If you've popped over here from RomCon looking for more WTW, here is the sneak peek of the prologue through chapter two I promised. Enjoy!
“Brought you some towels, sugar.”
Raz Colt leaned back in the steaming bath water with a deep sigh. Life didn’t get much better than this. A cigar in one hand, a glass of fine bourbon in the other, and a pretty little dove for this evening’s pleasure. As she closed the door behind her, muffling the sound of piano music from downstairs, the cloying aroma of cheap perfume wrapped around him.
He took a sip of the bourbon and sighed again as the smooth liquid warmed his gullet. The past month had been busy as hell. He’d helped a friend clear his name of a brutal murder charge and brought the real killer to justice, then stuck around
just long enough to make sure they hanged the bastard. He’d even provided a new rope for the occasion. It wasn’t often his chosen profession of hired gun brought him such personal satisfaction. Colorado
Betty Lou, or whatever her name was, inched closer, pausing long enough to refill his drink before taking the stool beside the tub. Dressed only in a camisole and pantalets, she had curves in all the right places plus a few extra, he noted with appreciation. A man liked a little something to hold onto in bed.
She trailed a finger in the bath water. “Want me to wash your back?”
He smiled languidly as the bourbon washed through him. “Darlin’, you can wash anything you’d like.”
He’d been riding for weeks, heading straight to
Texas after finishing up in . For no reason other than a sudden yearning to see his home state. After all that time on the trail, he was more than saddle sore, with aches in places a man didn’t like to think about. Colorado
She giggled a little too much at his comment, but he didn’t mind. He sat forward, careful not to get the cigar wet or spill his drink, while she dipped a cloth in the water and lathered it with a spicy, exotic-smelling soap. Damn near anything would smell better than the fine layer of trail dust he’d come in with.
“So,” she said, gently applying the hot cloth to his back, “you new in town or just passing through?”
He closed his eyes, groaning as the heat penetrated aching muscles. Tired and sore as he was, she’d be lucky if she got a rise out of him before he fell asleep. “Ain’t decided that yet. What would you suggest, sweet thing?”
“Stay, sugar, stay,” she cooed. “If you’re lookin’ for a good meal, Ma’s Place up the street is the best. And if you’re lookin’ for work, try the Triple H.”
He slumped back against the tub as she moved around to the front, soaping his neck and chest. “Triple H?”
“It’s the biggest spread around. H.H. O’Hara’s the richest man in these parts. He’s always lookin’ for help.”
Raz took another sip of his drink then clenched the cigar between his teeth. Ranching. He’d tried that once. Didn’t pay nearly as well as hiring out his gun. And he’d never been one for taking orders.
Betty Lou—or was it Linda Sue?—dipped the cloth again. “Want me to wash your hair?”
The bath was included with the price of the woman. He’d always had clean habits, but he supposed half the men waiting in the parlor downstairs had no use for soap. “Why not?”
She ladled warm water over his hair, then lathered the soap between her practiced hands. “I ain’t never seen hair like yours before,” she purred. “It’s so black, it’s nearly blue. You Indian or somethin’, sugar?”
“Might be.” The fact that his mother was half Mexican, half Indian while his father was white wasn’t something he cared to discuss.
Betty Lou seemed to realize she’d hit a nerve. She slid closer, massaging soapy fingers over his scalp. “I think it’s real handsome.”
Through partially lowered lids, Raz noted with pleasure the gentle sway of her bosom as she scrubbed. She’d gotten damp while washing his back, and the camisole clung to her like a second skin. Rosy nipples, outlined against the wet material, practically begged for his attention. Her breasts were mere inches from his mouth, close enough to easily…
Of course, he’d have to set either the drink or the cigar aside to do that. He chose instead to simply watch, anticipating the pleasure ahead.
“Tell me more about this H.H. O’Hara.”
“Oh, the poor man,” Betty Lou sighed. “His daughter’s been kidnapped. I hear he’s right beside hi’self with grief.”
“Does he know who did it?”
She ladled rinse water over his hair. “They left a ransom note, but H.H. ain’t one to be told what to do. So he’s offerin’ a lot of money to the first man that brings his little girl back alive. With her virtue intact.”
Betty Lou pressed a towel to his sodden hair. “H.H. don’t want nobody touchin’ his baby girl. That’s why he’s offerin’ such a big reward.”
Reward? He bolted upright in the tub, sloshing water over the sides with the sudden movement. Removing the cigar, he turned his full attention to Betty Lou. “How big?”
She moved behind him to knead the muscles in his back. “I hear’d tell it was ten thousand dollars.”
