Proud and independent, thirteen-year-old orphan Wade Hunter doesn’t want a family. But when the town marshal catches him stealing, Wade’s given only two choices: Spend time in jail or become the marshal’s ward.
Sadie Shaw, the marshal’s eldest daughter, doesn’t want another sibling. She has enough brothers and sisters, and she’s dismayed when her kindhearted pa brings home another lost child. It doesn’t help that this one is surly and arrogant. Worse, he thinks that because he’s older, he’s under no obligation to mind her household rules.
Wade and Sadie battle wills often as they grow into adulthood, burgeoning both their dislike for each other and their grudging respect. When faced with a problem that requires their unity, will they be able to set aside their differences, or will the strife they face only tear them apart for good?
Warning: When He Returns contains adult punishment spanking. If that doesn’t appeal to you, please don’t buy this book.
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Wade Hunter watched two boys skip past him. They were plump and rosy around the face, and every perky step projected energy. He could hear them giggling at nothing in particular as far as he could tell—just for the joy of living, it seemed. Leading the two boys was their ma, presumably, whose long skirts and genteel walk gave her the appearance of gliding as she crossed the street toward a buggy next to the mercantile.
When the trio reached their destination, the cowboy next to it swung the kids up one by one, then held his hand out to assist the woman up the steps. Once the man’s family was situated, he covered his newly bought goods in the back of the buggy with burlap and secured it with twine for the journey.
Wade’s stomach growled, and he felt nauseated. He was a boy not much older than those who’d just walked past him, but he felt decades older. Unlike them, no parent would see to his supper that evening. In fact, he hadn’t put a morsel of food in his mouth in nearly two days—not since he’d last stolen from the mercantile.
Standing on unsteady legs, he abandoned his seat by the horse trough and followed the children’s path into the dusty street with his saddlebag slung over his shoulder. He covered his nose and mouth with his bandana to mask his appearance as much as possible and coughed a few times from the dirt caught in the unwashed cloth. As the family squeaked away in their buggy, he arrived at the door and leaned flat against the wall next to it.
Wade could hear Mr. Campbell shuffling goods around for some time before all noise ceased. He peeked inside and, upon finding no one in the main room, took action. He rushed in and spotted what he was looking for—sliced bread on the countertop, a free gift for Mr. Campbell’s paying customers.
The scent of fresh-baked bread filled his senses. After he grabbed the entire loaf and stuffed it into his saddlebag, he couldn’t resist pulling down the bandana to shove one piece into his mouth. It was at that moment Mr. Campbell entered from the back room and saw him. Fear gripped Wade, and he turned to run, stumbling over a board on the floor that was raised half an inch over the others. He fell against the door, opening it, and scurried down the steps, gripping his saddlebag over his shoulder.
It was as though he was in one of his recurring nightmares. His feet wouldn’t run fast enough, and his weakened, hungered state meant that even the rush of fear couldn’t provide him with enough strength to escape. Mr. Campbell was upon him in an instant, grabbing him by his collar at the nape of his neck and bringing him to a sudden stop. Desperately, Wade swung his fist, connecting it with the man’s side, but it had no effect on the man’s grip. Wade’s saddlebag was being pulled from his other hand.
“Let it go!” he snarled. The contents of the bag contained all of Wade’s earthly belongings. They weren’t much—a few matchbooks, a duster, and a knife—but he would fight hard for them.
However, he was in no state to prevent the bag’s removal from his person, since he could hardly remain on his feet. His head felt light. His body sagged, and he remained in an upright position only due to the man’s firm hold on the collar of his shirt. Dimly aware that he was being dragged in the direction of the marshal’s office, he accessed a burst of energy and twisted violently away from his captor. When Mr. Campbell grabbed his shirtsleeve, Wade saw his chance. Like a rabid dog, he sank his teeth into the man’s arm and held on for dear life, tasting copper as curses swirled around his head like the dust.
