Excerpt from PROMISES LINGER

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

It wasn’t every day a lady strolled into Dell’s. A few strumpets graced the place, but Asa was willing to bet every dollar in his pocket that the last time a buttoned-down, poker-backed lady had entered this rundown excuse of a saloon was never. One by one, the other patrons noticed the gray clad intruder. The cacophony of voices dropped until, with a resounding clank on the keys, the piano player took note.

Asa watched as the woman turned this way and that, no doubt straining to see through the murk. He lifted his whiskey to his lips, took a sip, and waited. He wondered whether it was a husband or a lover she was seeking. He hoped it was the former. A wife in search of an errant husband was bound to put on a better show.

With a sharp tug on each finger, she yanked off her gloves. Backlit as she was by the doorway, Asa had an excellent view of her silhouette. Petite and curvaceous with softly turned hips that had Asa thinking in terms of sinking deep and riding hard. He took another sip of his whiskey. As it burned the back of his throat, he tried to figure out why the sight of this woman had his cock sitting up and taking notice. Maybe it was the way she stood that piqued his interest. Kind of a cross between it’s-snowing-in-hell panic and hell-bent-for-leather determination. Then again, maybe he was just the contrary sort and his cock followed suit, longing after what he could never have. Respectable women like her were the wives of bankers and judges. They were never seen within a country mile of a saddle tramp such as himself. Just because this one was perched on the doorstep of the seediest saloon in town didn’t change that fact.

The sun peeped out from behind a cloud. The feeble shaft of light curved around the door, illuminating the woman’s profile. His cock came fully erect and he almost wasted a swallow of rot gut choking on his surprise.

A man could look at a face like that for years and never get tired. It wasn’t that she was beautiful, though she was mighty easy on the eyes. It was the way the planes and hollows came together in a delicate balance of strength, humor and bone-deep sensuality that had him gaping like a green kid. A face like that spoke of endurance and character. A face like that invited visions of naked bodies and long, lusty, leisurely nights. And her mouth, hell, her mouth was a fantasy unto itself. He couldn’t begin to corral the ideas the sight of those wide plump lips had running through his head.

He shifted in his chair to ease the pressure on his manhood and reigned in his imagination. The woman might be every fantasy he’d ever had wrapped into one delectable armful, but she was about as attainable as the moon. And the sooner he forced himself to accept that fact, the better he’d be. He’d stopped lusting after what he couldn’t have about the same time he had realized the son of a whore and a passing through gambler was good for only one thing in the townsfolk’s eyes. Cleaning up other people’s messes. He’d gotten real good at cleaning up over the years, and someday he was going to take the money he had earned bringing in robbers and murderers, and he was going to buy a future for himself and his kids. Someday.

He forced his fingers to relax their grip on his glass before it cracked under the pressure. He didn’t know why this woman was stirring up old demons, but he didn’t like it. He’d long since adjusted to the way the world worked, and he wasn’t about to let the sight of a woman, no matter how temptingly packaged, upset the peace he’d made with life’s ironies.

A quartet of poker two tables over from Asa broke into yells. A fancy gambler with his back to the door let out a hoot and leaned over the table, raking in the winnings.

As if that were the signal she’d been waiting on, the woman launched into motion. Head high, shoulders back, she crossed the cramped room with a determination that sent the working girls in her path fleeing for cover. Asa released the breath he’d been holding and tipped his chair back on two legs until his shoulders connected with the wall. Raising his glass, he toasted her grit. Not many women had the wherewithal to confront their man’s shortcomings.

“Hello, Brent.”

Her voice was well modulated, without any hint of a drawl.

The blond-haired gambler froze in the act of raking in his winnings. The woman moved around the table, murmuring “Excuse me” as she went, stopping when she reached the man’s side. The flickering glow from the oil lamps set off the red highlights in her scraped-back hair. Those sparks were nothing compared to the fury raging in her vivid green eyes. One of which was black and blue.

“What in hell are you doing here, Elly?” Brent growled.

The name landed wrong on Asa’s ear. No one that buttoned-down could ever be an Elly.