Drink midway to his lips, he paused. Ten thousand dollars?
Without a word, he handed Betty Lou the glass and rose from the tub. He felt her curious stare as he slid on trousers over still-dripping skin. Grabbing his gun belt, he strapped it on, then went for his boots. He shrugged into his shirt without bothering to turn it right side out or button it, rummaged through his trouser pockets for a handful of eagles and pressed them into Betty Lou’s palm. “This should take care of you for the rest of the night.”
His fallen angel looked downright disappointed, red-painted lips pouting prettily. “Where you goin’, sugar?”
Raz dropped his hat on over wet hair, then bent to place the cigar between her parted lips. “Triple H.” With a wink he strode toward the door. “Whiskey, women, and a fine cigar go a long way to make a man feel comfortable, but only one thing keeps a man warm at night, darlin’.”
She gave a huff of indignation and put a hand to one rounded hip. “What’s that?”
He tipped his hat to her and opened the door. “Money.”
Ten Days Later
“You call this crap food?”
Raz Colt listened patiently to the tirade coming from the line shack he’d discovered late last night.
“I wouldn’t slop hogs with it!”
A sound suspiciously like a pot hitting a wall echoed in the calm morning air.
He shifted position. He’d been lying on the dusty ground below the window since last night. With the promise of H.H. O’Hara’s reward still fresh in his mind, he would spend an entire damn week this way if he had to. The sagebrush provided shelter from both the sun and any lookouts who might be around. He hoped to hell the men he’d leaned on for information and the trail he’d followed had led him to the right place.
A shriek of female fury pierced the quiet, echoed around him and bounced off the canyon walls. “I told you I needed a firmer bed. My back is killing me!”
“No, no, señorita.” Something banged against the wall, followed by shattering glass.
“I expect to be cared for better than this!”
Raz rolled his eyes at the stream of expletives that followed. She cursed her male companion, his mother, his future children, the entire country. Christ, she knew words even he didn’t say out loud.
This couldn’t be the “baby” H.H. O’Hara was so convinced “might just wither up and die” if she wasn’t treated “delicate like.”
He resisted the urge to have a look inside. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to recognize Arden O’Hara from her father’s description; the big man had been blubbering so hard the other night he’d been almost incoherent. Guilt was a powerful thing, Raz supposed. H.H. had refused to meet the kidnappers’ demands and hadn’t heard from them a second time. The rancher feared he’d done the wrong thing and would never again see his daughter. Averse to paying the “hooligans” who had taken her, he was more than willing to pay someone else to find her and bring her home.
The cabin door burst open; a man dashed out, holding his hat to his head.
“I said I wanted a bath, you incompetent jackass!”
A pitcher and bowl flew past, narrowly missing the man’s head. He bent to pick up the shattered pieces, mumbling to himself in Spanish about the ungrateful señorita breaking his wife’s good pitcher.
Raz made his move. With speed born of practice, his gun met his hand. Swiftly yet silently he crept closer. The other man started, then reached for his gun.
“Save it. You’ll be dead before you clear leather.”
The man glanced from the Peacemaker in Raz’s hand to the one strapped low on his hip then raised his gaze to size up his rival. His arms went up in surrender. “Señor. Did El Hombre send you?”
The man? What the hell was that supposed to mean? He adopted a loose-hipped stance, leaning one shoulder against the shack. May as well play along, see what he could find out “Yeah. He sent me.”
“Bueno. Better you than me. She is a handful, but I could never kill a woman. No matter how unpleasant she is.”
Raz digested that in silence. He wasn’t surprised the kidnappers intended to kill her, had half expected to find her already dead. Now that her daddy had refused their ransom demands, they would have no use for the girl. Except one. And with a temper like that, she’d only make it more fun for them.
“That does not bother you?”
Something thumped against the floor of the shack. “What the hell is going on out there?”
Raising a lazy brow, Raz sneered. “Do I look like it’s gonna bother me?”
The man gave a slight shake of his head. “She is like a tiger. She will not go down without a fight.”
With deliberate movements, Raz removed tobacco from his shirt pocket. Bracing one foot against the door, he calmly rolled a cigarillo. It was pure luck he’d arrived before the real killer, but he wished this little fellow would be on his way. Just once he’d like to have a job gosmoothly. No bloodshed, no fist fights. Nice and easy.
“Where is my goddamned bath water?”
The man adjusted his dusty, battered hat. “Good luck, amigo.” His relieved grin told Raz he’d probably need it.