Wade steeled himself in anticipation of the blows that would follow, but despite his teeth being buried in Mr. Campbell’s arm, the man did not strike him—nor did he let him go. He continued on toward the jailhouse, dragged Wade up the front steps, and shoved him through the door, where Wade lost his teeth’s hold and stumbled backward, falling to the floor. Wade breathed hard as he glared up at the man’s bewildered face. The shopkeeper eyed his arm and visibly cringed before looking at the marshal, who had risen from the chair behind his desk and was approaching them.
“What in tarnation, Charles?” the marshal exclaimed. His boots clipped heavily against the floor.
“Caught the boy stealing from the mercantile,” Mr. Campbell responded. He held out Wade’s saddlebag. “You’ll find the stolen bread in there.”
“You filthy liar!” Wade growled from his spot on the floor.
The marshal opened the bag and located the bread. “Doesn’t look like he’s lying,” he informed Wade grimly. He held the loaf out to Mr. Campbell, who shook his head and held up his hands to refuse it.
“It’s no good to me now after being inside that dirty bag. Might as well give it to the boy. He’s obviously hungry.”
The marshal agreed with a nod and, much to Wade’s surprise, handed him the loaf. Wade took it slowly, wondering what to make of their act of kindness. It was not what he had expected them to do.
He didn’t have the strength or desire to ponder it further and, instead, chose to eat the bread before one of them changed his mind. He devoured it, feeling like an animal. He was aware the men were watching him, but he was too hungry to care until he’d eaten every last bite.
“You’d better get that arm looked at, Charles,” the marshal said. “Old Sawbones will dab it with some iodine and wrap it up good.”
Charles nodded and cast a glance at Wade, who was still sitting on the ground. “What’ll you do with the boy?”
Wade was curious to know the answer to this question as well and turned his full attention to the marshal.
The marshal rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ll have to see about finding his folks. Not seen him around these parts. Have you?”
Charles shook his head. “Nope. Good luck, then.” He tipped his hat before striding out the door.
Wade’s heart hammered in fear. Without hunger to distract him, he was presently in a state to focus fully on his impending punishment, which would be none too lenient judging by the hard look on the marshal’s face.
“Stand up, young man,” the marshal ordered.
Wade focused on the star pinned to the marshal’s chest. “I’d rather sit,” he told him, with more courage in his voice than he felt. “This floor is comfortable enough.” It was also the only thing protecting his backside, and he wasn’t about to abandon it without a fight.
“Suit yourself,” the marshal replied, shrugging. He meandered back around his desk. Once seated, he picked up a pencil and scratched it across a piece of paper, ignoring Wade completely.
The longer Wade sat on the floor being ignored, the more disconcerted he felt. The marshal didn’t once look at him, and Wade grew restless and thirsty. His throat was dry and scratchy with the dust, and it wasn’t long before his cough returned. Wade looked longingly at the basin of water atop a table by the door to the back room. If only there were some way to magically compel the basin to come to him of its own accord…
The marshal cleared his throat, startling Wade. “If you’re thirsty, you can go fetch yourself some water, kid.”
His voice held no anger, but still Wade worried about the marshal’s motive for urging him to stand. If he moved, would the marshal then take the opportunity to punish him? He shook his head, trying to make sense of his scrambled thoughts intertwined with irrational fears.
To Wade, the marshal looked like a giant. His shoulders were broad and, even though his shirt was fitted loosely, Wade could see that his arms were thick and muscled. He would have no trouble causing serious harm, if he were so inclined.
A shiver cascaded down Wade’s spine, and his gaze wandered to the front door. He wondered if the marshal’s size might slow him down enough such that Wade could make a run for it and escape. Quickly, he abandoned that idea. He didn’t want to risk making things worse.
Watching the marshal from the corner of his eye, Wade slowly rose to his feet before hustling to the basin. The marshal folded his hands in front of him on his desk and observed Wade drinking two full ladles of water and wiping his dripping chin with the back of his hand.
