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Satin and Spurs

By Reeyce Smythe Wilder


Copyright 2018 by Mellissa Lopez St. Louis

Smashwords Edition



Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



Satin and Spurs


Chapter One

Christ, he found her!

She was dead now. There was no more escaping the inevitable. Voices echoed from down the hall and the floorboards creaked as several footsteps approached. Leah cracked open the door. The barest light escaped into the room. Her eyes, large pools of terror and moisture, studied the duo’s advance. One was the owner of the saloon beneath, a wisp of a man who had jumped at her offer to rent whatever accommodations he could provide. The familiar form that followed him made the blood run thin in her veins. She exhaled through her mouth before she latched the half-rotted door and fled to the window. It was fortunate for her that the small storeroom was located upon the first floor and was just a foot or so away from the ledge that led to the balcony and the back stairs. She was halfway through the window, unable to avoid all the jagged edges of the broken pane of glass when a faint knock echoed. Sweat dotted her brows even as she found time to mutter curses and quickly assess the lengthy, bloody scrape her leg now boasted.

“Miss Carson?”

Hearing the alias she used made her voice crack. “One moment Mr. Hicks!”

With fire in her steps she darted across the balcony and bounded down the termite ridden stairs. It took moments to retrieve her horse from the front of the building, and saddleless, she mounted and sank her fingers into the chestnuts mane before riding as if the devil and all his legions were after her.

In the vacant street she heard the thundering roar of curses and knew her escape had been a close call. His bellow slammed into her. She cut a glance over a shoulder and kicked the horse harder, pushing the mare into a hard gallop. Terror made the distance between them seem too close.

It was the beginning of autumn. The night’s temperature had dropped impossibly low, and with the wind lashing her violently head on as she demanded noting less that ultimate speed from the mount, she had a hard time feeling her nose and thinly compressed lips half an hour later. Still, she rode. Beneath the folds of her dress and petticoat, she felt the powerful stretching and contracting of exertions the horse maintained. Each thunder of hooves reverberated through its body and impacted into hers. Before long, exhaustion set in, for as of one week ago she had never ridden bareback. Now the muscles of her inner thighs were tight and cramping, and her fingers were locked, almost frozen stiff buried deep in the horses’ mane. She allowed only the mildest modicum of fear to show in a single drop of tear.

How far could she possibly get at this hour of night without any form of protection against the cold? If Spencer could have found her so far west and in so short a space of time, where wouldn’t he find her? She started covering her tracks when she accidentally saw him lingering close to a boarding house she rented a room at several days ago in the second town she stopped at. She had not expected him to follow, but once she realized he had no intention of returning without her, Leah began to be more careful. She changed horses at every town, kept to herself and used many different aliases. She had even travelled by coach in the hope that she would be lost in the daily throng of faces. It had only been two weeks since she escaped, but already she had begun to map out a life for herself, even if it was all just in her head – dreams with no way of being realized. They were a source of distraction, a means of getting her fears of being found focused on pleasant things that calmed and gave her a small sense of hope.

Hope that quickly disappeared like all the sensation in her toes.

By the time she spotted the faint lights flickering like a beacon in the darkness up ahead, Leah found the icy air difficult to breathe. She counted the seconds that rolled by, anticipated with more dread than relief the warmth of some small dark corner she could inhabit for the night. It never occurred to her that she would have to also find a place for the horse until she halted to a stop at the entrance of the large barn. Ahead, a sprawling homestead stood, making a mockery of the modest homes she had come to associate with cattle country. Only one light beamed from a front window, and her sigh was broken and unsure when she gently nudged her mount forward and pushed open the door to the barn. Moonlight preceded her, and it took only a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness therein. Saddles polished to a high gleam hung on the wall facing the door. Straw was stacked neatly in heaps in a row.. There were barrels of what could have been grain or run, she did not know. The only thing that caught her eyes was the empty stall to her left and the clean, fresh hay. Still, she dared not dismount. The effort proved too much, and she needed to be ready to flee in the event that Spencer found her.

Shivering, she led the horse to the darkest corner she could find and was startled to hear the snorts and snickers of the other mounts. Heart thundering wildly, she leaned herself against the wall and stroked the wet shoulder of the mare. A soft snort between its heavy breaths was her reward.

Mere minutes slipped by before the sound of thundering horses raced passed the barn. The noise of her own heart almost drowned out the sound. Cold-sweating despite the chill, Leah clung to the mount and dared to breathe. And strained to hear when Spencer’s voice carry in the still night.

***

Bishop Sheridan had never been a man of many words. Most of the time he found them difficult to express and not much worth the effort. That was why when he spotted the dark shadow of a rider disappear into the barn from his place near the bedroom window, he did not bellow for his brothers or make a ruckus. That could be done after he loaded his shotgun on his way out. He took his time about the act, ensuring that each shell was nestled in the barrel. When he pulled on his trousers and boots, he did so with an unhurried confidence that bespoke of an un-anxious character. He slipped his arms through the sleeves of the well-worn jacket and settled the hat on his head. He had more than one suspicion of who the intruder might be.

In the many years he lived on the ranch, he encountered from lawmen to outlaws, even runaways. Experience taught him it was always better to be safe than sorry. The sixteen gage double barrel shotgun that sat snugly in his palm assured him of that safety. He tested the weight and swung it upon a shoulder before reaching for the door.

