Excerpt from PROMISES KEEP

Copyright © Sarah McCarty 2004
All rights reserved Ellora's Cave, Inc.

He'd never had to work so hard to keep a promise.

Cougar stepped out of the shadowed livery and into the street. A wagon loaded with squealing pigs rolled by, slipping in the mud left over from three days of steady rain. He held his breath until it passed, not only because of the stench, but because if those back wheels lodged, he'd be obliged to help out. If he did that, all the trouble he'd taken with his appearance this morning would be for nothing.

The wagon lurched free. Cougar started breathing again and immediately wished he had gills so he could breathe without his nose getting involved. The hot humid air was loaded with the scents of animals, manure and garbage. The first two he could live with, seeing as how they were natural like, but the last-

He shook his head. Pure and simple, toss garbage into an ally, drown it in moisture, and then bake it in the sun and the resulting stench would have a skunk begging for mercy.

He angled the brim of his hat to better shade his vision as he waited for a flatbed tied high with lumber to pass so he could search the other side of the street. It wouldn't be hard to locate his quarry since his eyes were trained to pick out a tiny woman inevitably dressed in brown, who walked like the world was hers for the taking.

That never ceased to amuse him. The only dress he had ever seen Mara Kincaid wear was too big, obviously a cast-off. The damned thing had been mended so often it was in danger of disintegrating with the next light breeze, but she carried herself as if she were a queen in silks, casually making her way to her throne.

There was something about that arrogant defiance that just made him smile and want to wrap her in cotton wool to keep her safe. Unfortunately, accepting his protection seemed something she was loath to do. For six months he'd been trying, and he was no closer today than he'd been at the beginning. At first, he'd thought it a blessing that Mara didn't remember him from the Pleasure Emporium. Doc said large doses of laudanum had that effect on people, breaking their memories into senseless bits and pieces. He'd figured he could use the memory loss to his advantage, but his relief had died a quick death when it became apparent that Mara's sole focus was getting enough money together to start over. Somewhere else.

He shook his head. As if he'd let that happen. She might not recognize it yet as she'd been ducking his attempts at conversation for the last six months with a quickly muttered "excuse me." and an equally quick departure, but she was staying put. And not just because of his promise though that was reason enough. No. She was staying because she intrigued him. She wasn't his normal type. She had no breasts, no hips and no confidence. She had no social status and wouldn't bring anything to his life but scandal. Worse yet, she was terrified of sex, and he was a man of healthy appetites, but none of that seemed to matter when he looked at her. She flashed those eyes, set that chin, overcame another challenge and he'd be intrigued all over again. So she was staying and he had to consider how far he wanted to take his promise because something had to be done.

Mara could not continue as she was, a woman alone with no man's claim to protect her. An unattached woman of questionable background was too much temptation for some men to resist, and though he'd done his best to let everyone know she was under his protection, Mara's continual snubs were putting her in serious jeopardy.

He stepped to the side to let Cyrus Johnson get past. As the big plow horse Cyrus rode plodded out from the livery, he nodded to the farmer.

"Howdy, Cyrus."

Cyrus' response was a nod. Cougar didn't take offense. Cyrus was as tight with his words as with his money, but he was a likable sort for all that. Lousy at cards though, which was a shame because the man had a penchant for playing that landed him in hot water with his wife. A body could always tell when Cyrus landed on the wrong side of his wife's tongue. He'd turn up the next day in town, buy a pound of penny candy, and leave as quickly as he'd come. It happened so regularly, men had taken to betting on the dates the same way they'd bet on births. It'd been a month since Cyrus' last candy purchase. From the set of the older man's shoulders, it appeared that money would be changing hands tomorrow.

Cougar chuckled and resumed his search of the opposite side of the street. This time of day, Mara would be heading for the restaurant where she washed dishes. The woman worked from sunup to sundown, and he wasn't sure she didn't work the hours in between.

Another wagon lumbered past. While he waited for it to get out of the way, he noted he was beginning to sweat. He moved his arms away from his body. Things were going to be tough enough without him adding aromas of his own to the mix.

The wagon cleared his sight. In the same split second he spotted Mara, he saw the cowboy confronting her. The wrangler had his hand around Mara's arm. Cougar saw her tug to get free. He saw the man yank her back. He saw the frantic glance she cast at the nearby group of men. He saw two of the four men look the other way. Another pretended indifference while the last stepped closer to view the show.

