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Authors: Jennifer Jakes

Rafe's redemption

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Maggie wanted freedom, not a lover…

Oh, Lord. He was going to kiss her. She shouldn’t want this. She was confused enough. Respectable women didn’t kiss men they barely knew, certainly not men who made them have wild, exotic dreams.

It was crazy. He was making her want crazy things.

Making her not give a damn about her reputation or her virginity. Or her long-awaited freedom. A ll she could think about was that dream, and the way his sinful mouth had felt. The table was only a step away, and honey was just as sweet as peach juice…

She swallowed hard and looked up into his hooded eyes.

“Maggie,” he groaned. “Don’t be scared. I’d never hurt you.”

Her mouth parted to object, but firm lips covered hers, hungry, demanding. She gasped, shocked at his hunger, but even more at the illicit response coursing through her. A n aching heat unfurled low in her stomach, pulsed between her legs. Oh, yes. It started just like in the dream.

He deepened the kiss, coaxed her lips with his warm tongue. Long, languid strokes teased the inside of her mouth, encouraging, tempting before he pulled back to nibble the corners of her lips.

Oh, God. Is this what all kisses felt like? Hot, lethargic? Melting her like molasses over warm bread?

“Kiss me, Maggie,” he breathed.

PRA ISE FOR A UTHOR

Jennifer Jakes

A ND HER BOOKS

RA FE’S REDEMPTION

“A delicious debut! With pages so hot, this book nearly melted in my hands.”

~Kimberly Killion, RITA nominated and

award-winning author

Rafe’s Redemption

by

Jennifer Jakes

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.

Rafe’s Redemption

COPYRIGHT Ó 2011 by Jennifer Jakes

A ll rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

Contact Information: [email protected] Cover A rt by A ngela A nderson

The Wild Rose Press

PO Box 708

A dams Basin, NY 14410-0708

Visit us at www.thewilderroses.com

Publishing History

First Scarlet Rose Edition, February 2011

Print ISBN 1-60154-936-9

Published in the United States of A mericaDedication

To my husband, Glenn.

Thanks for keeping the faith.

Thanks Mom, for passing down

the creative gene.

Thanks Barb and Sara A nn,

critique partners extraordinaire.

Thanks MORWA ,

the best RWA chapter ever.

Chapter One

November 1866—Western Colorado Territory When they got back to St. Louis, she was going to kill him.

“Maggie!” Michael’s footsteps thundered down the hall.

Her stomach churned at the urgency in her cousin’s voice. She fingered the necklace hidden in the pleats of her thick velvet skirt. She wouldn’t give him the locket, even though the heavy gold might be all that stood between her and starvation. A t the rate Michael gambled, there’d be nothing left of their shared inheritance.

She perched on the edge of the moth-eaten mattress, then stood, then sat and wrung her hands. A ll she’d wanted was to capture the western landscape with her sketches. How had the journey to California gone so wrong?

“Maggie!”

That’s how. Michael’s drinking and gambling had plagued the entire trip, despite his promises to change.

“Goddamn it! A flush. A fucking flush.” One heated curse after another echoed down the corridor. Her pulse hammered in her ears as she braced for his anger.

He had not changed. The devil himself would make a better traveling companion.

Michael flung open her hotel door, slamming it against the rough plank wall. Drunken voices floated up from the bar room, cries for whiskey and women, crude, coarse words that flooded her face with heat. Never had she imagined such an uncivilized place existed.

He stomped toward her, his once impeccable shirt wrinkled and stained. “Get up,” he snarled. “Now!” Maggie clambered to her feet and faced him. How many steps would it take to reach the door? “If you’ve come for more valuables, there’s nothing left,” she lied, praying her voice didn’t give her away.

He gave a disgusted snort, then hung his blond head as if resigned to defeat. Despite her earlier thoughts about him, pity pricked her conscience and she stepped forward.

“Wrong,” he sneered, shoving her against the wall. “I have one more piece of property to sell.” The reek of whiskey assaulted her nose with each punctuated word.

“A nd it’s going to get me out of this hell hole in one piece.” His gaze roamed her body. Then he gave a satisfied smile. “A ren’t you?”

Her heart clattered to a stop. A wave of nausea rose in her throat. Dear God, he intended to pay his debt with her. She threw her body into his, heaving with all her strength. But he didn’t budge.

“Don’t be so eager, cousin,” he taunted. “We are going downstairs. There are some men who want to see you.”

“No!” Blood pounded in her ears. “Michael, don’t do this.” She planted her heels and twisted, trying to get away. Hard fingers bit into her flesh as he dragged her through the door, toward the narrow stairs. She clawed at his hand, pierced the skin with her nails, but he tightened his grip until cold numbness throbbed through her arm.

The necklace pressed hard against her waist as he forced her down the hall. There was no other way. She’d have to give him the locket. “Michael, wait! I have—” A vicious slap rattled her teeth, made the torn, dirty wallpaper dance before her eyes.

“Shut up.” His lips twisted into a cold grin. “It’s just a good thing I hadn’t killed you yet.”

Kill? Kill? The word crashed through her mind like a wave. What kind of monster had Michael become? Fear slithered down her spine. The deadly kind. He would kill her, then take the necklace.

She’d have to think of another way to escape.

“You might be stupid,” he continued as he pulled her down the stairs, “but at least you’re pretty. These backwoods simpletons only have the old whores who work here. The men will tear each other apart and pay top dollar to have you.”

The statement buckled her legs. Splinters pricked her cotton stockings as he dragged her across the stained saloon floor. “Slow down,” she begged. “Let me walk.” A nd think.

He stopped and twisted her arm behind her back, hard enough she climbed to her feet before the bones snapped.

“Why? Why are you doing this?” A nd why had she ever felt sorry for him?

“The money.” He shrugged. “Why else?”

“I’ll give you my share!” Poverty, dear God anything, was better than this.

“Generous, but too late, my dear.” He snatched a whiskey bottle from an empty table and gulped the amber remains. “But I’ll be sure and enjoy your half. I might even think of you while I spend it.” His smile froze.

“Now, get outside.”

Outside. Maybe she could break free and run, scream for help. There had to be someone in this town who would stop Michael.

She struggled for a calming breath, but gagged at the stench of unwashed bodies that hung in the smoky air. Two painted women sauntered from a back room, their expressions bored despite Michael’s abusive stance.

“Help me,” Maggie pleaded. “Get the sheriff.” The women’s raspy chuckles filled the room. “A in’t no law ‘round here, honey,” one drawled. “The men do what they want.”

No sheriff? What chance did she have without help?

Michael shoved her outside where light snow fell on the small crowd waiting in front of the saloon. Her boots slipped on the frozen boardwalk, but he jerked her upright. A hush fell over the men when she faced them.

Her heart skittered to a stop as she met their lustful stares.

“See, gentlemen, just as I promised,” Michael shouted, his voice belying panic. “There’s no need for a lynch rope. This woman is worth more than enough to pay off my debt.”

Whoops and yells filled the air as he pushed her onto a crate in front of the unpainted building.

Her limbs shook with fear, teetering the box beneath her feet. “Michael, don’t—”

He yanked her arm behind her back. “I will break it.

It makes no difference,” he hissed. “Your arm is not what they’re interested in.”

She swallowed hard and studied the sight before her

—her future. The men stood like cattle, ankle-deep in mud and mire. Long unkempt whiskers covered dirty faces, whiskers with pieces of their last meal still hanging in the hair. For one fleeting second, death seemed preferable to belonging to one of these filthy creatures.

She shuddered and looked from one end of the short street to the other. Where could she hide? Even if she could get away, it wouldn’t take the men long to search three buildings and a corral. There was no place to run, no place they couldn’t find her.

“Now, Zeke, how much is my total?” Michael asked the saloon proprietor as if settling a supper bill.

Zeke looked up from the paper he’d been figuring on. “You still owe three hundred seventy-five.”

“I already gave you all her jewelry and gowns!”

“A nd you still owe three seventy-five,” the big man growled as he reached for his gun.

Michael’s jaw twitched as he turned to the group and gave a tense smile. “Well, she’s worth at least that much, gentlemen.”

****

Rafe peered out the window of the mercantile to a crowd gathering outside the saloon. Trouble. Cougar Creek overflowed with it. That’s why he settled here, where he belonged. Or at least where his stepfather thought he belonged.

He turned as Tom, the owner, came back inside from counting Rafe’s pelts.

“Will there be enough to buy my supplies?”

“A w, sure. You had a good summer.” Tom moved to the stove and lifted a boiling pot.

“What’s going on over there?” Rafe pointed out the window, then accepted a cup of coffee.

“Stage busted a wheel yesterday. Come here to have the smithy look at it.” Tom wrapped his wrinkled hands around his cup and nodded to the street. “Some rich feller and his cousin had to put up at Zeke’s. Cecil told me the fool lost everythin’—and then some—playin’

cards.”

Rafe turned to look outside again, watching the group collect a length of rope. “They’re going to hang him?” A cold ache filled his gut. He’d never understand why some men took pleasure in killing.

“Reckon so.” Tom sipped his coffee. “I’ll go git your pelts now and start fillin’ your order.”

“No, let me get them for you.” Rafe set the dented tin cup on the rough wooden counter. “You can start gathering my supplies. A storm’s coming. I don’t want to spend the winter down here.”

He strode outside where a biting wind lifted his hat from his head. He pulled down the black felt and turned up his collar. Damn this blizzard. Those men were fools, standing in the cold when they should be headed home.

He reached for the first armload of pelts, but the roar of the crowd made him turn. No one swung from the hanging tree. What had the men so riled?

“One twenty-five!” a voice echoed down the muddy street.

A n auction? Whatever was being sold must be a rarity in these parts to bring that kind of money. Not that he cared. He didn’t need anything, rare or not. Still…he slopped through the mud for a peek at the commotion.

He stopped beside Cecil Two-Feathers as someone yelled one hundred fifty.

“What’s going on?”

Cecil shook his head. “Nothing good.” He nodded to the front of the crowd.

Rafe shouldered his way between two men, then moved toward the boardwalk. His gut clenched. Tom had said cousins; he hadn’t mentioned one was a young woman. A beautiful young woman. Lust shivered through him, hardened him.

Damn it, he couldn’t get involved. He’d do her more harm than good.

But seeing a woman being used like this pricked his conscience. Could he do nothing?

She stood on a broken crate, wide-eyed and trembling, a queen surrounded by swine. Her fine tailored traveling suit, her regal stature, both out of place in this ramshackle town.


Page 2

A man held her in a cruel grasp as he encouraged the crowd.

“Come now, speak up. She’s worth more than that.

Never been bedded.”

Fear for her ran thick through Rafe’s veins as memories of another time, another place, another woman being raped and degraded flashed in his mind.

His gaze flicked back to the cousins. He shouldn’t interfere. Look what happened last time.

But like last time, he couldn’t walk away.

“I’ll give two hundred!” old man Dobson offered, dribbling a stream of tobacco down his chin.

The woman’s blue-eyed gaze ran wild over the crowd. She leaned back on the crate, tugging on her arm in an attempt to break free. The man delivered a back-handed slap that stilled her actions and tangled long ebony waves down her back.

Goddamn him. Rafe placed his hand on the butt of his pistol.

“How about a look at what you’ll get?” the man suggested.

He grabbed the top of her bodice and tore until the buttons popped. Delicate, smooth skin and pure white undergarments gleamed bright in the surrounding sea of drab browns and grays. She clutched the ruined dress and tried to cover herself, but the cousin twisted her arm until she cried out in pain, and her lush breasts spilled over the top of her corset, her pink nipples puckered by the cold.

Her eyes widened, and a scarlet blush spread over her cheeks, but she drew back and spat into the man’s face.

“Well, now, gentleman, you can see she’s a fiery one.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his face. “She won’t disappoint you in bed.

What’s the bid?”

“Two hundred fifty!”

“Three hundred!”

The blond man shook his head. “I’m afraid it takes more than that to have her.”

A putrid combination of molded pelts and rotten eggs invaded the air. Rafe knew who stood behind him before the man spoke.

“Three seventy-five. Now give her to me.” Skinner Joe’s voice confirmed the smell.

If Joe took her, she’d be dead before spring. The perverse man took pleasure in hurting women, and just the thought of his hands on this lady made chills slither down Rafe’s spine. His hand tightened on the gun.

Damn, shooting Joe would be less trouble than taking responsibility for a woman.

“A in’t nobody gonna pay more for her,” Joe argued.

Damn, damn, damn. Rafe squeezed his eyes shut and sucked in a deep breath. “Five hundred,” he shouted before he changed his mind. A ll heads turned toward him.

Panic, colder than the icy wind, cut through Maggie.

Five hundred. Good God. One of these disgusting men would own her. Her heart stopped, then started with a sickening thud. Who was the winner?

“Sold!” Michael’s giddy voice sang as he yanked her off the box and pulled her through the mud.

She searched the crowd as men parted like the biblical Red Sea, her stomach rolling like a wave. A tall scowling man moved toward them. He wore an abused black hat pulled low on his forehead hiding his eyes, but the breeze caught too long dark hair and tangled it over a firm, full mouth.

She swallowed as a thick lump of fear crawled up her throat. Maybe she had fallen asleep and was in the midst of a nightmare. Michael jerked to a stop, and a needle-like pain shot through her shoulder. This was no dream.

She dared a glance at the man who had just bought her. He stood a head taller than Michael, broader in the shoulders, more muscular, more…everything. God help her. How would she get away from him?

Zeke moved to where they stood. “Didn’t figure you for bein’ in on this, Rafe.”

Rafe? Maggie forced herself to meet his stare. Icy gray eyes assessed her, so cool she shuddered under their intensity. He looked mean, as hard and cold as the environment. Was there any chance she could convince him to let her go in exchange for the necklace?

He continued to stare until she wondered if he had heard Zeke’s statement. Then Rafe shot a glance to the man.

“My pelts are over in front of Tom’s. I’ll get them.”

“You ought not to call them your pelts.” A graveled voice cut the air. “They should have been mine, just like the bitch should have been.” A bear-like man pushed through the crowd. The smell of the hides he wore—or maybe the odor of the man himself—reached her before he did. Hate flew from his bottomless black eyes, aimed at her new owner. “If Rafe didn’t horn in on my trappin’, those skins would be mine.” He turned to her and swiped a slick tongue over rotted teeth. “You, too, darlin’.”

“You lying sonofabitch,” Rafe growled. “I don’t poach. The pelts are mine.” His shoulder brushed hers as he leaned toward Joe. “So is she.”

Her hope for freedom plummeted at his possessive tone.

“Well, I don’t want pelts,” Michael interrupted. “I demand cash or the deal is off. The auction continues.” She gasped as Rafe spun and lifted him off the ground by the throat. Michael wheezed, his arms windmilling in the air as purple veins popped out on his forehead.

“You’ll take pelts.” A nerve ticked in Rafe’s jaw. “They spend the same around here.”

Maggie glanced around. Now was her opportunity.

Every man present slobbered in excitement over the chance of a fight. A ll she had to do was slip away and run. Somewhere. Somehow.

She stumbled backward in the thick muck, judging the distance to a horse tied in front of the store. The big animals scared her, but not as much as the big man choking her cousin.

“That’s right, darlin’.” A grime-covered hand snaked around her wrist. “You just sneak away with ol’ Joe.” Maggie snapped around. Black eyes, previously filled with hate, now gleamed with lust.

“No!” Her scream broke the heavy silence of the other’s stand-off.

Rafe dropped Michael and leveled a pistol at Joe. “Let go of her.”

She sidestepped and jerked her arm free.

Joe grinned. “Never you mind. My luck’s bound to change.” He shoved her against Rafe. “Yours, too, blue belly. Last time I was at Turner’s Mill I heard ‘bout a man lookin’ for a friend from the war. The description sure did sound like you.”

Rafe’s hard stomach twitched against her back as he sucked a sharp breath.

“I think I’ll send word to that feller,” Joe continued.

“I’m right fond of happy reunions.”

“Go to hell, Joe.” Rafe’s voice never faltered, but his knuckles turned white as he gripped the gun.

“Hah,” Joe spat. “I’ll meet you there.” He backed away, laughing, his beady stare never leaving them.

Rafe took her arm and tugged until she faced him, frozen in his steel gaze. He pulled off his coat and held it out to her. “Ma’am, I’m Rafe McBride. Put this on before you freeze.”

She glanced from where Michael rubbed his bruised neck, to the strong hand offering the coat. His expression softened as he waited for her to accept the coat, his gray gaze now warm, his full lips curved with encouragement.

Who was Rafe McBride? Owner or savior? Cruel or kind?

“Thank you.” She pulled the coat around her and worked the buttons to cover her breasts. Musky male warmth filled her senses and seeped into her chilled body.

“What’s your name?” His voice rumbled through her.

She swallowed hard and forced herself to meet his gaze. She had to at least pretend bravery. Sniveling and crying would gain her no ground.

“Maggie Monroe.”

“Come over here out of the snow.” He led her in a gentle grasp to the covered boardwalk in front of the mercantile. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” He tipped the brim of his hat in a ridiculous gesture given the circumstances.

He stalked toward the horses. A flannel shirt hugged his muscled back, wool trousers molded thick thighs. A simple wardrobe, but clean. His short, neat beard hugged a square jaw; dark brown hair brushed his shoulders. He had a loose-limbed gait, but she didn’t think for a minute Rafe McBride was relaxed. He looked to be the kind of man always on alert. Powerful.

Dangerous.

She inched toward the edge of the boardwalk. There had to be a way to escape.

“Goin’ some place?” A tall man wearing a skunk hat smiled, his gaze locked to her chest as if he could still see her exposed nipples.

She shook her head and scuttled backward, shaking, though not from the cold. Tears pricked her eyes, but she clenched her hands into fists and bit her lip.

Everything would be fine. She just had to remain calm and think.

Rafe wrestled dozens of furs from his mule and handed them to Zeke. The men exchanged a few words, then the saloon owner left with two huge armloads.

Michael, however, turned up his nose in disgust at the offered pelts. Rafe shrugged his wide shoulders, dropped the furs to the ground and turned to leave.

“But I need money,” Michael demanded, puffing out his chest.

Rafe stopped; his cold glare pinned Michael.

The door behind her opened. “Bring them pelts in here, boy,” an old man called. “I’ll pay you cash for ‘em.” Michael’s eyes danced at the mention of cash, and he dug into his pocket for gloves. With theatrical reluctance, he picked up the skins. When he reached the boardwalk where she stood, he stopped.

“Good-bye, dear cousin. Have a nice life. I know I will, spending your inheritance.” He chuckled.

A burning wave of hatred flowed through her, and she stepped toward him. “Good-bye, Michael.” She kept her voice quiet, meek, then planted her knee hard between his legs.

He fell to the ground, groaning in agony.

“I hope you rot in hell.” She let disgust drip from the words.

A smile quirked the corner of Rafe’s mouth as he stepped up onto the boardwalk. He took her elbow and turned toward the door.

“I’ll go to Zeke’s to get the rest of your things. You wait inside where it’s warm.”

She shook her head. “I don’t have anything left. He gambled it all away.”

“Sonofabitch.” Rafe turned to Michael and grabbed a couple of the skins. “She needs a coat. You’re buying her one.”

Michael grabbed for the pelts, but drew back when Rafe pulled his gun.

“F-fine, take them.” Michael’s drawn face flushed scarlet, and he gulped. “But the rest are mine.” Rafe narrowed his eyes. “Go inside, trade your skins, then get out of my sight.”

Michael climbed to his feet and shuffled past on the boardwalk, giving them wide berth.

Rafe’s gaze skated over her, then away. “A s soon as he’s finished, we’ll go inside.”

The frigid wind whipped her skirt from her legs, tangling the material around his leather boots. He jumped back as if flames, not velvet, encased him. She squeezed the necklace hidden in her skirt. He seemed to be a decent man. Maybe she could give him the locket for her freedom.

The ping of the blacksmith’s hammer rang through her thoughts. Soon the stagecoach would be repaired, and Michael would leave. A nd she would be here. A lone.

With this man she knew nothing about. She stole a peek at Rafe’s hard-set expression and swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. Nettie’s prediction about trouble had proved true.

If only Maggie had listened.

She inhaled the frosty air until her lungs ached, wishing she could float away on the mist she expelled.

Float all the way back to St. Louis, to the life she’d thought dull. There’d be no more wild dreams of sketching the western frontier or displaying her art in galleries. Drawing ladies’ fashions for Godey’s fashion periodical would be enough excitement to last the rest of her life.

Her fingers itched for her pencils. She could lose herself in a sketch and pretend none—

Her paper and supplies!

“Mr. McBride?” She grasped his arm. “I do have something I left in the saloon. It’s in my room—a leather satchel.” She had lost everything else; she couldn’t leave her drawings behind.

He nodded. “I’ll see to it as soon as—”

The door creaked open, and Michael strutted outside.

He smiled and flipped a few gold coins in his hand as he sauntered toward Maggie. She stepped back, bumping her body against Rafe’s. Reassuring warmth and needles of awareness prickled her skin, tightening her nipples, sending a hot shock of need pulsing through her cunny.

She felt him stiffen, but his hand wrapped around her arm and pulled her protectively behind him.

Michael sneered. “A w, that’s sweet. I—”

“You’re through talking.” Rafe pointed toward the saloon. “Leave.”

Michael gave a smug grin and strolled to Zeke’s.

Rafe ushered her to the mercantile. “Go inside with Tom. I’ll get your bag and be right back.” He opened the door for Maggie, and she entered the store. The commotion from outside melted away in the quiet warmth.

“Tom?” Rafe’s voice echoed through the small room.

“I need to leave Miss Monroe with you for a few minutes.”

The old man popped up from behind the counter. He scuttled toward the door to look Maggie up and down, then motioned her forward. “You come on in, young lady, and git warm.”

Rafe gave her a nod, then closed the door.

She turned a slow half circle examining the room.

Lanterns hung low from rough timbers, the dim light calming her scattered mind. Barrels and crates filled with shovels and axes stood in each corner. Dust-covered shelves climbed the wall behind the counter and formed two rows down the center of the store.


Page 3

A nd it was warm.

The inviting fire of the large pot-belly stove beckoned her to the back wall. Heat seeped into her bones, reminding her of all the time she’d spent in the kitchen with Nettie. If she closed her eyes the yeasty smell of bread filled her senses, the tang of cucumbers dropped into jars with dill and vinegar, the sweet temptation of sugared apples ready for pies. Hunger gnawed at the delicious thought.

“Miss?”

Maggie jerked her eyes open. No clean kitchen surrounded her, just a dirty, drafty store. No warm bread or fresh dilled pickles, only musty blankets, tobacco, and a stench that could only be the pelts. No safe—albeit stifling—home in Missouri. Just fear—in the middle of nowhere.

“I asked if’n you wanted coffee.”

“I’m sorry,” Maggie offered, trying not to grimace at the way her boots gritted on the mud-covered floor.

“That’s most kind, Mr…”

The old man smiled showing an almost toothless mouth. “Tom Ward. But you can call me Tom.”

“Maggie Monroe.”

Tom blushed at her outstretched hand, then wiped his back and forth against questionably clean pants before touching her fingers. “Pleasurable meetin’ you.” He dropped her hand and reached for a tin cup hanging from a peg on the wall. Then with a sheepish glance toward her, he hurried to a small cabinet, pulled out a chipped porcelain mug and grinned as if he’d struck gold.

“I can git some sugar if’n you like.” Tom’s gnarled hand trembled as he passed the steaming cup. “Don’t keep no cow for cream though.”

“No, I can drink it black.” Might as well get used to living without the finer things such as sugar. Even if she could convince Mr. McBride to set her free, the life she knew would be lost forever. A t the rate Michael gambled, the house, the money, everything would be gone, and Nettie put on the street to find employment elsewhere.

A nd her one chance at life outside marriage destroyed. I won’t let that happen.

Rafe blew through the door in a swirl of snowflakes, the white crystals glistening in his dark hair and whiskers.

“The blizzard’s moving in. We need to hurry.” His stormy eyes flicked over her. “I put your satchel in my saddlebags.”

“Thank you.” Maggie took a fortifying gulp of the thick coffee. She had no time to lose. Now was the time to appeal to his sense of honor. She swallowed hard, preparing for the most important speech of her life. “Mr.

McBride, I wondered if—”

“Tom will show you to the coats.”

She stepped aside as Rafe brushed by her, leaving her hopeful proposal melting like the puddles of snow left from his boots.

She riddled his broad back with silent curses.

Damned, arrogant horse’s ass. What made men think they owned the last word? Since her father’s death, Maggie had had a small taste of freedom. She wasn’t going to lose it now to some overbearing mountain man.

Ice pinged against the windows, matching the cold beat of her heart. She needed another drink of courage.

She drained the bitter coffee in one long swig, then handed Tom the cup. “Mr. McBride, there’s something I have to say.”

The muscles in his back tensed, pulling the plaid shirt tight as he stiffened, then turned. “Well, I don’t have time to listen. Do you understand if we delay, we’ll be riding in a whiteout?” His dark brows knitted a frown. “I’m not afraid to die, but I’ll be damned if I want to do it by freezing. Now hurry up and choose a coat!” Tom tugged her hand, pulling her down an aisle.

“He’s right. You two best git goin’.”

“But I can’t—”

“Oh, don’t fret about decidin’. Not many of these coats be small enough to fit you. Won’t be much choosin’

to do.”

Maggie groaned in frustration. Tom was daft if he thought her concern lay with the stylishness of her coat.

A nd Mr. McBride…she glared across the room. She hoped he choked on his coffee. Boorish bastard.

“Tom, make sure it will keep her warm.” Rafe spoke into his cup, never raising his gaze, but his rich voice, laced with worry, flooded her with shame. Maybe he was daft. Harsh and controlling one second, then worried about her comfort the next.

“I’ll pick the warmest one I got.” Tom scratched his bald head as he scurried to the back of the store. He dug to the bottom of a stack. “This’n might do.” She accepted the dusty coat he held out. The abrasive brown wool scratched against her palms, but the inside lining was soft and would protect her from the harsh weather. Even though she had no intention of leaving with Mr. McBride, she couldn’t hide in the store forever.

“Thank you, Mr. War—I mean, Tom.”

He blushed, toeing the floor like a schoolboy. “My pleasure, Miss Maggie.”

“Is there somewhere private I can change coats?” If not, then these two men would have to turn their backs.

She was not exposing her breasts to anyone else today.

“You know,” Tom said as he tapped his mouth in thought, “she’s gonna have a hard time ridin’ in that fancy dress. I still got a box of Jimmy’s clothes from afore he went to war. He weren’t too big a boy. I bet they’d fit her.”

Rafe’s gaze raked over her. Head to toe, then back again. When their eyes met, heat flooded her face. His look appraised, not lusted, still her heart beat a little faster, and the heated ache between her legs started again. It wasn’t too far a stretch to imagine those gray eyes filled with desire, with hunger. A hunger she would not encourage. Freedom was what she wanted. Not a man.

“Thank you.” Maggie tried to clear the husky timbre from her throat. “I appreciate your offer.”

“Just let me go git them clothes, then you can change.” Tom scuttled away. Several clanks sounded from two shelves over. “Hell and damnation. Where is that—ah-ha.” He reappeared carrying a cobweb-covered box, then showed her to a small room attached to the side of the store.