Down the hall and to the left and right respectively, Pete and Jake slept. A single knock on each door roused both men quickly enough. Jake was the first one to poke his head in the hall. Bleary eyed and sleep tousled, he reeked of stale beer and day old tobacco.

“What time is it?”

Bishop didn’t respond, but issued a command instead. “Get your gun arm ready.”

No further questions were asked. He continued down the hall in the easy saunter that was his. By the time he opened the front door and paused on the porch to inhale the cold air, he was not surprised to see a trio riding hard toward the house. With deceptive calm, he leaned against the banister and waited. Behind him Jake ventured and joined him in the chilled night.

“Expectin’ company?” he asked coolly.

Bishop grunted a non-committed reply and descended the four steps that led to the yard when the men reigned in. In a sweeping glance he assessed them. Dressed in suits that reeked of sophistication and expense, they all bore the same wind-tossed, antsy appearance – especially the man who nudged his mount farther forward. In the darkness there was nothing more to distinguish on his face but harsh angles. Maybe it was the rigid way he held his shoulders or the too-tight grip he applied upon the reigns to bring his slightly skittish mount under control, but Bishop instinctively disliked him.

“What can I do for you?” he greeted softly.

“We’re looking for a woman. She might have passed through here minutes ago. If you’ve seen her, maybe you could tell us which direction she went.”

Bishop shifted from one foot to the next and offered nothing but a confused frown. Jake left his perch upon the porch to step into the faint glow of the first quarter moon. “A woman?” he repeated, his tone reflecting his own disbelief. “At this time of night? In rustling country?”

The visitors’ horse danced beneath his tightened grip. Bishop studied him the way one would study a poisonous snake. There was a hard edge to him, something that didn’t sit right. And if the shadow that concealed itself in the barn was indeed a woman, who was she? And more importantly why was she on the run? What had she done?

“Afraid so,” was all the stranger offered. His dark eyes clashed with Bishops’.

“Is she wanted by the law?” Jake delved.

“It’s a personal matter – my wife you see. Nothing you boys should be concerned about.”

Ah. So that explained the haste and the hunt. He might have pointed him to the barn as he was tempted to do at the moment. He had no right, no desire to get in between the domestic disputes of a married couple. If the man wanted his wife back, who was he to get in the way? Still, his gut tightened and he kept his mouth sealed. It was no business of his, but when a woman ran, she usually had a good reason.

“Ain’t nothing out there for miles,” he finally offered after a contemplative silence.

“You could check the Hastings,” Jake volunteered. “They own a homestead five miles east of here.”

The stranger’s jaw ticked uncontrollably. The anger he exuded felt damn near tangible. When he finally managed to drag himself away from thinking, he nodded his thanks.

“My name is Spencer Grant. I’m staying at the hotel in town in case you see or hear anything.”

Bishop returned the nod of departure and watched as they rode east. It was Jake who snorted and turned to go inside. “Must be one dumb ass woman, riding alone in country like this,” he muttered. The door slammed at his back.

Bishop stood for a long time alone in the yard. Each breath he took was measured, deep and slow. Only when the men had completely disappeared into the darkness did he turn to once again consider the barn. Large and spacious, it housed several horses and, if he was correct, one hunted lady.

Slowly he approached, the gun held upon a shoulder, breaths vaporizing as he went. There was much caution when he pushed open the door. Just inside the threshold he paused to allow a few vital seconds for his eyes to adjust to the darkness within. Nothing stood out differently. The horses were quiet and accounted for, the saddles were present and there was no noise save those that were familiar to him. He stepped inside and stopped, only to realize that ensconced in the dark to his right, a horse snickered. Advancing, his footsteps silent, he pushed open the stall door – and grunted a curse when the horse reared, front hooves threatening to kick the life out of him. In a sweeping glance he caught sight of the yards of fabric of a dress covering its rear. He reacted swiftly, snagging the reigns and forcing the mount under control. A very cold foot, bare of any shoes or boots, connected with his upper shoulder in a crazed attempt to pry his grip from the mount.

Bishop let go of the horse long enough to snag her foot and turn the shotgun toward her in an attempt to take the fight out or her. She froze and whimpered helplessly. In the darkness he could not distinguish a thing about her.

“Please let me go.”

The huskiness of her voice touched his agitated nerves and smooth them over. He felt stroked, petted, even as her voice trembled with fear. Something incredibly hot tightened in his stomach.

For a dull moment everything within him protested. This was bad. The idea of having a woman, the wife of a husband who obviously wanted her back hide in his barn, and with him knowing about it was a recipe for a gunfight.

And Bishop hated gunfights.

True, he carried a gun. But most men did not have a need to pull the trigger unless they had to. He had to only once. It was enough to make him swear that he never would again.

“I can’t do that.” Of course he couldn’t. No matter what the fire in his lower regions said. It might be too late to go to town now and take her back, but in the morning he would have all of this sorted out. “Get down.”

She did so quietly, the fabric of her dress rustling in the stillness. From the moment her feet touched the ground, she fell into a dead faint.

Cursing silently, he approached. In all appearance she looked to be asleep. He could see nothing but the length of hair that covered most of her face, all of which was concealed in the dark. He might have found a moment for sympathy when he realized that she must have been in quite a hurry to have ridden a saddleless horse, but sympathy was quickly replaced by confusion when he realized that her feet were exposed. That, if nothing else spurred him into moving. One firm hand took her foot and squeezed gently, horrified to find it tight and as cold as ice. Upon closer inspection, he discovered that she was bereft of coat and gloves.