He pulled a drag on the cigarillo as the other man mounted his horse and watched until he rode out of sight. With a light-hearted sigh, he turned toward the shack. It appeared all he had to do was return Arden O’Hara to her daddy, collect his reward, and not risk his neck doing it.
Visions of how he’d spend the money swam in his brain. Well, just one vision. Land. Lots of it. He’d always dreamed of being a man of property. Maybe then he could hang up his holster, change his name, and live a quiet, peaceable life.
“Do I smell cigarettes out there? Are you heating my bath water or lazing about smoking?”
He tossed aside the cigarillo and pushed open the door. And ducked as an object came flying at his head. It missed him by inches and flew out the open door. He glanced toward the enamel coffee pot, then back inside. The interior was dim, stuffy. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the change in light.
“Great, another one.”
“Did you bring my bath water?”
From his conversation with H.H. O’Hara, he’d been expecting a much younger girl. His gaze fell to the way she was dressed. A man’s shirt, tucked into slim-fitting trousers that hugged every curve. This was no child. Her hands rested on either hip. One small, booted foot patted the ground impatiently.
“Leave something on me, or I might catch cold.”
If life was fair, she’d have the face of a hag to match that heavenly body. Reluctantly, he pulled his attention upward. Damn the luck.
No wonder her father’s reward stipulated her virtue remain intact. Any man would be tempted by such beauty. But beautiful women were nothing but trouble. Money, on the other hand, was something a man could depend on.
With a look of disgust, she turned her back.
Blonde hair the color of moonbeams hung in a long braid down her back. The tail fell past her hips, and when she moved, it twitched enticingly against her small behind. She paced across the room to a dirt-covered window. “I never thought it would get this complicated.”
She whirled to face him. “You do speak English.”
“You never asked.”
She gave him a look that clearly said it was beneath her to inquire, then waved a dismissing hand. “Place the tub over there, well away from the windows. And I expect the water to be hot, not warm.”
He stepped forward to place a hand on her elbow. “I’m here to take you home.”
Her gaze dropped to the hand resting on her arm. “I’m not going anywhere—certainly not with you.”
“There’s a man on his way here to kill you.”
To his surprise, she laughed. “Kill me? Indeed.”
He strode toward the door. “You want to wait around and find out, that’s fine with me.”
“Is Geoffrey coming?”
Hand on the knob, he turned. “Geoffrey?”
“Mr. Davis, my fiancé. I would imagine he’s heading up the rescue party?”
“Yes, rescue party.” She gave a huff of impatience. “Do you have some affliction that causes you to repeat my every word?”
He chose to ignore the barb. He’d met Geoffrey Davis at the ranch with H.H. O’Hara. At first Davis appeared in worse shape than O’Hara, alternately sobbing and talking about the missing Arden in the past tense, as if he assumed she were already dead. But he’d come out of his “grief” long enough to sneer that a half-breed with a gun for hire shouldn’t be trusted with O’Hara’s money. Or his daughter’s life. Going on gut instinct, Raz guessed the man—with his pretty face and small, pale hands that had never seen a day’s work—was next to useless.
“You think that simpering mama’s boy is going to ride to your rescue?”
Eyes the color of new grass narrowed with enough chill to freeze the entire state of
. In August. “Geoffrey’s devotion to his mother is commendable. Further, I won’t tolerate the likes of you insulting the man I’m going to marry.” Texas
Raz jerked a thumb toward his chest. “I happen to be your so-called ‘rescue party’. Pretty-boy
is already planning your funeral.” Davis
She paled. “My …funeral?”
“Damned if this so-called ‘affliction’ of mine isn’t catching. Yes, funeral.
is convinced you’re already dead.” Davis
“Then who hired you, if anyone really did?”
“Does the word daddy ring any bells, sweetheart?”
One hand flew to her mouth. “How did he find out? He’s supposed to be on a cattle drive.”
Folding his arms over his chest, he leaned against the door. “What the hell does that mean?”
“Nothing.” She turned away. “There’s absolutely nothing for him to worry about.”
“Uh-huh. What about the guy on his way here to kill you?”
She glanced over her shoulder. “How do I know it’s not you?”
“You’re still alive, aren’t you?” He stepped away from the door. “Listen, sweetheart, let’s make this easy on both of us. You come with me, I get my money, Daddy gets his little girl back. Everybody’s happy. Comprende?”
Indecision crossed her face. “I … can’t.”
He approached her with narrowed eyes, deliberately using a look that had been the undoing of men twice her size. He had to give her credit though, she never flinched.
