” He sipped his coffee.
She smiled, and he almost choked as he swallowed the hot, bitter brew. “Haven’t thought of him. We should talk to him. They’re about the same age. Vaughn’s working over at his uncle’s farm and garden market.”
He set his mug on the table and glanced at his watch. “I can’t today.”
Grinning, he stood. “No. I’m buying the Estrada Ranch.”
Her dark eyes widened. “Really? I heard Luis and Stella were thinking of moving to New Mexico, but I didn’t know it was a done deal. I figured it would go to either Jose or Mary,” she said, referring to the Estradas’ son and daughter. “How long has their place been up for sale? I haven’t seen a sign in their yard.”
He shrugged and reached for his hat where it sat on the edge of the table. “Luis and Stella told Mom and Dad they planned to sell the place a couple of weeks ago while playing Bingo at the firehouse. When they told me, I called the Estradas and made an offer. It never officially made it on the market. I’ve been looking for a small ranch.”
“We’ll be neighbors when you settle in there.” She cocked her head to the side. “I never knew you wanted to be a rancher.”
“You never cared about a lot of things I wanted.” His bitterness surprised even him.
She stood and picked up her mug, leaving his where it sat. As she headed for the door, she nodded toward it. “We have a policy around here. We clean up after ourselves. Something I seem to remember you have a hard time with.”
Although Sara Walter Ellwood has long ago left the farm for the glamour of the big town, she draws on her experiences growing up on a small hobby farm in West Central Pennsylvania to write her contemporary westerns. She’s been married to her college sweetheart for over 20 years, and they have two teenagers and one very spoiled rescue cat named Penny. She longs to visit the places she writes about and jokes she’s a cowgirl at heart stuck in Pennsylvania suburbia. Sara Walter Ellwood is a multi-published and international Amazon bestselling author of the anthology set Cowboy Up. She also publishes paranormal romantic suspense under the pen name Cera duBois.
Gambling On A Secret, Book 1 and Gambling On A Heart, Book 2
For other links and book information check out my website page: https://sarawalterellwood.wordpress.com/the-colton-gamblers-contemporary-western-romance-suspense/
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