The horse side-stepped as he continued his prodding. Reason dictated that he should at least attempt to wake her. In the back of his mind he registered the cool feel of her skin against his fingers and the damp dress that seeped cold into her bones. The mass of curls adorning her head were thick and long and concealed most of her upper half. Awkwardly, he lifted her in his arms, a mighty feat considering he still held his gun, and took purposeful strides that made short work of the yard. Before he climbed the steps, he bellowed for Jake once more. When the door opened and Jake spotted them, his eyes widened considerably.

“What the hell?!”

Bishop hustled inside and deposited her upon the sofa as gently as he knew how then took a step back.

He considered her from afar, took his time about turning up the flame of the lamp. Jake whistled softly. Bishop understood his awe. Although dressed in modest clothes, with no shoes and no coat, the woman before them was made by God for a man’s loving. No amount of cold or exhaustion could conceal the full swell of her breasts that nearly spilled out at the top of her bodice, and he would not have been male had he not noticed how wide the rise of her hips were in relation to her tiny waist. It took him a moment to focus his gaze upon her hair. Long, thick and a torrent of curls, it lay lashed across her face, shoulders and back in a mess that was all magnetic flame. When they moved it was to exchange confused, albeit appreciative glances.

It was Bishop who lifted the rifle he held. Slowly, he pushed the curls aside with the barrel of the gun. The steel kept her at a distance, helped him forget how softly her body had meshed to his warmth moments before. The tendrils fell away to reveal what he supposed was the reason for her fleeing.

Jake’s gasp was strangled but loud enough to hear. Bishop allowed the gun to fall. The full impact of what he saw hit him square in the chest like a bucking bull. Memories returned, vague screams that had haunted him almost every day of his life, muted voices that held faces he had long ago tried to forget, and failed.

Anger built and stopped in his chest as he surveyed the damage done. One eye was discolored. Above it, a scabbed wound that would leave a scar mocked him in the flickering light. Her nose did not appear to be broken, but the slight swelling there suggested that it had been hit hard enough to produce blood. He was not aware when Jake left to summon Pete. When the second eldest was ushered in, he adjusted the spectacles on the bridge of his nose and dared not move any closer.

“What happened to her face?” he blurted absently.

Jake pushed him forward and folded his arms across his chest. “That’s what we’d like to know.”

Pete advanced, knelt on the floor and leaned forward an inch before rising once again. “Doesn’t take a scientist to see she was beaten – and choked.”

“The hell’d you say?” This from Bishop. His eyes had taken on the look of a haunted man.

Pete nodded and scratched his short cropped hair quickly. “The bruises around her neck. Faded, but there. Who is she anyway? Why is she here?”

Jake filled him in on the events of the night and turned once more to the woman on the chair. So far, Bishop had done nothing but seethe and remember. A heavy hand on the shoulder brought him once more to the issue at hand. What were they to do with her?

“Set her up in my room,” he heard himself say coarsely. “Let her rest. Tomorrow we’ll find out everything we need to know.”


Chapter Two

A heavy weight settled upon her as her mouth was covered. Panicked, she tried to scream but her throat was closed and she could not suck in air into her lungs. He was stifling her! She battled against his form, bucking violently but to no avail. He was too heavy, his hips pressed hard and harsh against her soft center, grinding obtusely as he spoke obscenities in her ear. Tears leaked from the corner of her eyes as she thrashed, and when he finally managed to remove his hand to molest her tender breasts, she sank her teeth into his lips that lowered to capture hers. Alcohol, strong and overwhelming stung her nose, but no matter how much she fought, she could not dislodge his heavy frame, could not overpower him to regain control. Her inner thighs burned with the strain, her eyes refusing to open even as she shouted and begged and wept for mercy. And still he fondled her, ripped the chemise from her body as his hands groped each limb hungrily. Her wrists felt broken where they were pinned against the bed above her head.

Please! Please don’t do this!” Her voice was hoarse and feeble. She hiccupped and sank into despair as his touch branded her like a searing poker. “Please let me go!”

Shut up!” he snarled, wrenching her arms behind her back. Her back arched up, displaying her shaking body like an offering. “Everything you are belongs to me girl. All you have to do is lie there and take me like the good girl I raised you to be.”

Her mind screamed in panic even as her body stiffened against the journey of his fingers. He squeezed her legs and pinched the flesh of her buttocks painfully, ignoring her cry of protest, ignoring the way her heart thundered so loudly she swore it would beat right out of her chest, ignoring the desolation that filled her eyes as she looked at his face drenched in darkness. How had she come to this? But no amount of hoping, no amount of praying and no amount of begging and crying could save her from the invasion of fingers that sank into her dry core. Her gasp of pain was drowned out by his growl of frustration.

You’re not ready for me yet,” he stated. He even sounded slighted.

Please…”

He touched her again, forcing his finger inside and cursing roundly when he was met with nothing but resistance. “I can still take you. Still make you mine. But I want you gently.”

She clamped her mouth shut and nodded, willing to bargain her soul if only to get him off of her, to get him to stop stroking her. After what seemed like a lifetime later his fingers clutched her pinched features and forced his tongue into her mouth in a ravaging kiss that made bile burn at the back of her throat. And just like that, he was gone.