Only when they were nose to nose—or, in her case, nose to chest—did she make any attempt to halt him. One palm came up to smack him in the torso. “I’ll double whatever my father offered if you’ll go away and leave me here.”
“You can’t afford to pay me off; you don’t get any money until you’re married.”
“How do you know that?”
“I spent some time with daddy the other night.”
Her eyes welled with emotion. “Is he—is he all right?”
“He’ll be a damned sight better once you’re home.”
Before she could react, Raz reached down and scooped her up. Since Miss O’Hara weighed little more than a sack of flour, he easily swung her over his shoulder. He pushed open the door and stepped out into the blinding sunlight.
One booted foot caught him in the groin while her fists pummeled his back, and not without some amount of pain. Someone had taught the girl how to throw a punch.
He couldn’t resist delivering a stinging smack to her backside. She cried out, then ceased her struggles. Raz grinned. The little tigress wasn’t so hard to tame after all.
And damn him, he was ruining everything. Weeks of carefully laid plans, not to mention hundreds of dollars. It was bad enough Theodore and Amos had gotten everything wrong, even grabbing her at the wrong time. Though she had to admit, the element of surprise had been a nice touch. It had felt much more real than she had expected it would. Despite those set backs, everything had gone exactly as she planned. Until this man interfered.
Her gaze fastened on the .44 holstered on his left hip, mere inches from her fingers. A smile of satisfaction came to her as an idea formed. But she had to distract him first. “Where are you taking me?”
“Home.” He spoke as if she’d lost her mind.
“How do I know I can trust you?”
“What if I don’t want to go?” At last, her fingers brushed the gun.
“That’s not my problem.”
She cleared the .44 from the holster and twisted to bring the butt crashing down on his head. “It is now, mister.”
He swayed but didn’t fall. “You little—give me that before you…before you…”
“Hurt somebody?” she finished for him. He swayed again, then his knees buckled. A split second before he collapsed, he grabbed hold of her braid, bringing her down with him.
“Damn.” She tried to move, but he had landed on her hair and his dead weight wouldn’t budge. “Think,
, think.” Arden
She glanced at his face. Unconscious, he didn’t look so menacing. His skin was quite dark, darker even than some of the Triple H hands who worked all day in the
sun. In fact, everything about him was dark, his hair, his clothes. His disposition. Her gaze traveled the length of him. Long and lean, but she could certainly vouch for his strength. He wasn’t exactly what she would call handsome, but she supposed some women might find him so. Texas
A folded piece of paper in his shirt pocket had jostled loose when he fell. The bold handwriting wasn’t familiar, but she recognized her name. She pulled it out and shook it open. A ransom note. Promising she would be killed if Daddy didn’t deliver fifty thousand dollars by a certain date and time—a date and time that had already come and gone.
What the hell? A chill moved through her. Theodore and Amos were like uncles to her; they would never do anything to harm her.
But if they hadn’t, who had?
In the distance the thunder of hoof beats pounded the hard, dry ground. She shifted her body over that of the unconscious man’s and squinted against the sun to scan the canyon ridge. A lone rider.
Her heart lurched. A tingle moved through her body. She glanced back at this dark stranger who claimed to be her rescue party. If Geoffrey had given her up for dead, and Daddy had hired this man to find her, then who was riding toward her?
And for the moment, she was stuck. Her chin hovered mere inches from his chest. No matter how she struggled she couldn’t free her hair from beneath his dead weight.
“Wake up.” She tried to squirm free, to kick him—anything. She reached awkwardly around to slap at his cheek, but to no avail. He didn’t stir. Only the steady rise and fall of his chest assured her she hadn’t killed him.
The rider moved closer, slowing his pace to take in the scene before him. It was too late to play dead. She had a funny feeling it wouldn’t have done much good anyway.
The metal of the .44 grew warm against her palm, but her hand, pinned awkwardly between her body and the man she lie upon, was numb and tingly from lack of circulation. The rider stopped a few feet away and dismounted. He walked closer, then stopped, studying her with a smug expression. When the corners of his mouth turned up, she had the oddest feeling he considered himself the cat to her mouse. Every instinct screamed the truth. This was the killer.
In one grand attempt to remain alive, she rolled to one side, ignoring the sting of her scalp, and freed her arm. Cocking the hammer with her thumb, she trained the gun on him. “Don’t come any cl—”
A hand on the back of her neck slammed her face down on the ground. Her finger was squeezed tight against the trigger as he—the arrogant ass she’d been unable to rouse a moment ago—closed his hand over hers. Three shots rang out almost simultaneously, the kick from the gun lurching her arm as it fired. Something warm buzzed past her ear, like the hum of a bumble bee but much too fast and much too hot. She opened her mouth to scream but inhaled a mouthful of dust and dirt instead.