Cougar settled his black Stetson more firmly on his head. For too long, he'd been forced by society's rules to stand aside while the citizens of this town directly or indirectly tormented a woman with more guts than sense. While no one could be sure that Mara had come from The Pleasure Emporium, enough rumor had followed her from Cattle Crossing to Cheyenne to make the less scrupulous think they could take advantage. He'd been biding his time, waiting for Mara Kincaid to acknowledge his interest, to make it known to everyone she accepted his protection, but enough was enough.

He stepped between riders and wagons. He sighed as muck squished over the tops of his brand new 'courting' boots. If he was a superstitious man, he'd take it as a bad omen, but he wasn't superstitious. He was just damned tired of waiting. Mara was his. He wanted her in his bed. In his life. He wanted that stubborn, opinionated little spitfire like hell on fire and he'd stopped questioning why after the first month. It wasn't the circumstances surrounding their meeting, and it wasn't the fact that she'd made him come when no one else had. It was the woman herself that called to him. Just looking at her gave him pleasure and watching her move could set his back teeth to aching and his cock straining in his pants.

The cowboy grabbed Mara's arm again with fingers so dirty and tanned, they were almost invisible against the brown material of her dress. The contrast between the size of that hand and the thinness of the arm it encircled enraged Cougar. He could imagine how frightened she was. The frantic glance she cast his way spurred him on. There was an acceptance in that look that made his blood heat. She would not lump him in with the rest of the worthless scum that drifted through Cattle Crossing!

The cowboy jerked her up short, slamming Mara against the storefront. Her angry shout coincided with her shoulder hitting the building. He really shouldn't have done that, Cougar decided. That was going to cost him. Big time. He could have let the rest go, putting the loss of judgment down to too long on the trail and too long at the bottle, but no one manhandled his woman. No one

Cougar had about ten more steps to go before he came into the cowboy's view. He hoped that Mara would restrain herself long enough for him to come to her rescue. It was a pretty slim hope. When push came to shove, she had a habit of striking first and being cautious later.

He watched Mara's chin come up almost fatalistically. He started to run, but it was too late two steps into the decision, because along with her chin came the parcel in her hand. There was the sound of breaking glass as it smashed into the cowboy's face and then all hell broke loose.

The cowboy's retaliation was quick and sure. While still reeling from the impact, he struck Mara in the side with his fist. She smashed back against the storefront, her head cracking the glass pane in the window. For a moment, she held still, her expression frozen before she drifted slowly, like a discarded feather, to the ground.

With a roar, Cougar leapt on the wrangler, seeing nothing but red as the image of that huge fist connecting with that tiny body repeated itself in his head. With every repetition, he pummeled his victim harder, searching for all the vulnerable places where he knew the effect of his two hundred pound frame would be felt the most.

It took four men to pull him off the useless skunk. When he looked down, there was a spot on the man's cheek that was clean. The sight of it insulted him.

"Take it easy, McKinnely," one of the men growled when Cougar's elbow connected with his stomach. "For all her airs, she's just a whore."

With great satisfaction, Cougar felt his knuckles split as they connected with the man's teeth.

"Anyone else got an opinion?" he asked as he turned, silently challenging any of the rest to open their mouths and say something equally as stupid. As one, they threw up their hands and backed off. That suited him just fine.

He stepped over to where Mara lolled against the building. Her eyes were closed, and he got a sick feeling in his gut. Spirit aside, she was a tiny thing. A mere nothing against a man's fist. Lightly tapping her cheeks, he was gratified to note her breathing was regular, if a little wispy. Holding her cheeks between his big palms, he eased his face close to hers. Each word was precisely enunciated.

"Miss Kincaid? Can you hear me? I've got to get you to Doc."

Her eyes fluttered open. "No."

The response was weak, but her chin shot up and defiance entered her gaze. Cougar didn't know whether she was denying going with him or hearing him. In the end, he figured it didn't matter. From the wetness on his fingertips, he figured the back of her head had been cut by the glass.

He gentled his voice, trying to suppress the anger edging his drawl while his thumbs smoothed across the skin drawn too tightly over her high cheekbones. "I'm sorry I didn't get across the street fast enough to prevent this."

Was it his imagination or was that a "bull shit" he saw her lips shape? His mouth quirked up at the thought. "You're going to have to trust me, Miss. At least until we get out of here."

There was no marked change in her face, so close to his. Cougar shook his head. The woman was sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, the rags she wore tossed well above her ankles. She was barely able to breathe, yet she still clung to her dignity like a child clutching a blanket.

"I'm going to have to carry you," he explained in the face of another violent shake of her head that had her moaning. "There's no way you can get there yourself."