Leah gasped and refused to open her eyes even as she registered she was having another nightmare. A cool wind blew in from the window and shocked her feverish flesh so that she trembled from spasms of chills to wiping beads of sweat from her forehead because of the fever. Curls clamped to her face and neck, making her feel miserable and in dire need of a bath. She cracked her eyes open slowly, recalling vividly exactly when and where she had stopped to rest, and who chased her. She had no recollection however of being led to the large wooden bed she occupied, nor did she recall exactly who found her. In fact, she realized with increasing panic, everything from the moment she had hidden in the barn to her waking was a complete blank.

The familiar signs of terror returned. She tossed the heavy quilt aside to discover that she wore only a worn over-sized shirt that fell to the bottom of her knees. Heated fingers scanned her weak body.

Oh God! He had finally been able to seal her fate!

On quaking knees she stood. Wild eyes wide, she darted to the door. She needed to escape, to run as far away as fast as possible. If she stayed, she would have to marry him now – there would be no choice than to bind herself to that monster!

The room dipped and swayed, and in a stumble she all but crashed through the door. The corridor stretched on forever, and she stubbed her toe in an effort to maneuver a table when she made it to the living rom. There was no one present. Leah sent a prayer skyward, hoping that she could hide herself better next time, hoping the effort it took to steal a horse was worth the risk.

Light headed suddenly, she stumbled again. Her form came into contact with a small counter that housed nothing more than a soiled cup. It fell to the floor and clattered deafeningly loud. A pulse throbbed agonizingly in her head. She clenched her eyes and attempted to get her bearings. The broken splotches of light behind her lids turned until she could no longer balance her own weight. Just as she made contact with the floor, the front door opened. In the bright sunlight, the figure of a man rushed to her side. Fog, exhaustion and fear aided with her vain attempt at a fight. Her hands felt heavy and un-corporative, and although she looked the stranger in his face, her eyes hurt too much from the glare behind his back to see his features. She knew this was not Spencer. Spencer was not nearly as tall, nor did he smell of coffee and fresh tobacco and leather.

And Spencer definitely would not lift her into his arms the way this man was doing now. The hot feel of his hands upon the bare back of her legs shocked some of the astonishment out of her. Through a headache, strained limbs, fatigue and a fever, she battered the hard wall of his chest with whatever strength that was left.

“Simmer down lady,” came the softly spoken command.

The steel in his voice demanded obedience. She stilled instantly. Body shivering in terror, she clutched onto the front of his shirt and tried to speak. The only sound she seemed capable of making was a croak. In a flash he was back in the bedroom and laid her upon the sheets. Still, she trembled, seeing but unseeing, hearing but unable to comprehend. He said something more, something urgent it would appear, for it was followed by a long stream of curses. Had she been any more coherent, she might have blushed. Instead, she sank her fingers into the sheets. There was no way of stopping the spasms that claimed her body. All the while the stranger tried to calm her, for his voice was a lull, a melody.

Warm hands stroked her hair. In due time her heartbeat slowed. Subconsciously she realized Spencer was not there. Her lips felt parched and the effort to swallow resulted in agony. She blinked, noticing only a blurred image still at her side.

“Am I dying?” she forced through her tight throat.

“I sure hope not,” came the tender, amused drawl.

She closed her eyes and sighed in disappointment. “Crap.”

***

Bishop rolled the whiskey glass in his hand and stared at the golden contents. Each time the floorboards creaked his head snapped up, anticipating her appearance or that of Pete’s.

He always thought of himself as a self-controlled man. In his boyhood years he had been the one who always analyzed the consequences of his actions even before he acted. He was always the one with the level head, always the one with a plan. His plans hardly ever failed, for he was always able to put emotions aside and allow them to act only as a motivator and nothing else.

His past however, was something he thought he had dealt with. His demons were supposed to be resting where he had buried them years ago – beside his mother’s grave on the hillside in town a few odd miles away. Yet each devil had been resurrected upon the sight of the woman sleeping in his bed. He clenched his eyes and drowned the whiskey in one shot.

Pete joined him just then.

“Her fever’s gone,” he announced casually. If he noted his brothers’ heavy sigh of relief, he made nothing of it. “I gave her something to help her rest. Usually works on people as well as horses, so she’ll be out until morning.” Bishop nodded and took his time about refilling the glass. “When she wakes, then what?”

He faced Pete squarely. “We find out what happened.”

Pete hesitated and adjusted the spectacles on his face. “This isn’t our business Bish. Her husband’s looking for her. You should let him know she’s here.”

The muscle in his gut tightened of their own accord. “And have her face bashed in again?”

He wasn’t the most educated of men, but he wasn’t stupid either. The lady ran because someone had taken a fist to her, and he didn’t have to make a guess as to whom. There was fear in her eyes that afternoon; fear that was raw and intense reflecting behind a pool of tears. Bishop had known that fear, had lived it, and had seen the manifested results of it. To face it once again had forced that once primal need to protect surging within him, and in the seconds it had taken him to settle her between the sheets, he had made a decision based on emotion rather than reason. As long as she was under his roof, married or not, he’d make sure she wasn’t getting hurt.

“You don’t know if he did it,” Pete argued tonelessly.

Bishop snorted and drowned the shot before heading toward the kitchen. “She’d have gone to him for protection if it wasn’t. Didn’t happen that way.”

“You shouldn’t get involved.”

“She’s been here two days. The way I see it I’m already involved.”

Pete frowned but said nothing more.