“This is where I sleep.” He dropped the box onto the bed and lit a lantern. “You take whatever clothes fit. A nd don’t fret.” He gave her a wink. “Rafe’s a good man.” A patchwork blanket-door swung closed behind him, swirling dust throughout the room. Did she look so worried even Tom could see? She twisted, searching for a mirror, but this room competed with the hotel for sparse. A bed, a table, and one frost-covered, curtain-less window.

The wind howled outside, a cold draft blowing through the rough, unpainted wall. How did Tom sleep in here without a stove? Goose skin prickled her body.

A nd the thought of taking her clothes off in the frigid air made shivers run down her back. It was warmer beside the hanging blanket, but what if the men could see through the thin material? She sidled closer and squinted at the fabric. She couldn’t see anything…but the floorboards groaned as footsteps passed on the other side of the curtain. The creak of the stove door made Maggie drop to her knees and peer under the blanket to the big cast iron heater.

“I still need the supplies, Tom, probably more, but I don’t know how I’ll pay you.” Rafe’s muffled baritone floated across the floor

She clutched the blanket until her fingers turned white. This was her chance. Rafe had spent all his money. A nd the necklace sewn into her skirts dangled hope. She didn’t wait for Tom’s reply. It was time to make her offer.

Both men turned when she entered the room. “You need somethin’ else, Miss Maggie?”

“Scissors, please.” Her high-pitched squeak didn’t bode well for her bravery.

Tom quirked a bushy gray brow, but reached behind the counter for the tool. Her knees wobbled as she sat down beside the stove to clip the threads. What if Rafe refused her offer? He won’t. He won’t. He won’t. Still, her hand shook when she fished the locket from her skirt and looked into his frowning face.

“If Tom will buy my necklace, I can repay what you’ve lost, Mr. McBride.” She stood and met his stare. “I hope by replacing your money you’ll be gentleman enough to grant me my freedom.” She swallowed hard and pushed ahead. If she stopped talking, he might say no. “I only need enough money to purchase passage back home to St. Louis. You may keep the rest.” She turned to Tom. “Will you allow me to stay with you until the next stage comes through? I will be no trouble.” Tom gave a nervous laugh and rubbed his chin. Rafe stared into his coffee.

“Well?” she prompted. Every item in the store seemed to hold its breath awaiting answer.

Tom was the first to speak. “Miss Maggie, I don’t think—” He coughed again. “I don’t think you’re fully understandin’. The stage don’t run here regular. It only stopped because of the wheel. A s much as I’d like to help you, I can’t protect you. If these men ‘round here wanted to, well…” He let the words hang and shrugged his stooped shoulders. “I’m too old to stop ‘em. Rafe here’ll take care of you.”

The words settled like a cold lump of porridge into her stomach. Blinking hard, she dropped to the hard oak chair and clasped her hands together to stop the trembling. She couldn’t stay in this horrible town. There had to be another way.

She turned to Rafe. “Then I’ll pay you to take me to the next stage stop. I can even send you more money once I get settled. Name your price.” She hated the desperate sound of her voice, but damn it all, she was desperate. “Please, understand. I—I—” The words lodged in her throat, then escaped in a warble. “I can’t stay here.

You can’t keep me!”

Rafe slammed his cup onto the stove. “Miss Monroe, I never intended to keep you.” His gruff voice suggested she’d offended him. “Believe me, a woman is the last thing I want.”

“Then why—”

His gray eyes narrowed to icy slits. “You saw your alternatives outside.”

Maggie shrank in her seat, the bitter coffee churning in her stomach. Just the thought of those men…Their nasty hands touching her bare skin…Their foul breath as they kissed her. She shivered and swallowed down coffee-tinged bile.

Rafe heaved a loud breath. “You can’t stay here. But I promise to take you to Fort Union as soon as possible.

What you do—where you go—from there is entirely up to you. Until then I’m afraid you’ll have to trust me.” She stared at his mouth, hearing the words, but unable to believe what he said. Her nails bit into her palms as she fisted her hands. Trust me, he’d said. Well, she didn’t! Men did as they pleased and made no apologies for whom they hurt in the process. She’d spent her life controlled by men. Now this one would take her off to God knew where, and she’d be at his mercy.

Not if she could think of another way.

“I’ll go change,” Maggie said. “It’s snowing much harder now, and I’m sure we need to be on our way.” She stood, her gaze fading from outside as she pressed her necklace into Tom’s hand. “I’ll appreciate whatever you can give me for the necklace.”

Maggie ducked beneath the blanket-door and eyed the tiny window, unsure if she would fit, but positive of the horrors that waited on the other side. No, that wasn’t the way to freedom. That was the way to unspeakable depravity. Mr. McBride might be rough and bossy, but he didn’t scare her like the men on the street.

She slumped onto the bed. Even if she did climb out, chances were she’d freeze to death. A nd until Tom paid her for the necklace, she was penniless. She couldn’t get to St. Louis.

So there was no other way.

“Reckon she knows how to cook?” Tom’s teasing voice floated through the blanket.

“I doubt she knows how to do anything.”

“That’s not fair to say, Rafe.”

“Maybe not, but I’ve known women like her. They pour tea, buy dresses, pout and look pretty. The sooner I’m rid of her, the better.”

Relief flooded through her despite his unkind words.

H e really didn’t want her. But why should that surprise her? Father always said she was too stupid to attract a man. In this instance, she was glad.

She quickly unbuttoned his large coat and stripped off her clothes, then fingered the red welts Michael had left on her chest. Her face flushed with embarrassment thinking how he’d exposed her breasts to those men.

Including the one who waited for her.

Trust me. The words again rumbled through her mind. He didn’t know what he asked. Every man she’d ever known broke promises to her. She doubted Mr.

McBride was any different.

She spread her mud-spattered skirt on the floor, then rolled her petticoats and other clothes into a bundle.

Inside the wooden box she found long underwear, soft from washing. A patched shirt was next, then she sat to try the trousers. Tugging the britches over her hips, she looked longingly at her skirt. She felt naked dressed in trousers, the fit indecent. She pulled the shirt from the waistband of the pants, relieved it hung to her thighs. A t least she looked more proper.

There was another set of Jimmy’s clothes in the box so she took them, adding them to her bundle. She reached for woolen socks and yanked them over her stockings, then pulled on her boots.

Tom looked up from the counter when she entered the room. “Them clothes look right nice on you, Miss Maggie.”

Heated fingers of awareness traced up her back, a lazy wave of desire that only one man had made her feel.

She spun, catching Rafe’s gaze as he watched from the boardwalk. A shiver prickled her skin. She reached for her new coat and slipped it on, letting the length cover her body.


Page 4

“Thank you. Did you get a chance to look at the necklace?”

Tom grunted as he plopped down the sewing supplies and bent to get the gold scale. He pulled the chain from the locket, then weighed them both.

“Will one of them cover Mr. McBride’s loss and his supplies?” She wouldn’t remain in his debt, but there had to be something left for her.

“The locket is more ‘n enough.” Tom opened his cash register and dropped several coins into her hand. “This is for the chain.”

“A re you sure?” She hadn’t hoped for this much.

“Yep. Now stop worryin’.”

If only she could.

Rafe came back inside in a burst of frigid air and blowing snow. “A re you ready?”

No. “Yes.” She took the burlap sack Tom offered for her bundle of clothes.

“Don’t fret, girl.” Tom took her hand and squeezed.

“He’ll keep you safe. I couldn’t see sendin’ you with him if’n he wouldn’t.”

She nodded and tried to smile. “Thank you. For everything.”

She buttoned her coat while the men said their good-byes on the boardwalk. Rafe took the sack from her hands and strode toward the hitching post. Her gaze landed on his horse. The huge beast was the animal she had considered making her escape on. He looked as testy as his owner—and she had to tolerate the company of both. She glanced from horse to man and raised her chin a notch. A fter his less than complimentary words, she’d be damned before showing fear.

The icy wind whipped her hair when she started from the protective cover of the porch. She tucked the loose strands into the collar of her coat and stepped off the boardwalk.

Rafe frowned. “Wait.” He deposited her back on the porch and disappeared inside, then returned and dropped a man’s felt hat onto her head. “To keep the snow and rain off your face.”

“Thank—” She stopped short as he pulled a pair of thick gloves from his pocket and pressed them into her hands. “Thank you.”

He shrugged. “Tom thought you should have them.” Then he walked to the horses, leaving her to follow.

Fine. He didn’t want her gratitude. It made no difference to her as long as he kept his promise and took her to the fort.

She stepped off the porch as the snow whirled around; bits of ice mixed with the large flakes and stung her skin. She tilted her head and leaned into the wind, glad for the hat and for Tom’s thoughtfulness.

“We’ll have to ride double,” Rafe said when she stood beside him. “There’s no room on the pack mule.” He tied her sack to the saddle horn, then turned. His steel gaze darted from her to the animals, and he frowned, as if he’d just realized how close riding double would be. Maggie couldn’t decipher his muttered curse, but judging by his dark scowl, she didn’t want to know his thoughts.

He swung his lean frame onto the horse and settled in the saddle, then reached a strong hand down to her.

She looked up—way up—at his outstretched palm. She placed her gloved hand in his and hoped she didn’t fall.

Her breath whooshed out in surprise when he pulled her up behind him as if she weighed no more than a sack of feathers.

Oh, God. A shudder ran through her, and she covered her eyes with her hands. No wonder she hated horses. She cracked one eye open, glanced down…and buried her face into Rafe’s back. They sat at least six feet off the ground! Thank God, she wouldn’t have to attempt riding alone. Except now her body pressed against his, a fact that stole her breath and spiraled heat from her nipples to her cunny.

What should she do with her hands? If she held on to the back of the saddle, she’d be dangerously close to his backside; wrapping her arms around him seemed bold. She clutched the sides of his coat in her fists and wiggled until she found a comfortable position.

Rafe craned his head and glared over his shoulder.

“Ready?”

Before she could answer, he clicked his tongue to his horse, and they took off with a lurch. The mule’s lead rope bit into her leg as the stubborn animal lagged behind.

“Hang on. We’ve got to ride hard.”

She nodded, then added, “I’m fine. Do what you must.”

A s they rode by Zeke’s, Michael’s triumphant face grinned through the window. She stared at him, unwilling to look away in shame. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Michael was the one who should be ashamed. Her father had entrusted him with the family’s fortune and with Maggie. The money would be gone before Christmas.

Where will I be?

The enormous weight of her situation crushed her.

She shuddered and bit back tears, again nearly overwhelmed by the urge to cry. She was just tired and hungry. That was all. By next week this trip—this whole nightmare—would be nothing but a bad memory.

Rafe tensed as Maggie went limp against him. A feathery sigh tickled the hair at his neck, the deep exhale rubbing her soft breasts across his back. Hell. He closed his eyes, but that was a mistake. Images of her ripped bodice, of hard nipples peeking over a silk corset sent a gut-twisting shot of lust straight to his dick. Double hell.

She sighed again, her arm dropping forward to rest on his thigh. Christ. Two inches to the left and she’d be cupping his cock. He grabbed her hand and pulled it around his waist to keep her from falling off Moses. The last thing he wanted to do was dig her out of a snow drift. It wasn’t that he wanted to feel her arms around him or have her body pressed any closer than it already was. Not that at all.

She mumbled in her sleep, her warm breath fanning his ear, drawing his balls tight with need.

A frustrated groan escaped through tense lips. What in the hell had he done? Hadn’t he learned anything from the last time he’d defended a woman?

But damn it all, he couldn’t let Skinner Joe buy her.

A nd now some man was looking for an army friend.

Friend. Like hell. Rafe knew who searched. Simon. He’d find Rafe and Joe would help.

Rafe pinched the bridge of his nose as every horrible scenario imaginable flashed through his mind. What the hell had he gotten Miss Monroe into? He groaned. A nd why did she have to be from St. Louis. For all he knew, she could have been to his family home. A nd the last thing he wanted was questions or pity.

He grunted in disgust and pushed Moses a little harder. The cold wind howled as they started into the foothills. He tucked his chin into his chest and wished he had started a beard a little sooner.

Maggie moaned, then slid her free hand inside his coat, stroking his stomach like a cat. He tensed. A hot need coursed through his body. His cock stiffened against his buttons, lengthening until the head threatened to break free from the waistband. No way would this be all right. He didn’t want a woman around. He had been too long by himself.

He just had to stay away from her. He could ignore her for a couple of days. Then once the blizzard passed, he’d take her to the fort.

“Think I’ll freeze if I sleep in the barn with you, Moses?” A soft nicker came in answer, and he figured his horse laughed at him. Easy for Moses. He was gelded.

A nother hour and they’d be home. Heat flooded his frozen face at the thought of this St. Louis society lady seeing how he lived. No doubt she was used to a mansion with servants to attend to every need.

So were you once.

He pushed the thought away, angry that Maggie made him remember things he’d rather not. That life was dead.

A s dead as the man he’d killed.

Chapter Two

Maggie jolted from sleep. Shame burned her face when she found herself wound around Rafe like a scarf.

The large horse swayed with each step, rubbing her cunny in a not unpleasant way. No wonder her dreams had been naughty, erotic. Dreams of Rafe’s long, rough fingers stroking between her legs, his lips trailing wet kisses over her breasts, whispering details of what he wanted to do.

“You awake now?” The howling wind carried his voice to her.

“Yes.” She straightened, pulled her arm from his, and gasped when her palm scraped across the buttons on his crotch. Lordy! He was huge, hard. But she snatched her hand away. There was nothing she wanted from this man, not his muscled body, not his stroking fingers, not his huge, hard penis—nothing, other than help to a stagecoach.

That, and shelter from the blizzard swirling around them. Her feet hung like blocks of ice from prickling, frozen legs, thumping against Moses’ belly with every step. The small bit of warmth from where her body had been pressed against Rafe’s disappeared, stolen by the bitter cold. A shiver rattled her teeth. Horrible newspaper accounts raced through her mind. Wagon trains full of families caught unaware, trapped by blizzards until they starved.

Oh, God, what if she and Rafe were lost?

She strained to see a town, a house, a light, anything through the dense snow, any proof they weren’t going to die in this wilderness.

There was nothing. A nd it was almost dark. How would Rafe be able to see then? They would be lost for sure. She leaned forward, enough he could hear her words, but careful not to touch him again. “A re we lost?” His scoff was audible over the wind. “No.” Relief flooded through her. “How long have we been riding?”

“A few hours.”

Her aching muscles already knew that. “A re we almost there?”

“Soon.”

Lord, his conversation skills lacked. Would it kill him to offer a little reassurance? “This all looks the same.

How do you know where we’re going?”

“I just know,” he growled.

Giving up, she tugged her hat down tight and burrowed her chilled face into his broad back. If it would just stop snowing, maybe he could take her to the fort tomorrow. She had to make it home. The sketches had to be finished, the paintings framed. A nd if she didn’t get the rest of the money to Mr. Hastings, he wouldn’t display her work.

If your talent was good enough, you wouldn’t have to pay. Her father’s voice ripped through her thoughts and shredded her confidence. Maybe he was right.

Don’t think like that. She squeezed her eyes shut and imagined herself at the gallery show. Her pieces of the rugged West should be a huge success once people saw them, therefore if she had to pay for the opportunity, so be it. Once her work was commissioned, she and Nettie could travel the world and Maggie could draw.

Just as soon as she was free of Mr. McBride.

Moses clambered up another steep hill and plodded along a trickling creek. Ice formed ragged edges along the water, like a pie with a broken crust. Her stomach protested the thought. She could almost smell Nettie’s apple pie, the wood smoke as she fed the big cook stove.

Wait! Smoke did linger in the air. She almost shouted with joy. There had to be a house nearby, someplace they could warm themselves.

Instead, they traveled deeper into the forest.

Maggie bit back a groan. How much farther could it be? A t this rate, they would be in St. Louis by morning.

She tugged her hat tighter and looked around. If she weren’t so cold, the beauty of this place would move her to take out her sketch paper. Pure, endless snow and crystallized trees shadowed a deep gray horizon. Nothing back home looked like this.

“Whoa.”

She grabbed Rafe’s shoulders at the sudden stop. He swung his leg over the horse’s neck and dropped to the snowy ground.

“We’re here,” he announced, reaching to help her down.

She surveyed the forest, unable to keep the doubt from her voice. “Where?”

“There.” He pointed past a clump of trees. “Come on.

Climb down.”

Her legs buckled when she tried to stand. The wet ground rushed toward her, but strong hands caught around her waist. Rafe stood her upright, then backed away with a frown, as if she’d thrown herself into his arms.

“Thank you.” She stepped back, putting a comfortable distance between them, then studied the foliage around them. “Why did we stop here?” She gave him a pointed stare.

He rolled his eyes. “I live here.”

Her gaze snapped around. “Outside?” Dear God, she was going to freeze to death tonight.

“Of course not!” He glared at her as if she were addled.

“But—”

“Can’t you see the cabin?”

“What cabin?”

One callused finger touched her cheek, tipping her head to the right.

A moss-covered log wall grew from an outcropping of stone, the most pitiful, negligible, wonderful sight she’d ever seen. Her limbs regained strength at the promise of warmth. “Oh.”

Smoke curled a lazy ribbon from a chimney, but as they walked closer, doubt replaced relief. The house was no bigger than two large wardrobes pushed together.

How could one man fit in there, much less two people?

She couldn’t spend the night if she had no privacy.

A nother small structure to her left captured her attention. Maybe…

“That’s the barn,” he said. He walked her to the cabin door, saplings strung together like a boy’s raft. “Go on.” He nudged her inside. “I’ll see to the animals, then be in to build up the fire.”

He closed the door, leaving her in the dark.

She peered into the dim room. A s her eyes adjusted, the feeling of yawning space enveloped her. She shuffled forward and gasped. The back half was a cave, the front a cabin. A n earthen, musty odor filled the air, lingering along with the stench of…burnt bacon?


Page 5

It seemed his cooking skills were as nonexistent as his conversational skills.

She roamed toward a large corner fireplace, and stirred the banked ashes with the poker. The red-hot coals offered enough light to find kindling and Lucifer sticks. There was no reason to sit in the cold waiting for Rafe to build a fire. Pushing aside the blackened frying pan, she fed the fading embers as she had done every morning for Nettie. Soon orange flames devoured the dry wood, spreading warmth through the small room.

Heat seeped into her frozen body while she lit the lantern and walked around. The depth of the cave offered an alcove for a small bed. A rocker made from twisted tree limbs sat in front of the fireplace and a sleek, dark animal skin served as a rug over the slab-rock floor.

With a shudder, she recalled the one thing she’d heard about caves. Bats.

She jerked her head toward the ceiling. Nothing.

Only fuzzy moss and smooth stone.

Sparks popped and embers erupted, familiar, soothing sounds that drew her back to the hearth. She perched on the stones, then removed her hat and gloves and leaned forward, warming her hands, twisting to toast her backside.

This wouldn’t be so terrible. It was better than last night at the saloon, listening to the prostitutes earn a coin. Here she was free—or soon would be—and that was worth sleeping on the floor, or on…she eyed the rug again, on whatever it was.

She just hoped it wasn’t the previous inhabitant of this cave. A nd if it was, Lord, let it be the last one.

Despite her hasty prayer, she eyed the dark corners.

“Stop being stupid,” she hissed at herself. There was nothing to fear. No wild animals, no threat. Rafe seemed reasonable—for the most part. Everything would be fine.

She expelled a shuddering breath. Something hot to drink was what she needed. It would finish warming her up and give her something to do.

She spotted a tin bucket, filled with water, so she searched the shelves above a large worktable until she found coffee beans and the grinder. Soon the smell of brewing coffee made her stomach growl. If she didn’t get something to eat soon, fainting was a real possibility. She pushed aside the guilt of rifling through his supplies. No doubt he was hungry, too—and she preferred her food unburned.

Besides, she intended to show him just how much she couldn’t do.

I’ve known woman like her…

Hah. He knew nothing about her.

Cornmeal sat on the shelves beside a wooden bowl full of eggs. She nestled the frying pan into the embers and cracked four eggs. Those along with Johnny cakes would make a quick meal. Besides, there wasn’t much food, and she didn’t want to deplete his supplies.

She removed her coat and hung it on the single straight-back chair beside a tiny dining table, then surveyed the room again. It was all so…barren and lonely. Did he have no one?

She pushed the pity aside. Look where feeling sorry for Michael had landed her. Her time would be better spent thinking of ways to help herself.

A s the first batch of cakes finished, Rafe came through the door and stopped, rooted to one spot. His gaze took in the fire and the food. His slack-jawed expression sent a jolt of smug satisfaction through her.

Pout and look pretty, indeed.

“Is something wrong?” she asked in honeyed innocence.

“No.”

Melting snow hung in his whiskers and dripped from the ends of his hair, making the color seem richer, darker. He wasn’t unattractive. His rough, dark looks and hard, muscled body would tempt any woman. He would make an excellent model for her sketches. But with luck, she wouldn’t be here long enough to open her satchel, much less ask him to sit for her.

He stepped aside to hang his wet coat, and a large, gray dog charged through the door. She scurried back and clambered into the rocker. Dear God, Rafe hadn’t managed to kill all the cave’s former occupants.

“Go away!” She shooed the beast with her long shirttail.

The animal stopped and backed away, his head cocked in question, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.

Rafe strolled to the wash basin without a backward glance.

“Do something!” she cried.

He blew a long ragged sigh. “That’s Wolf. Wolf, Miss Monroe.”

“A wolf?” she yelped. The animal stood poised as if ready to pounce. She probably looked as tasty as Nettie’s Sunday dinner.

“What kind of person lets a wolf in his home?” She climbed over the arm of the chair and edged toward Rafe. Her hope plummeted. From the narrowed look he gave her, she’d be the first visitor to be evicted.

“I do. He’s my friend.”

Wolf’s eerie eyes watched her every move as she tiptoed back to the fire. She grabbed the largest cake and tossed it to the floor.

“Um, good boy.”

He gobbled it down, so she gave him another, along with a fried egg. Best fill him up. He smiled—she was sure of it, his long canine teeth shined—then trotted to lie in front of the fire. Pretending more bravery than she felt, she stepped around his large paws and reached for the coffee pot, aware of a new set of eyes watching her.

Judging her.

She poured Rafe a cup, then met his gaze.

“A s you can see, I built up the fire and made coffee.” She pushed a cup toward him. “A nd cakes and eggs.”

“Fine by me.” Rafe took the coffee, then slumped into the rocker and dropped his head back, expelling a sigh.

She glared at his profile, determined to have an apology. “Is the coffee the way you like it?”

“Fine.”

“Is the fire warm enough?”

“Fine.”

Maggie resisted—barely—the urge to slap him with the spatula. So much for any thanks, or him admitting he’d been wrong about her abilities. Just like her father.

Were men born unable to apologize?

Wolf whined so Maggie gave him another small cake and he walked to the alcove, tail wagging. A t least one of them appreciated her efforts.

She filled two plates and set them on the table.

“Supper is ready.”

Rafe lifted his head and nodded. “A ll right. You can have the table and chair.” He reached for his plate.

She shook her head. “No, I’ll sit here on the hearth.

The fire feels good after the long ride.” Rafe shrugged without comment, but she noticed he didn’t eat until she was seated. Manners. He wasn’t as rough as he pretended, but why pretend? He was a strange man, strange and confusing. A nd intriguing—

even if he was a horse’s ass.

****

Confusion bombarded Rafe as Maggie washed the dinner dishes. He shook his head. Where had a society girl learned to wash dishes? Or to cook the best damn meal he’d had in months? Most women he knew would have been sitting in the dark, crying because the lodgings turned out to be a cave.

So damn it, why wasn’t she?

He didn’t want to like her, couldn’t afford to let anyone close. He had to find a way to keep her at a distance. But how? Ignoring her didn’t work. She just talked all the more. Why was she acting so nice? Was she buttering him up? It was what Pearl had done. But what could Maggie want from him? He already gave his word to get her to the fort. Maybe she thought he expected something in exchange for his help. A sexual payment of sorts.

A flash of lust sent a jolt to his cock at the thought of her in his bed. Naked. Writhing. Moaning his name.

Offering her pussy for payment. His dick lengthened, pulsed until he squirmed in discomfort—but not enough discomfort to douse his wayward imagination. She’d be wet, her long legs open, begging for his tongue, her sassy mouth sucking his cock, greedy for him to fill her throat with come.

“Jesus Christ!” He scrambled from the rocker, catching Wolf’s paw. The poor animal yelped in pain.

Damn it.

She spun from the wash pan, eyes wide with worry.

“What happened?”

“Nothing,” he grumbled and pulled on his coat. “I’m going to check the animals.” Halfway out, he turned.

“The privy is attached to the barn.” He slammed the door, but leaned against the other side and tried to bring his body under control. He had no business thinking of her like that.

Her soft voice wafted through the wood. “Does he always act so strange?”

Wolf whined.

Wonderful. Now she was talking to the animals. Rafe walked away and shook his head. She should be cowering in fear. Wolf was vicious. Well, he could be.

She wouldn’t know he was tame as a kitten.

Grabbing a shovel, Rafe slung the accumulated snow off the path to the barn. He didn’t want her. Naked or otherwise. He didn’t.

Inside the barn, he put the chickens in their coop, then leaned against the wall. He scrubbed his face and dragged an unsteady hand through his hair. Could he stay out here until she fell asleep? Or—

The barn door opened and he jumped upright.

Maggie stepped inside, Wolf fast on her heels. Rafe narrowed his eyes at the dog. Traitor.

She looked around the dusty barn, then her full lips parted. Lord, he didn’t want to talk with her anymore, couldn’t stand the sweet lilt of her voice. It made him ache for things he thought he didn’t miss. Things he couldn’t have.

“The privy is over there.” He cut her off before she could speak.

She gave a curt nod and walked across the hard-packed dirt floor.

There was one thing he intended to make clear to her before she went back to the house. When she came out, shivering in the frigid air, he didn’t give her a chance to talk.

“You take the bed. I’ll make do on the rug.” She frowned, creasing her delicate brows. “I won’t take your bed. I’ve already inconvenienced you enough.

The rug is fine for me.”

“No.” His voice came out rough. “Take the bed.” He counted to ten before continuing. “Go on.” He shooed her with a flick of his wrist. “I’ll be in later.” Wolf looked at him disapprovingly and followed Maggie toward the door. Rafe breathed a sigh of relief.

Then she stopped and he stiffened. He should have known she wasn’t done.

“Good night, Mr. McBride.” She nodded over her shoulder. “I appreciate all you’ve done for me.” The door swished shut, blocking the view of her rounded ass.

Rafe let his head hit the wall with a loud thump and exhaled. Pearl never thanked him for anything. Ever. If she were forced to stay in a place like this she would have cried and screamed, refused to calm herself or lift a finger to help.

But there was the rub. She had refused to come with him.

Maggie on the other hand offered to sleep on the floor.

“Hell,” he groaned. Did his thoughts always have to come back around to her?

He stomped to the door and yanked it open, needing a cold reminder of where his life had led him. Snow swirled around his face, but all he could see was dark, curly hair and deep blue eyes. Even the frigid weather didn’t help. He was hard. Maybe…

He slipped his palm over his cock, rubbing through his pants. Maybe he needed to take the edge off his hunger. Maybe then he wouldn’t be so tempted to strip her naked and lick every inch of her body.

No! By God, he wasn’t going to resort to jerking his cod. If he had nothing else, he had self-control and no dark-haired beauty was going to take that away.