“I came for my money.”

“You don’t have anything I don’t give you,” the gambler retorted in a snide voice that just made Asa itch to feed him a few of his own teeth.

The woman didn’t seem to share his irritation. Cool as a cucumber, she replied. “You’re wrong.” Reaching across her husband’s arm, the woman snatched a pile of bills. “This is mine.”

She was halfway through the stack before one of the other players thought to react.

“Hey! We’re playing a game here.”

“Mr. Doyle is cashing out,” she said, not looking up from her counting.

Mr. Doyle apparently had other ideas. “Put the money back, Elizabeth.”

That, Asa thought, was a more fitting name for the lady.

Elizabeth looked up from her counting. “You owe me two hundred dollars more.”

“I don’t owe you anything, woman.” Despite the confidence in his voice, Brent’s hands clamped down on the rest of his winnings. “Put it back, Elly.”

Elizabeth tucked the bills she’d confiscated into her reticule. Not by a flutter of an eyelash did she indicate she heard the warning in her husband’s voice. “You took four hundred dollars from my bank account this morning. Money that rightly belongs to the hands that put in a hard month’s work. Two hundred I just put in my reticule. Hand me two hundred more, and we can both consider this unfortunate circumstance finished.”

“Since when,” Brent asked, pulling out a cheroot from his pocket and scraping a match across his boot sole, “does a man have to account to his wife for anything?”

Elizabeth placed a small circle of gold on the table. “We aren’t married.”

“Like hell.” Brent eyed her steadily over his cupped hand as he touched the tip of the match to his cheroot.

Asa noted the distinctive band around the tip of the cheroot. Elizabeth’s husband had expensive taste.

“The hell would have been if I were truly trapped into a marriage with you,” Elizabeth stated flatly. “Fortunately, I’m not.”

“Oh, we’re married.” Brent shoved his chair back. He tossed the match into the nearby spittoon. At the end of the sharp movement, his hand curled into a fist. With the tip of the cheroot, he indicated the ring on the table. “And as your husband, I’m telling you to put that ring back on and get yourself back home where you belong.”

Elizabeth made no move to take the ring or hit the door. She merely stood for the span of two heartbeats, doing nothing but meeting her husband’s stare with one of her own. The tension between the two was thick enough to chew on.

Around Asa, men started shifting restlessly. No mistaking it, this argument was getting ugly fast. It was easy to tell from the set of Elizabeth’s shoulders that she was a proud woman. Too proud to back down. It was just as easy to tell from Brent’s demeanor that he was more than willing to make the discussion physical. Asa didn’t know about the rest of the men in the saloon, but he’d be hard put to watch a man take his fists to a woman. Wife or not.

With a sigh, Elizabeth, broke the stare-down. “You’re such an egotistical fool.”

Asa wondered if the disgust in Elizabeth’s voice was aimed at Brent or herself, for it was becoming more obvious by the second that, if husbands were apples, Elizabeth’s choice had been core rotten.

Brent growled low in his throat and ground out his cheroot beneath the heel of his boot. With a jerk of his chin, he indicated the remains of his cigar. “I’ll be taking the price of that out of your hide tonight.”

Elizabeth calmly put her gloves and reticule in the pocket of her skirt. “You won’t be doing anything tonight, I imagine, besides crying into the bottom of a liquor bottle. For you see, due to what I suspect is typical ineptness on your part, yesterday’s so-called marriage between us has not been consummated.”

Loud hoots and ribald offers broke through the privacy of the argument to fill the saloon. Brent’s pale face grew red. His gaze ricocheted between the speakers, as if every comment were a blow from an unseen fist. If Elizabeth had been looking to get a bit of her own back, she couldn’t have chosen a better weapon, Asa decided. Attacking a man’s mother or his privates was a guaranteed reaction-getter. Respect was a hard animal to corral here in the territory. Once a man had it roped and fenced, he didn’t just open the gate and let it get away. Especially as respect had a way of turning wily once it slipped a man’s lariat. Wasn’t a man born who didn’t know that or hadn’t learned it the hard way.