Bishop exited the house, glad for the evening chill that cooled some of the fire in his blood. He adjusted the hat atop his head and considered the barn and corral. Before he died his old man lost the ranch in a game of poker one night to a wealthy business man who settled in California. Five years ago Bishop was able to re-purchase not only the ranch but also the hundred and fifty acre stretch of pasture along with it. At that time it cost him everything he’d saved, but he was determined to make a success out of the place – and himself. Now, a self-made man, he owned and operated the ranch as shrewdly as he did everything else in his life. He had even invested in Pete’s education to see him study to become a veterinarian – the only one in town, a profession that was earning his brother much money and the promise of a bright future.

Jake on the other hand was well contented to work on the ranch. Motivated and wildly impulsive, he managed the everyday affairs that kept the workers happy and the ranch soaring on the wings of success. Bishop balanced the books, paid the bills and invested.

Now, if he was not careful, he risked letting the past dictate the course of his future. He considered the risks involved. Sooner or later her presence would be the talk of the town. Already the hired hands brought in gossip from the saloon. A man back east was looking for his wife. Some mentioned adultery, others said she stole a horse. A horse thief was worse than a murderer in these parts, and Bishop was forced to recall how he had found her – half frozen with no shoes on a saddle less mare. Maybe it was all true, but he planned to ask her himself. In any event a man had the right to punish his wife any way he saw fit, just as he had the right to dish out his own brand of judgment of what was right and wrong.

To his way of thinking, a woman didn’t deserve to be beaten, no matter the nature of her crime.

He dipped into his pocket and produced a small sack of tobacco and paper. In the unhurried way that was his, he rolled a cigarette, leaned against one of the posts in the small verandah and put it between his lips before lighting it. One booted foot was propped behind him as he exhaled a stream of smoke, carried away by the evening wind. Soon the men would be back from mending the northern fences and rounding up the cattle. Only a few would camp out to ensure rustlers didn’t herd them off. As the sun started to dip below the western horizon, his mother crossed his mind as she often did these passed two days.

A delicate woman, Margaret Sheridan had been the best seamstress in town. She had in some ways garnered her own form of independence when her talent was discovered. Although every woman in town knew the fine art of sewing, Margaret was always able to give handmade garments that extra added touch that made dresses fit exceptionally well. As soon as the other housewives started ordering their clothes made, she saved enough to leave town and live more than comfortably further west when the time came.

Bishop, only twelve at the time, silently understood her reasons. She didn’t have to tell him why she had secured all of their clothes in the wee hours of the morning, had never uttered a word when four coach tickets were hidden in one of his trouser pockets. She only instructed him to ensure that he and his brothers were dressed in time for the one o’clock coach.

All would have gone smoothly had it not been for his father’s unexpected arrival. Bishop had heard the horse thundering into the yard long before his harsh bellow echoed throughout the small house. There was no time to get to his mother, no time to try and reach for the shotgun she had safely concealed behind the cabinet of fine glass.

Jake was only two at the time, crying in fear when the shouting began. And Pete was a six year old introvert, cowering in a corner with his hands over both ears.

He had taken them outside, a few yards from the house where her screams were only distant echoes. He recalled staring at the house with clenched fists and tears streaming down his hot cheeks, wishing he was not so small or weak, wishing he could protect her. Unfortunately, there was nothing a thin, twelve year old could do but watch and listen.

He blinked and flicked the cigarette onto the ground, hating the helplessness that made his limbs go numb each time he entertained the memory. There was no undoing the past, no undoing what had already been done.

There was only the present. And he’d be damned if he stood by and allowed it to happen again.

***

Spencer Grant glanced at the gold pocket-watch in his hand and snapped it shut in agitation. His hard brown eyes assessed the dusty run-down excuse of a town and cursed Leah to the worst possible demise. He hated this town. He hated leaving his comfortable house in North Carolina to endure hours on horseback at the grueling pace the men he’d hired to assist him in finding her set. He hated that he had to come in search of her himself. He hated the looks of ridicule he would have to endure if he failed, and he hated that he feared Vince Carter to the point of being driven to desperation.

He slipped the watch into his pocket and turned abruptly toward the door. The room he rented at the cockroach infested hotel was nothing more than a box with thin walls that housed a bed, a half-rotted wardrobe, a bedpan, a small table and chair, and a basin for washing. The floorboards creaked with each step and he had discovered early on that if he was to survive in a place like this, there were certain rules he had to adhere to.

The west was lawless, so a man made his own law by a set of codes he carved out for himself. Thus far, he had done an exceptional job at playing the wounded spouse, especially when it was believed that the conniving little wretch had resorted to stealing horses. After all, a horse thief was lower than dirt, and he needed folks to believe her unworthy of any kind of respect or admiration her beauty was sure to encourage. He would be justified when they saw her face, and they would not look at him with censure. After all, some thought it was only a weak man would hit such a beautiful woman.

But Spencer was not weak.

And the beating was deserved.

She had no respect for him, not the fact that he cared for her when her father died, not the fact that he offered his own name to ensure that the lump sum that would be handed over to her on the day of her wedding would not be squandered, and not the position of prestige she would hold as the wife of a prominent businessman. Many things motivated him. To own such a beauty would ensure that he never doubted his own self-worth. To have control of her funds would ensure the initiation of the negotiations he was on the brink of closing. Then there was the matter of repaying his debt. His plan was to marry soon. As soon as Leah became his wife, he would be able to clear off every cent he owed and still invest the way he wanted to. Instead, he stood in the small, dinged foyer of the two story building, inhaling tobacco and dust and turpentine among uneducated men, most of which brandished guns on their hips and overlarge hats upon their heads.