No matter how sweet her ass looked in pants.

****

A n hour outside finally cooled his temper and deflated his dick enough to chance going inside the cabin. He hung his coat and squinted at the bed, praying she slept. God help him if the blizzard trapped her here.

How would he resist her temptation? Maybe he could be surly, pick a fight. If she was angry, it would be easier for him to keep his distance. Offense was the best defense, on or off the battlefield.

Once his eyes adjusted, he saw her snuggled under a blanket. Not on the bed as he instructed, but on the rug.

“Damn it all,” he whispered. Couldn’t she just follow orders? “Stubborn, frustrating female.” Constructing an argument would be no trouble.

Her eyes opened, hazy and unfocused. “Wh-what?”

“I told you to take the bed,” he growled, lifting her like a child, blanket and all. But the thin blanket wasn’t enough to hide the fact she’d removed her pants. Sleek, bare legs peeked from beneath the wool and all his hard-earned self-control flew out the door.

He stomped across the dark space, trying not to trip as the blanket dragged between his legs. He would have made it if Wolf’s tail hadn’t been so damn long and bushy. Instead, he tripped and felt himself fall with her in his arms.

Maggie couldn’t breathe. She landed hard on the straw mattress, Rafe’s large body on top of her. A strangled moan escaped her lips. Oh, this was bad. Bad, bad, bad. Her body hummed with excitement, the delicious weight of him between her legs pushing all common sense aside. Who needed to breathe? This felt much, much better.

“I told you to take the bed.” His lips brushed her hair in an almost-kiss as he spoke.

“I couldn’t,” she wheezed. The last thing she remembered was curling up in front of the fireplace. He had told her to take his bed, but she wouldn’t sleep there. She refused to take the few comforts he had.

“Oh, God,” he whispered, wrestling the blanket tangled around their bodies. “A re you all right, Maggie?” He rolled off her. “A re you hurt?” His big hands roamed her body. “Tell me where I’ve hurt you.” His worried face loomed above her as she tried to suck in a deep breath. His leg still covered hers. Thank God, she’d only removed her trousers. The thought of his hands stroking her bare skin, touching her bare breasts, made her flush all over.


Page 6

“Can you talk?”

She nodded her head. “I’m fine.”

He surged to his feet, his face no longer worried, but angry and tense.

“Then by God, next time, do as I say. I told you to take the bed, and I meant it.” He turned and walked away, muttering about empty-headed women.

Her temper flashed. “Mr. McBride, this is your home.

You should take the bed.”

“Miss Monroe,” he mimicked. “You are a guest in my home. You should take the bed. My mother taught me manners.”

“Do tell?” she taunted.

He glared at her. “Just do what I say next time, damn it.” He stomped to the rug, dragging the troublesome blanket with him and flopped down on the hard floor. Then he sprung up on one elbow and growled, “A nd stop calling me Mr. McBride.” She slid under the covers and turned her back to him. Minutes passed while she tried to calm her temper.

Why had she even tried to be nice? Let him sleep on the floor. She didn’t care.

Yanking the blankets high under her chin, she whispered. “God, please let it stop snowing.”

****

Nettie’s heavy breathing pulled Maggie from a glorious dream. She stretched, wiggling her toes beneath the heavy quilts. Early gray light teased through her eyelids. She needed to get up, needed to help Nettie get breakfast started. The woman was too old to work so hard. God knew, Father never appreciated the many years of service Nettie had provided. Keeping his house, raising Maggie. Father never appreciated anyone or anything.

Maggie crushed the pillow over her face. “Nettie, did you run up the stairs again? You promised to let me do all the upstairs work. You’re panting like a dog. What’s

—?”

Then she remembered. Not a dog. A wolf! A nd an angry, hateful man.

She tore the pillow from her face and bolted upright.

The room was empty. Well, Rafe was gone, anyway.

Wolf studied her from the floor.

The fire blazed, and coffee boiled in the pot. Rafe’s blanket and pillow lay folded on the foot of the bed. His brooding image flashed in her mind, and a tiny shiver raced through her. She didn’t like the way he made her feel. Restless. A chy. Unsettled. Her life was unsettled enough.

She yanked on her pants and boots, then felt the mangled length of her hair.

“Would you know where I can find a comb?” she asked Wolf.

The animal whined, then turned and lay in front of the fireplace.

“I didn’t think so.” She’d find it herself.

She walked over to the shelves that held Rafe’s personal belongings. His clean clothes lay folded on one shelf, three books underneath. A third shelf held shaving supplies—which he obviously never used—and, thank the Lord, a small comb.

A fter taming her knotted hair, she made the bed and washed her face before starting breakfast. The biscuits were already spooned out when Rafe came in with an armload of wood.

“Good morning,” she offered, determined not to let their argument last night continue. If the stubborn man wanted to sleep on a cold, hard slab, who was she to stop him? Once the snow ended, he could get back to his solitary life.

He grunted a belated hello.

Well, a night on the floor hadn’t helped his disposition.

“I’m making biscuits to go with the eggs this morning.”

Nothing.

“Do you have many hens, or should I conserve eggs?”

He looked up from washing his hands and frowned.

“There’s enough,” he muttered and grabbed the towel.

“Come here.” He led her to the back of the alcove, toward the earthen wall.

He pulled aside the tall shelf that held his clothing and books. Maggie gasped. Hidden was a sliver of a room, stacked full of supplies. He reached inside, dropped a slab of salt pork into her hands, then walked to the coffee pot.

Questions danced in her head. “Why do you hide it?” She watched his shoulders tense, and he huffed out a breath before answering. “When I’m gone, checking my traps, I don’t want someone to come in and steal it.” She nodded, then went to place the biscuits in the Dutch oven. A fter setting it on the coals, she shoveled a few embers on top of the lid. “Wouldn’t Wolf stop any thieves that came in?”

Rafe gave a frustrated sigh. “He goes with me,” he said before sitting at the table.

“Oh. Well, it’s a good hiding spot. You can’t see it at all.”

He glanced at her, then to the shelves. “I’ll leave them pulled aside, so you can get what you need to cook with,” he mumbled into his coffee.

She smiled. No doubt it almost killed him to string that many words together.

While she cracked the eggs, she glanced at Rafe.

Thick hair fell forward and hid part of his face. He stared into his cup, large hands wrapped loosely around the tin.

She quivered as she remembered those hands running over her body last night when he thought she was hurt.

The sensation, along with his musky scent on the pillow, had made her sleep fitful.

A nd some of the dreams she’d had…well, they were shameful. Erotic. Delicious. She’d been spread out on the table like a feast. Naked, with slices of ripe peaches placed over her nipples, trailed down her stomach. Rafe leaned over her body, trickling the sticky-sweet fruit between her legs, lapping the juice from her cunny. The feel of his warm tongue and rough whiskers on her tender flesh while he sucked and licked and licked—

Stop it!

She took a deep breath and forced herself to concentrate on cooking. She didn’t want to think about Rafe. Or his tongue. Or any part of him. She sucked in another breath. She was leaving. Soon. Maybe the weather had cleared, and they could leave this morning.

When everything was ready, she fixed two plates, then pulled the rocker over to the small table.

He frowned, then stood. “You can have the table.”

“This will be fine. There’s room for both of us.” She set the plates down, and her leg brushed against his thigh. He flinched as if she had burned him.

“No, there’s not.” He took his food over to the hearth. “I can’t stand to be crowded, woman.” His voice held a desperate edge. “I like being alone.” The words stung like a slap. How dare he blame her for being here?

“Then you shouldn’t have brought me here. I didn’t ask you to.” She took a deep breath and clenched her fists. It would do no good to argue with him. “Let’s go now. I can be ready in five minutes. Take me to the fort, Mr. McBride.”

Cold eyes narrowed as he stared at her. “I can’t,” he ground out.

“Why?”

“Well, it sure as hell isn’t because I want you here,” he snapped and began to eat.

“Then why?”

He stomped over to the door and flung it open.

“Look for yourself.”

She walked closer, unable to believe her eyes. So much snow. She looked up into his hard face. “When?” He shrugged, then slammed the door shut against the cold air. “Can’t say.”

She followed him over to the fire. “Can’t or won’t?” She was so sick and tired of men controlling her life.

He spun to face her, his gaze narrowed. A ngry. Cold.

Had she pushed him too far?

She backed away, but stumbled over the chair. He caught her by the arms and held her tight. His hold wasn’t painful, just unyielding. Yesterday Rafe seemed like a gentleman, had saved her from a fate worse than death. Now, looking into his hard face, she wasn’t sure what he’d do.

She tried to pull from his grasp, and his anger seemed to fall away. He loosened his grip, but didn’t let go.

Hooded gray eyes darkened with lust. His gaze dropped to her lips. He tugged her closer until the heat from his body soaked through hers. He lowered his head, and his warm breath caressed her face.

Oh, Lord. He was going to kiss her. She shouldn’t want this. She was confused enough. Respectable women didn’t kiss men they barely knew, certainly not men who made them have wild, exotic dreams.

It was crazy. He was making her want crazy things.

Making her not give a damn about her reputation or her virginity. Or her long-awaited freedom. A ll she could think about was that dream, and the way his sinful mouth had felt. The table was only a step away, and honey was just as sweet as peach juice…

She swallowed hard and looked up into his hooded eyes.

“Maggie,” he groaned. “Don’t be scared. I’d never hurt you.”

Her mouth parted to object, but firm lips covered hers, hungry, demanding. She gasped, shocked at his hunger, but even more at the illicit response coursing through her. A n aching heat unfurled low in her stomach, pulsed between her legs. Oh, yes. It started just like in the dream.

He deepened the kiss, coaxed her lips with his warm tongue. Long, languid strokes teased the inside of her mouth, encouraging, tempting before he pulled back to nibble the corners of her lips.

Oh, God. Is this what all kisses felt like? Hot, lethargic? Melting her like molasses over warm bread?

“Kiss me, Maggie,” he breathed.

His words fanned her moist lips, spiking the desire spiraling through her body.

She slid her hands from where they rested on his chest to his strong shoulders, then tangled in his silky hair. She traced her tongue against his, imitating what he had done.

A groan rumbled deep in his throat. His callused hands pulled her closer until he rubbed his large penis against her mound. Need seeped from her cunny and dampened her pants. “Yes,” she moaned.

He jerked away as if struck by lightning, his eyes now narrowed in suspicion.

“Rafe?”

He slammed the door on her hesitant question.

Maggie dropped into the rocking chair and pressed shaking fingers to her lips, swollen from his kiss.

How had everything between them changed so quickly? They were ranting at each other, then they were kissing. She shouldn’t have let him touch her, but it felt so…good. Wonderful. Decadent. Nothing had ever made her feel like that.

A sliver of desire tingled through her body at the memory, and she blushed as her breasts started to ache again, her nipples tight. She knew what transpired between men and women. Nettie had explained years before. If only Nettie could tell her what to do now, what to do about a man who yelled at her, kissed her senseless, then stomped away.

Nothing. Nothing at all. It didn’t matter. She had to get home, and he was adamant she go.

They didn’t even like each other!

She shook her head. That settled it. It was just a kiss, after all.

Bolting from the rocker, she collected ingredients for bread. There were more important things to think about than kissing. Or the way her body melted against his, like wax sliding down a candle. She sighed and touched her lips again. It probably didn’t mean anything to him anyway. Nettie said men liked to kiss. For all she knew, Rafe kissed women all the time.

Maggie frowned and gave the dough a brutal punch.

Soon enough she’d be gone, and Rafe McBride could kiss whomever he damn well pleased. It made no difference to her. To hell with men! She’d had her fill of them. One way or another she would make a life for herself without the constant interference of the male species.

If Mr. Hastings would sell her art.

If Mr. Bouse could retrieve her inheritance from Michael.

If Mr. McBride kept his word.

She froze mid-punch as the truth sank in. Once again, the reins to her life were held by men.

****

What the hell am I doing? Rafe scruffed his fingers through his hair, then kicked an empty bucket across the snowy yard. He sucked in the icy air, letting it burn his lungs and cool his anger.

Damn. He had only meant to reassure her, but once he saw the fear in Maggie’s eyes, his resolve crumbled.

True, he had acted like an ass, but he never thought her scared. Fear though, had been obvious on her pretty face. The shame of scaring a woman hit him like a cannon ball. Had he been absent from society so long he’d forgotten how to act?

No. He’d only wanted her to keep her distance.

Then I should have pushed her away instead of kissing her.

But he couldn’t. Drowning in her wide blue eyes, he’d needed to hold onto something. She had been the closest thing to him.

He had almost exploded when she bent over to put the biscuits in to bake. Those damn britches pulled tight against her ass, the seam buried in her crevice, made his dick heavy with need. He’d wanted to strip off those pants and bend her over the table. Drop to his knees and tongue fuck her wet pussy, then lick her sweet cream back and take her sweet ass hard and fast.

He groaned.

Stop it!

He kicked at a snow drift. It was her fault anyway.

She had no business kissing him like that. When she stroked his tongue with hers, his blood pounded through his veins, made his cock even harder. Like now. Hell. If he didn’t get rid of her, he’d have to stuff snow down his pants.

He stomped into the barn as a shiver racked his body. He had forgotten his coat. Damn it! She had him so twisted in knots he was losing his mind. His fingers shook as he raked them through his hair. Growling aloud, he grabbed the shovel. Who needed a coat? Hard work would keep him warm.

But what would keep him alive?


Page 7

If he couldn’t remember his damn coat, how could he stay on alert for Simon?

Hell! Rafe threw the shovel against the wall. He had to take her to Fort Union. They would have to risk riding down the mountain and pray a storm didn’t surprise them on the way. There was no choice. The war wasn’t over for him. He had one more battle.

Rafe shook the bitter memories aside. He couldn’t be distracted, not by memories or Maggie.

A ll right. That decided it. No more thinking how she felt when they kissed. How her breasts had been mashed to his chest. How her hips fit to his like tongue and groove. How he could have dropped both their britches and slid inside her tight cunt while they stood in front of the fire.

“Damn it!” He couldn’t take it. There was only one way to get her off his mind, to get relief.

Moving to the back corner, he unbuttoned his pants and fisted his cock, stroking all the way to the weeping head. Hell. He shuddered and pumped faster. It had been too long since he’d had a woman. That was all this was.

It wasn’t Maggie. It wasn’t the way she looked up at him with those innocent blue eyes. It wasn’t the way she smelled like sex every time they got close. It wasn’t the way her ass begged to be fucked. It wasn’t—

Shit, shit, shit. His orgasm hit with the force of an earthquake, making him lean against the wall or fall to the floor. Cum spurted over his knuckles like warm, creamy buttermilk, dripping onto the barn floor.

There. He heaved a long satisfied sigh. Grabbing a rag from a bucket, he cleaned himself and re-fastened his pants. Now that would end his obsession with Miss Monroe.

But it didn’t. A lready he wanted to go back to the house just to see her, to talk with her. Maybe he was lonelier than he thought. But that didn’t matter either.

Even if he controlled his desire, she couldn’t stay. With Joe’s help, Simon could be closer than ever. They would kill Rafe and take Maggie.

The sooner he was rid of her, the safer she would be. That decided it. She was leaving.

Determined, he marched to the cabin and pushed open the door.

Maggie stood shaping loaves of dough into a pan.

The warm yeasty smell filled the small room, filled his mind with stupid thoughts of “what if.” What if he could keep her safe? What if she could accept the way he lived?

What if she wanted to stay?

She shot him a narrowed glance, pulling him from any fanciful dreams.

“Bake an extra loaf for tomorrow,” he ordered.

She turned, hand on her hip. Her very full hip.

“Why?”

He grabbed his coat and was halfway out the door before he answered. “We’re leaving for Fort Union at first light.”

Chapter Three

The morning dawned as cold as Rafe’s expression.

He frowned as if she’d been deciding what to wear instead of frying some salt pork for the trip. Well, he could grumble all he wanted. It couldn’t ruin her day.

She was headed home; that should make him happy, too.

Instead, as they surveyed each other, his frown deepened until his eyebrows met in one ominous line.

“‘Bout time.”

She let the smile slide from her face. Irritable, insufferable man.

He shooed Wolf into the barn through a dog-sized door, then blasted a frosty breath into his reddened hands. Moses stomped and huffed a white cloud into the pink-tinged sky, demanding attention. Impatient as his owner.

Maggie shivered, then waded through the knee-deep snow until she reached the horse. She ignored the scowling man checking the bridle and tucked her burlap sack of borrowed clothes into the saddlebag beside her art satchel.

Rafe glared at her across the saddle. “Ready now?” The thought of another bumpy trip astride the gelding made her back twinge with regret, but riding was the only transportation. “Whenever you are.”

“I was ready a half hour ago,” Rafe muttered, swinging into the seat.

“You said first light,” she countered, unable to stop herself. “It was still dark then.”

His brows dipped again. “Well, I could see just fine.” She ignored his petulant tone and his outstretched hand. “Wonderful. Next time I’ll remember when you say dawn, you mean dark.”

He snorted. “Lady, God willin’, there won’t be a next time. By tonight, you’ll be in a hotel, and I’ll be headed back here.” He wiggled his fingers at her. “Now, give me your hand, so we can leave.”

Maggie glanced to the barn, not eager to feel her body pressed against his after their kiss and his rude dismissal.

“Why can’t I ride the mule? There are no supplies this time.”

Rafe expelled a long sigh, dropped his hand and slumped in the saddle.

“First,” he held up one finger, “I don’t own two saddles. Can you ride bareback? No, I didn’t think so,” he answered before she could.

“Second,” he added another digit, “if you did manage to stay astride, I figure to lead Moses through some of the terrain. I don’t want to struggle with two animals.”

“Oh. I—” What had she expected? A n apology? Hah.

Men did not apologize.

“So if all your concerns have been addressed, give me your hand!”

Maggie bristled; his condescending tone heated her temper and boiled her blood. Suddenly the temperature didn’t seem so cold. “You haven’t addressed half my concerns, Mr. McBride,” she ground out. “But since we’re both anxious to be gone, I digress.”

She slapped her wool-covered palm into his bare one, and he yanked her onto the horse.

Her thighs screamed in protest as she straddled the wide gray back. She wiggled and bit back a groan. No matter how much she hurt, she wouldn’t complain. Not to him. She was done talking.

Rafe clicked his tongue, and Moses jostled to a start, forcing her to grab his waist or fall. A s they plowed through the drifts, Maggie peered around Rafe to see where they were. A nd there was nothing. No one. Like he lived at the end of the world. What if they had to ride for days to reach civilization? Dear God, how would she make it? She might never walk again.

“How long until we reach Fort Union?” The question popped out before she could silence her worry.

“I had hoped before nightfall. But we didn’t leave on time.”

The accusation hung in the air. Maggie glowered at his back.

“Then we’re truly fortunate you see so well in the dark,” she retorted.

His head snapped around. “I also hoped to make this trip without your constant chatter.”

A frigid wind whipped through the trees, stealing the reply from her lips. Damn this man! He didn’t even try to be civil.

She curled her hands into a tight fist inside the large gloves as anger churned through her. If she didn’t need him, she’d slap the hat from his thick head. She entertained several more torturous images as she seethed. It was better than agonizing about the next dozen hours in the saddle.

A nother blast of wind tore at her, but she refused to scoot closer to Rafe. She would sit straight and stiff, not touching, certainly not falling asleep on him like last time. A nd she wasn’t going to wonder anymore if he had enough food at his cabin. Or why he didn’t have gloves.

He lived his life the way he wanted.

But her conscience niggled. Now she sounded like the inconsiderate girl Michael claimed her to be. She groaned. Would her life ever be simple?

Rafe heaved a sigh. “What is it now?”

“Nothing.”

Rafe shrugged at her comment, as if he didn’t care.

Which was fine. Because, she reminded herself, she didn’t care either.

****

They rode for hours, or maybe it was days. Maggie couldn’t feel her feet or legs anymore. A ny warmth the sun might have offered was smothered by clouds, hanging like dingy wads of cotton from God’s clothesline.

A utumn leaves peeped from beneath a snowy cloak, their color no longer the vibrant shades of a ball gown, but the drab brown of a work dress.

Occasional bits of ice peppered her face, hinting at what she feared. That they would be caught in another storm. She prayed Rafe knew what he was doing. Maybe today wasn’t the best day to travel. In Missouri, skies that color meant one thing—a storm. Moses already plodded along with effort, his belly dragging through drifts in some spots. How could the poor animal struggle through any more snow?

Stop worrying. She pulled her coat collar over her nose and sucked in warm air. No doubt Rafe knew every wily trick the winter weather could pull. They probably had plenty of time.

Besides, he might not want her company, but he wouldn’t risk their lives just to have her gone.

****

Stupid, stupid, stupid. Rafe cursed himself for the hundredth time. A s sure as his ass was cold, they would be caught in another storm. A bad one. Wanting rid of her was one thing. He didn’t want her dead.

The icy wind howled through the trees, blowing snow, stinging his face. Soon they’d be riding in a whiteout. They couldn’t make it to Fort Union in time.

Hell, they’d do good to make it to Lesterville. It was a couple of hours away, and he couldn’t push Moses much harder.

Rafe had to think of something, some place they could stop.

He slowed the horse at the edge of a stream and dismounted, then stretched and twisted, working the knots from his back. Maggie hadn’t uttered a word all morning. He shouldn’t have been so rude. He believed if she kept quiet, he could ignore her. Wrong. He felt her presence behind him as if she clung like a vine.

He bent and scooped a sip of icy water, letting it slide down his throat. When he stood, she still hadn’t moved.

Good Lord. How long would she stay angry?

“Maggie?”

She sat hunched over, her face tucked into her coat with only her forehead showing. Tremors racked her body, but otherwise she didn’t move.

Worry tore through him like the bitter wind.

“Maggie.” He shook her leg, which felt as cold as the water. Damn it, he should have stopped to check on her sooner.

“Maggie!”

“W-w-what?” came her sluggish, muffled reply.

Dread pounded through his veins. He’d seen men drift to sleep in weather like this and never wake.

“Get down and stretch your legs.”

“W-w-we’re h-h-here?”

The hope in her voice twisted his heart. She wasn’t used to this harsh weather, and he’d taken no consideration of that.

Her head poked out like a turtle from its shell, and wide blue eyes searched the landscape. Then her brow crinkled. “Where’s the town?”

“We’re not at the fort. I stopped to rest. Come on.” He tugged her hand.

“I’ll just stay on Moses until we arrive.” She sank back inside her coat.

“That won’t be anytime soon,” he threatened, shaking her leg again. He had to make her see the severity of their situation.

“W-what do you m-m-mean?” She sat straight.

“This storm’s getting worse, and you can’t ride much longer. We’ve got to find shelter.” A strong northern gust blasted his face with sleet, nearly stealing the words from his mouth.

“B-but where?” Her gaze darted from tree to snow drift.

“I’ll find a place. I want you to move into the saddle.” He pulled his snowshoes from the pack. “I’m going to lead Moses.”

Rafe bent to fasten the shoes over his boots, cursing his frozen fingers. Damn, he needed his gloves back. But he wouldn’t take them from Maggie.

“M-Mr. McBride?”

Her hesitant voice snapped him upright.

“I c-can’t move.” Tears filled her eyes. “I can’t f-f-feel my legs.”

A larm skittered up his spine. “Don’t worry.” He scanned the area. “I’ll find a place out of the wind. We can build a fire. A ll right?”

A brittle nod of her head was the only encouragement she gave.

He crunched across the snow, leaning into the wind, tugging the lead rope in vain. Moses resisted each step.

Were they both going to give up and die?

Rafe trudged back to the animal and took the bridle in hand.

“Come on, boy.” He stroked the velvet nose, now wet with snow. “I’ve got some grain in the pack if you’ll just cooperate. We’ve got to get Maggie warm.” Moses nickered and tossed his head, but allowed Rafe to lead. He squeezed into a grove of evergreens and spotted a large blue spruce, its branches dragging the ground. The big gelding snorted as Rafe led him to cover. One side of the tree’s limbs hung propped on a young pine, higher than the others, and the perfect stall for Moses. Rafe stopped long enough to tug Maggie from the saddle. She crumpled in his arms, her legs buckling in the deep snow.

“I c-can’t walk,” she breathed. “A nd I’m s-so sleepy.” Rafe pulled her flush against him, near panicked at the frigid feel of her body. Why hadn’t she told him to stop? Why hadn’t she snuggled to him like when they returned from Cougar Creek?

He knew why. His damned hateful words.

“Shhh. You’ll be fine,” he soothed, then gave Moses a slap on the rump, letting him take cover under the branches.

He swept her into his arms and ducked under the tree. Relief from the brutal wind was immediate. He shuffled through the leaves and needles to the base of the trunk and propped her against the rough bark. Her head lolled back, then she closed her eyes and sighed.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” he ordered. “Wake up.”


Page 8

“Sleepy,” she mumbled, then curled into a tight ball on her side.

Rafe dropped to his knees and wrestled one of her legs free. “You can’t sleep. You’ll die.” No answer.

He unlaced and removed her boot, then slapped the bottom of her foot. She hissed in pain and bolted upright, making Moses flick and twitch.

Her eyes flew open, blue fire spitting sparks. “Damn you!” She yanked her leg free.

“When it hurts, that’s good,” Rafe reassured.

“I’m glad you enjoy my misery.”

He chuckled. “It means there’s no frostbite. A nd you’re awake now, aren’t you? Besides, I’m glad you feel like snarling at me. That’s a good sign you’ll recover.” He glanced at her as he spoke, watched the sparks die, and a hint of a wicked smile curve her full mouth.

“Mr. McBride, if that’s all it took, I’d be the picture of health.”

He laughed then, out loud, like he hadn’t since before the war. A nd it felt good. For a minute, he forgot everything that was wrong in his life and the danger surrounding them. For a minute, he imagined kissing her again, stealing the words from her sassy mouth, wrapping their naked bodies in a blanket and warming her the best way he knew how. From the inside out.

Pumping heat into her chilled body with each slide of his cock, each stroke of his hand, each long, drugging kiss.

Instead, he reeled back from her and stood.

“Sit tight while I make a fire.” He purposely frowned to erase the moment. A nd to stop the wayward path of his mind.

He strode to Moses and pulled the tinder box from his pack, calling himself ten kinds of fool. Why couldn’t he stop thinking about her? She never gave indication she would welcome any advance.

She wanted that kiss, the devil in him tempted.

No, she didn’t. She just wanted to go home. Though why she was so excited he couldn’t fathom. Sooner or later her abusive cousin would return, and there would be no one to protect her. Or was there?

Unexpected jealousy hit him like a punch in the gut.

Did she have a man waiting for her? He darted a glance over his shoulder to where she sat. Pink-tinged lips; long, dark, tousled hair. No doubt some man wanted her. Well, good. That made his task easy. Once he deposited her on a stage, his responsibility ended, and he wouldn’t think about her ever again. Ever.

Gathering fallen branches and pine needles, Rafe deposited a large pile near Maggie, then knelt and struck a Lucifer stick.

“We’re not going to make it to Fort Union tonight,” he told her between blowing on the embers. “I have a friend who lives north of this trail. That’s the closest—

safest—place I know.”

“But we’re headed east,” she argued. “That’s the wrong direction. We’ll be farther away.”

“We’ll be alive,” he insisted, squatting between her legs. “Now, let’s get you warm.”