He settled back on his heels as he slid his hands around her body. "I suppose I could bring Doc to you, but he'd have to unbutton your dress to check your ribs, and that would draw a crowd. On a hot day like today, the last place I want to be is corralled on the street with a bunchy of sweaty, leering wranglers."

This time there was no mistaking the words her lips were twisting around, even if he hadn't managed to catch the breathy, "Go to Hell."

He laughed as he very gently lifted her up. Her chin went up two degrees higher. He looked down and his laughter lingered. Delicate was not a word a body used to describe a chin like that. Pugnacious, yes, but delicate, never. In the last six months, he'd developed a real liking for pugnacious.

"I can walk," she gasped.

Her face was waxen. The limbs draped across his arms trembled and she couldn't get a decent breath to swear at him, yet she intended to walk clear across town to Doc's office? "Yeah. Right."

That chin crept up another notch. "If you will just put me down, I will prove it to you."

"You can prove anything you like when we get to Doc's."

"If you don't put me down, Mr. McKinnely, I'm going to hurt you."

If he wasn't mistaken, the hand trapped between their bodies was groping for his privates. A surge of tenderness snuck up on his blind side.

"Well, I'm not going to hurt you," he countered quietly as he stepped back down into the muddy street. In this position, she wouldn't be able to reach her target. In this position, she was pretty much defenseless. Her hand retreated as she realized it, too.

Cougar watched resignation creep over her face. She expected him to carry her off to some dark corner and have his way with her. The terror of that was there in her eyes right along with her determination to prevent it. Her lips quivered once before tightening resolutely. She would fight him with whatever she had. Damn, she was something.

"Take heart, Angel," he murmured, his gaze trapping her cinnamon-brown eyes. "Everything's going to be all right from here on out. You've got my word on it."

With a slow movement, she shook her head. There was no way she'd given up the fight.

He ignored the negative. "That's right. You trust me from here to Doc's office, and I'll prove to you that not every man in this town is so eager to get under your skirts that they can't remember how a decent woman is supposed to be treated."

She avoided his gaze. "I'm not decent."

"Well," he admitted, "I'll allow that you're not showing your best, but it's nothing a good bath and a mirror wouldn't fix."

The repercussions of his light humor had her gaze slamming back into his. Her mouth opened and closed. Once. Twice. On the third attempt, she just huffed and glared at him. From deep within, her eyes lit with anger. The sight held his attention.

Her features were even, her nose small, her mouth full and wide. In short, she was pretty enough, but it was her eyes that drove him crazy. Brown, lit with a touch of fire, they screamed every thought she suppressed, and belied the delicacy of her face and body. The woman was all grit and determination. She'd make a hell of a wife. A hell of a mother. And a hell of a lover if she brought that fire to his bed.

He met the anger in her gaze with calm. She didn't understand it yet but it was a misplaced emotion. He wasn't an easy man or necessarily a civilized one, but he was a man a woman could put her trust in. He couldnÕt keep her safe from a distance. He couldn't keep her safe following polite rules. The only way he could keep her safe was to make his claim public. Which he intended to do as soon as possible.

"If you weren't such an impulsive little thing, you wouldn't have gotten hurt at all," he pointed out. A grin tugged at the corners of his mouth as she uttered an "Excuse me?" that would have done a school marm proud.

"Well, if you'd waited long enough for me to get my boots unstuck from the mud," he continued, "I'd have taken care of that yahoo for you."

An unladylike, very sarcastic snort was her response. "I suppose you'd have been right in line behind the rest of this town's inhabitants?"

He stopped in front of the door to Doc's office. He glanced down into her belligerent face. "Now that's where you'd be wrong."

He shifted her weight in his arms so he could reach the door latch. "I'd be heading up the line and putting as much distance between them and me as possible."

He deposited her in the chair just inside the door. He wasn't too surprised to see her chin still reaching for the sky or her fists clenched in her lap. The town hadn't been too open to her arrival on their doorstep. He'd done everything he could to ease her acceptance, but too many people suspected where she'd come from for it to go smoothly.

"Mr. McKinnely, I have a fair idea why you have gone to all this trouble, and," her eyes met his bravely, "I'm afraid you have been wasting your time. I am not going to fall into your lap like a ripe plum just because you happen to display a shred of human decency."

Cougar shrugged. "My luck has never been that good."

"Excuse me?"

"I've always had to fight for what I want," he elaborated on his way to the far wall where Doc had scribbled a message on a slate board. Doc had offices in three towns. A message system was the only way to keep track of him.