Silence reigned for only a second before he rolled off her, one hand pressed to his head where she’d struck him. “Son of a bitch.”
sat up and wiped an arm across her mouth. The rider lay slumped at an odd angle in the dirt. She turned to the suddenly-conscious stranger “You killed him.” Arden
He stood, hand still on his head. “You’re welcome.” With a motion of his finger, he wordlessly told her to stay put. Gun in hand, he approached the dead man, then nudged him with the toe of his boot. He bent to press two fingers to the side of the man’s neck. “He’s dead.”
“So I gathered.” She noted the precision of the two holes, one square in the chest, the other right between the eyes. Either would have been a lethal shot. Another chill slithered down her spine despite the sun’s merciless heat. Who was this man with such deadly aim?
“Do you know him?”
The sight of the corpse, already taking on a chalky hue, began to sour her empty stomach. She drew her knees up to her chin, shaking her head in answer to his question. “Do you?”
He glanced down at the man’s face, cocked his head as if considering. “By reputation only. At least I think it’s him.” He rose, reloaded, and holstered the .44. with a smooth motion that told her he did it often and without thought.
“Why did you kill him?”
“Why didn’t you just shoot him in the hand or the leg or something?”
“Are you out of your goddamned mind?”
“Anyone who can shoot as accurately as you could have disarmed him without killing him.”
“Hell, yeah. I could have invited him to tea, too.” He stepped a few feet away to retrieve the other man’s revolver from where it had landed. “But I have a bad habit, sweetheart. It’s called breathing. And I’m kinda partial to doing it.”
As he approached her, she reached for the extra gun he carried. “I’ll take that.”
“The hell you will.”
“I feel the need to protect myself.”
“And you’re doing a half-assed job of it, from the looks of things.” He knelt down in front of her. “Are you all right?”
She had to admit, his concern was somewhat touching. The memory of him throwing himself over her, shielding her with his body, caused a warm flush of gratitude. “I’m fine. Thank you.”
“Good. I got ten grand riding on your well being.” He glanced back at the other man. “Who wants you dead, Miss O’Hara?”
Raz shifted his gaze back toward her. Something in her voice wasn’t quite right. “You sure about that?”
“Who would want to kill me?”
“Anyone who has known you more than five minutes.”
Hurt flashed in those big green eyes before she pushed to her feet. “I’m leaving.”
“That’s a good idea,” he agreed. “Whoever wants to kill you will try again when he doesn’t come back.”
“I assure you, no one wants me dead.”
“That remains to be seen.” He left her to rummage through the dead man’s pockets, looking for anything that might identify him. But he didn’t need a name to know what Arden O’Hara would have suffered before he killed her. Finding nothing of use, he hoisted the body over his shoulder and draped it across the back of the extra horse.
“We’d better head to the nearest town and find the sheriff.” He didn’t bother to add there would probably be a reward.
“Yes, we.” he repeated. “Don’t you want to know the identity of the one person in the whole world who wanted to kill you?”
She stared at the corpse as if it would bite her. “I told you, I don’t know him.”
“Whoever hired him knows you.”
She briskly rubbed her arms as though to ward off a chill. “Look, Mister—”
“Colt. Raz Colt.”
“Fine. Colt,” she repeated. “I think a terrible mistake has been made here. I’m quite certain this man never meant to harm me. I think he was probably trying to scare me.”
“Men like this don’t play games, darlin’. They kill.”
“You speak as though you have personal experience.”
He shrugged. “I don’t make apologies for what I am.”
“What are you?”
“A law-abiding citizen.”
She raised a brow in his direction before dropping her gaze pointedly to his guns. He wasn’t about to explain his lifestyle to her. He was a hired gun; it wasn’t something he was proud of but it was what he knew, what he was good at. And he liked to think he provided a service to the local law enforcement. Any low-life he took off the streets was one less gun the sheriff would have to face down.
Still, her decided lack of fear in all of this nagged at him. Sure she was a little green around the gills from staring at the dead guy, but not once had she come close to panicking; not before he’d entered the little shack, not when he approached her and not now, when she’d damn near met her maker.
He removed tobacco and paper from his shirt pocket and calmly rolled a cigarillo. “Mind telling me why you’re ‘quite certain’ this man wouldn’t harm you?”
She sighed dramatically. “It’s a long story.”
“I’ve got time before he starts to rot.”