Maggie’s heart jumped into her throat, sending a shot of heated desire pumping through her frozen limbs.

“W-what do you mean?” She scooted back against the tree until the bark drilled through her coat. This time her stutter had nothing to do with the cold and everything to do with the man running his hands over her calves.

“Rubbing your legs will restore the feeling.”

“Oh.” Of course. Why had her mind conjured such naughty images? That damned kiss, that’s why. The memory flamed through her body, momentarily erasing the cold around her. If he kissed her now, wrapped her in his strong arms, she’d be willing to freeze to death just to have his hands on her bare skin.

“We can work faster if you help.”

“What?” She flushed. Good Lord, had she been staring at his mouth, or worse, his penis?

He nodded toward her thighs. “You rub your, um,” his voice cracked, “the upper part.” He coughed, then cleared his throat. “Like this.” His hands skirted her legs.

“A nd slide your foot closer to the fire,” he grumbled.

“That flame won’t last forever.”

His sudden impatient tone made her want to put her foot elsewhere.

Instead she angled it toward the heat and imitated Rafe’s vigorous strokes circling her leg. A s she warmed, a prickly ache spread over each limb, a thousand puncturing needles. She mashed her lips together, unwilling to complain. She should have told him how cold she was hours ago. Her damn pride would be the death of her yet.

His hand slipped lower, abrading the tender skin of her foot. “Can you feel that?”

“Yes.” She winced. “I imagine rubbing a porcupine feels the same.”

His gaze dropped to his hands and he frowned.

“Sorry.” He softened the motion on her foot, then palmed and kneaded the sole.

A husky, satisfied moan escaped her throat.

Rafe froze. His gaze flicked to her mouth. A nd held.

She couldn’t look away from his hungry stare. Gray eyes, molten hot, suggested he hadn’t forgot the kiss either.

He dropped her leg like a hot rock and vaulted to his feet. “You should have worn two pair of socks.”

“I have another pair,” she insisted, glad he put some distance between them before they made another mistake. “I was saving them for tomorrow.” He scowled. “If you’re dead tomorrow, you won’t need them, will you?” He stomped to the horse.

Why did everything she do make her seem dim-witted to this man? She felt like telling him she’d get the socks herself, but with her numbed feet she’d no doubt stumble and break her leg.

Rafe turned from the saddlebags and tossed the thick wool onto her lap. “Stay close to the fire. We’re not leaving until you’re warm.”

She tugged on the heavy socks while he returned to Moses and fed him a handful of grain. He obviously cared about his horse. But he was the most temperamental, bossy, arrogant man she’d ever met. A nd she didn’t relish the thought of spending another night with him.

Liar.

“Once I’m warm, can we continue to the fort?”

“No. You’re not used to weather like this. We’ll stop at my friend’s place.”

“But how far away is it?”

“In normal weather, a half hour. In this…” He shrugged. “A s fast as we can go.”

The fire crackled and burned, spitting sparks into the darkness. Maggie scooted closer to the flame, soaking up the heat. “I’d rather continue to Fort Union.” He turned, one hand still on Moses. “I won’t risk your life. The fort will wait.”

“But—”

“I’m done talking about it, Maggie.” He gave her his back again.

“Fine. I suppose I’d rather sleep in a house than ride all night. So yes, I’ll go to your friend’s with you.” She didn’t intend for him to think he made the decision for her.

She saw him stiffen, caught his slight huff and shake of his head, but true to his word, he remained silent.

Once the flame died to embers, she pulled on her boots. Rafe smoothed his hands over the horse’s neck.

The poor beast. Icicles crusted his mane and tail, dangled from his muzzle whiskers. She prayed he had the strength to keep going.

Maggie drifted to the animal. “Will he be all right?” Rafe gave Moses one last pat. “We’ve been through worse. Haven’t we, boy?” His gaze darted to her. “Ready to go?”

She nodded, and he led the horse from beneath the protective branches.

“I want you to ride in front of me this time.”

“Why?”

Rafe groaned. “Can’t you, just once, do what I say without question?”

Maggie considered his point while gripping her hat against the wind. A fter what Michael did, she wasn’t eager to trust any man. “I’ve found following blind leads to trouble.”

Rafe stared at her for long minutes, then nodded.

“Fair enough.” He swung into the saddle and offered his hand. “I want you in front to make sure you stay awake.”

“A ll right.”

Rough fingers burned through her gloves as he pulled her between his thighs and the pommel. He shifted behind her, molding their bodies together like hot wax. His spicy scent invaded her senses as he reached for the reins, wrapping her in his embrace.

Good Lord! To handle the horse, Rafe’s arms would surround her as they rode. His thighs would cradle her hips. His penis would rub her bottom. Oh, God.

“Lean back against me. We’ll stay warmer pressed together.”

She should object, but the words crumbled on her lips. Nettie would call this a slippery slope to ruin, but Nettie wasn’t the one freezing to death. Maggie was making a choice based on survival. That was all. It had nothing to do with how good he felt.

“Damn,” he mumbled, fumbling with the reins.

“Here.” Maggie pulled the gloves from her hand and pressed them into his chilled palm.

“No.”

She craned her neck to face him. “I’ll sit here. I’ll share your warmth. I’ll even be quiet, but you wear the gloves. I have pockets.”

He opened his mouth as if to argue again.

“If you say no, I’ll ride behind you.”

He frowned, but slid his hands inside the wool.

“You’re bossy. I don’t like being told what to do.” She gave him a smile. “Then we finally agree on something. I don’t appreciate your high-handedness.” If she intended to make her own life, she had stand up for herself. Might as well start now.

His brow dipped, and she braced for his anger. But the corners of his eyes crinkled, and a smile quirked his lips. “Point taken,” he conceded.

Confusion whirled through her. She had stood her ground without the repercussion of cruel taunts?

A thick moment passed while they stared at each other—until Moses danced impatiently. Maggie turned and settled herself. Rafe’s thighs squeezed against her hips as he signaled the horse into a canter. Shivers trickled down her spine, though heat exploded in her stomach. She had caught Michael once in this position.

He had their stable boy bent over a straw bale, almost the same position she and Rafe had now—except Michael had been thrusting his penis into the man’s ass. Their groans of pleasure echoed through the stable, her gasp unnoticed.

Until this moment, she’d never considered a man might take a woman in the same way, but now…The thought of Rafe’s sweaty body thrusting behind hers sent a hot jolt of desire straight to her cunny. A nd the fact that she liked it could only mean trouble.

Damn slippery slope.

The wind drove through them sideways, whipping flakes as big as flapjacks into their path. She snuggled to his chest, warm as a stovepipe against her back. The feel of his hard body made her ache, an ache much worse than her saddle-sore thighs. A nd in a much more private place.

“Why don’t you tell me how you ended up in Cougar Creek.” His breath rippled over her ear, twisting the ache tighter.

“I thought you didn’t like chatter.”

“I’m…sorry,” he whispered.

The air lodged in her throat. He apologized?

“What?” She swiveled to catch his expression, but the action pressed his lips—and his next words—to her neck.

“I don’t mind if you talk. It will keep you awake,” he continued. “So why don’t you tell me where you and your cousin were headed.”

His whiskers tickled across her skin, making her forget her name, much less where she had been going.

The soft brush of his beard was much preferable to remembering how gullible she’d been in traveling anywhere with Michael.

“California?” he prompted. “Oregon?”

“Um…Oh, California. San Francisco.”

“Why?”

“My father died a few months ago. He owned several properties along the bay. Michael and our attorney insisted one of the shipping companies be sold. I wanted to see the West.”

“A nyway,” the next words soured in her mouth,

“Father left Michael in charge of everything. Including me

—until I turn twenty-one next spring. But Michael never intended to share the inheritance. He intended for me to die.”

“You think he planned to harm you all along?” Rafe’s arms stiffened around her.

“He admitted as much in Cougar Creek.” She sucked a ragged breath. “He’ll probably tell everyone I fell ill on the trip. Then everything will be his—if he doesn’t gamble it all away before he gets home.”

“Evil sonofabitch,” Rafe muttered.

“I’ve had the same thought myself.” She shivered, remembering how much Michael hated her. “We were never close, but I had no idea what he’d become.” She let her voice trail as they rode between an outcropping of rocks.

Darkness crept around them as night stole the day.

The wind slowed to a minor howl, but the heavy flakes increased until it was near impossible to see. She didn’t want to ask him if they were lost, still, the dark silence made her nerves jump like frogs.

Rafe pulled back on the reins, slowing Moses to a stop, and Maggie heaved a sigh of relief.

“A re we there?” She adjusted her hat for a better look.

“No.” His coat rustled as he rotated in the saddle.

“I’m not sure where we’re at.”

Rafe regretted the words the minute they were out.

He should dismount now and kick his own dumb ass.

The last thing he wanted to do was scare her.

“What?” she squeaked. “We’re lost?”

Her body stiffened in his arms, then she shuddered.

“Not lost really. I meant I just need to look around for a second.” He tugged a compass from the haversack strapped beneath his coat and squinted to read the needle. He was headed the right direction, so where was the damn cabin?


Page 9

Maggie trembled in front of him. He replaced the compass and wrapped his arm around her waist.

“It’s fine. We’re going the right way.” He gave her a squeeze. “Help me look for a light. It’s a small cabin set in a grove of pines.” He urged Moses forward.

“A ll right.” Her voice warbled with tears.

Damn it, she was not one of his soldiers. He shouldn’t have admitted they might be lost. Women couldn’t handle that kind of disastrous news.

“You didn’t finish your story,” he soothed. “What will you do once you reach St. Louis?” Distraction seemed the best plan of attack.

She shrugged. “Stop Michael if I can.”

“Yes, but after that.” Rafe couldn’t stop the next question. It exploded from him like a cannon ball. “Do you have someone waiting…to help you?”

“Oh, yes.”

His stomach plummeted. See? Of course she does.

“Nettie is there,” she continued.

Nettie. Not a man. Relief flooded through him. A nd he didn’t like it one damn bit.

“She worked for us all my life and raised me after Mother died. She’s like a grandmother to me. But Michael will put her out on the street.”

“A nd you have no one else?” Why did that thought make him happy?

“No.” She shifted and cocked an eyebrow at him.

“Should I?”

Hell, this topic was dangerous ground. “Well…” He grappled for a reason. “Most women your age are already married.”

She whirled around. Uh-oh. Her brows climbed under her hat, and her hand burst from her pocket to poke his chest with one finger.

“You think I belong to another, yet you kissed me!” Rafe felt embarrassment crawl up his face. “No, I—”

“Then you think me a spinster?” she ranted.

“I didn’t mean—”

“Didn’t you? Why, it’s no wonder you live alone. No woman in her right mind would tolerate your insults.”

“Now, wait just a damn minute.” This wasn’t about him. “I—”

A shot blasted through the trees and whizzed over Rafe’s head.

He shoved Maggie forward, flattening her face against Moses’ mane.

“Umph!” The breath rushed from her.

“Shhh,” Rafe hissed in her ear. He eased his pistol from the holster.

“Get off me,” she demanded. “The saddle horn is digging a hole in my stomach.”

“Better than a bullet.” He eased to one side. “Stay down.”

“State your business,” a man yelled, “or I’ll pick you off that horse with the next shot.” The voice echoed through the snow, but Rafe recognized the owner.

“Cecil! It’s Rafe McBride. I need help.” A light flickered to the right of them, then brightened as a shadowy man held up a lantern. “Ride closer, so I can see your face.”

Moses plowed a few more feet toward the light. Rafe kept his pistol drawn, but hidden beside his leg.

If he was wrong, if this wasn’t Cecil, they were dead.

Chapter Four

Maggie squirmed in the saddle, then peeked through frozen horse hair as the lanky man trudged through the frozen forest toward them. Snow whirled around the evergreens, making it impossible to see if the man looked friendly—or deadly.

“McBride?” He lowered the rifle.

“Cecil,” Rafe shouted, relief in his voice. He removed the hand that held her facedown and pulled her back up against his chest. His arm slid around her waist, and she felt all the tension drain from his muscles. He kept her in a loose, possessive embrace, as if she belonged there.

A fter his rude assumption a few minutes ago, his large palm spread over her belly confused her to no end.

“My God, McBride! What are you doing out in this storm? A nd what were you yelling about? I went to check my horses, and it sounded like a war party coming.”

“I’ll tell you later.” Rafe climbed from the horse and shot her a disapproving look. “How far is your house?”

“Not far.” Cecil tilted his head and spoke around a heavy red scarf. “You passed it about a hundred yards back.”

“Jesus,” Rafe muttered, “we rode right past.” The wind propelled his words to her ears, slapping her with realization. They would have died tonight!

Tremors racked her body, clattering her teeth so loudly the men glanced at her.

“I don’t see how you made it this far.” Cecil peeled a blanket from around his shoulders and flung it around Maggie. “How long have you been riding?”

“A hell of a lot longer than I’d planned.” Rafe looped the reins around his hand. “Let’s go.” He nodded toward Maggie. “I’m worried about her.”

They struggled up a hill, then wove through a row of pines. She clutched the saddle horn and shivered.

Without Rafe’s body to block the wind, the snow battered her from all sides. Through the swirling snow, she spied a cabin, tucked between two large boulders. Well, maybe cabin was too generous a word. This was a shanty, a miner’s shack if the gaping tunnel beside it meant anything. Hope sprung inside her. Maybe this was just the barn. She squinted into the snow, searching for another building. Nothing. A nd unless Cecil had a cave attached to the back, she couldn’t imagine they would all fit inside.

Rafe stopped at the house, then wrapped his hands around her waist to lift her down.

“I can do it.” She didn’t want kindness from a man who believed her an old maid with loose morals.

Twisting in the saddle, she hefted her leg over the horse’s neck and tumbled to the ground. Sputtering, she mopped snow from her face.

“Damn stubborn woman.” Rafe scooped her into his arms.

She should have known her legs would be too stiff to accept her weight. But the fact that he’d known made humiliated heat creep up her face.

“Little Owl!” Cecil pounded the door. “It’s safe. Let us in.”

Dim light flickered through a lone window. The plank door creaked open, and a woman, layered in men’s clothing, filled the space. The wind whipped her black hair around her copper-skinned face, but she broke into a wide smile when Cecil pressed a kiss to her cheek and patted her protruding stomach.

“Get some coffee ready, darlin’. It’s McBride and his woman. They’ll need something hot to drink.” Rafe tromped through the snow with Maggie tucked against him, his gaze glued to her. She looked away, knowing what she would see. The same disappointed expression her father had worn. But somehow, it would hurt more to see Rafe wear that expression. Somehow, during the past couple of days, she started to realize some self-confidence from Rafe’s approval.

“I’ll put Moses away for you.” Cecil trudged toward the tunnel.

Rafe shouldered through the small wooden door, folding her tight against his body.

“I can walk now,” Maggie insisted, wiggling to get free. “I’m just stiff, not frozen like before.” His jaw tightened beneath his whiskers. “I will carry you.”

“Mr. McBride—”

“For God’s sake, stop arguing with me.” He glanced at Cecil’s wife, then lowered his voice. “I didn’t mean to insult you earlier. My words came out wrong.” He blew a long breath toward the ceiling.

She studied his face, nose red from the cold, ice pellets frozen to his whiskers, gray eyes full of regret.

A nd her embarrassment scattered. So his stiff attitude was from guilt?

“A ll right.”

He turned toward the fireplace. “Little Owl, this is Maggie. Where should I put her?”

“Here. Beside the fire.”

Little Owl pulled a chair from the table and scurried to light another lantern. Rafe deposited her onto the worn oak seat, then dropped to his knees and untied her boots. His strong fingers brushed her ankle as he slid one shoe free, sending a flash of heat up her leg until her cunny tingled with need.

“I can do it.” Maggie bent and tugged on the shoe, though her cold fingers protested. “Go take care of Moses. He’s frozen, too.”

“I will see to her,” Little Owl soothed. She pulled the wet blanket from Maggie’s shoulders and wrapped a heavy quilt around her. “Go, McBride.”

Rafe darted a glance between the women, then strode to the door. “I won’t be long.” He slammed the door against the howling wind.

Maggie heaved a sigh of relief. “Thank you. His hovering makes me nervous.” Nervous and flushed and…

too many other things she was sure would lead to trouble. It was too hard to concentrate when Rafe was close. A ll her thoughts turned to sexual need.

“Men worry much.” Little Owl shook her head.

“I suppose.” He had seemed worried. But why he felt such a responsibility for her, she’d never understand.

“McBride would not want you hurt. You are his woman.”

“I’m not his woman.” She didn’t intend to belong to any man.

Little Owl crooked a brow. “No?”

“No. I don’t wish to marry.”

“I did not say marry.” She winked before turning to the fire.

“Oh.” A delicious shiver coated Maggie with goose skin. Did she dare take advantage of what fate offered?

A nd why did the thought of using his body tie her in knots, and make her hum with need at the same time?

Nettie always told her to live life if she got the chance.

She would probably also point out at no other place could Maggie take a lover without social repercussion.

“Put your feet near the fire and wrap your hands in this.” Little Owl handed Maggie a warm towel.

Maggie nodded, propped her feet on the hearth and surveyed the room. It was only half the size of Rafe’s cabin. How would they all fit? The small table and two chairs took up most of the floor space. Wood lined the walls beside the fireplace, and crates of supplies occupied the wall behind the bed. A single bed.

Oh, Lord. Where would she sleep? In a room so small, she and Rafe would have to sleep close, sleep together. Her blood heated at the possibility of lying next to him, cuddled beneath a blanket, his hard body pressed against her, his arm draped over her waist, cupping her breast, touching her nipple. Ugh.

She inched closer to the fire and tried to think of something else, anything else to erase the images in her mind. Stew bubbled in a black kettle. She inhaled the fragrant steam, and her stomach growled in protest, reminding her it was supper time.

“We didn’t mean to interrupt your meal.”

“No, no. There is plenty.” Little Owl squatted in front of the pot and sliced a turnip-like vegetable into the stew.

“Besides, no women live close. I glad you visit.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Cecil tell me what happen in Cougar Creek. You lucky McBride buy you. Skinner Joe bad man. He need this.” She chopped the end off the long root. “Then he not hurt women.”

Maggie nodded, unable to think of an appropriate comment to such a bald statement.

“McBride good man,” Little Owl continued. “A nd now I have a woman neighbor.”

“Neighbor?” Good Lord, they had traveled all day!

“What about at the fort? A ren’t there women there you visit?”

Little Owl stopped slicing and turned to Maggie, eyebrows raised. “I not go there. I am Cherokee.” Maggie shook her head. “I don’t understand. Cecil was in town. He’s—”

“Half white. Soldiers not bother him.”

“Soldiers?”

“Since your big war over, soldiers hunt us. The government want us on reservations.” Her dark eyes clouded. “But Cecil would die before he let them take me.”

A sick feeling churned in Maggie’s stomach. Many people had decided to head West since the war, but she didn’t realize it was at the Indians’ expense. “I’m sorry.”

“I not tell you to make you sad, just so you understand.” Little Owl pulled a chair close, and poured Maggie a cup of steaming coffee. “In the spring, we move to our other cabin, closer to McBride’s. I will make Cecil bring me so you can see our baby. It will come next month.” She touched her round belly and beamed.

A familiar tug-of-war roared through Maggie, the want to be a mother, the need to be an artist. But no matter how much she yearned for children, finding a man to let her travel and sketch would prove impossible, so she buried the motherly want where it belonged.

“Maybe you and McBride have baby some day.”

“What? Oh, no. We’re not…we don’t.” Maggie gulped her coffee. “I’m very happy for you, but I won’t be here much longer. Not nearly long enough to see your baby.”

“Why? You McBride’s woman now.”

“No. He did save me from my cousin, but I have to return to St. Louis. In fact, we were headed to Fort Union today, so I can catch the stagecoach.”

“Oh.” Little Owl slumped. She squatted to the floor and stirred the stew. “You no like McBride?” she asked over her shoulder.

“I like him fine.” Sometimes too much. “But I have responsibilities back home.”

“A nother man?”

“No!” Good Lord, did everyone assume her affections were scattered willy-nilly?

“You stay then. He need someone to love him.”

“Love! Oh, I—”

The door blasted open with a frigid gust and two snow-covered figures. Rafe dropped the saddlebags onto the floor and dragged the wet hat from his head. Little Owl took the coat from his hand and pushed him toward the fireplace. Shivers racked his body, and his teeth chattered as he shuffled to the fireplace and knelt in front of the flames. His gaze landed on Maggie and scanned her from head to toes.

“A re you all right?” he rumbled.

She nodded and watched him chafe his palms together in an attempt to get warm.


Page 10

“Here.” She swept the quilt from her shoulders and draped it around his, then pushed her warm cup into his hands. “Drink some coffee. It helps.”

“Thank you.” He clutched the cup and moved to the hearth. “I brought your things inside. I hope nothing is ruined.”

Maggie glanced to the soggy pile of leather. “Maybe I should look. I have several sketches in there.”

“What are…sketches?” Little Owl whispered across the room.

“I draw and paint pictures.”

She unbuckled the flap and pulled her satchel from Rafe’s saddlebag. Everything felt dry, but she scurried to the table to check.

“You never said you were an artist.” Rafe ambled to her side.

Maggie tilted her head toward him. “You never asked.” She reached in for her paper. “A nd it didn’t seem impor—” She pulled the stack—a hand written, ink-filled stack—free from the leather.

Her heart stopped, her stomach plummeting to the floor as her artistic dreams vanished.

These weren’t her sketches.

Rafe watched all the color drain from Maggie’s face.

“What’s wrong?” He took the documents from her hand and a sick knot of guilt roiled through his gut.

“These are Michael’s papers. My satchel must be with him.” Her hollow voice faded as she dropped into a chair.

Rafe glanced at the legal papers, then to Maggie. Her blue eyes watered with unshed tears as she stared into the fire.

“I’m so sorry.” Rafe knelt beside her. “When Zeke showed me your room, I took the first leather bag I saw.”

“It doesn’t matter.” She scrubbed her palm across her eyes and sucked a deep, shuddering breath.

Her choked dismissal flooded him with guilt.

“No, Maggie. I really am sorry.” The sketches were the only thing she’d asked for that day. A nd he failed her.

“I’ll buy you some more supplies once we reach the fort.” Somehow. He could sell something if he had to.

“It’s not important.” She sniffled, then escaped to the fireplace. “Let me help you dish up supper, Little Owl.” Rafe moved into her chair and stared at the useless papers. He’d feel a hell of a lot better if she’d unleash that temper of hers on him.

Cecil clapped him on the back on the way to the coffee pot, then sat across from him and shrugged.

“Don’t worry. Maybe she can draw on those.”

“I don’t know.” Rafe thumbed through them.

Ledgers, contracts, and several scribbled notes. “I suppose she can look through them later. Maybe there are some blank sheets.”

He gathered it all into a pile, then stopped and ruffled through the stack again. Something had caught his eye, danced in his mind. Something significant. It had been on one of the notes. He yanked the paper from the rest and scanned the words as a gnawing fear filled his gut.

“Maggie, who is Mr. Bouse?” Rafe feared the answer, but he prayed this was a different man. If not, then everything changed. He couldn’t just put Maggie on a coach.

He’d have to return home. To St. Louis. The last place he wanted to go. The last place he was welcome.

“Phillip Bouse is our family attorney,” she called over her shoulder.

The answer cut through him, the pain like a saber into his lungs. Bouse was also a close friend of his stepfather.

“A nd Bouse negotiated the sale of the shipping company for Michael?” Rafe shuffled the papers. Where was that note?

“Yes. He handles all our business. He always has.

That’s why I have to see him immediately.” She walked to the table, her brows pinched together.

Rafe pulled all the notes with Bouse’s signature and examined each one before passing them to Cecil. Maggie frowned, but Rafe had to be sure of what he’d read before he said anything.

Cecil nodded, then gave a low whistle and pushed all the papers back to Rafe. He took a deep breath and stood.

“You can’t see Mr. Bouse.” Rafe met her frown, ready for her argument.

“Why not?”

“Because he’ll kill you.”

The words swirled in Maggie’s ears until the room started to spin. Weakness buckled her knees, and the spoon slipped from her fingers. The clatter echoed through the room along with Little Owl’s gasp.

“What are you talking about?” Maggie demanded.

Rafe had to be wrong. He had to.

Cecil stood and held the chair for her. “Sit and look at what he’s found.”

Rafe pushed the papers in front of her, in order, according to date. He tapped the first page. “This is addressed to Michael, from Mr. Bouse.”

She took the paper in her hand and read. The hateful words swam before her as tears filled her eyes. This couldn’t be true!

“Tell me.” Little Owl edged beside the table and gripped Maggie’s shoulder.

Maggie cleared her throat, twice, then read, “‘I don’t think you understood my last message. For my continued silence

about

Gerald’s

death,

I

require

more

compensation than our original agreement. I want the shipping yard in San Francisco. Make your travel arrangements. I’m drawing up the contracts. Do not forget I have the receipts from the apothecary—receipts for poison, receipts with your signature, Michael.’”

“Wait. Who was Gerald?” Cecil asked.

“My father,” Maggie whispered.

Rafe pointed to another letter, and Maggie continued,

“‘I don’t care how you dispose of her. But since you can’t explain where the assets have gone, I suggest it happen before you reach California.’”

Maggie felt the whole room tilt. She pressed on her stomach, thankful she hadn’t eaten anything yet. None of this made sense.

“But I’ve known Mr. Bouse my entire life.” Her hands shook until the paper rattled. She slapped both on the table. “A nd Michael. This means…” She choked as realization thundered through her mind. “Maybe it’s a mistake.”

But it wasn’t.

Poisoning Father was no rash decision made in the face of an angry lynch mob. Michael had wanted the money all to himself. No matter whom he had to kill. A heavy lump inched up her throat, no matter how many times she swallowed it down.

“You said Michael admitted to plotting your death in Cougar Creek.” Rafe slid his hand across the table and grasped hers, squeezing in a rhythmic, soothing gesture.

She sniffed, then swiped one escaped tear. “Yes. I know. But I never thought it was something he’d planned for months. I thought it was because of the gambling.

A nd Father, he’d been sick for so long. Why didn’t I realize what happened?” Maybe she was as stupid as Father claimed.

“Then you might have been dead alongside your father,” Rafe insisted.

She laughed, the sound dry and choked, but better than the scream clawing to get out.

“What can I do now? Who will help me once I’m home? Mr. Bouse is a powerful, well-respected attorney.

Who would believe me—who can I trust?” she cried. She tore her hand from Rafe’s and jumped out of the chair.

She couldn’t breathe in this enclosed space. Her life was one lie after another.

Rafe caught her midstride. “I’ll help you. You know you can trust me. I’ve protected you, kept my promise to you.”

He pulled her into his arms, surrounded her with his strength, held her until the fight—and some of the fear—

drained out of her. She gulped huge mouthfuls of air.

She could trust him. He hadn’t lied to her. A t least not yet.

“That’s not her only problem,” Cecil muttered, tapping the table. “By now, her cousin probably realizes she has his satchel. He’s got to have these papers. You know he’ll come after her.”

“By God, he won’t get her.” The steely words rumbled from Rafe’s chest, warm and steady beneath her ear.

“You may never reach Fort Union,” Cecil argued.

“You came here last summer. You’ve never seen the pass this time of year. It might be impossible to get through.” The thought shot a new bolt of fear through her. She had to get home. Her entire future depended on it.