Most times Spencer felt himself a part of the theater. The clerk he paid well to ensure a bath each morning and night looked at him in askance when he paused directly beneath the cheap replica of a chandelier. He ignored him and continued on his way, stopping only on the board walk.

Spencer thought himself a forgiving person. He had forgiven her many a crimes in her younger years when adulthood had yet to grip her and make him ache. But with maturity came understanding, a certain level of reasoning he believed she should have accepted and applied to their already tense relationship. Her duty was to obey him in submission. Or it would be, as long as he retrieved her in time for the wedding. He had posted the invitations on the very day she left him. To have to cancel now would be humiliating. And with losing a bride, he would more than likely lose a finger or two if the Carters caught up with him.

Or worse.

He adjusted the choking neck tie and glanced down the only street toward the loud music and laughter at the saloon. Frank Barlow and Jeremy Higgins would no doubt he there, satisfying their taste for whiskey and women. He hired both men upon his arrival at the first back water town he came to - one an ex bounty hunter, the other just plain mean. They were for protection mostly, and for tracking. Spencer was good at neither, but he had the resources and the smarts to use it.

On the night before they had ridden out again to the homesteads that were scattered around the town. No one had seen her – not even the horse. A deep chest mare the toothless man at the stables had told him. She paid for the beast in cash only a day before and had given herself the name Rosie Carson. A common name, he had to admit. But no one could forget her face or her bruises. That alone aided in tracking her. He thought by now she would have attempted to pawn the diamond he had given her since it was the only thing of value she took. He could find no trace of the ring, for this far west it was worth a small fortune and would easy to track. It was safe then to assume it was still in her possession – if it had not yet been stolen.

With the dawn he would ride out again, for it was impossible she would have gotten anywhere relatively far without being observed. A beautiful woman alone on horseback was a hard thing to miss. The only conclusion he surmised was the simplest one – she was very close to town, and one of the ranchers knew about it. The trio already ruled out two suspects that day when they had all but kept their distance and observed the cowboys from afar. On each ranch he had offered a generous amount of money to the man who could provide him with any information that would lead to her whereabouts. He was met with disappointment each time.

The heel of his boots beat an even staccato on the boardwalk then on the stones of the street in the short distance to the saloon. The one room bar held several small tables, all of which were occupied by gambling men. Women dressed in brightly colored revealing costumes paraded amongst the lot, serving shots of whiskey and accepting coins for a few minutes in the rooms above. The air was thick with the haze of cigarette smoke and boisterous laughter.

He strolled in with a twitch of the nose and twisted his mouth in disgust at the several unidentifiable stains upon the scratched, dirty floor. Someone hawked and spat close to his feet. Bile rose in his chest. When he found her she would be sorry she cost him weeks of discomfort and torture. At the bar he settled himself. The bartender, an old timer with a bald burnt head and a hawk-like nose poured him a shot of whiskey. He savored the burn upon his tongue and cringed. The scotch was cheap and watered down. With a scowl, he pushed the glass away, unfinished. Tonight the saloon was packed. Sweaty, unwashed bodies bumped into each other. The breeze that filtered in through the opened windows served no other purpose than to circulate the cloud of smoke and the stench that emanated like a living entity across the room.

Spencer leaned against the bar and considered each face at his leisure. Lost in thought, he only realized that another man had joined him when he ordered a drink. He considered him, from his well-worn dirty boots to the hat atop his head and decided that he might as well make good of his time. Most of the hands upon the homesteads were in town for the week-end. Reeling in another potential worker to play informer could not hurt.

“Pour another round for my friend here,” he ordered good-naturedly. The cowboy considered him with cool blue eyes that were emotionlessly flat. Spencer nodded toward the gamblers and grinned. “Do you play cards?”

The cowboy took the drink and shrugged. “I'm not much of a gambling man.”

Spencer crossed his feet at the ankles, his pose relaxed. “That’s too bad. With me on your side, we could have made some real money tonight.”

“Nah, I’ve got enough cash for whiskey. Reckon I don’t need any more right now.”

“A man always has need for more money,” he informed casually. “Since you’re not a gambling man, I take it you’re a hardworking one?”

The cowboy offered a little smirk. “Something like that.”

“How’d you like to make an easy hundred dollars?” At this, his brows quirked up. Spencer continued. “I’m sure by now the entire town knows about my plight. My wife took off – and she’s stolen a lot from me. I have to find her, and I’m offering a small reward to anyone who can tell me where she is.”

The cowboy studied him thoroughly, the smile on his face now dry and mocking. “Assumin’ she’s even still here, you mean?”

“She’s around here somewhere. It’s just a matter of time before I find her. Besides, the word is out that I want her back. There isn’t a place for her to hide.”

“What’d you say your name was?” the cowboy asked by the way.

“Spencer Grant. And you are?”

“Just a rover,” he said shortly. From his pocket he produced a few coins which he dropped onto the countertop. With another dry smile, he adjusted the hat atop his head and met his eyes directly. “I’ll keep my eyes open.”

Spencer nodded his thanks and watched as the man sauntered from the room. Only then did he observe the pair of colts that hung excessively low on his hips. At the door, those assessing eyes met his once more, a look that judged more than speculated. When he was gone, Spencer turned to the bartender.

“Who was that?”

“That there’s Jake Sheridan. He and his brothers run the Sheridan spread four miles east of here.”

Spencer leaned back and snickered softly. The Triple S was the first place they had stopped the night her trail went cold. He recalled only vague features of the men he encountered there, but was certain this Jake person was not the one who had approached him in the yard. This one directed him further east.