She didn't like the sound of that, Mara decided. She pulled herself upright, ignoring the pain in her head and her ribs. "I'll thank you not to want me."

He didn't even spare her a glance over his shoulder as he calmly stated, "That'd be like telling me not to breathe."

She swallowed back a gasp. It wasn't what he said but more the way he said it that started her stomach churning. This wasn't the first time she'd dealt with a determined male, but this was the first time she'd had to deal with one that made her feel...unsure. Maybe it was the sheer size of him that intimidated her.

He was tall, but also big-boned. The breadth of his shoulders made her heart trip in dismay. If he ever decided he wanted her, there was no way she could escape. Not like when that skinny Orville had presumed too much. A right to the chin combined with a knee to the groin had convinced him he'd been mistaken.

Her fingers tangled in the material of her skirt as McKinnely turned to face her. The determination in his deep gold eyes nearly made her rip open the side seam she'd repaired last night. Word was that once McKinnely decided he wanted something, not even the devil could dissuade him. She'd heard somewhere that he'd spent time as a marshal. She bet he'd been a good one. There was a ruthlessness about him that scared her silly. She absolutely could not have him wanting her.

He took two steps in her direction, and she leapt to her feet. The sudden move made her ribs scream like she wanted to. She put the chair between them, and then laughed out loud at her lunacy. An entire army troop wouldn't stop this man if he wanted her, let alone the flimsy ladder-back chair she'd chosen as protection.

The feel of a callused palm sliding across the back of her hand choked off the hysterical laughter more effectively than if that hand had slid across her mouth. Paralyzed, she closed her eyes and garnered her courage. I am a Kincaid. I will survive this.

The hand continued its slow glide. Equally callused fingers encircled her wrist and tugged. The floorboards creaked as he took the step necessary to bring him alongside. Despite her best intentions, a gasp escaped as McKinnely surely, inexorably brought her against his belly. His hand cupped the back of her head. She braced herself for the pain that would tear through her scalp when he curled his fingers into her hair and yanked her head back for the decent of his mouth.

Instead, his hand pressed her cheek against his chest. He smelled of soap, tobacco and something else. Something uniquely male. Something uniquely him. Something pleasant. Beneath her ear, she heard his heart's steady rhythm. She heard his breath escape in a long sigh and felt her hair part where that breath blew across her head.

"I'm not going to hurt you, Miss Kincaid."

Thrown off balance, she could only ask, "Why?"

The fingers on the back of her head threaded through the shambles of her bun and massaged small circles on her scalp. "Because it's not my way."

Two hairpins hit the floor with little pings of protest. Mara closed her eyes against the urge to melt into the first kindness she'd experienced in a long, long time. "It's been my experience that men and women define hurt differently."

"I wouldn't base the opinions of a lifetime on the last few months if I were you."

It was probably a trick caused by the way his chest muffled his voice, but somehow his tone sounded kinder and gentler than she'd remembered from their previous encounters. She tried to pull back, but he wouldn't allow it and that fueled her anger more than a slap ever could. "Well, you're not me, and until you've been drugged, torn apart by a man's lust, and then ostracized because of it, you've no right to think anything."

Was that her imagination, or did the man just wince?

"I'm sorry that happened to you."

So was she, but that didn't change anything. "Let me go, Mr. McKinnely."

"I can't do that."

"Yes. You can. All you have to do is drop your hands to your sides and keep them there."

His response to her snapping was a laugh that rumbled up from deep within. "If I do that," he pointed out in a reasonable voice, "You'll fall."

He was right. For all her belligerence, her body was resting against his as if he was the sole support in a world gone awry. Her face flooded with heat. She pushed herself away. Mara ducked her head in the hopes that her hair would hide her embarrassment.

It was a vain hope.

Cougar chuckled and steadied her with a hand to her shoulder. "Doc's back at his place," he said. "We're going to have to get you out there."

She slowly straightened and flicked at his hand with her fingers. "You may go anywhere you like," she snapped. "I'm staying here."

"You are going with me." He slid his hands around her body, lifting her up.

The ease with which he sidestepped her wishes struck a raw nerve. The gentleness with which he accomplished it was even more galling. She didn't understand him, nor did she want to. She just wanted him to go away. Wrapping her fingers in the chest hair peaking between the dangling buttons on his shirt, she twisted viciously, wanting to hurt him the way he was hurting her with his casual arrogance. "Let me down, you, you--"

"Bastard?" he supplied with a lift of his brow. "Son of a bitch?"

"Yes." She twisted harder. She knew it had to hurt, yet he gave no sign. Unless the broadening of his smile could be considered one. Leaning forward, she bit him in the hard muscle of his chest. Let him ignore her now.