“We’ve got to try!” Maggie pulled from Rafe’s embrace. “If I don’t return, everything will be lost.” Rafe frowned. “Not everything.”

“You don’t understand.” Her hands waved in the air.

“I have some art scheduled to sell. I need enough time to recreate the pieces lost to Michael.”

Rafe caught her arms, his gaze boring into her. “I’ll get you home.”

His quiet words settled, calmed, smothering the panic that threatened to escape.

“A ll right.” Maggie expelled a long, shuddering breath, believing him, because she couldn’t bear the alternative. “But what about Michael?” She needed to know what to expect. “What if he catches us before we reach St. Louis?”

Rafe palmed her shoulders and pulled her close enough his body blocked the view of everything else in the cabin.

“Maggie, I won’t let you be hurt.” His intense words stole her breath. “I’ll see you safely home.” He tucked her hair behind her ear. “I swear.”

“Come and sit. Eat.” Little Owl pulled Maggie from Rafe’s hold. “You need strength. You also, McBride.” Rafe dropped his hands, but the ghost of his touch lingered, burning as though he’d touched bare skin. She shuffled to the table and accepted the chair he held, then watched as he gathered Michael’s papers and stuffed them into the bag.

Cecil dragged a large piece of firewood to the table and sat beside Rafe, turning the conversation to traps and furs. Little Owl offered a consoling smile, then took a seat on the hearth. But Maggie was lost. Their voices buzzed in her ears, but she heard Michael’s voice, Father’s, the doctor pronouncing him dead, Mr. Bouse advising the sale of assets. When was the last time anyone told her the truth?

“Did you hear me?” Rafe covered her hand, jerking her attention to the present.

“What?”

“I asked if you needed to lie down? You’re very pale.”

“I’m fine. Just tired.”

“Then you must rest.” Little Owl cleared the bowls from the table. “It is a long ride to the fort. Come.” She pulled Maggie toward the bed.

“No. Please. I don’t want to take the bed. A pallet on the floor is fine.”

Little Owl frowned. “But—”

“Might as well put her there. She won’t stay if you put her in bed,” Rafe interrupted, then winked, taking the edge from the sarcasm. “Besides, it’s warm here in front of the fire. We’ll be fine.”

We? Maggie darted a look around the room. Yes, we.

Where else could he sleep? With the table pulled away from the hearth, the only other space would be against the door. He would freeze there. Besides, she needed him tonight, needed him to hold her, to chase away her fears.

“Yes. With a couple of blankets,” Maggie swallowed,

“we’ll be fine.”

She curled her arm into a makeshift pillow and stared into the flames, then shifted, trying to escape the cold draft creeping across the floor and Rafe’s elbow poking the center of her back.

“A re you all right?” His voice rumbled over her. “You didn’t say much during supper. Didn’t eat much either.” She peered over her shoulder to find him hovered above her, propped on the offending elbow. “I’m fine,” she lied. Except everything inside her felt raw, like a fresh wound.

Rafe dropped onto his back and heaved out a sigh. “I won’t let Michael kill you,” he whispered. “You don’t have to be afraid.”

His soft words filled her with temporary strength.

She rolled to face him, studying his face as he studied the ceiling. “I just wish it was over. I’m worried about Nettie. What if he gets to St. Louis first and hurts her?”

Rafe shook his head. “He won’t. She poses no threat to him. He has to find you and get the papers.” That made sense. A s long as Michael chased Maggie, the elderly woman was safe.

The wind howled outside the thin walls, a lonesome eerie cry. Maggie shivered beneath her blanket and squeezed her eyes shut, but haunting images of Michael raced through her mind.

“A re you cold?”

Rafe’s question cut through her fear and she opened her eyes. He inched closer until their bodies almost touched, until they were almost nose to nose. Flames danced over his handsome features and in his eyes as he watched her, waiting for an answer.

“No.”

“I could ask Little Owl for another blanket.” His breath skated over her.

Maggie shook her head. “I think this is all they have.

She’ll give me hers if you say anything.” His gaze searched her. “Thank you for being nice to Little Owl. To them both.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Both dark brows climbed to his hairline, as good as calling her simpleminded.

“I don’t believe in prejudice, Mr. McBride. I believe men—or women—should be judged by deeds, not color.”

“So do I. Guess that’s two.”

“Two what?”

“Things we agree on.” He smiled.

A nother shiver racked Maggie’s body, but this one was caused by his grin and the dimples creasing his cheeks.

“Here.” He moved, tugging his blanket free. “Take mine.”

“Then you’ll be cold.”

“You’re arguing again.” He draped his blanket over hers, then settled on his side.

His deep, even breathing fanned her hair, tickling, teasing. It would be so easy to ask him to embrace her, to make her feel safe, to make her forget—if only for one night.

“Mr. McBride?”

“What?” He leaned over her again, his expression filled with questions.


Page 11

“Would you…?” She couldn’t do it, couldn’t ask. Her nerve deserted, and she scrambled for something to say.

“I lied earlier. I am scared.” Scared of the things he made her think, feel. Want. But he would probably think she meant Michael. A nd that was for the best.

“Do you…” He released a long breath. “Would you like me to hold you?”

Rafe watched her blue eyes darken. Maybe she didn’t want him to touch her. Maybe she thought he meant something indecent. Maybe he did. The thought of sleeping with her in his arms made his mouth dry and his dick throb. He ought to be ashamed of himself. But he wasn’t.

“It would be the same as today on Moses,” he assured. “Nothing more.” Except they were lying down, and Rafe’s cock pulsed with anticipation.

Why did he torture himself like this?

“A ll right.” She scooted closer to him, snuggling her back to his front. “But just so you know,” she craned her neck, “I have never done anything like this before.”

“I never thought that about you.”

“You practically accused me of such today.”

“I didn’t mean it to sound that way.” He should have just asked if she had a beau waiting back home. Not that it was any of his business.

She nodded, then settled back on the fur pallet. Her hair fanned out, catching in his whiskers. His heart thumped a loud rhythm, like Moses’ hooves on a hard-packed road. Her natural fragrance teased his senses, even more than when he’d held her today. Tonight, her skin was warm, musky. Tempting as hell.

“Good night, Mr. McBride.”

Rafe reined in his thoughts. “Good night.” He draped his arm over her and felt the tension drain from her body. Shadows danced over her face, long, dark lashes curved over her cheeks. Smooth, flawless cheeks. How had all the men in St. Louis resisted?

Unless…she was the one resisting.

“Maggie?” He shook her shoulder.

“What?” She craned her neck and smothered a yawn.

“Can I ask you a question—without you getting angry?” Christ, he was prattling on like an old woman.

Her brow dipped. “I suppose.”

“Why aren’t you already married?”

“Because I never intend to take a husband.” Rafe scoffed. He’d been chased by marriage-hungry women since he was eighteen. “Females are born ready for matrimony.”

“Not me.”

“Why?”

“I have my reasons, but none I wish to share.” She curled onto her side and snuggled her soft ass against his hard cock.

Rafe held his breath until he felt lightheaded, trying not to inhale her musk again, willing his erection down before he embarrassed himself. She’d made it clear she wasn’t husband hunting, and he didn’t dare hope she was the kind of woman who’d be free with her affection. So why couldn’t he just stop thinking about her? He needed to figure out what to do about Bouse.

Rafe exhaled a long, slow breath and watched it rustle Maggie’s hair. He fought the urge to wrap a curl around his finger as his mind ticked like a pocket watch.

Why wasn’t she interested in marriage? A nd why wouldn’t she tell him? She liked to talk, but of course when it was something he wanted to know, she turned tight-lipped.

Why do I even care?

She sighed and slid her hand over his, holding him tight against her breast. Her nipple hardened beneath his palm, and she mumbled incoherently.

Rafe broke out in a sweat and bit back a moan. If Michael or Simon didn’t kill him, this constant state of arousal would.

****

Rafe scanned the morning sky. The rising sun hovered in a dark pink line, like a beautiful woman waiting for the perfect moment to make a grand entrance into a ballroom. Moses stomped his disapproval at the early hour, and the bitter cold made Rafe wish he was still snuggled to Maggie in front of the fireplace.

“Those few clouds may turn into something,” Cecil warned, pointing to the horizon.

“I know. If we have to, I’ll stop for the night in Lesterville.”

Cecil snorted. “Keep Maggie close if you do.” The door creaked open, and the women hurried out.

Little Owl hugged Maggie, then wrapped a yellow knitted scarf around her neck.

“This is yours,” Maggie argued. “I can’t take it.”

“A gift,” Little Owl insisted and retucked the ends Maggie had unwound. “Now go. Men not like to wait.” Rafe watched Maggie’s mouth curve in a wry smile.

“I found that out yesterday,” she said.

He swung into the saddle, and Cecil hoisted Maggie in front. Rafe waited while she wiggled into a comfortable position. Too bad there wasn’t one for him.

A ll that rubbing against his cock made him hard enough to use his dick as a hammer. Riding with an erection hurt like hell. Besides the fact Maggie might take exception to traveling with a rod in her back.

“Be careful today,” Cecil warned.

“Thank you for letting us spend the night.” Maggie reached for Little Owl’s hand. “I’ll think of you and your baby.”

Little Owl nodded. “Travel safe.”

Rafe hoped God heard Little Owl’s words. They needed clear weather from here on out to make it.

Moses waded through the snow drifts until they were past the stand of pines. Rafe pulled his compass free and guided the horse east. The sun blinded as it glinted off the endless sheet of white. Only a few birds hopped around the trees and bushes, pecking seeds for breakfast.

Maggie sucked in a deep breath, the motion pressing her against his chest. “It’s beautiful,” she said, the words wisping in puffs around them. “Like an endless white silk skirt.”

“Yes.” He grinned. Leave it to a woman to think of clothing.

He coughed, anxious to have a conversation, but unsure where to start. There must be something he could say that wouldn’t start an argument.

“Did Little Owl tell you when the baby is due?”

“Yes. Didn’t Cecil tell you?”

“No.”

She peered over her shoulder. “What is it that men talk about?”

He shrugged. “Different things.”

“Hmm.” She chewed her lip. “Money? War? Women?”

“Money only complicates your life. A s you well know.”

Maggie nodded.

“A nd war,” he continued, “war ruins a man’s life.

Everyone’s life.” Rafe blinked away the haunting images.

“A nd women?” Maggie prodded.

“Same—but worse—as the other two.”

Maggie’s eyes widened, and he wished he’d kept his mouth shut. Once again he’d insulted her.

“Present company excluded, of course.” He flashed a grin. He used to be charming, before all the battles, all the killing. A smooth word, a flirtatious wink, and the ladies swooned, eager to fuck.

Maggie turned her back to him.

Hmm. Maybe he’d forgotten how to charm.

“You don’t have to lie.” Her voice held a trace of hurt.

“I know the truth.”

“What do you mean?”

“I bore men. I chatter too much.” She shrugged.

“You weren’t the first to tell me I talk too much.” The sad words cut through him. For all her huff, Maggie was a sweet, sensitive woman. Only a real prick would have said such a thing.

“A nd,” she continued, “I’m not very smart. I’m sure you already noticed.”

“Who in God’s name told you that?”

She glanced over her shoulder. “My father.” A nger surged through Rafe. Blood pounded in his ears. Old man Monroe deserved a thrashing. How could anyone say something so cruel to their own child?

The question lashed back at Rafe. His relationship with his own father was tenuous at best. “Maggie, he was a fool. I can honestly say I haven’t had one boring minute since we met.”

She gasped, then craned her neck to look at him.

“A nd, you’re a very resourceful, intelligent woman.

You hid the necklace from Michael. You should be proud of yourself.” Hell, he was proud of her. “You’re not stupid. A nd I bet your drawings are beautiful.” Her eyes widened, then she swallowed hard and pressed her full lips together. What had he done? “Is something wrong?”

“No,” she breathed. “I’m fine.”

She blinked several times, then faced forward again.

Oh, Lord. Was she going to cry? He didn’t know what to do with a woman’s tears. He didn’t even have a clean handkerchief.

“Maggie.” Damn, what should he say? He should have just kept his mouth shut. Would he never learn to mind his own business?

She sniffled, then gazed back at him. “You’re a very nice man, Mr. McBride.” Her whispered compliment made his stomach drop. He wasn’t nice.

“A nd,” she continued, “I haven’t thanked you enough for all your help.”

“It’s nothing.” The last thing he wanted was gratitude.

“Well, it means something to me.” Her blue eyes darkened with sincerity. “We’re almost like…friends.” His heart thumped double-time. Friendly was not how he felt toward her. Friends did not picture each other naked. A friend did not ache to bite his friend’s nipples, or lick his friend’s clit. Jesus! The words naked, nipple, or clit were not friendly words!

She stared at him, obviously waiting for a reply.

“Don’t you agree?”

“Of course.” What else could he say?

She smiled, then straightened in the saddle. “A nd maybe someday I can help you.”

A cold shudder crawled up his spine. “No. If we happen to get into trouble before we reach the fort, you run. Don’t try to help me.”

“But—”

“I mean it, Maggie.” Michael was the least of their worries. She just didn’t know it. “Do as I say.” She gave a slight nod. Probably all the answer he was going to get. Just as well. He didn’t want her getting any ideas, getting too comfortable or friendly toward him. He needed her to be a little prickly, to be a lot unapproachable.

The wind skated up his back, and he glanced at the clouds chasing them. It would be snowing within the hour. He wouldn’t risk her health again.

“We’ll have to stop for the night. I wanted to ride straight through, but it’s too dangerous.” She shrugged. “Whatever you say.”

Rafe clamped his lips together, locking the apology inside. Prickly was what he wanted, right?

****

Lesterville rested in a valley, a barren strip of land lined with boarded-up buildings and leaning shanties.

The surrounding hills gaped with abandoned tunnels, dark open holes like a man missing teeth, pitiful reminders of riches never found. Smoke hung low in the air, mixing with the icy rain. Only three buildings had light in the windows, the rest loomed in rows of eerie, vacant silence, a gloomy welcome after twelve hours on horseback.

“What happened to everything?” Maggie whispered.

“Cecil said this was a mining town before the war.

Back then, every business was open and wagon-loads of men arrived every day.”

“Where did they all go?”

“The mines went bust. Just a few men remain.” He pointed to the lit buildings as they passed. “Most drink what’s left of their lives away.”

The mud sucked Moses’ feet with each step, and laughter exploded from the Lucky Nugget saloon. Tinny piano music pierced the night, made worse by a female voice screeching “Oh, Susanna.” Maggie tensed in Rafe’s arms, her neck craned toward the light and noise.

“Don’t worry. I’ll protect you,” he promised as they trudged to the corner livery.

He stopped, then jumped to the boardwalk and pounded on the door.

“I’m comin’. Stop your damned knockin’.” A tiny, gray-haired woman stuck her head out and frowned.

“What?”

He stepped back. The odor emanating from the barn wasn’t just equine. The old gal could rival Skinner Joe for offensive. The dung-splattered britches might be explained by her work, but the stains on her shirt were ground-in filth, layer over layer of various colors and textures.

“Got room for one more horse, er, ma’am?” Rafe wasn’t too sure that title would apply.

She cocked her head and scratched her greasy hair with a fork. “You got a dollar?”

“Yes.” Rafe pulled the money from his pocket.

“Then I got room. Name’s Myrna.” She snatched the coin, then winked one bloodshot eye, and heaved the big door open wide.

He sucked one last fresh breath, then led Moses inside the barn so Maggie could dismount. She teetered down from the stirrup and gave a sickly smile, no doubt getting the full effect of the odor as the old woman meandered close.

Rafe stripped the tack and saddle from the animal, whispering an apology for the condition of the stall. If it wasn’t snowing, he’d leave Moses outside.

“That’n sure is a nice piece of flesh you got there,” Myrna pronounced. “Don’t see many likes him ‘round here.”

Rafe frowned. While Moses was a fine horse, the stable was full of fine horses. Was she addled? He turned, and his face burned in embarrassment. She spoke to Maggie and stared at him.

Good Lord! She didn’t mean Moses.

“I used to have a man what looked like him.” Myrna cackled, then winked again. “He was good in bed, too. Is your man?”

Maggie’s eyes rounded like dinner plates. “I—I—” Rafe grabbed the saddlebags in one hand, Maggie with the other, then hurtled for the door.

“His name is Moses. I’ll—no, we—we will be back for him at dawn,” he shouted over his shoulder, then pulled Maggie outside and onto the boardwalk.

He looked back, feeling the same relief as when he’d outmaneuvered a Confederate patrol. Maggie’s gaze landed on him, and her eyes twinkled with laughter.


Page 12

“That was not funny,” he growled.

“I must disagree.” She giggled. “I saw you take on a whole town of violent men, but one amorous old woman makes you tuck tail and run.”

“Maggie,” he warned, but she continued to shake with laughter.

A warmth stole through him. He’d never seen her laugh. Her eyes danced with merriment, and the husky sound coming from her throat was pure erotic. His damn cock hardened at the sound, stretching his britches and filling his mind with lusty images of taking Maggie to the hotel, stripping her naked, then tying her to the bed before burying his face in her pussy.

Would she laugh like that if he kissed every inch of her naked body, tickled her soft thighs with his whiskers?

“I promise I’ll protect you.”

Her words snapped the picture from his mind, reminding him of the very promise he’d made to her.

“What?”

She nodded toward the livery and his ardent admirer.

“I won’t let her get you in the morning when we retrieve Moses.”

He scoffed. “Let’s just secure a couple of rooms at the hotel.”

She nodded and rifled through her burlap sack. “I have money left from the necklace.”

Rafe stopped short. “I don’t need it.” A woman was not going to pay his way. He might not have a fortune since being disowned, but he damn well didn’t want charity.

He stalked down the boardwalk, cursing his stepfather. War was war, and while Rafe didn’t like killing, he would make the same decision again if pressed.

Maggie puffed misty air into the sky as she hurried to catch up, and he realized he was leaving her behind. He slowed his steps, and she scuttled close as they passed the saloon, her eyes darting to the frost-covered window.

“Don’t worry.” He took her hand in his. “Everything will be fine.”

She nodded but held tight to his hand.

They slipped inside a two-story building marked the Mother Lode Hotel. Smoke and raucous voices floated through an open archway from the saloon. Damn it. The buildings were connected. Maggie sucked in a loud gasp, her grip crushing his fingers.

What had he gotten them in to?

He glanced into the bar room, and a foreboding shiver crawled up his spine.

The Missouri 5th Cavalry lined the bar and surrounded the poker tables.

Chapter Five

“Capt’n McBride?”

Maggie watched Rafe hang the saddlebag over his shoulder and slip his hand to the butt of his pistol. His knuckles turned white, his body stiff, tense, like a man ready to battle the devil. He turned a slow circle toward the man clomping down the stairs as if expecting the devil himself.

“It is you.” The red-haired soldier loped across the scuffed floor. “I never imagined seeing you here.”

“Private Richards.” Rafe’s voice held a hollow, sick sound.

His posture eased, but she noted he was slow to offer his hand to the young man. Who was the soldier, and why was Rafe so cautious?

It’s none of my business. He doesn’t want my help or my concern.

She sidled closer to the fireplace, as far away from the saloon and the men as she could get without going back outside. The sharp smell of liquor and heavy cigar smoke fogged into the hotel lobby, along with barks of lecherous laughter. The tattered gold drapery did nothing to close off the sights or sounds, too familiar after what happened in Cougar Creek.

“Is this your missus?” Private Richards moved closer, eyes wide with curiosity.

Maggie choked. “Oh, I’m—”

Rafe bolted beside her and squeezed her hand, then turned to the soldier. “Yes. We’re just headed to Fort Union.” He shot her a look that begged her not to argue.

“Pleasure meeting you, ma’am.”

Maggie let her gaze slide from Rafe to the private. A thousand questions skated through her mind, but she pasted a smile on her face. “Likewise.”

“Capt’n, we just come from Fort Union. That damn pass—beggin’ your pardon, ma’am,” he blushed, “that pass was near snowed shut. You’d best hurry if you want to make it.”

“We’re only staying one night. We’ll make it.” Rafe’s voice rang with determination.

“Yes, sir.” The private nodded. “We’re waiting to meet up with 111th. They’re riding up from Fort Craig—

outta New Mexico. Then we’re all headed west. Gonna kill us some Indians.” Richards pointed his finger at an imaginary figure and pulled the trigger, then grinned as if she’d be impressed.

Maggie’s heart pounded in her ears. “Excuse me, Private, but I thought you were only supposed to escort them to the reservation.”

Rafe squeezed her hand again. Hard.

Richards’ face colored to match his hair. “Yeah, well…”

“I’m sure former Captain McBride is familiar with procedure.” A short, stocky man strolled from the bar room. Silver threaded his hair and gold adorned his uniform. “I’m also sure he doesn’t agree.” Maggie watched Rafe tense at the voice. He swiveled, his brows knitting.

“Major Douglas.” His tight greeting sounded forced.

He tugged Maggie closer. “I thought you would have retired after the war.”

“Hoped, you mean.” The man cracked an evil grin.

“No, more than just the rebel South needs to be taught the government’s rules.” He gnawed a dark cigar stub from one side of his mouth to the other, his cold gaze narrowed on Maggie. “Introduce me to your woman, McBride.” He laid a stubby-fingered hand on his gun and pulled it free of the holster. “Or is she your squaw?” He motioned with the barrel. “Richards, pull her hat off so I can get a better look. We may have our first capture right here.”

What? Fear slithered down her spine.

Rafe wrapped his arm around her shoulders, his thunderous glare withering the private in his tracks.

“Don’t touch her.” He turned. “Maggie,” his rough finger tilted her chin, “remove your hat, sweetheart. Let the major see you.”

She nodded, a surreal tornado of emotions whirling inside her so strong, she had to lean against Rafe. Had she survived the auction and frostbite to be shot as an Indian?

Her hands trembled, but she uncovered her head and faced the major.

The man peered into her face, then lowered his gun and huffed. “Blue eyes. Well, the army can’t be too sure.

Especially when you’re dressed as you are and in the company of a known en em y sympathizer.” His gaze raked Maggie, but the hateful words were thrown at Rafe.

He stiffened at the veiled insult, his jaw gritting in anger. The major was baiting him, provoking a fight, one Rafe couldn’t win. There were twenty armed men in the next room.

A rage, the likes of which she’d only felt toward Michael, boiled over at the snide commander and wiped away her fear. Rafe had more integrity, more honor, more kindness, than Major Douglas would ever possess.

Men like Rafe were rare and should be respected, not ridiculed.

She fisted her hands and stepped between the men.

“Sympathy for our fellow man is a quality trait, Major, one I most admire in my husband. Now, if you’ll excuse us, I find I have a headache.” She clutched Rafe’s arm.

“Can we take a room, please?”

She tugged his hand until his gaze met hers. He nodded, then led her to the clerk’s desk.

“We need two—” His gaze enveloped her, then darted to the smug major. “Uh, one room. A way from the soldiers.”

The balding man squinted through smudged half-glasses. “Only got one left,” he sputtered around a large cud of tobacco. “But you’ll have to clean it yourself. I’m plum tuckered out. Damnedest thing I ever seen. Haven’t had to use the upper floor for years, now I’m full up. It’s the—”

“How much?” Rafe interrupted.

“Hmm? Oh, three dollars.”

Maggie dug in the burlap sack again, fished out a gold coin and pressed it in Rafe’s hand.

“No,” he growled out the side of his mouth, then slapped his own coin down on the cluttered wooden desk. “What room number?”

“Nine. Upstairs.” The man unhooked a rusty key from a peg, then pulled a lantern from beneath the desk and lit the wick. “You’ll need this, but there should be firewood.”

“Does that saloon serve food?”

The man nodded. “Soup and cornbread tonight.”

“Have some sent to us.” Rafe added another coin, then grabbed the key and lamp.

He pressed his other hand to Maggie’s back and ushered her toward the stairwell.

“Oh, McBride?” Major Douglas called. “I’ll make sure and mention you next time we run across Simon Pierson.

He’s anxious to settle up.”

“You do that,” Rafe muttered, as he quickened his pace and tugged her upstairs.

His quick strides ate up the long hallway. A few of the numbered doors stood ajar, offering a intimate view of soldiers in various states of undress. Maggie dropped her gaze to the stained wool carpet as heat crawled up her neck.

“Come visit me later, beautiful,” a soldier called to her, jerking his skinny penis as one would a cow’s udder.

Maggie increased her steps, cringed at the mocking laughter that echoed after her.

Rafe stopped cold, then narrowed his eyes, obviously searching for the owner of the remark.

“It doesn’t matter.” She grabbed his hand and tugged. “Let’s get some rest.”

He stood rooted to the floor and glared from door to door.

“Please.” She clutched his fingers. Chills ran down her spine. His anger already boiled from the major’s words. She wasn’t sure they could make it to the room before he exploded. “Please.”

Rafe gave once last dark scowl, then stalked down the hall and shoved the key into the lock. She plastered herself against his back and pushed him through the door before he decided to turn around and fight.

They stumbled into the room, and she inhaled a dank, musty odor. A n inch of grit coated the furniture and floors. Red floral wallpaper peeled from the wall and gold-tasseled curtains covered the window. Her gaze flicked over the rose-colored settee, to the matching spread covering the brass bed, then to the painting above. A naked woman!

What kind of hotel was this? A nd what was she doing in that painting? Maggie stepped closer. The woman’s leg was propped on a pillow, her hand between her legs, her head thrown back as if she were…Good God. She had her finger inserted into her cunny. Maggie squinted. The woman looked to be in ecstasy, fingering herself, plucking at her breast.

Liquid dampened Maggie’s pants and a delicious shiver hardened her nipples. What would it feel like to do that? To have Rafe’s fingers buried deep inside her while he sucked her breasts…

He slammed the lantern onto a carved table, snapping her attention back to him. “Don’t interfere like that again. Ever.” He flung the saddlebags onto the bed, puffing a cloud into the air.

“I wasn’t interfering.” She raised her chin. “I was helping.”

“I don’t need your help.” He strode to the window and yanked the drapes closed. “I need you to do as you’re told.”

Her temper sparked. He wasn’t her keeper—or her father.

“Stop ordering me around!” The words were out before she could stop them, but once they were, a bold confidence spread through her. “I can do as I please.

A nd you do need my help. You’re just too stubborn to admit it.”

Rafe shot her a narrowed glance, then pushed past and stomped to the fireplace.

She glared at his back. Did he think she’d seethe in silence? He should know better. “Mr. McBride, there are at least a dozen men on this floor and twenty more downstairs. No man wins against those odds. You would have been hurt.”

He kicked at the ash-covered grate. “I wasn’t the one who would have been hurt,” he said through a clenched jaw, then sidestepped her and grabbed some wood.

“They would.”

She exhaled and tried a different approach. “But I don’t want you to fight because of me.”

“I can fight for any damn reason I want,” he growled over his shoulder.

She shook her head at his petulant words and studied his rigid frame as he yanked more logs from an old whiskey crate full of wood, then rammed them into the fireplace. Tension rolled off him, and he broke two Lucifer sticks before finally catching a flame.

A ll this anger couldn’t be over a crude remark, or because she hurried him down the hallway. No, it was something else. Think. Be the intelligent woman he called you.

When had his demeanor changed?

When he saw the cavalrymen, especially Major Douglas. She replayed the man’s words. What had he m e a n t enemy sympathizer? A nd who was Simon Pierson?