From what Asa could see of the bottom line, Brent had fouled up big time as a husband, and Elizabeth had gotten a bit of her own back. While he didn’t think the two had a shot at making a peaceful marriage, this game was about played out. Someone had to give, and he didn’t think it was going to be Brent. Elizabeth had her husband backed into a corner. From the way Brent was sitting, shoulders squared, fists at the ready, Asa figured he was planning to come out fighting. Asa couldn’t tell if Elizabeth saw, or if she was so disappointed in her choice of husband, she just didn’t care, because, to his amazement, she kept driving her point deeper.

“If I were to need an annulment, Jesse Graham informs me that’s all the cause I’d need.”

“You went to a son of a bitching lawyer?”

Asa returned the front legs of his chair to the floor. He might have been off in his assessment. If the gambler wanted to come out of this with some skin left on his pride, he might want to withdraw and regroup in private. Elizabeth was one resourceful woman. Unwelcome admiration cozied up to the arousal humming through his blood. Damn. He didn’t need to be in the middle of this.

“A woman has so few options, she can’t afford to be ill informed,” Elizabeth stated simply. “Especially when she has the poor sense to take up with a pathetic excuse of a man such as you.”

With a roar, Brent came out of the chair. He made it halfway to his feet before a stool broke across his face, pole-axing him to the floor where he struggled to find up from down.

Like everyone else in the saloon, Asa found himself sitting in slack-jawed amazement as the pristine example of a lady dropped the remains of the stool, turned, and deftly whipped a six-shooter out of the holster of a man who was wisely scrambling for safety. With a familiarity that eased his mind, she checked to be sure it was loaded, cocked the hammer, and aimed it dead center between her husband’s eyes.

“If I were you,” she said in a very soft, very controlled voice. “I’d stay put.”

“Damned bitch.” Brent swore, holding his bleeding nose. “I’m going to beat you black and blue for this.”

“No.” Elizabeth adjusted the aim of the pistol a little to the left until it lined up with the freckle on the corner of Brent’s eyebrow. The one she’d once viewed as his perfect imperfection. “You’re not.”

He was never going to touch her again. Of that, Elizabeth was sure. She’d die before she allowed that to happen.

Brent pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the blood from his nose. “Who’s going to stop me?”

Her lips didn’t quite make it into the confident smile she was struggling for. Elizabeth could feel them hang up somewhere in the range of a grimace. She hoped the resulting expression wasn’t too pathetic. She didn’t need to be showing weakness in front of this crowd. “For sixteen years before I was the Miss Elizabeth Coyote you claim to love, I was Coyote Bill’s wild daughter. And, I assure you, four years back East in a fancy finishing school hasn’t done much to smooth my rough edges.”

“I knew she looked familiar,” an old timer at the far end of the bar crowed, slapping his thigh.

Brent looked at her over the bulk of the handkerchief he held to his nose, the wad of bloody linen doing nothing to diminish his skepticism. “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

“It means you’d best watch your back, gambler man, if you’re the one who blacked Wild Elly’s eye,” the old timer hooted.

Brent didn’t take his eyes off the gun aimed at his head. “Shut up, you old fool.”

“Appears to me you ain’t the one in charge right now.”

“I will be.”

“How very like you to be a braggart to the humiliating end.” Elizabeth cut in, taking a step forward. “I cannot believe I was so stupid as to think grammar and dress made the man.”

It was a mistake she wouldn’t be making again.

With her elbow, Elizabeth indicated the pile of money still lying on the table. “Could someone count two hundred and twenty dollars out of that pile?”

“Hey,” Brent protested as a young cowpoke hastened to help out. “You said two hundred before.”

“That was before I had to reimburse the owner of this fine establishment for a chair.”

“Here’s your money, ma’am.”

“As my hands are occupied, could you put it in my pocket? Without stepping between me and my almost-husband,” she tacked on as the young man made to step in front of her.

For a few minutes, everyone watched as the kid fumbled in the vicinity of Elizabeth’s right side, too shy to actually touch her skirt.