“Can I go now?” Wade asked, returning the ladle to its hook.
“No, of course not.”
Wade’s spirits deflated and his shoulders stooped. Sighing heavily, he asked, “What’re you gonna do to me?”
“That depends on what you have to say. Are you ready to talk now?”
Wade grunted noncommittally.
“Sit,” the marshal said, pointing at the chair in front of his desk.
A burst of rebellion shot through Wade. He hated being told what to do and hadn’t been burdened with following orders for some time—not since he’d run away from the orphan’s home.
“Stand, sit… Make up your mind,” he grumbled, even as he walked to the chair. He sat down heavily and crossed his arms, then glared at the big man across from him, attempting to convey more courage than he felt.
A dark, thick brow rose slowly. “You have quite an attitude for someone who’s already in trouble.”
Wade stared back at him defiantly, determined to hide his fear.
“How old are you?”
Wade knew he couldn’t get away with lying by much more than a year or two. He hadn’t had a growth spurt yet, and his voice cracked whenever it spontaneously deepened. “Thirteen, I think. Don’t know my exact birthday,” he answered.
“All right. And where’s your kin?”
“Dead or in prison.”
Wade’s gaze wandered to the wanted posters tacked up on the bulletin board behind the marshal. He remembered when his pa’s face had been on such a sign. That was nearly two years ago. The bounty hunter had come and taken his pa away, and Wade hadn’t seen him since.
The arrest of Wade’s pa meant the loss of his home. Men in suits had swooped in and stripped it of all valuables, leaving Wade penniless in addition to orphaned. Though he missed some aspects of having a home, he didn’t miss his pa. Wade had grown up constantly trying to keep shy of him and his temper, which ignited to dangerous proportions when he drank. Luckily, the home he’d grown up in was large and populated with several servants, so it was easy enough to escape notice during most of his pa’s episodes.
Wade learned that his pa had robbed a bank with a gang of thieves before Wade was born, providing him with a substantial sum of money. While the other men in the gang had continued their thieving ways, Wade’s pa had been smarter. He’d moved across the country, from Virginia to Texas, and waited three years before using the money he’d stolen to build a grand house. Then he’d married an unsuspecting woman and had something resembling a normal family when his wife had given birth to Wade.
Everything changed after her death. His pa became even crueler. And, though his ma hadn’t paid Wade much mind, leaving the child-rearing duties to the servants, she had been an effective buffer when she was alive. The years Wade spent with his pa after his ma’s death were something he tried not to remember. His most prominent feeling then had been fear of getting noticed by his pa while simultaneously craving his attention.
The marshal regarded Wade with a curious expression after his short explanation that his kin were either dead or in prison. “Where are you living then, if you have no kinfolk?”
“Nowhere particular.” Wade sat up a little straighter. “I’m a traveling man.”
“A traveling child, you mean,” the marshal corrected.
Wade scowled in response, annoyed by the marshal’s clarification.
“You don’t have any home? Didn’t you get placed with other orphans when you lost your family?”
“They tried,” Wade said, jutting out his chin. “Didn’t much like it, so I ran away. And you can do with me what you will, but I’m not going back. If you force me, I’ll only run away again.” Anger and fierce determination seeped out of his words.
“I see.” The marshal set down his pencil and leaned back in his chair. “That puts me in a bit of a predicament, kid.”
“How?” Wade asked. He failed to see how the marshal was in any kind of predicament at all. Wade was the one about to get punished for stealing.
The marshal scrubbed a hand around his face. “Well, usually if a boy gets into a peck of trouble like you have, I read him the riot act, but then I take him home. Obviously, I can’t do that with you.”
“You could let me go,” Wade suggested. “Nothing all that bad happened. Not like I stole money or anything.”
“I could, yes,” the marshal allowed, “but that would be irresponsible of me, don’t you think?”