Jaw clenched, he brooded silently. On the morrow he would pay these Sheridan brothers a kindly visit. And if they were indeed keeping her hidden away, God help them all.


Chapter Three

Bishop was more than prepared for the men that rode onto his property the following day. Just after noon the trio called his name from their perch upon their horses in the center of the yard. He exited the house unhurriedly, a light frown pleating his brow.

“Howdy,” he drawled. He did not miss the tell-tale bulk of a gun concealed beneath the folds of a blanket across the lap of one of the men, nor the hard look in their eyes. They came looking for trouble.

“Mr. Sheridan,” the one named Grant began. Bishop felt his blood pulse through each vein in his body. Had he faced the man one day ago, he might have given into the impulse and beat him to a pulp. Instead, he kept his expression neutral and waited. “Do you remember me?”

“Reckon I do.”

“Good. Now I’m a fair man, a businessman like yourself, and I suppose by now you’ve heard that I’ve offered a small reward to anyone who can tell me the whereabouts of my wife.”

“Hundred dollar bill, ain’t it?” he taunted softly.

“You can help me, can’t you Mr. Sheridan?”

Bishop frowned again. When next he moved it was to push aside the tail of his shirt just enough for the sunlight to reflect upon the silver handle of the gun propped upon his left hip casually. “You implying something?”

Spencer paled only slightly before he continued. “This is the only place she could have stopped. Now I’m not accusing you of anything, but maybe if you let us have a look around, we can leave and I’ll have a peace of mind.”

“What makes you think I give a shit about your peace of mind?” he asked coolly.

The man flushed beneath the heat of his stare and tried a different approach. “If there’s nothing to hide, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Bishop snickered. “This ain’t the city boy. You can’t trespass on a man’s property and demand to search his home. Now get off my land before I have to ask you again, and I won’t do it respectful-like.”

Spencer took one long, hard look at the house and nodded with finality. “She’s here. And you’re a fool to believe a word she’s said. She’ll steal everything of value and disappear. Do not be outmanned by a pretty face Sheridan. You’re a man of the world. You know the tricks of a woman.”

Bishop’s hand fell lower to his hip. One of the men eased his arm for the gun beneath the bulk of blankets strapped to his mount. Behind Bishop, a shotgun cracked. Jake aimed a double barrel directly upon the source of the threat.

“When you have proof your woman is here, come back with the sheriff,” Bishop warned in a raspy voice.

“You heard my brother,” Jake said, approaching in long, steady strides. “Now get!”

Spencer met Bishops’ eyes with rage and a promise of revenge before angrily turning his horse and, followed by the guns for hire, thundered away.

Jake lowered the shot gun and exhaled in a huff. “Haven’t had that much excitement in a long time.”

Bishop studied the cloud of dust that was left to settle and covered the colt with the fabric of his shirt once more. “The chestnut she rode in on. Bring it to me.”

Jake frowned but did as requested. Bishop waited at the door of the barn and stroked the fire in the coals he had lit. When Jake returned, he grabbed a rope and gently took the horse down, careful to bind its legs, his hands as gentle as his voice.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Jake offered, hesitant even as he assisted. Bishop sank the branding iron into its rump. The horse whinnied and snorted. Jake stroked its velvet nose as Bishop considered his handiwork then met the eyes of his brother and dropped the iron noisily, the look in his eyes daring him to challenge his decision. Jake did so without flinching.

“This ain’t none of our business y’know.”

Bishop glanced outside, his jaw clenched stubbornly. “I reckon it might not be.”

Jake massaged the back of his neck. “This ain’t like that thing with Walsh.”

Mary Walsh had moved into town with her husband and young daughter Anna four years ago. The quiet woman had been accepted quickly, for she appeared a model member of the community. She was seen sitting in the pews every Sunday morning, her daughter was always early at the schoolhouse, ever so often bearing home-made pickles for the teacher, and her pies rivaled even Millie’s. Millie, the young school head-mistress was the first one to observe that Anna bore marks of violence on her skin. She had tried to question the child about it, which resulted in endless tears of fear. It was through the grapevine that Bishop became aware of it. Everyone told him to keep out, to mind his own business and let the man discipline his child the way he saw fit. But Bishop could do nothing but put himself in the little girl’s shoes. And when he finally saw her one Sunday at church with one side of her mouth swollen at a yellow bruise upon a cheek, he had all but dragged Mr. Walsh from his perch two rows from the alter and had issued an ass whopping that broke his nose, dislodged a tooth and cut his eye.

Reverend Jones had demanded Bishop to confess his sins – one did not solve their problems with violence in the house of the Lord, especially on the holy day. Walsh still boasted the scar and would do nothing but turn the other way when he saw Bishop now. That was not very often, for Bishop made it a habit of keeping to the ranch and minding his own business. Nobody seemed to care that his wife and daughter never suffered another blow, or that they smiled and talked more.

Bishop cared. Each Saturday a jar of pickles always found its way into the order of food supplies he collected at Mac’s Mercantile. There was no doubt in his mind that he did the right thing. He let Jake know as much.

“This is different. She’s in your house. What’ll happen if he turns up and finds her sleeping in your bed? You’ll have a gunfight on your hands.”

Bishop nodded. “Reckon I should have my gun arm ready then.”

Jake huffed in frustration. “It’s principle Bish. You can’t keep another man’s wife holed up here in the name of doing what’s right simply because you ain’t got the right to protect her!”