“Whatever are you doing?” Her question was sharper than she intended, betraying her nervousness. She took a breath and mentally counted to ten, maintaining her composure through sheer force of will as, with an embarrassed mumble, the red-faced kid shoved the money hard enough into her skirt pocket to tip her sideways. The guffaws following her small teeter set her nerves to screaming again. The only reason this crowd hadn’t turned on her was they were enjoying the show, but that could change any second. She needed to finish what she started and get out of here fast if she intended to get out of here at all

Elizabeth took two cautious steps back. “Good riddance, Brent.”

“I’ll see you back at the ranch, Elly,” Brent retorted. His confidence in his rights was supposed to scare her, she knew. Snap her back in line like a cur who’d forgotten its place. It just went to show how little Brent knew her that he actually thought it would work.

As the warning hung in the air, floating on the smoke-filled haze, Elizabeth knew all eyes were upon her. She could feel them, like hands reaching out of the murk. Some laughing, some goading, but all of them waiting for her to flinch or back down. She wasn’t doing either. She’d been expecting the threat. Someone as blindly selfish as Brent would never take a woman seriously. The knowledge didn’t prevent a shiver of fear from snaking down her spine when she thought of what would happen if Brent ever got his hands on her again. Her finger tightened on the trigger. The only thing that kept the bullet in the chamber was the scorn-laced memory of her father’s voice saying, “You lose control, Elly, you lose everything.”

She had no intention of losing ever again.

When her face muscles felt rigid from the effort to appear unconcerned, she pushed conviction into her voice. “If you set one foot on Rocking C land, you’ll get a bullet between your eyes.”

“I don’t think so.”

The confidence in his voice started a quiver of uncertainty deep inside. She took a breath and immediately regretted it. The smoke that had collected in the musty interior burned her lungs. She suppressed a cough and regrouped. She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t show weakness. She would, however, tighten her grip on the gun and finish what she’d started; undoing the mistake of the day before. “Stay off my land, Brent.”

She wrapped each word in precise enunciation for maximum effect. She might as well have saved her breath. Not by a flicker of an eyelash did Brent let on she’d so much as scratched his arrogance. Instead, he wiped a fresh trickle of blood from his lip with the back of his hand. His teeth bared in a savage, confident smile. “You won’t shoot me, Elly.”

Why did men continually believe that because she was female, she was as inconsequential as dandelion fluff?

“You’re wrong,” she informed him. She was close, so damned close to pulling the trigger that her fingers ached with the effort not to squeeze. She hated him for turning her wedding night from anticipation to terror. She hated him for being weak when she needed someone strong, but mostly she hated him for betraying her faith in her own judgment.

“If you kill me, Elly,” he went on, dabbing at the blood on his shirt, “then you’re back where you started, the ranch going to hell, the bank note coming due, and no husband to turn the situation around.”

God! Had she really thought this man’s clothes and speech had put him a step up on the local men? “I imagine I’ll find a way.”

“Not in time, you won’t,” Brent inserted the taunt smoothly into the conversation. “Coyote Bill loved that ranch more than life itself.” The glance he shot her was calculating. “What would he think of a daughter who, in an attack of bridal jitters, lost the Rocking C?”

“I have no intention of losing anything,” she responded calmly. Of that, she was certain. She wouldn’t lose the ranch. She may not have been the boy her father had wanted, but she’d shed blood for that land. Worked it as hard as any man before Coyote Bill had discovered she’d had other uses as a woman. The Rocking C was hers. As much a part of her as her mother’s intelligence and her father’s determination. She would surrender it to no one. Least of all a wastrel like Brent. The weight of the gun made her arms ache. She raised the muzzle so it was back on target. “I have absolutely no intention of losing, period.”

“If you continue with this lunacy, you will,” Brent’s calm equaled her own. “As your husband, I can sell it anytime I want.” His voice lowered, became harsh. “Just like I can take you across that street anytime I want and teach you a woman’s place.”