“I’m sorry you were dragged into this, but I was not kidnapped, at least not really.” She began to pace, moving away from him.
The cigarillo complete, he scraped a match on the heel of his boot. “I’m listening.”
She walked toward a nearby rock and took a seat, resting her elbows on her knees, chin in her palms. Another sigh. “I wanted Geoffrey to rescue me.”
He inhaled, held the smoke in his lungs, and willed himself to stay calm. A million different responses came to mind, most of them more colorful than what she’d spouted earlier. At last he allowed a stream of smoke to slowly leave his nostrils. “Why?”
She sprang to her feet and resumed pacing. “I needed to know if he cared about me or if it was the money. I didn’t want Daddy involved, I knew he’d worry.”
“That doesn’t explain our friend over there attracting flies.”
“The men I hired would never have sent a man like that, not even to scare me.”
“The men you hired?”
“Yes. I think we need to assume this man was after you rather than me. A man like you most certainly has enemies.”
“Not alive.” He threw the cigarillo aside and stalked toward her, thoughts of killing her himself running wild. “Are you saying I damn near took a bullet for someone who staged her own kidnapping?”
She shrugged, almost childlike. “I’m sorry.”
“Yes. I’m sure Daddy will still pay—”
“Mister Colt, you’re doing that repeating thing again.”
For the second time that morning, Raz hoisted her over his shoulder, this time taking care to remove his guns. He pressed one against her ribs, partly for effect, partly from anger. “Not half as sorry as you’re gonna be.”
As expected, she kicked and thrashed, pummeling him with her fists, screeching like a banshee.
He deposited her onto the back of his horse, pinned her arms together while he retrieved a length of rope from his saddlebag. Before she could free herself, he wound it tight about her wrists, then secured it to the saddle horn and mounted behind her.
“What are you doing?” she asked, sounding more annoyed than afraid. She tugged at the ropes and let out a child-like shriek when they didn’t loosen.
“Taking you home.”
But not until he taught her a damned good lesson.
The desert sun pounded down with fury, scorching
’s head, neck, and entire body. But the mid-day heat wasn’t nearly as fierce as her temper. The uncomfortable position she was in, half hunched over the saddle, and the pain in her wrists from the way the rope chafed with each step of the horse infuriated her even more. Worse still was the frustrating silence of the man who sat directly behind her. Ignoring her. Arden
She yanked at the ropes, wincing when they bit deeper into her flesh and dug her teeth into her bottom lip to keep from crying out. She’d be damned if she’d let him know she was anything other than fine and dandy. “You’ll pay for this, Colt.”
He gave a slight grunt, barely audible.
“My father will be furious when he sees how you’ve treated me.”
Silence, except for the creaking of the leather saddle beneath them and the tromp of hooves over the ground.
“And Geoffrey will never stand for it. I’m sure he’ll call you out.”
“I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss him. He killed a man in a duel once. He told me.”
He still didn’t say a word. She struggled to come up with something else, anything to get a reaction. “I suppose you won’t untie me because you’re afraid I’ll knock you out again.”
“I wasn’t unconscious.”
She savored a small thrill of victory that she’d finally gotten him to talk. Just like a man to come to the defense of his ego. “You most certainly were; I was there.”
“I recovered kind of sudden, didn’t I?”
“Fortunately yes, but—”
“I wasn’t unconscious.”
Had he been faking it while she’d tried to rouse him? She frowned. How else would he have known exactly when to shoot? Damn the man, even when she thought she’d bested him, she hadn’t. Then again, she had managed to get his gun away and knock him over the head with it. That offered a certain satisfaction.
“Who else did you tell?”
It was the most he’d said to her for miles, and it took
a full moment to absorb the question. “No one.” Arden
“And the men you hired—who were they?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Either somebody betrayed you, or they want to hurt your father by killing you. The least you can do is give me a name.”
“I can’t.” The flat landscape ahead seemed to blur and waver, and she blinked to keep from getting dizzy.
“Can’t or won’t?”
Won’t. Theodore and Amos hadn’t been easy to convince, and it was loyalty to her, and their own mistrust of Geoffrey, that had finally swayed them. That and the assurance that Daddy would never find out. “The men I spoke of would never harm me. Or my father.”
“I want names.”
“Before I ride into town and risk my ass for you again, you’re going to have to answer some questions.”
“You mean risk your ass for that reward.”
He expelled a loud breath that brushed the back of her neck. “I promised I’d bring you home unharmed.”
“Does that promise include tying my hands so tight my fingers are numb? Do you think Daddy will still pay you when I tell him what you’ve done?”
