Blind Tiger by Sandra Brown




One

March 1920



Won’t be much longer.”

Derby had been telling her that for the past two hours. He said the same four words at intervals that had become so regular she could now predict, to within a minute, the next repetition. His tone was terse and emphatic, as though he were trying to convince himself.

Laurel had stopped responding because whatever she said, he took as an affront. He sat hunched over the steering wheel, his shoulders stacked with so much tension they were nearly touching his earlobes.

They had gotten a late start, not leaving Sherman until past noon. Since the day had been half gone, and daylight with it, she had suggested they wait until tomorrow to set out, but Derby had stubbornly stuck to his plan.

“My old man’s expecting us. I didn’t spend good money on a telegram telling him when we were coming, only to be no-shows.”

It wasn’t a trip to be making with an infant just barely a month old. She certainly hadn’t expected to be uprooted with only a few hours’ notice. But here they were, Derby, her, and baby Pearl, driving through the night. The farther they traveled, the more concerned she became about their welfare.

Derby had told her that his father lived roughly a hundred and fifty miles southwest of Sherman. He had showed her on a map the route they would take. Until today, she had never been on a road trip in an automobile, but she hadn’t counted on it taking the six-plus hours they’d been traveling to cover a hundred and fifty miles.

She was huddled inside her coat, the lower half of her face wrapped in a muffler, a cap hugging her head. But even bundled up as she was, she had kept careful track of the highway signs. Freezing precipitation made them difficult to spot unless the T-model’s one working headlight caught them at a good angle. They were still on the right highway, but how much farther could it possibly be?

Or maybe, in order to avoid a quarrel, Derby had fudged on the distance.

To be fair, though, neither of them had counted on the abrupt change in the weather. North Texas had enjoyed a reasonably mild winter through Christmas and New Year, but the Farmer’s Almanac had predicted a spring that would be colder than usual, with hard freezes expected well into mid-March. This was day two of the month, and it had come in like a lion.

They’d just reached the western outskirts of Dallas when the norther had caught up to them. The leading gust of frigid air had broadsided the Tin Lizzy like a runaway freight train.

She wouldn’t be surprised to learn that that first buffet had left a dent in the car door. Not that another dent would be noticed. It was already banged up.

* * *



The day Derby had driven the car home, she had been flabbergasted by his impulsiveness. When she’d asked where he’d gotten it, he’d told her about a former war buddy who lived in a town nearby.

“He hadn’t been in France a month when the poor bastard lost his left leg clean up to here.” He’d made a slice across his groin. “Can’t work the pedals to drive. He let me have this beauty for a song.”

They didn’t have a song, but she hadn’t pointed that out, because, in that boastful moment, some of Derby’s rakish charm, which had attracted her to him in the first place, had resurfaced.

He’d swung open the passenger door and made a sweeping gesture with his arm as he bowed. “Your chariot awaits, Miz Plummer.” He’d winked and grinned, and she’d seen a flash of the dashing young man who had marched off to fight the Great War, rather than the quarrelsome stranger who had returned from it.

She’d seized on his sudden lightheartedness and had giggled helplessly as he’d driven them through town going faster than he should and needlessly honking at everything and everybody, making her laugh harder. He’d seemed mindless of the jostling, until one pothole sent her bouncing so hard in her seat, she placed her hands protectively over her belly.

“Careful of those chuckholes or the baby might pop out of me like a cork from a bottle.”

She had gone into labor that very night. By three o’clock the following afternoon, she was a mother and Derby a father. That had been four weeks ago.

At first Derby had been prideful and happy and solicitous to her and their baby girl. But the newness of fatherhood had soon worn off, and the grinning man who’d taken her on the joy ride retreated once more behind a perpetual scowl she couldn’t allay.

In the thirty or so days since Pearl’s entrance into the world, Derby had lost another job. He’d spent a lot of time away from the house and snapped at her whenever she’d inquired where he’d been. In a heartbeat, he would become testy and short-tempered. She never knew what to expect.