Despite her efforts, a spark of fear slipped through her guard. Elizabeth ignored the rumblings of the other men in the bar. Her gaze focused on the widest spot between Brent’s eyebrows. If he made one move in her direction, he was dead. “Are you through?”

“No. While you may want to forget our marriage took place yesterday, the law isn’t so flexible.” The smile he spread around the room was an open invitation for the other males to commiserate with his position.

She didn’t have enough bullets in her gun to shoot the men who met Brent’s smile with an understanding one of their own. Deep inside, the shuddering started. Oh God! What if they all turned on her? She searched the room with her eyes, looking for a friendly face. Her gaze collided with a dark set of eyes in the corner. The big man sat, his back braced against the wall. Despite the laziness of his posture, there was something in the set of his shoulders that told her he was as intent on the conversation as everyone else. His gaze was steady, unnerving, but somehow soothing, as if inviting her trust. She wasn’t stupid enough to believe in the invitation, but if all hell broke loose, she hoped he’d be in the small contingent on her side.

“We are married, Elly,” Brent pronounced, turning back to her, his position obviously bolstered by the silent communion with the other patrons. “The Rocking C is mine.”

“If that were the case,” Elizabeth countered calmly, allowing no uncertainty into her voice, “I’d not be wasting a perfectly good bullet by letting it sit in this gun.”

She might be losing her mind, but she swore the big man with the dark eyes just gave her the thumbs up as he tipped his hat back. Even with the dim light, there was no mistaking the handsomeness of his face or the self-confidence in his expression. Since she had a need, she took some of his self confidence as her own. As a result, her voice, when she continued, betrayed nothing but strength. “Lucky for you, our marriage wasn’t legal.”

“The hell it wasn’t! Reverend!”

Elizabeth followed the trajectory of Brent’s gaze to the far corner of the saloon. A crow of a man garbed in black sat slumped over a table. When Brent bellowed again, the form shifted, moaned, and then raised its head.

“Wh-what?”

“Reverend? Was the wedding you performed yesterday legal?”

“It’s as legal as the parties involved want it to be,” the haggard man muttered before leaning to the side of the table and retching violently.

Beyond a flinching of her right eyelid, Elizabeth didn’t let on that the sound or sight bothered her.

“Let me clarify things for you, Brent,” she offered in that same controlled tone she’d used since walking through the swinging doors. “Because the circuit priest comes through here so rarely, the territory has been recognizing weddings performed by Reverend Pete under common law. As long as both parties are satisfied with the union, there’s no problem.” Her shoulder lifted on a shrug. “Unfortunately for you, I’m not satisfied.”

Brent wiped at his eyes, stared at the blood on his pants, and looked down the barrel of the revolver. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he finally burst out.

“I’m saving my ranch from the hands of a wastrel.”

“You’re saving your ranch!” He dropped his head back against the wall and laughed. “That’s a hoot! The reason it was so easy to pull the wool over your eyes in the first place was because you were in such a big hurry to get married.” He stopped laughing long enough to drive his point home. “Or did you forget the way the men won’t take orders from a woman? Or the way the bank won’t extend credit to a woman? Or the way rustlers have been swooping down on your precious ranch for the last three months ever since word got out that Coyote Bill’s dead?”

“I haven’t forgotten a thing.”

“Then you know you need me.”

“No.”

“Yes, you do. You need me to run your ranch, just as I need your ranch to fund my amusements.”

“What I need is a man, Brent Doyle, and I’m afraid that requirement leaves you out in the cold.”

“She needs a man in more ways than one,” someone interjected from the sidelines.

Elizabeth bit back the retort that sprang to her lips and let the room’s inhabitants amuse themselves with speculation. She had bigger fish to fry. She searched the room for her friend. When she spotted Old Sam at the bar, she gave him the signal. Before she finished the subtle nod, he was nodding back and rising from his chair. She shifted her grip on the revolver, took a breath and started praying as she followed his progress from the corner of her eye while keeping her gun aimed on Brent. As she suspected, he headed for the table to her right. The closer he got to the stranger with the dark eyes and easy confidence, the harder she prayed. Anyone with a chin that stubborn wouldn’t be easy to sway. And she so needed him to lean her way.