Wade’s irritation grew. He didn’t like being in suspense over his fate. He rose from his chair. “Look, Marshal, I’m sorry I stole the bread. I was hungry. Just give me a seeing-to and be done with it. I’ll move on and won’t steal again. Wasn’t planning on staying in this two-horse town anyway. I got better places to be.”
“Sit your ass down,” the marshal ordered, more sharply than he had spoken previously.
The harsh edge to the marshal’s voice caused Wade to obey immediately. He glared at him, now fearful once again in addition to being annoyed.
“Believe it or not, I am giving you a seeing-to, just not the kind you expect,” the marshal explained, a bit more gently. “You are a child without a home. I don’t think it would be wise to put you back on the streets where you more than likely will steal again, either here or in the next town.”
Wade’s hands formed into fists, and his heartbeat quickened with the news that the marshal had no intention of letting him go.
The marshal must have seen the fear in his expression. “I’m not going to punish you, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’m not in the habit of beating starving children.”
Wade let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Life had afforded him few mercies, and he certainly hadn’t expected mercy at the hands of the severe-looking lawman.
“I have five kids at home,” the marshal said. “The oldest is just a year or so younger than you.”
Wade stared down at the faded denim covering his knees. He failed to understand the marshal’s reason for telling him about his kids.
As though reading his mind, the marshal said, “I’m lenient with children, as I have a whole brood of them at home. I believe children should be given second chances, and third, fourth, and fifth chances too.”
Wade gritted his teeth. He would never admit it to anyone, but the jealously he felt for boys and girls with parents was sometimes so painful he could hardly bear it. The nausea from earlier turned his stomach once again. “Good for you and your kids,” Wade mumbled resentfully.
“Were your parents good to you before you lost them?” the marshal asked.
The frank question took Wade aback, and it immediately made him defensive. “Of course they were,” he lied. “Why would you ask that?”
“I’m trying to get a read on you. You’re very angry, it seems, and I know for a fact that not all parents are kind to their children. You wouldn’t be the first boy I’ve met who was unfortunate in that regard and who acted angry on account of it.”
“You don’t know anything about me or my parents,” Wade spat, and turned his head to study the bare wall. He was alarmed to feel tears prickling his eyes, and he prayed the marshal didn’t notice. Wade never cried, not even when he’d dislocated his shoulder or when his ma had died of typhoid or when he’d been made an example of at the orphanage. Wade couldn’t understand why the marshal’s words had inspired such emotion.
“Right.” The marshal cleared his throat. “You have two choices. You can either stay the night in the cell back there,” he said, jabbing a thumb toward the door behind him, “or you can stay the night at my house. I have an extra cot you can use if you want to stay at my place.”
Wade’s gaze snapped to the marshal’s eyes. “You said you weren’t going to punish me. What do you call throwing me in jail?”
“I call it keeping you safe and out of trouble.” His expression was implacable, and Wade could see that the man’s mind was made up.
He wouldn’t admit it, but a small part of him felt pleased by the marshal’s invitation to his house. The marshal was the first person Wade could remember who wasn’t treating him as an annoyance to be cast aside.
“Guess I’ll go home with you, if those are my only two choices,” Wade mumbled.
“Jolly good,” the marshal said, standing. He walked around the desk and stared down at Wade. His eyes grew hard as he issued a warning. “You behave yourself at my house. No stealing, no brawling, no disrespect. That clear?”
Wade swallowed. “Yeah.”
The marshal held out his hand to shake on it. “That’s ‘yes, Mr. Shaw’ or ‘yes, Clyde’ will be fine too.”
Wade placed his hand in the marshal’s. “Yes, Mr. Shaw.”
For the first time, Clyde smiled, which caused the last of Wade’s fear to fade away. “And what’s your name, son?”
“All right then, Wade Hunter. Come along. I’ll introduce you to my family.”
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