Bishop met the spark in his eyes with chilled ones of his own. “You didn’t wish someone would rescue Ma all those nights Pa beat on her?”

Jake turned away and gently kicked the dirt with a toe. “I wished Pa dead.”

“He got dead. Now I ain’t saying my way of doing things is right. Just saying it ain’t all that wrong either.”

Jake struggled with that logic until he finally nodded. “I just hope you know what you’re doing.” He turned away to attend to the horse.

Bishop headed to the house and looked up to find Pete considering him in the quiet way that was his. “She’s up,” he announced shortly.

“She doing any better?”

“Some. No fever, no delirium. Just afraid.”

He nodded and made to venture inside before hesitating. “She say anything?”

Pete focused on Jake’s movements across the yard. “That she’s hungry.” When Bishop made to move again, Pete stopped him. “You should give her a minute. She requested her dress back.”

Bishop grunted and opened the door. He didn’t want to think of ladies dresses and all the fragile under things he was hard-pressed not to notice hanging on the clothes line out back to dry. Needing to take his mind off the topic, he busied himself with whipping up lunch.

***

Leah ran her fingers through her tendrils as she swiftly braided her hair, her eyes once again scanning the bedroom. When she woke an hour before, it was to this strange place, a strange bed and with no memory of where she was or how she got there. Her first thought was that Spencer had found her, but then vague memories that could have been distorted dreams returned – of a cool cloth being pressed to her head, of dried sheets being tucked around her body and of a soothing voice that lulled her back to sleep when nightmares plagued her.

The doctor found her standing in the center of the room, dazed and confused. Or so he formally introduced himself when he blushed and turned his back. She did not realize she wore only a shirt. Modesty had not been high on her list of priorities.

Now, with her face washed and her toilette attended to, Leah took her time observing her surroundings. The room was large enough to house a very comfortable bed, a small wardrobe, a dresser and two tables. One held a pitcher and a bowl, the other, an oil lamp. On the dresser there was a bag of tobacco, a small comb, a pocket-watch with a broken chain and a box. Nothing was out of place, and not a speck of dust covered the floor. It was the cleanest room she had slept in since her journey began. The rumpled sheets on the bed mocked her, and she quickly set to work, smoothening and straightening until there was not a creased line left. When the pillows were buffed and the shirt she had slept in well folded, there came a knock on the door. Her heart beat just a tad bit faster. She still expected Spencer in the back of her mind. But Spencer never knocked. Maybe it was the doctor, whose thoughtful blue eyes were soft and full of understanding, whose short cropped sandy blond hair spiked and defined his pretty features.

“Come in.” Her voice was strained and fell short of a croak.

Another man strolled in. Almost as tall as the door, he stood at what could have been six feet four inches. Dark hair fell upon his forehead and curled around his ears. A day or two growth of beard shadowed his jaw and neck. Cool grey eyes met hers, and for the life of her she could not bring herself to think. They arrested her, demanding that she dare not flee as she instinctively felt the urge to do. A tremor swept through her, intense and heated, followed quickly in the shadow of fear that forced her to step back. A pair of dark brows were slashed across his forehead, shading those deep set eyes, brows that were presently pulled into a frown. He moved to the dresser and deposited a plate and a cup. Only then did she smell the aroma of the food he brought.

“Pete said you were hungry,” he drawled evenly. A flicker of surprise lighted her eyes. His voice…deep, well-modulated. She recognized it from her brief moments of consciousness. To think that he had been the one playing nurse-maid made her blush crimson. Her eyes fell from his face instantly.

“Aren’t you going to eat?”

She considered the thick slices of bread and the pile of eggs. Many slices of bacon fried to a crisp were loaded to the side. The cup of coffee steamed encouragingly. She moved forward with as much grace as she could muster and hesitated, thinking twice about sitting on the bed. The setting was too personal, and she did not want any move she made to be misconstrued as an invitation. He might have helped her, but he was a man. And she had learned a hard lesson once – people were not to be trusted.

She considered him warily as he made his way to the windows and pulled the old curtains aside to allow the sunlight in. Only then did she make her way across the room to attack the meal and savor the coffee. It was strong enough to make her hair stand up. All the while her eyes stayed on him. He folded his arms across his chest and those quicksilver eyes assessed her in a cool perusal. There was nothing suggestive or remotely disrespectful in the way he scanned her features. He looked at her the way he might have looked at a wounded horse – ensuring that all was well.

She clasped the cup between both hands and brought it to her lips again, drawing in the heat and pretending nonchalance as he advance to stand about four feet away. She needed the tremor of her fingers to stop. Shame might have forced her eyes to the floor, but instinct borne of survival forced her to keep him within her sight. No doubt he was curious about the marks on her face. Self-loathing near consumed her. Only a fool would allow themselves to be so thoroughly abused. That anger sparked the need to speak, the need to take his mind from the many scenarios she suspected might be formulating in his head. The hot coffee scalded her throat as she gulped in down. Besides, she had already lost precious time. The doctor informed her she slept for two days, and had suffered a fever. Two days! She should have been half way to California by now.

When she tried to clear her throat it was to snag whatever form of courage she could find to continue holding his unflinching gaze. He considered her carefully with a casual patience that belied curiosity. Leah wiped her heated hands along the wrinkles of her dress, her face shaded a dull plum hue. To have been found, to have been attended to by such a handsome man may have been a more pleasant surprise if her face was not marked. It was embarrassing.


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