A tap on his shoulder took Asa’s attention away from his whiskey and the show. The first thing he noticed when he turned was the hat. Battered, ragged and sweat-stained, it had definitely seen better days. The face peering from under the Stetson wasn’t in much better shape. It was tanned the same mud brown as the crown and sported more creases than a ten-year-old letter from home. The gleam in the old codger’s faded blue eyes was speculative, making Asa wonder if the man knew of his reputation.

“I’m thinking it’d take a hell of a man to tame a pretty little mustang like that,” the old codger whispered, one lid dropping over his eye in a slow wink.

“At the very least, a brave one,” Asa said by way of response. He took another pull on his whiskey, unable to keep his eyes off the woman. Damn. She was a firecracker under all that tight-ass exterior.

“Elly always did have a bit of a temper.”

Asa shot the older man an amused glance. “A temper is throwing dishes at your husband when he walks though the door. This, this is…” He shook his head. “Hell, I don’t know what this is.”

“I imagine,” the older man chuckled, “Elly has thrown a dish or two in her day.” He swiped the top of his whiskey glass with a filthy sleeve, tossed back the contents, and wiped his bearded mouth with the back of his hand. “It isn’t Elly’s fault she doesn’t let her sweet side show. Coyote Bill brought her up rough.”

Rough wouldn’t be the word Asa would use. Intriguing was more the way he saw her. Strong. A man could go far with a woman like that by his side. “She’s something else.”

“She’s as straight as they come.”

“Her husband’s a fool.”

“I won’t argue the fool part, but he ain’t her husband.”

Asa slid his foot aside as the man punctuated his statement by spitting to the side. With his glass, he indicated Elizabeth. “Is she kin to you ?” he asked.

The old man looked shocked and then amused. “Nah, but it’s not like I’d be ashamed to find out different.” He looked at the last two swallows in the bottle before Asa. “Mind?”

“Go ahead.” The old man didn’t bother with the glass he’d set on the table. He finished the bottle in one swig, and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt before clarifying, “I worked for her Daddy for most of her life.”

“And you’re loyal to her.” Asa didn’t pose it as a question.

“Enough so that I’m giving you the go ahead.”

He said it like Asa should feel honored. “I appreciate it.”

Or at least he would if he had any idea what the man was talking about.

The old man glanced over his shoulder at Elizabeth, gave a nod of his head and then turned back to Asa.

“I thank you for the drink.”

There was something likable about the guy, so Asa nodded and said, “I appreciated the company.

The old man’s face crinkled into a smile revealing worn yellowed teeth. “I’m sure you will before long.”

Damn. Was everyone in this town squirrelly, Asa wondered, shaking his head as the old man, chuckling at the joke only he understood, disappeared back into the crowd around Elizabeth. Brent’s voice rose over the low murmur of bets being placed, drawing Asa’s attention back to the marital drama unfolding. Dismissing the old man from his mind, he shifted in his seat to get a better view.

“That land is mine and I’m not letting you or any drunken preacher cheat me out of it.”

“Give it up, Brent.”

“Never. Without a man, you can’t hold that ranch.”

Asa sighed, knowing they’d reached the crux of the matter. As much as he admired the woman’s courage, she wouldn’t be able to hold the ranch without a man.

“I’ve thought of that.” Her slightly slanted green eyes turned in his direction. “Are you Asa MacIntyre?”

He dipped his head, so his hat shielded the expression on his face. “Maybe.”

“The same Asa MacIntyre who single-handedly brought in the infamous Crull gang?”

He tucked his chin a little lower, not liking the way the saddle bums in the corner were perking up. He’d come to town to relax. Not to have to battle with wet-behind-the ears kids dead set on establishing a reputation for themselves with his dead body. He was too close to his dream to risk that. “Maybe.”

“The same Asa MacIntyre who headed up the Kingman Drive back in ‘63?”

He sighed, recognizing I-won’t-give-up determination when it stared him in the face. “Yeah.”