“If I were you, I’d be more worried about his reaction when I tell him what you’ve done. And Geoffrey.” He gave a low whistle. “Wonder what he’ll have to say about how much you trust him. After he’s called me out and shot me dead, of course.”
“Oh!” Intent on slapping his arrogant face, she twisted, only to be jerked back by her bound wrists. For lack of anything else to strike she kicked her legs in frustration. “Goddamn it, untie me. Untie me this minute or I’ll scream.”
She felt as well as heard the chuckle that rumbled from deep in his chest. “Go ahead.”
All the fury and rage she had built up since the minute the arrogant jackass stepped into the line shack this morning came out in an angry shriek that lasted until she ran out of breath.
Actually, she was even angrier now. She opened her mouth to scream again, but a tug on her braid jerked her head back so that she stared up into his face.
“Do it again and I’ll gag you.” His low, menacing voice told her she’d pushed him as far as she could for now. “Your little princess tantrums may work on your daddy, the hired help, and everyone else. Not with me.”
“No more screaming, no more talking. In a little while I’ll stop and rest the horses and then maybe—maybe—I’ll untie you.” He released her braid, and she righted herself.
“We’re doing things my way from now on, Miss O’Hara. Keep that in mind, and we’ll get along just fine.”
“Over my dead body.”
“We already tried that.”
The descending sun cast a rosy glow across the desert. But straight ahead was the
and a damn welcome sight at that. With any luck they’d be back in Rio Grande by nightfall. As Raz led the horses toward the river to drink, he glanced at Arden O’Hara, still bound and seated on his horse. She’d been so quiet the last few miles he’d half suspected she’d fallen asleep. But those grass-green eyes were fixed on him with their usual frosty glare. Texas
Pulling a knife from the sheath at his waist, he sliced through the ropes that held her to the saddle horn, leaving her wrists tied together. A faint scent somewhere between vanilla and lemon drifted to his nostrils when he reached for her. He’d noticed it a few different times during the day and was surprised each time at how the soft scent was at odds with her personality.
The second her feet hit the ground she bolted. Or attempted to. He leaned an elbow against his horse and watched, mentally ticking off the seconds until she stumbled and went down like a sack of potatoes. He knew a moment of near pity when she reached toward her ankle then fell back in the dust with a howl.
Having sat a horse the better part of a day, she should have known her muscles would feel like jelly, and with her hands still tied, her balance would be off. Maybe he’d been too hard on her, binding her like that. At the time it had seemed the only option. If he hadn’t, she’d have found a way to make the ride across the desert even more miserable. And maybe gouged out an eye or two along the way.
He reached her in a few short strides, was about to help her up, when her uninjured foot moved. Sidestepping a kick that would have sent his balls through the roof of his mouth, he grabbed hold of her upper arms and hauled her to a sitting position. She sputtered more curses, which bothered his ears less and less the more he heard them. Much like the hissing of a kitten, it only sounded fierce the first few times. Still keeping a wary eye on her, and aware of her gaze on him, he sliced through the ropes on her wrists. Deep red welts marred the pale flesh.
He glanced at her. Her eyes reflected anger, humiliation. And pain. “You should have told me the ropes were too tight.”
“You have an annoying habit of not listening.”
He nodded toward the river a few feet away. “Why don’t you go soak your wrists in the water?”
“Why don’t you go soak your head in the water?”
“I just might do that.” He couldn’t help a grin. She was still spitting venom, so she must be all right. “Which ankle did you twist?”
She gestured toward the right one. He tugged her boot off and ran his fingers along the length of her ankle, feeling for any obvious breaks. Though the joint appeared swollen, he didn’t feel any protruding bones. Besides, she’d be howling up a damned storm if she’d done any real damage.
“Don’t.” She shoved hard against his chest, used her one good foot to push to a standing position, and hobbled off toward the river.
He gave her a few minutes. It was hard to say what had set her off, whether it was having a part-breed actually touch her or if it went deeper than that. A dark thought struck him. What if one of the men guarding her had taken advantage of the situation?
She had pulled off her other boot and stockings and sat on the bank soaking her feet in the water. With trousers pulled up to her knees, her pale skin glowed in the waning light of the sun. He’d had his share of short women; their legs were always stocky and plump. But from what he could see, hers were trim, muscular even and nicely shaped. She leaned down to scoop water into her hands and splash it over her face and neck, then smoothed wet hands over her calves.