Rafe stood and stalked toward the door. “There’s water in the pitcher. I’ll step out so you can wash. Don’t leave the room.”

“Wait.” Maggie sucked a deep breath. No doubt he headed downstairs to start a fight. “Why does the major upset you?”

Her question stiffened his back. His hand gripped the doorknob until his knuckles turned white. “The major and I have some differences. That’s all.”

“From the war?”

Rafe turned, then blew a long sigh. “Maggie, I don’t want to talk about the war.”

“Then what about the man who’s looking for you? Is he your friend?”

Hatred flared in Rafe’s eyes. “He’s no one important.” She didn’t believe that for a minute. “Something else you don’t want to talk about.”


Page 13

“That’s right.”

Rude or not, it was time to be direct. “A re you in some kind of trouble, Mr. McBride?”

He stiffened all over again. “Don’t you think you’d better concentrate on your own problem?”

“But you’re helping me with that. I only want to return the favor.”

“A s I said, I don’t need your help.”

Uh! He was the most stubborn man ever born.

Rafe pulled open the door. “I’ll be back in a little while.”

“Wait. There’s something else we have to talk about.” She stepped forward and reached for his arm.

His expression stopped her cold. “No. There’s not,” he insisted.

The door slammed before she could retort.

O o h ! She spun around the room, longing for something to throw. Preferably at his head. His habit of walking out of the room during a conversation irritated her to physical violence. They had to talk. Hadn’t he heard Private Richards? The cavalry was riding west, straight for Cecil and Little Owl.

Cecil would die before he let them take me. Little Owl’s words ripped through Maggie and collided with the image of the private pulling a trigger. Shudders rippled down her spine. If the cavalry found them, Cecil would be killed, Little Owl left with the soldiers. A lone.

Pregnant.

Maggie gulped back thick bile.

Someone had to warn the couple. But who? If she and Rafe went back…

She wilted onto the rose settee, consequences bombarding her like hail.

If they went back, they had no chance of getting through the snowy pass. She’d be trapped until spring.

Nettie would think her dead, the art show forgotten, and even though Maggie didn’t believe Michael had the gumption to search for her, he would gamble away the remaining money, or Mr. Bouse would swindle the funds.

A ll right. There had to be an answer. She drummed her fingers on the carved wooden arm. Maybe she could continue to Fort Union alone, and Rafe could go back.

You can’t ride a horse without help!

Fine. Maybe she could pay one of the soldiers to take her.

Which of those lecherous men do you trust?

She dropped her head against the back of the settee and blew a long sigh. Rafe wouldn’t agree to either suggestion. He’d demand they stay together so he could take care of her.

“Humph.” He was the one who needed taking care of. A sinister feeling niggled about the man who searched for Rafe—yet the stubborn fool refused her help. A lthough, what help could she give?

She launched from her seat and paced the small room, clenching, unclenching her fists. How had she ended up responsible for so many people’s lives?

Swiping a hot tear, she steeled her resolve and pushed the doubt to the back of her mind.

She and Rafe had to warn Cecil.

If Michael squandered the money, so be it. It didn’t mean she would never sell her art—well, it might. If she couldn’t fund the show…No! This was just a minor setback, not the end of her dreams.

She swallowed hard, then moved to the basin and stared into the dusty mirror at her determined reflection.

Her friends meant more than artistic recognition. Now if only making that decision felt better.

She unbuttoned her shirt, then froze.

I just made my own decision. Not Michael, not Father. Not even Rafe.

A smile quirked her lips. She did feel better.

Peeling the clothes from her body, she pulled clean garments from the saddlebags and tore a strip from her old petticoats to use as a washcloth. Every creak of the floorboards made her work faster. Rafe might return any minute. If he saw her naked…she froze. Would that be so bad? Maybe she should strip. Strip and wait on the bed, posed like the woman in the painting. What would Rafe think if he found her like that? Would he just watch her finger herself, or would he drop his pants and ride her?

Once the deed was done, the ache would go away.

Wouldn’t it?

Maggie groaned and dropped the rag into the basin.

So much for making a decision. A ny more of this seesaw of indecision and she’d be ready for an asylum.

A ngry voices echoed in the hallway, rattling her nerves. Rafe might be in trouble. She yanked on the long underwear, then wiggled into clean trousers. The thunder of a something—or someone—slammed against the door. Her heart clattered to stop, then pounded to a start as she grabbed a shirt and dropped it over her head.

“Sonofabitch!” A male voice rumbled from the hall.

Was that Rafe? Oh, no. He probably started a fight.

Her gaze snapped around the room, searching for a weapon. He would need help. The iron fireplace poker looked formidable. She snatched it from the crate, hurried to the door and jerked it open.

Rafe back-stepped as Maggie charged through the door. Fear for her safety hit him at the same time as the scalding soup. It slopped from the bowls as he tried to steady their supper tray while reaching his pistol. She froze mid-step, fireplace poker raised high, her eyes wide with surprise.

“It’s you.” Her gaze darted to the young soldiers scuffling like pups at the end of the hall.

“What the hell are you doing?” But he already knew the answer.

“I, um, I heard men fighting.” She tucked the weapon behind her as if she could fool him, as if she hadn’t been charging to his rescue.

“A nd you thought it was me?”

She shrugged, and backed across the room to replace the poker. “It sounded like you.”

“A nd you were coming to help?” He stepped inside and kicked the door closed. “Even after I told you I didn’t need help.”

Hurt and defiance warred on her face, until she raised her chin. “We never resolved that issue.”

“Oh, yes, we—”

“Because you keep walking out.”

Closing his eyes, he inhaled a calming breath and set the bowls onto the small table. He was glad she’d found some confidence, really he was. The strength would serve her well. But if she would just save it for her battles in St. Louis, his life would be much easier.

“A re you ignoring me?” she asked. “Because you do that a lot, too.”

He glanced to where she hovered beside the table.

Cheeks flushed and eyes sparking, she was a tempting sight, and he had the near-irresistible urge to kiss her senseless.

Instead, he pointed to her bowl.

“Eat your supper. We’ve got a long ride to Fort Union.” A nd once Maggie was safe on a stagecoach, he had to ride like hell to warn Cecil, then somehow meet the stagecoach in St. Louis. It wasn’t the perfect solution, but Rafe could think of no other. Too many people needed his protection at the same time.

“We’re not going to the fort,” she announced.

Cornbread lodged in his throat. “What?”

She pounded his back, then squatted beside his chair. “We can’t. We have to warn Little Owl and Cecil.” He gulped the lukewarm coffee, washing down the dry bread, putting off her inevitable argument. She wasn’t going like what he had to say. “We are going to the fort. I’ll warn Cecil after I see you to the stage.”

“A nd what if you’re too late?” She climbed to her feet and paced the room. “The cavalry might leave before you return.”

Damn it, he knew that. He knew the risk without her nattering.

“Maggie—”

“We were going to the fort because of me, so I have the right to change the plan.”

“What about Michael? Have you forgotten he’s after you?”

“No. I—”

“A nd what if we can’t get through the pass once we leave Cecil’s? Do you realize you’ll be trapped with me all winter?” A lone. Heat shot through him, and he swallowed hard. Images of Maggie spread out like that damned painting taunted him. Christ. He really would have to sleep in the barn with Moses. He wouldn’t make it months without fucking her. If he did, his poor dick would be jerked completely off. No. No, no, no. He’d never last. There had to be a better way.

“I know all of that. I trust we can handle Michael if he finds me. A nd as much as your overbearing person would test my patience, Mr. McBride, I couldn’t live with myself if Little Owl or Cecil was hurt.” She stopped in front of him and met his gaze. “A nd neither could you.” Rafe heaved a long sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. Why the hell was he always caught between a rock and hard place? A nd why the hell did she have to be right? If his friends died because he lacked sexual self control, he’d never forgive himself.

“Fine. We’ll both go back. But you have to agree to do as I say.”

She stiffened, but she had to give her word. It was the only way he could keep her safe. A nd he intended to save them all.

“I mean it, Maggie.”

“But—”

“Maggie.”

“Fine.” She dropped into the chair and dunked the dry cornbread into her soup.

“A ll right.” The soldier in him formed a battle plan.

“We have to slip out at dawn.”

“That means a half hour before.” She delivered the barb between delicate sips of broth.

Rafe bit his lip to hide a laugh. It wouldn’t help to encourage her sassy mouth. Especially since he was the one she’d be sassing the next few months. Christ.

Shouldn’t an unwelcome guest make him angry?

She’s not unwelcome. You want her with you. You want her naked, beneath you. Bent over, slick with her cream and your cum, offering her puckered hole for you to fuck, over and over and over.

No, he didn’t! Letting himself be distracted would get them both killed.

“It means we leave at daybreak,” he corrected, forcing his mind to business. “So when you’re finished, get some sleep. You take the bed. I’ll sleep on the floor.” She gave an unenthusiastic glance to both. “I doubt one is any cleaner than the other.”

He nodded. “We’ll shake out the bedding soon as I eat. Then I’ll take the dishes downstairs, so you can prepare for bed.”

****

Rafe hurried to finish his supper, then folded back the coverlet and spread it on the floor. Dust billowed through the room, and Maggie coughed as she inspected the sheets.

“Want me to ask for clean bedding?” He gathered the dishes and paused at the door.

“It looks clean. I’m sleeping in my clothes though.” He nodded and tried not to grit his teeth. He didn’t want to think about what she wore. It made him wonder how long it would take to strip her, made him wonder what she had on—or didn’t—underneath those britches.

She wore no corset. That was obvious in the bounce of her breasts and in the way her nipples hardened when she was cold. Or horny.

He swallowed a groan and hurried to the door. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Or however long it took to buy some paper for her. “Go ahead and sleep. I’ll wake you in the morning.”

“A ll right.”

She stretched out on the bed, and Rafe’s cock hardened at the sight of her. It took three tries before he could operate the doorknob.

“Night.” He stumbled into the hallway, resisting the urge to bang his head against the wall. With his luck, she’d think he had been attacked and rush to save him.

Naked—or worse. No, nothing was worse than naked.

First he’d have to kill every man who saw her. Then he’d have to spank her ass until it was as red as a whore’s lip rouge. Shit. Now he couldn’t stop thinking about spanking her. Damn, damn, damn. He really was a sick bastard.

He groaned and hurried downstairs. There was one important item he had to find before they left Lesterville.

No matter what, he intended to locate paper.

Rafe slipped back inside their room. The clerk promised to find some paper by morning. A t least this trip provided something useful.

Rafe tiptoed to the bed. Maggie’s quiet sighs mixed with soft snores, something he was sure she would deny.

Not that he would mention it. He still retained some manners.

Fireplace shadows danced on the wall as he made his way to wash. A damp rag hung from the basin, and as he ran it over his face and chest, her musky scent engulfed him. He closed his eyes, the images of her dragging the rag between her breasts, down her belly, between her legs flashed through his mind like a lightning storm, so vivid his cock swelled and stretched to his stomach.

Damn. He flung the cloth and stomped to the coverlet. He stretched onto the dusty fabric and let the flames melt his worries. The fire crackled, the monotonous sound blended with Maggie’s breathing…

Comforted…lulled…until his eyes drifted shut.

Then somehow he was with his troops again.

Shane was there, but this time Simon rode beside Rafe. The woman Shane held beneath him looked at Rafe, pleaded for help.

Suddenly she became Maggie.

“No,” Rafe cried. He jumped from his horse, pistol drawn, but Simon caught him by the arm, held him, forced him to watch while Shane tore her bodice, raised her skirts, bared her legs for all the men to see.

“You boys can have a turn once I’m finished.” Shane watched Rafe’s reaction.

Maggie’s mouth moved, and Rafe knew she called for him. She reached for his hand, her blue eyes full of desperate tears.

Shane unbuttoned his fly and parted her legs…

“No. No!” Rafe couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.

“Rafe!” The hands continued to grip him, shake him.

“Rafe.”


Page 14

His heart hammered as he struggled against Simon.

“Maggie!”

“I’m right here.” Her soft voice broke through the terror as she rubbed slow circles over his chest.

His eyes opened, unfocused, hazy as his heart hammered.

“You had a nightmare.”

Sweat rolled down his temple as he shook free from the images and looked around the dim room. Maggie squatted beside him, her eyes wide with worry.

“Wouldn’t be the first one.” He climbed to his feet, then walked to the window and stared outside at the darkness. “Go back to bed. I’m fine.”

She looked doubtful. “Do you want to talk about it?” He shook his head. She could never accept what he’d done.

“Well…all right.” She shuffled to the bed.

He turned his back and tended the fire. It had been months since the dream haunted him, but tonight the past and present collided. He pinched the bridge of his nose, then dragged a hand through his damp hair.

It had to be the cavalry, the major, the hateful comments.

Or how much I care for Maggie.

He heaved a long sigh and padded back to the bed.

She lay sleeping on her side, one hand tucked under her cheek like a child. He couldn’t resist touching a stray curl and rubbed the silky strand between his fingers. How could she be so soft, yet so strong? Even with her cousin after them, she put friends first—and put her trust in Rafe.

God, what if he let her down? He couldn’t live with himself if anything happened to her.

He smoothed her blanket, then sprawled onto the settee.

How much would she trust him once she knew he’d killed Shane Pierson?

****

Maggie followed Rafe down the stairs the next morning. The gray dawn filtered through the front windows, and she dreaded stepping out into the cold. A fire crackled in the lobby and hotel clerk peeked at them over the top of a newspaper, an overly happy grin covering his face. Rafe hesitated at the threshold, his gaze darting toward the clerk’s desk.

“Did you forget something?”

“No.” He ushered her out the door, but dawdled on the boardwalk.

Frigid air billowed her coat, sending goose flesh chasing chills down her body. She shivered, her patience dissipating like her frosty breath. He rushed her all morning, now he dragged his feet like a tardy schoolboy.

She stopped in front of a boarded-up mercantile, waiting. “Is something wrong?”

He snapped his attention to her. “Why would you think that?”

Maggie crossed her arms over her chest. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing.”

They inched down the boardwalk, Rafe distracted and antsy.

“You know…” He stopped and glanced back at the hotel. “I want to make sure I settled our bill.”

“But you—”

“Go ahead. I’ll hurry.”

He was up to something. They both knew he paid the clerk. What happened to slipping away while the cavalry slept? A dozen scenarios flashed through her mind. A ll of them bad. If he started a fight…

She’d give him five minutes.

A t the livery, she yanked on the door. The rusty hinges squeaked open, and she braced for the odor of horse manure. Inside the dim barn, several soft nickers greeted her, and she walked to Moses’ stall. He peeked over the wooden gate, his huge head bobbing for attention.

“What?” Maggie whispered, rubbing his velvet nose.

“A re you glad to see me?”

“I sure am.” The slurred words echoed along with the bang of the oak door.

Maggie whirled, panic shooting through her like lightning. Who followed her?

The man lumbered from the shadows, dust motes floating around his Union-blue coat.

“Major Douglas.” She swallowed and backed toward the saddle rack. He reeked of whiskey and stood too close for comfort. “If you’ll excuse me,” she edged toward the door, “I have to find my husband.”

“I don’t think so.” He caught her arm. “I think we need a few minutes alone.” His gaze scoured her.

Oh, God. Oh, God. He wore the same hungry look as the men in Cougar Creek. Her heart crawled into her throat and panic broke free in her chest.

“Let go of me!” She yanked free.

He shook his head. “I just can’t understand you being with a no-good coward like McBride.”

The hateful words spiked her temper and swept away her common sense. “I’m sorry you don’t like my husband. But that has nothing to do with me.” She turned. Just walk to the door. You can make it.

“Oh, you’re wrong about that,” the major scoffed. He rushed the entry and blocked it with his considerable weight.

Why hadn’t she escaped instead of defending Rafe?

What had he told her about helping?

She swallowed hard, then attempted to push past.

“Major, if you don’t move, I’m going to scream this barn down.”

His pudgy hand shot out and clamped over her mouth, grinding her lips against her teeth until she tasted blood. “I don’t think so. If you scream, McBride dies.

Understand?”

Her knees buckled. Oh, God! Did the soldiers have Rafe?

She nodded, and his rough palm slid free.

“What did you do to him?” Her stomach clenched into knots as images of Rafe, beaten and bloodied filled her mind. She had to get free and find him.

“Nothing he didn’t deserve. A nd I’m gonna take care of you, too.” Douglas shoved her into an empty stall.

“Real good care.”

Her stomach dropped, and fear slithered down her spine.

“No.” She rocked back and kicked his shins. Her toes cracked against his thick leather cavalry boots. “Help me!

Someone—”

“Shut up.” A back-handed slap bounced her head off a rough oak post.

Dizzying spots danced in front of her eyes. The horses spooked in the next stall. Moses squealed in agitation.

Could she climb over the divider, over the horses and escape out the window? She clawed the wood, trying to get a toehold, but the major grabbed her by the hair and slammed her back against the wall, then pressed his reddened face to hers.

“Shane Pierson was my godson.” The sharp cut of liquor stung her nose. “A nd that bastard McBride walked away unpunished.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she cried.

“Bullshit.” He slapped her again, then encircled her throat, cutting off air. “But I’m gonna get revenge for Shane and his brother. A nd I’m gonna enjoy it.” His free hand groped beneath her coat, ripped at the buttons on her trousers.

“No,” she squeaked, unable to draw a full breath.

Tears burned her eyes, and Rafe’s name burned in her throat. This couldn’t happen.

Fight him!

She pounded his head and shoulders, boxed his ears and stomped his toes. Nothing stopped his mauling. She needed a weapon. There had to be tools here. Something sharp, something heavy…dear God, anything.

Reaching back, she flattened her palm along the splintered post and searched.

A coil of rope, a small brush, an empty grain bag…

Darkness swam around her. Don’t faint! She had to get away—and Rafe needed her.

Curling her fingers, she gouged at Douglas’ eyes. His vile curse echoed through the barn, but his grip loosened, and she wheezed a shallow breath.

“You bitch.” He drew back a fist.

Maggie ducked and dropped to the floor. The thin edge of a shovel bit into her knee. Her tearful thanks covered her pain-filled curse as she grabbed the broken handle and sprang to her feet, swinging like a deranged woman. The dull thud of metal against bone shook her like the rumble of cannon fire.

The major staggered, shock in his eyes, blood peppering his temple. He swiped at the slow trickle, smearing it across his forehead, then bared his teeth like an animal. “You’re gonna die for that.”

“Get the hell away from her!” Rafe plowed through the door and tackled Douglas to the ground.

Papers fluttered from Rafe’s hand, large square snowflakes drifting to the floor, serenity surrounding violence. The fractured sound of flesh hitting flesh filled the air, mixing with grunts, curses, and dust.

Rafe wrenched the major up by the collar, then punched him once, twice, blow after blow, until the man’s head lolled on his neck and his eyes rolled back in his head.

“Stop. You’ll kill him,” Maggie screamed across the room. Though the deviant deserved it, Rafe would be jailed or hanged.

He froze mid-swing, then whirled, as if just remembering she watched from the corner. The major crumpled to a heap onto the floor, and Rafe bolted toward her. Her shovel clattered to the ground as he slid to a stop and pulled her into his arms, pressed her against his thundering chest.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m so sorry.” The words breezed over her, his battered knuckles brushed back her hair, trailed her jaw. “I should have stayed with you, protected you.”

She shook her head, unable to put words together.

Hot tears streamed down her stinging face, and delayed panic roared through her head like a locomotive. She was lost. Drowning. Paralyzed. The major would have—He wanted to—

A buzz replaced the roar. The room started to spin, her teeth chattered, and her knees buckled.

“Maggie, please. Say something. Look at me!” Panic filled his eyes, and he held her tighter, wrapping her in his heat. The room stilled. Everything slowed until his words, his touch settled over her like a thick, warm quilt.

“Rafe.” Her hands slid over his shoulders. Safe, finally safe.

“Sweetheart, I—” He swallowed hard, his throat convulsing. “I’m so sorry I let you get hurt.” She cupped his whiskered face with both palms. His eyes glittered with unshed tears. He cried for her? But didn’t that mean…oh, Lord. Did Rafe care about her?

“I won’t let anyone hurt you again. I swear.” He closed his eyes and laid his cheek aside hers, whispering kisses and apologies along her hairline. His arms tightened, and his lips brushed her ear. “Maggie, I—”

“What the hell?” A hoarse voice sliced through the silence.

Rafe reeled toward the door, tucking Maggie behind him. She tried to peek around his body, but he sidestepped protectively. In one flick of his wrist, he pointed his pistol at the intruder.

“Step inside real slow,” Rafe ordered. “Or you’re dead.”

Chapter Six

“By God, you ain’t gonna shoot me in my own barn.” Myrna stomped inside, double-barrel shotgun aimed and steady. She looked even wilder in the morning light, her greasy hair sticking out from her hat in several directions, a cud of tobacco filling her cheek. The horses stomped and shuffled, stirring up dust around the stalls.

Rafe lowered his weapon, but his heart thumped until he thought it would explode. What if it had been one of the soldiers? Damn it, he and Maggie had to get out of town!

“Ma’am, I can explain.” He’d better do some fast talking before she started screaming.

“Just hold up on your explaining, handsome.” She flipped the gun over her thin shoulder, then walked to the major and nudged him with the toe of her boot. Her dark eyes narrowed, and she peered around Rafe to stare at Maggie. “Who beat you?”

“Him.” Maggie pointed to Douglas’ prone form.

“Rotten bastard.” Myrna drew back and kicked the major’s ribs. His low groan filled the room. “Too bad he ain’t dead. I can’t tolerate a man who hurts women. My second husband hit me once. But just once.” Her grim words hung in the air like smoke.

Rafe nodded. He’d found an ally. God must like him today. “We need to get out of here before the soldiers start searching for the major.”

“We’ll hide him.” Myrna propped her gun against the wall and grabbed the man under the armpits. “Let’s put him in with Satan. We can say the major got drunk and passed out. With any luck, the horse will stomp all over him.” She cackled with laughter, then spit a wad of tobacco onto the ground. “Well, come on, grab his ankles.”

Rafe bent and hefted the major over his shoulder.

“I’ll move him. Can you get Moses and bring my tack?”

“A ll right. The major’s horse is the black by himself.” She nodded on her way toward Moses.

Rafe dumped the unconscious man inside the stall and turned to Maggie. Her eyes looked glassy, absent, like a young soldier after seeing his first battle. He wished he could take her into his arms and carry her someplace safe and warm, someplace with a big copper bathtub and a soft four-poster bed.

A ll he could offer was twelve hours in the snow on horseback.

“Sweetheart, we’re going to leave soon, all right?” Rafe squeezed her hand until she looked at him. “I just have to saddle Moses.”

Maggie nodded, but didn’t speak. He felt her slipping away, back to the place she’d been a few moments ago when her eyes had been wild and vacant.

“What are these papers on the ground?” Myrna led the horse from the stall.

“They’re mine.” Rafe glanced to where Maggie stared at nothing. “They’re for…my wife.” He plucked the sheets from the floor and blew free the dust and hay, watching for her reaction.

“For me?” Maggie’s gaze snapped from the wall to Rafe.

He nodded, relieved she was talking. “So you can draw once we get home. A surprise.” A stupid, miscalculated surprise. One that almost cost Maggie her life.

She wobbled toward him, an unreadable expression haunted her eyes. Sadness? Confusion? Hate? She had every right.


Page 15

“Where did you get them?” She reached for the stack.

“I paid the hotel clerk to find paper and some pencils.”

“That’s why you…”

He knew she wouldn’t finish the sentence—she was too kind—but the accusation hung between them all the same. That’s why you left me.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Her hand skimmed his, brushing his raw knuckles, but he pulled away. He didn’t deserve her thanks.

“Let’s go.” He turned, threw the saddle onto Moses and tightened the cinch.

Myrna buckled the bridle, then pointed a finger at Rafe. “I never saw you, hear? The major was snoring in the stall when I opened the barn.”

“Thank you.” Rafe slipped an extra dollar into her hand.

“You make sure and keep your wife close.”

“I will.” Nothing else was going to happen. He’d die before he let another man hurt her.

He swung into the saddle, then settled Maggie in front. Myrna cracked the door open and poked her head outside. A fter looking both ways, she waved Rafe forward.

He wrapped both arms around Maggie and pressed his heels to Moses’ belly. They darted behind the buildings and climbed out of town, disappearing into the trees.

She snuggled against him, and his arms tightened—

along with his heart. He didn’t want to think about what that feeling meant or where the feeling would lead.

The devil was behind him, and he had to ride like hell.

****

Moses covered the last few miles as if he knew the urgency of their trip. The afternoon clouds had opened, and now heavy snow fell like rain, with large flakes that stuck to their coats and trousers. Rafe hated to expose Maggie to another blizzard, but there was no time to stop. When the major woke, he’d be out for blood. If Rafe was caught, Little Owl’s chance for escape would vanish.

A rching his back against the wind, he tugged down his hat and tucked Maggie closer against his body. Her dreamful whimpers tormented him. He fisted the reins until his scabbed knuckles cracked. She shivered. Damn it! How much farther? Rafe stopped and squinted through the flakes.

“A re we there?” Maggie straightened in his arms and glanced over her shoulder.

The purple marks on her cheek boiled his blood and locked his jaw. He should have killed the major. But the thought of one more death on his hands churned his gut.

“Rafe? A re we almost to Cecil’s?”

“Just about.” He pulled her closer, needing to feel her, needing to know she was safe as he legged Moses forward. They sidestepped down a small hill, sliding the last few feet. Maggie gasped, her fingers biting into Rafe’s thigh.

“Easy, sweetheart. We’re fine. Moses won’t fail.” He’s not me. He’s never killed a man or disgraced his family.

Finally the row of pines, bowed with snow, came into view. Rafe guided Moses beneath the limbs and stopped in front of the mine tunnel. The cabin door cracked open and a rifle barrel poked from the slit.

“State your business.” Cecil’s gruff voice sounded miles away.

“It’s McBride.” Rafe jumped from the saddle and lifted Maggie down.

Little Owl’s squeal pierced the night. The door flew open, and she pushed past Cecil to hug Maggie. “I knew you would not leave.” Her dark braids swung in time with her enthusiastic words. “Come in. Hurry. Get warm. You also, McBride.” She tugged them inside. “Sit. I will make coffee.”

Rafe hesitated, anxious to talk to Cecil, unsure of how much to say in front of Little Owl.

“Was the pass already closed?” Cecil leaned the rifle behind the door, his brows raised in question.

“No, we ran into some trouble—”

“Your face!” Little Owl dropped the cup she held and dragged the lantern across the table to peer at Maggie’s jaw. “What happen? McBride not…” She glared over her shoulder.

“No! He’s not that kind of man!” Maggie’s fierce denial surprised him.

“There were soldiers in Lesterville,” Rafe explained.

“A nd you and Cecil have to hide.” Maggie jumped from the table, grabbed a blanket and stuffed it into a crate. “You have to pack. They’re riding this way.” Little Owl paled. “Cecil…” Her eyes filled with tears, and she buried her face into her hands.

“Tell me.” Cecil pulled Rafe aside as Maggie consoled Little Owl. “Is it bad?”

Rafe pinched the bridge of his nose. “It’s worse.”

****

Rafe slid one last rotten post across the opening, closing off the western tunnel from the main shaft. “A ll finished. That should hold them.”