He swore and stopped moving. Mara bit down harder, bracing her body for the blow to come.

A thumb and finger surrounded her face and then applied force to her jaw. There came a point when she had to admit his greater strength and unlock her teeth. The body beneath hers was tense, the muscles corded. She could feel him staring at her as he tilted her face up. Finally, she couldn't stand the tension any longer and she opened her eyes. To her surprise, his hand wasn't raised to strike.

She searched his dark face for anger and found none. There was only a strange sorrow and something else. Something so disgusting, she wanted to kill him.

"Don't," she hissed. "Don't you dare pity me!"

He took the bandana from around his neck with his right hand and dabbed at the blood on her mouth.

"Why not?" he asked, transferring the bandana to his chest where he scrubbed with a lot less gentleness. "Nothing much more pathetic than attacking someone who's trying to help."

"I don't want your help," she growled.

"Well, that's neither here nor there, seeing as how I was raised that a man doesn't desert a lady in distress."

"I am not a lady, and I am not in distress."

"Uh-huh."

She was tempted to point out that the only distress she was in was caused by him, but her brief stint with lunacy was apparently over. Angering him while he had her in his arms was no longer desirable. The man was a keg of dynamite. She could tell that from the energy pulsing beneath his skin. She just couldn't figure out what would set him off. An unknown enemy was a dangerous one. She forced the anger out of her tone.

"Mr. McKinnely, I appreciate all you've done for me, but I'm truly all right now. If you'll put me down, I'll be on my way."

If she wasn't mistaken, the look he shot her was reproachful.

"I'll put you down as soon as Doc says it's all right. That was a hell of a shot you took." His eyes ran the length of her body. "And there's not much of you to go around."

Not much to go around? Where on Earth did he plan on spreading her? She lifted her chin, put on her most off-putting expression, and stated with cool implacability, "I assure you, Mr. McKinnely, I am perfectly fine. Bruised at the most."

A muscle along the side of his jaw snapped tight. "That's something we'll let Doc decide."

"Where do you get this 'we' from? I should know how I feel."

He ignored that. He shot a glare out the window as he shifted her around in his arms. "It shouldn't have happened at all."

"At last we agree on something. Now if you could just see your way to being reasonable." She pushed tentatively at his chest. Nothing happened

"I'm always reasonable," he said as he shifted her weight in his arms.

That was debatable. Mara took a calming breath. She could see that he was taking special care not to jostle her more than necessary. Still it hurt. The minute she gasped, she had his full attention and an apology. She wanted neither.

"Mr. McKinnely, I can see that you are a true gentleman. I'm grateful you stepped in and put an end to that cowboy's insult."

"Sweet talking me isn't going to get you anywhere."

"Excuse me?"

"You're right fond of that expression, aren't you?" He grabbed a black shawl that was hanging on a peg and draped it over her, before continuing, "I'm not putting you down until Doc says it's okay. And leave that on."

Mara kept on pushing at the shawl. "It's hot enough to fry an egg out there."

"You might be in shock."

"For the last time, Mr. McKinnely, I am perfectly fine."

He snagged the edge of the shawl with his fingers, stopping its tumble. "I'm not taking any chances."

"Nobody is asking you to."

"I made you a promise, Miss Kincaid. I intend to keep it."

All this hassle was because of some promise she didn't remember? Lord help her! "What promise?"

He paused in reaching for the door. This close, Mara could see the wrinkles fanning out from his eyes above the sharp plane of his cheekbones. His Indian ancestry was evident in the darkness of his skin and the blue-black sheen of his long hair as it fell on either side of his face in a thick curtain, framing his rugged features. She followed the flow of his hair from his wide forehead to the sharp edge of his cheekbones, down the flat planes of his cheeks to his full, purely masculine lips. And there she paused, her attention caught by the way his mouth lifted slightly at the corners as if in anticipation of a smile. It just seemed so at odds with what she'd heard about him. What her fear said about him. What she knew about him. This was a very, very dangerous man.

She looked at his mouth again and then back at his eyes. At the lines that she knew in her gut were caused by laughter rather than long hours spent in the sun. And adjusted her assessment. Cougar McKinnely was a very dangerous man, but apparently he was also a dangerous man who liked to laugh.

He dipped his head until his nose tapped hers, bringing her attention back to here and now. She forced herself not to look away from the intensity of his gaze as he uttered with the utmost sincerity, something impossible to believe.

"I promised you everything is going to be all right from here on out."


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