Elizabeth’s voice shook for the moment it took her to ask the next question. “The same Asa MacIntyre who stopped the blacksmith from beating little Willy Jones yesterday?”

He found it interesting that her composure broke on that question. He sat up straighter in his chair and pushed his hat back off his face. “Yeah, that’s me.”

One shuddering breath and her face became as blank as her inflection. “Word has it you’re looking to buy a small spread around here.”

“If you’re about to offer me the Rocking C, I got to tell you, it’s way out of my pocket. I’m looking for something smaller, around a couple hundred acres.”

And it’d taken him all of fifteen years to save the money for that dream. Fifteen years of working cattle, hauling in bounties, and busting his butt, doing any job that would yield close to an honest buck.

“But, if you could afford it, you’d be interested?”

“Sorry, ma’am.” He tipped his hat in her direction. Lord, that woman had guts. “As tempting as the prospect is, there’s no way I could stretch my earnings to cover a couple thousand acres.” But he would someday. He would. And when he did, no man would look down his nose at him, spit when he passed, or keep their daughters from his company.

“What if I said it wouldn’t cost you anything?”

He pushed his glass away. “Then I’d say there was something fishy about this deal. Especially as the ownership of this property is in some dispute.”

“If you agree to my terms, there’ll be no dispute.”

“Pardon me, but I don’t think you can guarantee that.”

“Jesse Graham assures me that my legal husband will have full and complete title to the land.”

“It would appear to me you already have more husbands than you know what to do with.”

“I know exactly what to do with Brent, Mr. MacIntyre. The question is, do you know what to do with the Rocking C?”

“I know what to do with it. I’m just going to have to think on it.”

“Please, reach a decision quickly.”

“I’ll do the best I can.” He raised his glass of whiskey, noted the nearly indiscernible tremor in his hand, and took a steadying sip. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! First, the Crull brothers and their hefty bounty had fallen into his hands like ripe plums and now this! He was on a lucky streak, for sure.

“Mr. MacIntyre?”

“I’m ruminating as fast as I can.”

“Perhaps if you confided your reservations, I could help you reach a decision.” When he didn’t respond, she prodded some more. “It’s true we’ve had problems with rustlers recently, but I’m sure, once the men have someone they respect in charge, the rustlers will leave the Rocking C alone and search for easier game.”

“I’m not worried about rustlers, ma’am. No matter what a man has, there’s always someone looking to take it away.”

“Is it Brent then? I assure you he has no legal claim.”

Asa smiled, shooting the now quiet man a disgusted glare. “That little piss-ant isn’t worth the effort it would take to squash him.”

“Surely you’re not afraid of marriage?” she asked in patent disbelief.

Asa sighed. “I’m afraid you found me out, ma’am.”

“But marriage is nothing more than a piece of paper to a man. It doesn’t curtail any of your rights! As a matter of fact, you gain quite a few.” Her fine lips thinned as she conceded. “Over me.”

“And that’s an awful lot of responsibility for one man to own.” He looked pointedly at the gun in her hand. “You don’t appear the cooperative type.”

“That’s your problem?”

“Yup.” He took a last sip of his whiskey. Lord! If he took this woman for wife, not only would he have the biggest ranch around, but any children he had would have a lady for a mother, guaranteeing they’d grow up respected. “This territory is a dangerous place. One of the prime qualities I plan on looking for in a wife is the ability to stay put when I tell her to.”

“You want my obedience.”

“Wouldn’t go amiss.”

“You have it.”

“Have what?”

“My obedience.”

Still that same deadpan expression backing that deadpan voice. What would it take to rattle this woman? “Well, I thank you, and as soon as I decide whether to take you up on the deal, I’ll be asking for your word on it.”

“I’d appreciate it if you’d hurry up.”

He wondered if she was afraid of the gambler. “Why?”

“My arms are getting tired.”

And here he thought she’d admit to something like fear. He laughed at his own idiocy and rolled to his feet. In three strides, he was at her side. “Well, put the gun down, darlin’. I think I can keep this varmint contained for you.”