“A re you sure this will fool the soldiers?” Doubt creased Maggie’s brow.

“Would you go into a mine marked ‘poisonous gas’?”

“Well, no. But…” She chewed her lip as she peered between the boards.

“Once Cecil rakes our footprints from the entrance, the mine will appear deserted.” He brushed dirt from his hands and grasped her shoulders. “Trust me. Major Douglas will search the cabin—maybe send a few men inside the mine. But none of them will venture down this far. Those men just survived four years of war. They won’t be anxious to asphyxiate in here.”

“I suppose.” She frowned and bit her bottom lip again until it was as red as a strawberry.

Need rolled through him. He wanted to kiss away the marks she left, caress the worry from her face. Wanted the graze of her teeth on his cock, wanted her mouth to surround the head. He’d love to run her a hot soaking bath, wash her body until she was happy and relaxed.

Then he’d make love to her slowly and show her how proud he was of the decision she’d made to return.

Everything he’d assumed the day they met was wrong.

She was the strongest, most unselfish woman he’d ever known, the kind of woman he’d be proud to call his own.

If only things were different.

Gravel crunched as Cecil squatted on the other side of the boards. “I’ll meet you inside once I cover our prints.”

Rafe nodded, clasped Maggie’s elbow, then wound his way down the tunnel. Rust-covered rail tracks lay dislodged in places and made for treacherous walking.

The small lantern threw long shadows along the crumbling dirt walls as they shuffled along, and the mournful wind howled its way through the mine.

A quarter mile down, the shaft opened into a large cave where they had made camp. A high domed ceiling let the smoke from Little Owl’s cook fire dissipate, hiding any sign of their presence.

Maggie pulled free of Rafe’s hold and walked to the fire. He felt her absence immediately. She knelt beside the flicking flame, the low light darkening the bruises on her pale skin, exaggerating her forlorn expression. Did she regret coming back? Or did the memory of this morning’s attack haunt her?

He moved behind her, aching to hold her close, needing to know she was all right. Needing to know she didn’t hate him. She turned, her sad gaze skated over him, then back to fire.

“Little Owl is already asleep.” She nodded toward a dark area in the back of the cave.

“You need rest, too.” He tilted her chin until he could look into her eyes. “Maggie—”

“Whew! It’s a full-blown blizzard out there.” Cecil strode from another tunnel, brushing snow and ice from his coat. “I replaced the vines and shrubs in front of the secret entrance so we’re safe for tonight.” He looked around. “Where’s Owl?”

“She went to bed.”

“Then that’s where I’m going.” He stopped beside the fire and stuck out his hand to Rafe. “I can’t thank you enough, my friend. A nd you, Maggie.” He reached for her. “I know what you gave up to warn us. Thank you.” Maggie smiled, accepting the awkward hug Cecil gave. The sight of her in another man’s arms, even Cecil’s, triggered a jealous burn in Rafe’s stomach. Damn, when had his feelings gotten so out of hand?

“If you hear anything, wake me.” Cecil checked his rifle.

“I will. Don’t worry.” Rafe would stay awake all night.

Cecil nodded, then extinguished his lantern and tiptoed to Little Owl. Rafe squatted and fed more wood into the fire. Maggie watched, her gaze lost, as if silently asking for something. But what? Hell, he didn’t know a thing about comforting women.

“Why don’t you sleep?” He grabbed two blankets from a crate and spread them beside the fire. “I want you to take both of these so you’ll stay warm.”

“No.”

He sighed. “Maggie, don’t argue tonight.” Her eyes filled with tears, but she swiped them away, then knelt on the blankets and tugged him to his knees.

She looked up at him, pain, fear, need in her watery gaze. His entire body ached to hold her, wrap her in safety and never let her go. But after all that happened, being mauled was probably the last thing she wanted.

“Don’t cry, sweetheart.” Her tears ripped him apart.

He caught one droplet on the end of his finger. “Tell me what to do.”

She swallowed hard. “Hold me. Please. I need you.” His heart skittered to a stop. Relief that she wasn’t angry warred with the desire that her innocent words conjured. A nd the request was just that. Innocent. She couldn’t know the thought of sleeping together stiffened his cock to near bursting. A nd the kind of man she deserved would be able to control himself. Even if it killed him.

If he said no, Maggie was going to fall apart.

A dmitting fear humiliated her, but every shadow looked like the major, every noise sounded like footsteps marching down the tunnel. Rafe was the only one who could make all that go away.

“Of course I’ll hold you.” He stretched out on the thick wool, then pulled her into his arms, smothering the fear, sharing his courage, filling her with his strength.

“You’re safe, sweetheart.” His warms hands stroked her back. “A nything you need, I’m here. I’ll take care of you.”

“I—I k-know,” she sobbed. Stupid tears rolled down her cheeks, soaking his shirt. A ll day she had pushed the major from her mind, knowing this would be the result.

“Do you?” he whispered over her hair. “Do you know how bad I feel for letting you get hurt?” He scattered kisses across her forehead, over her cheek, kisses so softly sensual they brought more tears to her eyes.

“B-but you saved me.”

“Why do you insist on defending me?” His hand slipped to her neck, and his gaze fell to the ugly choke marks. “I don’t understand. You should hate me.” She frowned. “I’ll never hate you. You’re the finest man I’ve ever known.” The only man I’ve ever been able to depend on.

Their lips were a breath apart. She blinked.

Everything blurred except Rafe. Her heart pounded, or maybe it was his. He tightened his arms and pulled her closer.

“Maggie…” His mouth brushed hers, once, twice, as if he asked permission for more. These kisses were different, less consoling, more sexual.

Oh, God. Why did she continue to fight this feeling, this attraction? Yes, it was dangerous. Yes, it might be the ruin of her. But this morning she almost lost her long-guarded innocence and her life. A ll the secret yearnings she’d denied for years…

Why keep denying herself? She wanted to be spread wide for a man’s pleasure, for her pleasure. She wanted to feel a man’s rough hands stroke her bare skin. What would it feel like to touch a naked man? To feel his mouth on her breasts? His cock in her cunny? Rafe could satisfy those yearnings, answer those questions. He could give her a memory to last a lifetime.

She parted her lips and touched the curve of his mouth with the tip of her tongue, inviting him to teach her everything. He sucked in a quick breath, then leaned back enough to scorch her with a heavy-lidded, hungry gaze, his reaction sending a shock of power through her.

“God, woman, what are you doing to me?”

“Kissing you. Did I do it wrong?” Humiliation heated her face.

“No, no,” he murmured. “I just…I…” His mouth covered hers in a kiss so soft, so tender, more tears pricked her eyes. “I almost died when I opened that livery door this morning.” He pressed his forehead against hers and kissed the moisture from her eyelashes.

“Forgive me, Maggie…” His hands slid down her back, rubbing slow circles. “Forgive me.”

“I never blamed you,” she whispered. “Stop blaming yourself.”

He lifted his head; a shock of dark hair covered his forehead. For one intense moment, sorrow filled his eyes. “I don’t know how. I’ve carried guilt for so long.” He shook his head.

“What do you mean?” How could it be longer than this morning?

“Nothing.”

The silky rasp of his tongue drifted down her throat, pressing hot kisses, licking the sensitive hollow. Lord, how could a mouth feel so good?

“Rafe.” She clutched his head.

“Do you want me to stop?” His gaze flicked over her.

“No. No. I want you to make love to—” She couldn’t finish her sentence. His kiss stole her word.

He nipped and sucked her lips, nibbled the tender skin behind her ear. Pressing her back against the blankets, he fed on her mouth as if he was starved and she was his first meal. Her head swirled with pleasure, and she opened her mouth wider, welcoming his tongue as he sucked hers into his mouth, dueling, stroking with long, slow seduction. He groaned low in his throat, and a feeling of power washed over her.

Y es . Yes. This is what she wanted, needed. She clutched his shoulders and pulled him close, threading her fingers through his thick hair. He swung one muscled leg over hers pinning her to the ground. Good Lord! His heavy erection ground against her thigh, hard and hot, eager, his length throbbing through both their pants.


Page 16

Excitement crackled through her, puckering her nipples, dampening the throbbing flesh between her legs.

Rafe loosened the buttons holding her shirt, and nuzzled her neck, licked her collarbone.

“God, you smell good,” he growled. His tongue flicked the crevice between her breasts. “But you taste even better.”

Closing her eyes she clutched his head, held him in place, just in case he tried to stop.

“You like this?” he murmured, watching her.

“Mmm. Don’t stop.”

His eyes flared hot, needy before he dropped his head and licked the bruises on her neck.

Roaming, his lips left a wet trail over her chest, the rasp of his whiskers rough, prickly. She wanted to kiss him like this, taste him, run her tongue over his—

Oh! She arched. His mouth closed over her nipple, sucking through the fabric of her shirt. Breath whooshed from her lungs. She fisted his hair. Lightning shot from her breast to her wet cunny, a deep pulsing ache worse than anything she’d ever felt.

“Oh, excuse me.” Cecil’s choked apology yanked Maggie from a desire-induced fog.

Rafe stiffened, then tugged the blanket over Maggie’s chest and sprang to his feet. Heat swept across her face.

Cecil dropped his gaze, staring at his feet. “Um, Little Owl needs some water. I’ll only be a minute.” Rafe grunted an answer and moved to the fire, stoking it to a bright burn.

Why wouldn’t he look at her?

Cecil shuffled back to Little Owl, but Rafe still didn’t turn around, still didn’t look at her. The silence grew until Maggie thought she’d suffocate.

“Rafe?” she whispered. Was he angry?

He turned, but his eyes were shuttered. “That won’t happen again. We’ll leave tomorrow for my cabin. A fter I check things and let Moses rest, we’ll head south.” What was he talking about? Kisses, horses, traveling.

What just happened?

“I don’t understand. South? We were—”

“The soldiers Private Richards spoke of will come from Fort Craig. If they can make it, we can make it. A fort that large will have a stage station. It’s a longer route to St. Louis, but we won’t be fighting the weather.” Maggie nodded as cold understanding dawned. The other Rafe had returned, the one who avoided what he didn’t want to talk about.

But she did want to talk. “What about us?”

“Get some sleep.” He nodded to the blankets, then frowned, and his gaze snapped to Moses. “I’ll check the tunnel and stand guard tonight. You don’t have to be afraid of the major.”

Maggie narrowed her eyes. “I’m not afraid. A nd I’m not tired.” She threw off the blanket and reached for the saddlebags. “I’m going to draw for awhile.” Because she was too damn mad to sleep.

Rafe shrugged, then plodded down the tunnel.

Oh! That man made her want to scream. How dare he set her on fire, leave her wet and aching, her cunny pulsing with need, then walk away as if nothing happened. She wanted to hold him down and make him talk, make him tell her what he feared. Was it her?

Marriage? Did he think she’d trap him if they became intimate? Hah! There was no chance of that happening. A husband was the last thing she wanted.

She pulled the precious paper and pencils from the bag and tried to concentrate. She would not beg for his attention. If he wanted to deny them both pleasure, fine.

Fine, fine, fine. Maybe she’d find her own pleasure like the woman in the painting. She slipped her hand under her waistband, gasping at the heat, the pool of liquid, trapped within the folds of her cunny. Hidden beneath her curls was a sensitive button of flesh. One touch…Oh, God. Two made her bite her lip to keep from crying out.

This would never work. Cecil and Little Owl slept only a few feet away. She freed her hand and wiped the musky dew on her pants. Damn Rafe for leaving her a frustrated mess.

Stop thinking about him. Draw. Draw anything but Rafe.

Her hands flew over the paper. The first image, Moses standing in the snow, his long mane blowing in the wind. Next she sketched Wolf sleeping in front of a fireplace. He looked so sweet she smiled at the memory of their first terrifying meeting.

She pulled a fresh sheet from the bag, determined not to draw Rafe. She couldn’t. When she drew, her feelings for the subject were transparent. The thought of anyone seeing how she felt about him…

Hell, she wasn’t sure how she felt about him. Maybe his insistence they stay away from each other was for the best.

Cecil’s image filled the page, then Owl’s, locked in his embrace, his square chin rested on top of her dark head, his hands wrapped around her swollen waist. The love between them was easy to capture on paper, but impossible to explain.

Little Owl had something most wives—most women

—never had. Respect from her husband. If Maggie could find the same respect would she take the chance? She shook her head and reached for more paper. Owl was the exception. Maggie had lived through Mother’s castigation from Father, had heard Nettie’s story about the abusive husband she escaped.

The risk of giving your freedom to a man was too great. Even if the man was Rafe.

Maggie stared at the next blank sheet. She wasn’t going to think about him. He confused her. She would draw something else. Not his handsome face, or his thick, dark hair.

Both took shape on the paper.

She wasn’t going to think about his lips, stern, full.

Lips that could kiss the drawers off a nun. Maggie closed her eyes and groaned. Damn.

Well, maybe drawing him would free her from the erotic hold he had over her.

She smoothed the tip of her finger over his cheekbones, shadowing, softening the whiskers with a smudge, until they looked as soft as they felt. Dark, straight brows slashed over gray eyes. The color should have made him seem cold, aloof, but didn’t. She had seen them twinkle with laughter and darken with lust.

“Is that me?” His question rumbled over her shoulder.

She jumped, the pencil rolling to the ground. Why did she always get so caught up in drawing everything around her disappeared? She hadn’t even heard him return.

“It’s just a rough sketch.” She tucked it beneath the drawing of Moses. “This one is pretty good though, or this one.” She offered the one of Wolf.

Rafe knelt beside her, his gaze flicking over both.

“Yes. I like them both.”

“Then they’re yours. A gift.”

Rafe studied her, his eyes hooded and dark, exactly like she’d drawn.

“I want to see the one of me.” His hand brushed hers aside, until he tugged the paper free and stared at his own face. “Have you ever drawn yourself?” The words were so low she strained to hear.

“No. Why would I?”

He shrugged. “Could you?”

“I suppose.” She raised her chin. “But I don’t know anyone who wants one.” If he wanted a picture of her, he was going to have to ask. “Do you?”

His jaw hardened until she heard it crack. “Maggie.” He swallowed hard. “Maggie, we can’t do this. What we started earlier…it just wouldn’t be right.”

“I don’t expect you to marry me if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“That’s not it. You belong in St. Louis, and I can’t—

won’t—live there.” He coughed. “I belong here.” She frowned as he danced around his statement.

Hundreds of questions flooded her mind.

“Don’t you like St. Louis?”

“I like St. Louis just fine.”

“Then what’s wrong?”

“Nothing!” He cringed, then shook his head and whispered, “Nothing. Can’t a man just prefer the open countryside to the crowded city?”

“Yes, but I don’t believe this has anything to do with where we live. I think—”

“Think what you want.” He shrugged and handed the sketches back to her. “But we shouldn’t kiss, or…or touch anymore. We have to concentrate on getting you home alive. I know a couple of people in St. Louis who might be able to help with Bouse and Michael. We can’t be distracted by…you know.” He waved his hand toward the blankets.

His words felt like a face full of cold water. His words hurt worse than riding through an ice storm, stinging her pride, cutting her confidence.

“Don’t flatter yourself. I remember perfectly well the danger I’m in.” She gathered her supplies and tucked them into the saddlebags. “Earlier…I was just scared, but I’m fine now. There will be no more kissing.”

“Good. We’re agreed then.”

“Yes. Good.” She snapped the bag closed, eyeing him through her lashes.

He stared until doubt shivered down her spine. Could he tell she lied?

“A ll right.” He sighed as if relieved. “We need to leave early and lay a false trail in case the soldiers come this way.”

What? Was he deranged?

“You’re going to lead them to your cabin?” Panic raced through her. If the major had his way, Rafe would hang! If the major had his way, she would be…Maggie shuddered.

“No. I’m just going to make sure they can’t find Cecil and Owl.” Rafe draped a blanket around her shoulders.

“Sleep, Maggie. You’ve had a hard day.”

“What about you?” Despite her anger, she couldn’t stop worrying about him.

He sighed. “Once and for all, I don’t need help. I can take care of myself.”

****

Maggie wanted to weep with relief as Moses climbed the last hill toward Rafe’s cabin. Her thighs chafed against the saddle in a final tug-of-war of agony. Bitter wind wailed down from the mountain, filling the silence Rafe had evoked. Eight hours of continuous rocking motion should have produced sleep, but no matter how many times her eyes closed, unanswered questions kept her awake.

Last night had been the same. What had happened in Rafe’s past? What guilt did he carry? The war? But what did that have to do with St. Louis? She was sure something had happened there, something that made him hesitate to return.

Maybe it wasn’t something as much as someone.

A woman? The idea knotted her stomach. Did he love some woman there, leave some woman there?

“Whoa.” His command jerked her from her thoughts.

Finally they were home. She frowned. When had this become home? It wasn’t. I’m just exhausted. A ny house would look appealing. A nd exhaustion had to be the reason she couldn’t stop thinking about Rafe. She just needed to eat and sleep. Then she would feel more like herself, more in control.

He slid from the saddle, then lifted her down. The silence between them had stretched to an uncomfortable level. She didn’t know how to make amends though.

Every time she spoke a wary look pinched his face.

He steadied her for a long moment, staring, as if he wanted to say something. “Maggie…”

Her heart caught in her throat. Would he tell her what troubled him?

Wolf bounded out of the barn and yipped in excitement, jumping like a puppy ready to play. Rafe stepped away from her, the moment lost.

“I think he’s glad to see us,” she offered.

Rafe smiled, the creased dimples running down his cheeks. He ruffled the dog’s ears. “How’s my boy?” Maggie stood back and watched. This was the real Rafe, the real man buried under the worry and strain of life. This was the man who tempted her.

“I’ll help you unload Moses.”

“No, go inside. I want to feed him and check the mule. Then I have to clean the chicken coop. I’ll be in later.” He turned his back before she could speak and stomped to the barn, tugging Moses behind.

Wolf cocked his head and whined. Maggie threaded her fingers through his soft fur, torn between chasing Rafe and letting him have his privacy.

“Come on. Let’s start a fire and make some coffee.” She pushed open the door and smiled at the memory of the first time she’d seen this place. It had seemed the most unwelcoming place on earth. Now she felt safe and relaxed. Familiar scents filled the air: the sharp cedar wood, the fragrant coffee beans left over in the grinder.

A nd Rafe. His arousing scent permeated the room.

Mindlessly she built a fire and started the coffee. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her they hadn’t eaten since breakfast.

Rafe had insisted they ride hard, traipsing back and forth, sometimes crossing their own trail, a trail so confusing the cavalry wouldn’t know which path to follow. Maggie prayed he was right. Even though she worried sick about Cecil and Owl, the thought of the major finding Rafe sent fear prickling down her back.

“Lots of eggs.” Rafe broke her morose thoughts. He set the basket on the table.

She smiled. “I guess that’s what we’re having for supper then.”

“Take your time.” He edged to the door. “I’ve still got chores.”

“Wait. Don’t you want coffee?”

“Later.” The door slammed on his answer.

So this was how he intended to spend the evening.

In the barn. A way from her. Fine.

She stirred up some spoon biscuits and started cracking eggs. Time alone would do her some good too.

A bath sounded heavenly, but that would have to wait until Fort Craig. Tonight meant another bucket and rag bath. A nother sleepless night of worry.

A n hour later, she washed up the dishes and heated a bucket of water. A fter scrubbing her body, she climbed into bed. Frustrated, she sighed and punched the pillow.

Did he intend to sleep in the barn? To what extreme would he go to avoid her? She wanted to help him, wanted to make him feel better, not make things worse.


Page 17

Not take away what little peace he had.

The door creaked opened, then softly closed. Cold air circled the room. Maggie shivered and pulled the blanket high under her chin. Thud. Thud. Each of Rafe’s boots dropped to the floor. She watched through her lashes as he found the supper plate she’d left and slid a biscuit into his mouth. He shivered, then poured a cup of coffee and swallowed another biscuit.

She should get out of bed and apologize. If she promised no more questions about his past, maybe he could relax enough to stay inside. He yawned and stretched, then tugged off his coat, his lean body silhouetted against the fire. Then he unbuttoned his shirt.

Oh, God. He was going to undress. She should roll over and go to sleep. He probably intended to wash before bed. Washing meant naked. Naked. Rafe naked.

A ll those glorious muscles glistening with water, every beautiful inch—Oh, God. He turned toward her.

She squeezed her eyes shut, but his footsteps padded closer. Her heart pounded with each step. Maybe he wasn’t going to wash. Maybe he wanted to sleep in the bed. Together. Her mouth went dry with eager anticipation.

He pulled something from the shelves and shuffled away.

She cracked open one eye. Clean clothes dangled from his hand. He was going to wash.

So close your eyes and go to sleep. Stop torturing yourself with what you can’t have.

She couldn’t.

He placed the bundle on the hearth, then pulled his shirt over his head and dropped it to the floor. Next he worked the buttons on his long underwear and shrugged his arms free.

Roll over. Now.

She couldn’t. The light danced over his gorgeous back. The waistband drooped enough to see a tan line, hinting he worked summers without a shirt. Oh, what she wouldn’t give to trail her tongue down his spine, to find out where he was tanned and where he wasn’t.

He took the rag and soaped his bare chest and neck.

The low light played over his skin presenting him in shadows and angles. Muscles rippled as he washed and rinsed each strong arm, water drops glistened on his chest. A thin line of dark hair trailed from his stomach into the waistband of his pants making her want to see where the trail would lead.

Maggie sucked a shallow breath and squeezed her eyes closed again. It was wrong to spy on him.

One eye popped open. A pparently she had no sense of right and wrong.

He turned his back, then hesitated and glanced over his shoulder to the bed. He must have made a decision because he turned back to the water and dropped the rag into the bucket.

She watched in awe as he worked the buttons on his pants. The heavy material slipped lower on his hips exposing smooth skin and more than a hint of his cleft.

Inch by delicious inch his firm buttocks were revealed, tight, muscled. The shadow of his furry balls hung between muscled thighs, making her want to see him from the front, making her swell, making liquid pool between her legs. Each shallow breath she stole seemed to pull a string of desire from her cunny to her lungs, the ache throbbing, painful.

He struggled, washing his privates, holding his pants, then, “A w, hell.” Turning, he let the fabric fall to his feet.

She stuffed the pillow into her mouth to hide her gasp of pleasure.

He was beautiful. His penis jutted from a nest of dark hair, the head large, dark, the sac beneath heavy. Good Lord, she’d never imagined a man could be so…big. Or hard. So red and swollen, it looked almost angry. With quick strokes he washed, his jaw tight each time he stretched the length, scraped the plum head. Her fingers itched to draw him. To touch him. She could sketch his body in long strokes. Touch him with long strokes.

She bit her lip and looked away. This had to stop.

They agreed no more kissing or touching. Well, he agreed. She lied. Still, this could lead to nothing but heartache. He intended to leave her in St. Louis. So the smartest thing to do was—

Oh, dear God! He was walking toward the bed again.

Dressed, yes, or her heart would have stopped, but still, she didn’t want him to know she’d been spying.

She closed her eyes and tried to relax. He stopped beside the bed. She felt him tower above her. Felt his warm, sweet breath on her skin. His knuckles skimmed her cheek, then he smoothed her hair.

“Good night,” he whispered, straightening her blankets. His footsteps echoed away.

By the time he lay on his pallet, she trembled. Her body ached to feel his. Her heart just ached. Rafe was the one man she might risk her freedom for.

A nd she couldn’t have him.

Chapter Seven

Rafe burst through the door, juggling the eggs wrapped in his shirttail. The damn coffee boiled over, and the bacon smoked in the pan. How the hell could Maggie sleep through this?

“Shit.” He jerked the coffee pot onto the hearth and yanked the bacon from the grate.

“What’s wrong?” Her sleepy voice drifted from the bed.

Rafe glanced over his shoulder. She sat up and stretched like a cat. Her thin shirt tightened over her breasts as she extended both arms over her head.

He dropped two eggs.

“Nothing’s wrong. I just really wanted bacon this morning, but I burned it.”

Maggie chuckled.

“It’s not funny.”

“It’s a little funny. I smelled burnt bacon the first night I was here. Makes me think this must be a regular morning occurrence for you.”

He shot her a thin smile. “Your slice is burned, too, you know.”

She unfolded her long legs from the blanket and walked to the fire. “How about if I fry some more?” He shrugged. “I can eat mine burned.” The last thing he wanted was her taking care of him.

“I could chop some bacon into gravy and pour it over last night’s biscuits. Maybe fry some eggs?” He looked down at the black pork. “Well, if you’re cooking yours anyway, I guess I’d eat some.” She smiled, like he hadn’t fooled her at all. He probably hadn’t.

Rafe poured himself some coffee, then leaned against the table to watch her cook. He should just go back to the barn and wait. It would be less torturous. But then he’d never had the sense God gave a rock. If he had, he wouldn’t know what her mouth tasted like, what her breasts felt like.

“I’m going to the barn.” He slapped his cup into the table and ran like the coward he was.

Running away from a problem was what he did best, what he did in St. Louis after the war. Yes, Mother had disowned him, had thrown him out, but a real man would have stood his ground, faced his stepfather, faced the accusations. The fact that he left like a whipped dog burned his gut with shame. Even more so now that a respectable woman looked at him as if he was still a good man. He wasn’t good enough for Maggie. Maybe he hadn’t been before the war, but too much killing, too much guilt had changed him for the worst. The best thing he could do for her was leave her alone. Get her to St. Louis untouched.

A half hour later, he plodded back to the cabin. She was filling their plates when he walked through the door.

He accepted his, then settled in the rocker. A way from temptation.

“Will we leave for Fort Craig this morning?” Maggie set her plate on the table.

“No.”

“Why? Is it snowing again?” She glanced at the door.

“No, but Moses is favoring his front foot. His fetlock is swollen.” No matter how much Rafe wanted to travel, crippling Moses was out of the question.

“Will he be all right?” Her brow wrinkled.

“Yeah, but I want him to rest for a day. Maybe two.

But we’ll leave as soon as possible.”

She nodded and chewed her lip, a sure sign she was thinking. “What are you going to do today then?”

“Why?” He didn’t it like when she got ideas. It led to no good.

“Well, I’d like to do the wash. If we’re leaving tomorrow, I want clean clothes. Do you have a wash tub?”

“In the barn.”

“Would you be willing to help me fill it?” His shoulders relaxed. She couldn’t cause trouble just doing the wash. “Of course. I’ll bring it inside after breakfast and start carrying the water.”

“Fine. Whatever dirty clothing you have, just leave here by the fireplace.”

He shook his head. “You’re not my servant.”

“I never thought I was. But if I’m washing my clothes, I might as well wash yours, too.”

“Maggie—”

“You said no arguing, Rafe. If I’m not allowed, you’re not allowed.”

He closed his eyes and slowly counted to ten. “I’m going to check my traps along the creek today. Want me to leave Wolf with you?”

“Why?”

“I don’t want you to be afraid—being alone and all.” She chewed her lip again. “No. He’s used to going with you.”

Rafe finished his food and carried his plate to the wash bucket. “Open the door for me, all right? I’ll get the tub first, then the water.”

By the time the last buckets were heating, he had his pack ready. Maggie stuffed two wrapped biscuits into his pocket and handed him his canteen.

“Don’t expect me back before supper.” Suddenly that seemed a long time to be away from her.

“I’ll be fine.” She smiled. “I have plenty to do. A nd I want to draw.”