Ignoring a sudden and unexpected tug below his belt, he pulled his gaze from her tempting legs, took a paper and tobacco from his shirt pocket, and rolled a cigarillo. The movement calmed him, gave him time to think. And right now he needed to focus on something else. He finished, tore off the end with his teeth, and spat the paper on the ground.
“If you’re going to do that, move downwind. I can’t stand the smell.”
He struck a match, held it to the tip. And savored that first pull into his lungs. “Nope.” Even injured and exhausted, he didn’t trust her not to bolt. If only to prove she could do it. “I need to ask you something, and I want the truth.”
Still bathing her legs and feet, she didn’t bother to look up at him.
He stared off at the sky and chose his words with care. “The men guarding you, did they… hurt you?”
At last she flicked a glance in his direction. “You mean did they violate me?”
He should have known blunt worked best with her. “Yeah.”
“Of course not. The one who brought my food and water the first week looked at me rather strangely, but I knew neither one of them would dare—” Her face went a chalky white, and her mouth hung open.
Raz couldn’t help a low chuckle. Had she just realized how much danger she’d actually been in? He could only wonder what her captors thought of her tantrums and demands.
She straightened abruptly. “Do you think I could have some privacy to…freshen up before we ride again?”
He glanced over his shoulder to where the horses nosed at the ground. “Between the heat of the day and the amount of time that guy’s been dead, I don’t want to wait too long. The vultures are following us as it is.”
Damn if she didn’t go a bit green around the gills again. “I’ll be right over here.” He gestured toward the horses.
“See that you keep your back turned until I’m finished.”
It wasn’t her words that bothered him so much as the mistress-to-servant tone. He stopped short and turned. “I don’t trust you enough to take my eyes off you for more than a second. Do what you need to do and be damn quick about it.”
Struggling to keep hold of his temper, he strode away. The splashing and sloshing behind him assured him she had taken his suggestion to heart. He waited what seemed more than long enough before he turned around; even then he chose not to focus directly on her, but to more or less keep her in view. But the sight of soft white shoulders and a slender feminine back pulled him like a cactus pulled water from the ground.
She had waded into the water up to her waist, her clothing discarded on the bank. As he stood there, she scooped water in her palms and bathed her throat, her chest. And lower. A groan rose in his throat. He wondered what sort of vision the fish were being treated to right now.
Ladies, not that Arden O’Hara exactly defined the word, had never held any appeal for him. He didn’t have the patience to figure out the rules, the games. Women who liked a strong drink, a good smoke, and a rowdy romp between the sheets were much more to his liking. Not this sharp-tongued hellcat. So there was no reason, other than his own long-ignored needs, that the sight of her bare back should affect him so.
“You have thirty seconds before I drag you out of that water.” Damned if his voice didn’t come out half choked.
“Turn your back.”
“The hell I will.”
“If you think I’m going to give a peep show—”
“My only interest in you has to do with your father’s money.”
Her delicate shoulders went back, her spine rigid. Arms crossed over herself, she turned and sloshed toward the bank.
Deliberately, he lowered his gaze from her defiant eyes, dragged it over the creamy white swells that rose above her arms, the blue vein that ran the length of one breast and disappeared beneath her hand, right down to the faint hint of pink that peeked above her fingers. Her ribs were nearly visible; she’d probably lost weight during her captivity. The sharp curve of her waist drew his eyes, and his hand twitched, longing to glide over it. He’d never seen a woman with a flat, almost concave stomach, but the sight of her bare navel nearly made him forget he was trying to rattle her. Instead he held his breath, riveted to the spot, waiting for her to reveal more. Like a peeping tom outside the school marm’s window.
What the hell was he doing? This was Arden pain in his-ass O’Hara. But he couldn’t turn and let her know how she’d affected him. He had to make good on his threat, or he’d never get away with another.
“I’m not moving another step until you turn around.”
“That’s too bad because your thirty seconds are up.” He tossed the cigarillo aside and started toward the water, hoping he wouldn’t really have to drag her out, naked and thrashing. That was the last thing he needed right now.
“Wait. I … don’t have my drawers on.”
Well, hell, he didn’t need to be reminded she’d taken those off, too. He glanced to the pile of clothing that lay a few feet from where he stood and noted the white muslin trimmed with lace and pink ribbon. So much for stirrings, he was full blown hard as a rock now.
“Could I have a moment to slip them on? Please?”
Had she really said please? Obligingly he turned his back, but it was more to shield her eyes from the bulge in his trousers than to preserve her modesty. “Five minutes, Miss O’Hara. If you’re not ready by then, I’ll tie you down next to the dead guy.”