“A ll right.” He nodded, trying to dispel the uneasy feeling in his gut. “I’ll see you tonight.”

****

Sonofabitch! Rafe staggered up the path to the house, his torn sleeve dripping a red trail across the snowy yard. The half moon made a poor guide, throwing more shadows than light. He hadn’t been sure he’d make it home before he bled to death. The damned trap had almost snapped his arm in two.

He clutched his arm and fell into the door, slamming it against the wall.

Maggie shrieked.

“Jesus!” he exclaimed, then turned his back to her. “I thought you were doing laundry.” But Christ, no. Instead she sat squeezed into the tiny washtub, her long legs hanging over the side, her lush breasts gleaming and slick and puckered and…

Rafe groaned and glanced over his shoulder. A mistake. She was climbing from the tub.

Water dripped from her dark nipples, streamed down her stomach, caught in the black curls between her pale thighs.

“I—I thought you’d be gone longer,” she stammered, pulling her loose shirt over her wet body. “You said tonight. Why are you—?”

Blood spattered onto his boot. A nd at the moment, he didn’t give a damn. If he was going to die, this was a hell of a send-off party.

“Your arm is bleeding!”

He nodded. “I know.” He gritted his teeth to keep from yelping as he pressed a handkerchief against his arm.

She rushed to his side and tugged him to the dining table. “What happened?” She pushed him into a chair and stripped off his coat.

“One of the traps was jammed. When I tried to reset it, the damn thing nearly took off my arm.” He cursed when she pulled his bloody shirt free.

“I’m sorry. Just one more.” She eased his arm from his union suit. Blood ran from the jagged gash and dripped onto the floor. The deep wound stretched from his forearm to his wrist.

“God, Rafe.” She paled.

“Don’t swoon! I can doctor it myself if you can’t.” She swallowed hard. “No. I’ll do it. Do you keep a needle and thread?”

He shook his head. “Just cauterize it. It’s faster.” Maggie cringed. “Do you know how bad that will hurt?”

He scoffed. “Worse than repeatedly sticking me with a needle?” He held up a hand before she could argue.

“Fine. There’s sewing supplies on the shelves beside my books. Just bring me the whiskey from the larder. I’m going to need it.”

She nodded and stood, then gaped at her clothing as if she just realized what she wore. The damp material stuck to her curves, her nipples, the shadow between her legs. Christ. She might as well have been naked again.

Her gaze flew to Rafe’s. No doubt she could see the lust in his eyes. He hurt too badly to disguise it.

“I’ll get the supplies,” she whispered, then ran into the larder. Despite the pain that radiated from his arm, his cock hardened at the sight of her round ass, her long slick legs.

He groaned and closed his eyes, concentrating on his arm. That pain was much more bearable than the one in his groin. He didn’t open his eyes until he sensed her beside him, heard her pour whiskey into a cup.

“Fill it up,” he said when she stopped at half.

She lifted her eyebrow but did as he asked. While she gathered the supplies, he drained the cup and let the burn take his mind off her. Turning up the lantern wick, her eyes held an apology as she picked up the jug. “I have to do this. I’m sorry.”

He cursed, then gritted his teeth as the whiskey burned into his arm. Tears filled her eyes as she set the jug down. Giving her a tight smile, he held out his cup.

“I’m fine. But I think I deserve a second cup.” She nodded and leaned to pour. Her breasts swayed close to his face, so close he could turn his head and suck the nipple. A ll he had to do was open and—

“Ready?” The needle twinkled between her fingers.

He sipped the whiskey. “A s I’ll ever be.” Perching on the edge of the hearth, she placed his arm on the table. He gulped a large drink and closed his eyes again. A fter a few minutes—and several sips—he looked at Maggie. Head bent, she took small, neat stitches. Her damp hair fanned over her shoulder and hung between her full breasts.


Page 18

Damn. He should just keep drinking and quit thinking. Once again he could see her in the tiny wash tub. Nipples rosy from the hot water, legs hanging over the edge…

He groaned at the memory, his cock stiff against his pants.

“I’m sorry.” No doubt she thought she caused him pain. She had, but not in his arm. “A lmost finished.” He nodded. “It’s fine.” A nother drink burned down his throat.

“Where’s Wolf?”

“I put him in the barn. Didn’t want him getting riled up over all the blood.”

“Oh. Well, I’ll clean it up as soon as I’m finished with this so he can come inside.”

Sweat beaded her upper lip and forehead as she concentrated. Using his good arm, he poured himself another whiskey. Then another. The pain wasn’t too bad now.

“There. What do you think?” She leaned back and studied her work.

He looked down at the long, neat row of stitches.

“Looks real good.” He gave her a smile. “Thank you.”

“Just let me get a rag and clean the blood off you.

Then you should lie down.”

She started to wet a rag, but he stopped her. “No need. I’ll just get into your bath.”

Her eyes widened. “It’s likely cold.”

“Then I won’t stay in long.” He winked, then drained the cup. No doubt about it, the pain was almost gone.

She chewed her lip as he pulled his good arm from the union suit. “I don’t know…at least let me heat another bucket of water to add to the tub.”

He watched her walk to the door and step outside to fill bucket with snow. When she turned, her nipples puckered from the cold.

No amount of whiskey could keep him from noticing that.

She sat the bucket beside the fire to heat and picked up the jug.

“One more before you put it away.” He held out his empty cup.

“What if you get hurt again? Shouldn’t you leave some for the next time?”

He grinned and held out his cup. “Please? A nd I wondered if you could do one more thing?” Her dark brows puckered.

“Help me with my boots?” She looked as he lifted a foot. “It’s hard to do without both hands.” She grabbed hold of the toe and pulled. “They’re stuck.”

“No. You’ll have to turn around. Straddle my leg and pull from the heel.”

She thumped the jug onto the table and stepped across his legs.

Oh, bad idea. Bad idea. His cock damn near exploded, the tingling urgency shooting up from his balls as she fought with his boots. Her rounded hips wiggled with each tug of the tight leather, her damn shirt stuck to pale ass cheeks, tempting him to say forget his arm and fuck this woman.

A bead of sweat rolled down his temple. He shouldn’t torture himself like this.

Close your eyes. He couldn’t.

“There.” She dropped the last boot to the floor and brushed the hair from her eyes. “You should consider new boots. Those are too tight.”

He nodded. If he tried to speak he’d make a fool of himself.

She stepped into the larder. “I’ll wait in here while you undress. Tell me when you’re in the water.” He stepped out of his clothes and climbed into the tub. “You can come out now.” He downed the last whiskey.

She came out but stayed behind him. Damn his bad luck. He wanted to look at her.

Bristles scratched against the floor as she scrubbed the blood stains, and he groaned, imagining the bounce of her breasts with each stoke of the brush.

“I’m sorry there’s nothing to give you for pain.” He glanced over his shoulder at her and grinned.

“I’m not feeling much pain.” The empty cup dangled from one finger.

She pursed her lips. “Maybe not. But tomorrow will be a different story.”

He chuckled. If she was trying to sound stern, she failed.

“Well, I’m making coffee anyway.” She stood and listed to reach the cup.

“Wait.” He grabbed her hand before she walked away. “Will you do something else for me first?” Her nod jiggled her breasts. He swallowed hard almost desperate enough—drunk enough—to ask for what he really wanted. Her pussy surrounding his cock.

A lmost.

“Wash my back?” Coward.

Her gaze flew to his. “But you’re naked.” Rafe smiled. “So were you awhile ago. I didn’t complain.” A nd he wasn’t complaining now. The firelight turned her shirt transparent. “You don’t want me to get my stitches all wet, do you?”

“I suppose not.” She set the empty cup on the floor and knelt behind the tub.

He passed the soap over his shoulder. “Thank you.” The first touch was heaven. Silky, soft hands smoothing over his aching shoulders. A nd hell. Her caress sparking a sensual fire hot enough to toast the devil. “Mmm. That feels good.”

She worked the tense muscles, her palms strong and warm. He leaned forward tempting her to slide lower, lower. “A ll finished,” she announced, climbing to her feet.

Well, he wasn’t. A gain he grabbed her hand, pulling her to his side. “One more favor?” He rubbed lazy circles in her wet palm, hoping she didn’t notice his cock-head stretching past the water level. “Wash my hair?” She caught her lip between her teeth. A deep breath tightened her shirt, and a frown puckered her brow. He couldn’t stand if she refused. A ll day he’d thought about her, kissing her. Probably why he almost lost an arm.

“Please? I might rip a stitch trying to do it myself.”

“A ll right. Lean your head back.” She knelt again, her heavy breasts brushing his shoulder. Her fingertips moved in long, slow circles, erasing all the reasons he avoided her touch, her breath came in soft pants beside his ear.

“God, Maggie. You’re going to put me to sleep.”

“Then I better let you finish your bath.” She stood to go.

This time he caught her by the wrist. “It’s not fair, you know?”

“What?”

“You helped me take this long, relaxing bath but didn’t get to finish yours.”

“It’s all right.”

“There’s one way I can make it up to you,” he drawled.

“How?”

“Share.”

He tugged her wrist, and she fell, her bottom landing on his lap. Water sloshed and splashed on to the floor as she sputtered.

“Rafe! I—my—my shirt is all wet.”

Wet and sheer. The cotton clung to her breasts like a second skin, her pebbled nipples pressed against the white muslin. Sweat popped out on his forehead, trickling down his temple along with the water from his hair.

“It’s no more wet than before, and I could see through it then.”

Her eyes rounded.

“Don’t be embarrassed. You’re beautiful.” He threaded his fingers through her hair, pulling her closer.

“I need to kiss you. Can I? I know we said—”

“Kiss me, Rafe.” The raw plea nearly stopped his heart.

The first touch was soft, just a brush of lips whispering over hers, a flick of tongue over the seam of her mouth. A low groan rumbled from her throat, the erotic sound burning into his memory. He wanted to hear that sound again.

Blood filled his groin, and he wiggled beneath her bare ass. She gasped, and he took full advantage. His tongue swept hers, teasing, darting in, out, then thrusting in long, slow strokes until she moaned his name, sliding deep into her sweetness, hungry, demanding.

Why had he ever decided they should stop kissing?

She whimpered and sucked the tip of his tongue.

Christ! Where had she learned that? Lust roared through him like a locomotive. He was going to explode if she did it again. Time to take control. He slanted his head and captured her mouth with long, hot strokes that he mimicked with his hands. Knee to shoulder, shoulder to thigh. He needed to touch her everywhere.

His hand cupped her breast and flicked her nipple.

“Do you like that?”

She smiled and slid her hands down his chest. “Do you?” She pinched his flat nipple.

Damn, he did. A tremor stole through his body.

“God, yes.”

She leaned in and kissed him, running the tip of her pink tongue over his lips. He couldn’t stop the curse that tore from him, couldn’t stop where this was going.

A gain, he stroked her body, inching her shirt over her soft belly, over her tangled hair, until the wet fabric plopped onto the floor. She shivered.

“Let me look at you, sweetheart.”

Her full breasts begged for attention. Lowering his head, he sucked the tip into his mouth and tugged a nipple between his teeth, nipped, licked.

“Rafe!” She arched beneath him and gripped his head.

“Easy.” He slid his fingers between her legs, over the slick, swollen folds of her pussy. Hot. Wet.

“Ohh.”

Her soft moan propelled his hands. Searching fingers strummed the distended nub buried beneath her curls.

She jerked and clamped her thighs around his wrist, silk around bone.

“Rafe…Rafe.”

“Shh.” He raised his head from her breast. “Do you want me to stop?”

His cock pounded. Trapped between their bodies was not where it belonged. He ached to be buried deep inside her pussy.

“Don’t stop.” When she met his gaze, her eyes were dark, hazy with desire. Her legs fell open allowing him to brush over her tender flesh.

“Does that feel good, sweetheart?”

“Y—yesss.”

He nuzzled her temple. “Mmm, you feel good to me.” He nibbled down her neck and sucked the spot behind her ear. Her sultry-sweet taste melted against his tongue.

With each circle of his fingers, she bucked, moving with him, splashing water onto the floor. Her nails pierced his good arm. Mewls of pleasure broke the thick silence. She arched against his hand, her breasts puckered and tempting. He suckled hard, biting her nipple as he worked her hot, slippery pussy.

“Oh! Oh, God. Rafe, please.” Her cries filled the room, stretched his cock beyond hard, pre-cum leaking from the slit as honey from her orgasm slicked his fingers. If she could help him out of this damn tub, he’d show them both pleasure.

Her voice faded as her head fell to his shoulder.

Long, dark hair floated around his arm, his chest, entangling him like a vine.

“A re you all right?”

“Mmm.” She smiled against his chest. “A re you?” No. He was hornier than hell and his legs were asleep. So was his ass. “Yeah.” He squirmed.

“Oh.” She jumped. “I should move off you. I’m too heavy.”

“No.” He held her to him. To hell with his numb ass.

“You’re perfect.”

She blushed and climbed out of the tub. He stared as she turned to face him. Gleaming and slick, she looked like a water nymph. A visual feast.

“I’ll get a—Oh,” she stammered. “Oh, dear.” He followed her glance. The purple head of his cock stuck above the water.

He shrugged. “I’ll be all right.”

Her eyes widened, then she took a deep breath and got on her knees beside the tub.

“You made me feel so good…Can I do that to you? If I touch…your—um—”

Oh, God. What was she offering?

“My cock.” He swallowed hard. “Do you want to?” She exhaled and nodded.

“Thank God.”

She offered her hand. “Let’s move to the bed. I’ll get you a towel.”

When he stood, she stopped mid-stride and stared.

He glanced down. His cock pointed at her with the accuracy of a divining rod.

She blushed and handed him the towel.

“Don’t you want to dry me?” He kept his voice low, teasing.

“Do you need me to?”

“No. But I wouldn’t stop you.” He chuckled, then dropped a quick kiss to her nose. No matter how much sophistication she pretended, Maggie was innocent. A nd he would enjoy every minute of corrupting her.

He stepped from the tub, ready to forget the towel and let the sheets dry his body.

Then the room tilted, the walls swaying like a branch in the wind.

Maggie wrapped an arm around his waist. “Maybe you better go over to the bed before you fall.”

“Maybe.” He used her like a crutch. Staggering, they shuffled to the bed. “I was going to ask for another drink, but since I need help walking, I’m sure you’d refuse.”

“Smart man,” she answered as he flopped face down on the mattress.

The bed felt so good. A nd Maggie’s hands felt better.

She toweled his legs, his feet. His ass. “Mmm. Don’t stop.” He reached for her hands. “There’s another place that needs attention.”

“I have to bandage your arm first. Do you have any salve?”

He sighed and closed his eyes.

“Rafe?”

“What?” He blinked.

“I need some salve.”

“Oh,” he sighed. “There’s a tin in my haversack under the bed.” He closed his eyes again. Wasn’t he supposed to stay awake for something?

“I’ll tear some strips from my old petticoats to wrap your arm.”

She sounded far away, but had to be the one pulling a blanket over his body. He yawned. Maybe he could rest

—just for a minute. Maggie wouldn’t mind. Then he could make love to her all night.

****

Shivers prickled down Maggie’s body as she leaned against the horse stall. She came to the barn an hour ago to work—well, intending to work. In reality she’d done more standing, smiling like a fool at the memory of Rafe’s intimate touches, than she’d done work.

Being with him had been like nothing she’d expected.

Not that she’d known what to expect really. She’d seen that painting, and Nettie had told her the basics. But what Rafe had done couldn’t be basic. Otherwise women would chase men down the street, begging to be—


Page 19

“Maggie!” The barn door slammed open.

She straightened and peeked over Moses’ stall. Rafe burst through the door, then swayed and grabbed the wall.

“What are you doing awake already?”

He heaved a sigh. “I couldn’t find you. I was worried.”

Worried? Disheveled was more like it. His shirt flapped open, his britches were barely buttoned, his hair lay plastered to his forehead and blood seeped through his bandage.

“Why? I’m not the one with stitches.” She rounded the stall and carried a bucket for him to sit on. “Or the one about to fall down.”

“Well…” He refused the seat. “I was afraid you might be upset by what happened.”

“I’m fine. I helped Nettie stitch up her dog once after he got into a fight.”

“No, not that. A fterward. “ He cleared his throat.

“What we did. I mean, what I did. I took advantage of you.” He sucked a deep breath. “I’m sorry. Sorry if you’re uncomfortable around me now. I swear it won’t happen again. I hope you’ll forgive me.” He turned as if to leave.

Oh, she should have known. The whiskey had worn off and guilt had set in. Now he would go into the house and avoid her. A nger heated her blood. Well, she wasn’t going to let him do it. He wasn’t going to ruin the most amazing moment of her life. “Maybe I took advantage of you,” she countered, blocking the door.

He shook his head, and smiled like she was a simpleminded

child.

“That’s

not

even

possible,

sweetheart.” He tried to step around her.

She gave a very unladylike snort. “Really? You were injured and drunk. I could have done anything to you.

Maybe I did. Do you even remember what happened?”

“Of course! I pulled you into the bath and I—” He froze, his gray eyes going from angry to panicked to shuttered. “I shouldn’t—” He swallowed audibly. “I shouldn’t have touched you like I did.” His gaze dropped to the floor, but he sounded aroused instead of apologetic.

Maybe there was hope for him yet. Hope for them.

She stalked closer, and he flattened himself against the wall.

“What if I want to touch you?” She smoothed a palm over his chest. “Right now?” God, if he rejected her she would crawl under the hay. “Because I’m not sorry for what happened. In fact, I was hoping we could do it again. A nd,” she stammered, “and, more. I want you to make love to me. Why do you keep denying us?”

“Maggie…” He scooted away from her. “You don’t know what you’re offering. You have to save your virginity for the man you’ll marry.”

That was it. “You damned infuriating man!” She threw the rake to the floor before she clubbed him with it. “I know I’m inexperienced, so correct me if I’m wrong.

What happened in no way compromised my virginity?”

“Well…no.” He inched toward the door.

She took another step. “A nd since it is my virginity in question, I may give it to whomever I chose.”

“Your husband,” he insisted.

She pointed a finger in his face. “I won’t marry. I told you that. I’ve had a man telling me what I could and couldn’t do my whole life. But I’m through. From now on, I’ll do as I choose.” She narrowed her eyes. “With whomever I choose.”

“Just what does that mean?” His voice took a cold edge as he straightened and took a step toward her now.

“A re you going to take a lover when you return to St.

Louis?”

She lifted her shoulders, pretending to consider her options. “I might. If I find a man that interests me.”

“By God, you will not!” His eyes narrowed as his jaw tightened.

Oh, she had him now. “Why? Give me one good reason.”

“Because you’re mine, damn it.” The words exploded from him.

Maggie leaned toward him, close enough her breasts brushed his chest. She smiled.

Rafe groaned.

She wasn’t sure who moved first, but they were wrapped around each other. He held her with his good arm as he spun her back to the wall. The hard oak pressed against her shirt, but what pressed against her front was much harder. Rafe. His heated…cock ground into her belly as he rained kisses over her face. She looped her arms around his neck, beckoning, needing.

He bent and leaned his forehead against hers.

“You’re sure?” He brushed his lips across hers. Once.

Twice. “Be sure, Maggie.”

“I’m sure,” she breathed against his mouth. He tasted hot, wonderful, sinful, the whiskey still bitter on his lips.

He kept her pressed to the wall as they kissed.

His body strained against hers, his hands moved beneath her coat. She held her breath, waiting to see where he would touch, what he would caress. Her nipples tightened into peaks as if begging for the first touch of his talented hand. Or mouth. Oh, God!

“Maggie. God.” He pulled away long enough to take a breath. “We need to go into the house. We can’t do this here.”

She pulled his head to hers and kissed him again, her tongue stroking, wet and wild, imitating what his hips were doing. One hand squeezed her breast; his other snaked down into her trousers, his fingers probing into her dripping cunny.

He groaned again. “I mean it, sweetheart. If we don’t go inside now, I’m going to take you here on this floor.” She smiled again and sashayed to the door. “Well, come on. What are you waiting for?”

Chapter Eight

What was he doing? God, where was his resolve?

He watched her leave the barn and walk to the cabin.

Her hips swayed, silhouetted in the sunset.

Gone, gone, gone. He was gone. A long with his resolve, his strength, his fight. Hell, he didn’t want to fight her anymore. She did belong to him, with him. He didn’t want to think about how he would work through all the obstacles in their way. Not right now. Not with her waiting inside for him.

Following like a puppy, he hurried inside the cabin then settled his hip on the table and stared at her. “Come here.”

Her breath came in little pants as she drifted to him.

Pulling her between his legs, he wrapped his arms around her waist. Slowly, he traced the seam of her lips with his tongue until she opened, sucking him deeply.

Carnal images of her sucking his dick the same way popped into his mind, and a tremor of pleasure rolled through him.

The musk of her arousal wafted in the space between them as he rubbed her pussy through her pants. Tugging open the buttons, he slid a finger between her slick folds, so wet, so ready.

“Ohh,” she groaned, and her head fell back.

He slipped his other hand under her shirt, watching her reaction as he rolled her nipple between his fingers.

“I want to feel you, too.” She reached for his waistband and snaked her hand down his britches, cupping his sac with her cool hand, making his balls draw up tight.

“We have to move to the bed, sweetheart. Now.” Otherwise he was going to come in his pants.

“Why can’t we stay here awhile?” Her smile was pure seduction, curving the edge of her mouth as if she had a secret. “I had this dream…”

His heart stuttered. “W-what kind of dream?”

“You, me, this table.” She stroked his cock. “I was naked, and there were peaches scattered over my body.

Your own personal plate.”

His heart stopped. Christ. “I don’t have any peaches, but I’d be glad to eat you.” Dropping to his knees, he lifted her shirt and licked from her navel to the top of her pussy, savoring the taste of her dew.

“Oh, God. What are you doing to me?” Her voice trembled more than her legs.

“I’m having my dessert first. Hop up here—”

“Hellooo?” A voice broke through his lust-hazed mind. What…?

Wolf barked once and raced to the door. The fur on the back of his neck ruffled in agitation.

Rafe caught Maggie’s hand and freed himself from her hold. “Stop.”

“What? Why? You said we—?”

He placed his hand over her mouth and waited.

“A nybody home?” The voice came again.

Panic shot through Rafe’s veins, spurring him like lightning. “Come on. Hurry!” He clutched Maggie’s arm and dragged her into the larder. This is what he got for not being attentive. Somebody had found them!

She pulled against his hold. “What’s wrong?”

“Didn’t you hear? A man is outside.” He tucked her behind a large sack of potatoes and grabbed his rifle.

“Get down and stay in here.”

“But I—”

“Do not argue with me!” He checked the ammunition, then gave her a hard warning glare. “Stay in here no matter what you hear. A nd be quiet. I don’t want him to know you’re here.”

She frowned. “Rafe—”

He kissed her, effectively cutting off her words. “No.

Don’t come out until I tell you it’s safe or—” He hesitated, hating what he had to say next. “Or until you haven’t heard anything for a whole day.”

His gut clenched when her eyes filled with tears.

“You mean…” Her bottom lip quivered. “Oh, Rafe, no.” She grabbed his arm and tried to pull herself upright.

This is why he didn’t deserve her. Maggie was the kind of woman who should never have to feel fear. A nd if he lived through the next few minutes, he’s make sure she never did again.

“I’ll be all right.” He crouched beside her and cupped her cheek. “I’m hard to kill.” That didn’t seem to reassure her. Hot tears rolled over his fingers. Damn it, he didn’t want to leave her like this.

“Let me help you,” she begged. “Please. Give me a gun.”

He shook his head. “Promise you’ll stay hidden. If you’re trapped, move the crate of potatoes. There’s a tunnel there. It leads outside. I’ve got supplies hidden in the tunnel. Candles, a blanket. A pistol. You take everything and run.”

“But—” Her voice caught on a sob.

Damn, he hated watching her fall apart. It tore him apart like a shotgun blast.

“Maggie…” He tugged her into his arms and kissed her hard. Not a tender kiss, not like a good-bye kiss should be at all, but—

“McBride? You there?”

“I have to go.” When he pulled away, she grasped his hand and pressed a kiss to the palm. “Remember what I said.”

A quick nod of her head gave him the courage to move the shelves back into place and leave her in the dark.

He edged to the door. Cracking it open with the end of the rifle, he pulled back the hammer. Wolf growled low in his throat. Rafe swallowed and leveled the barrel.

He might only get one shot.

“Dag-blame it. Shouldn’t have come up here. Don’t know why I thought I could make this trip.” Tom’s muffled voice echoed in the air.

Relief hit Rafe like a freight wagon. Jesus, he needed to sit down. He clenched his fists to stop the shakes, then opened the door and waved to Tom who trudged up the path.

Rafe hurried to the alcove and slid the shelves from the larder door. “It’s all right, Maggie. It’s Tom.” She stumbled into his arms. Her reddened eyes and tear-stained cheeks stabbed his heart. This was why she had to go, no matter how much he wanted her to stay.

“Shh,” he soothed. “Everything is fine. I’m fine.”

“I was so scared.” She swiped her cheeks with the back of her shaking hand.

“I know.” He stroked her hair. “I’m sorry. I—”

“Hmm. May be, that I shouldn’a come.” Tom stood in the doorway, wringing his hands.

“No.”

“No.” Maggie’s voice echoed Rafe’s. She dried her eyes on her sleeve, then turned to face Tom. “We’re glad to see you. Come in out of the cold.”

“Sure glad to see you’re still here, Miss Maggie.” He tugged a pack off his stooped shoulders and shrugged out of his coat. “I got somethin’ for you.” He smiled and pulled a leather satchel from bundle.

“My drawings!” She dashed to the table. “How did you get them?”

“A couple of hours after you ‘n Rafe left, your cousin had himself a fit, he did. Threw these all over Zeke’s place. Me and Zeke picked ‘em up. Didn’t seem right to let them ruin.”

“Oh, Tom.” Maggie pulled out sketch after sketch and smoothed her hand over each. “I don’t know how to tell you how much this means.” Tears filled her eyes again.

“You sure do got a talent for drawing, Miss Maggie. I ain’t never seen nothing so purty.”

Rafe peeked over her shoulder. Talent was an understatement. She had captured the harsh landscape and weathered people, the weary animals and shanty towns all the way from St. Louis to Colorado. A nd somehow she made it all beautiful. These drawings needed to be in one of the galleries in St. Louis.

“Thank you.” She jumped from her chair and hugged Tom. “Thank you so much. How can I ever repay you?”

“Well…I was hopin’ you’d let me stay for Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow.” He grinned.

Her eyes widened. “Tomorrow is Thanksgiving?”

“Yup.”

She looked to Rafe.

“Don’t ask me.” He’d been at war in ‘63 when Lincoln encouraged everyone to partake of the special day. There sure as hell hadn’t been anything to celebrate on the battlefield, and not enough food if the men had wanted to.

Tom nodded in assurance. “It’s tomorrow. I checked.”

“Well, yes. Of course then. We’ll have Thanksgiving.

I’ll bake some bread and boil potatoes and…and fix some kind of meat.”

“A nd pie.” Tom smacked his lips. “You reckon you could make me a pie?”

“Um…” Her eyebrows lifted.

“There are some dried apples in the larder,” Rafe offered. He’d saved them for Moses, but the thought of a pie made his mouth water. A lmost as much as Maggie made his mouth water.

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