He had her full attention. “You’ll marry me? You’ll take on the Rocking C?”

“You’re promising me obedience if I do?”

“I promise.”

“Then I’m considering it.” He caught a whiff of vanilla through the smell of smoke and sweat. Like a breath of spring after a long hard winter, the scent swept from her to him, uncovering longings he’d thought permanently snowed under.

“I’ve always had a hankering to take myself a genuine lady for a wife,” he admitted. “Always thought it’d be out of my reach, though. Sorta like a spread the size of the Rocking C.”

And that was more than the truth. It’d been his furthest out-there dream, and now it was standing before him, chin up, eyes shooting fire, determination oozing from every pore, tossing out invisible challenges like swear words at a cussing match.

“But now?” she prompted.

He smiled at her hearing that “but” when he hadn’t really meant her to. He took the gun from her hand, noticing what a little bit of a thing she was now that he was close. Her head barely reached his collarbone.

“Now, it appears the good Lord’s working on one of those miracles I’ve heard tell of, but, before we shake on this deal, there are a few things you’ve got to understand.” He uncocked the gun and emptied the chamber, using his side vision to keep tabs on her expression. “First, trouble has a way of following me.”

The corners of her lips lifted in a hint of a smile. “It doesn’t exactly go out of its way to miss me.”

He looked at her shiner and the situation she was in. “You got a point there.” He handed the gun and bullets back to its owner.

Brent obviously felt he’d been quiet long enough. He made to get up. “As touching as I find this moment, wife, you can’t give away what’s not yours.”

Brent got to his knees. This close, it was impossible for Asa to miss Elizabeth’s slight start.

With his foot, Asa shoved the man back down. “Shut up.”

He slid his gloved finger under Elizabeth’s chin and turned her gaze to his. “Second, what’s mine, stays mine.”

“I won’t take the Rocking C from you as long as you do your best by it.”

He smiled. She was a determined little thing. “Fair enough.”

“Third,” he gently traced the bruise around her right eye, “I take care of my own.”

She had nothing to say to that.

“Are you hurt anywhere else?” he asked quietly, wishing he weren’t wearing gloves so he could feel the texture of her skin, memorize it the way he’d already memorized her scent.

“No.” Her gaze didn’t leave his. Her pupils were large, nearly swallowing the green. Her breath hitched in her throat when he slid one finger down her cheek and traced the delicate underside of her chin.

“Good. Go wait for me outside the door.”

Her gaze slid to his table where one of the saloon girls had taken a seat. “Why?”

“I thought you promised me obedience?” She opened her mouth and then closed it. Taking her shoulders, he turned her in the direction of the door. “Wait for me outside.”

With her pride draped like a shield around her, she did as ordered. She made it as far as the door before balking. “You’re taking the job?”

Asa couldn’t see her face, but he bet her expression was still blank. “I’m marrying you,” he replied. “Just as soon as I finish a little business here.”

There was a pregnant pause. “Can I wait for you at the mercantile?”

“Outside the door will be fine.”

He knew she was wondering as she walked into the sunlight if this was a test. He knew she was braced to have her pride ground into the dust. What she didn’t know was that he’d dreamed his whole life of a home of his own, a lady for a wife, and the respect that came with both. He had no intention of tempting fate by mistreating either.

He pulled off his gloves, rolled up his cuffs, turned to Brent, and smiled.

*****

Despite the fact that he’d ordered her to stay put, Asa was surprised to find Elizabeth waiting for him outside the saloon door. The fact that she was on the receiving end of quite a few scandalized looks didn’t show in her expression. Nothing did. She was in full control of her composure. A fact that irritated Asa to no end. No woman should have such control. It was downright unnatural. He rolled down the cuffs of his sleeve.

“Thank you for waiting.”

“It’s what you told me to do.”

He cast her a considering glance. “Yeah. It was.”

He wondered if she intended to be this obedient in bed. It was an intriguing thought. Almost as intriguing as having a lady in his bed. He held out his arm. “Ready to head out?”

After a moment’s hesitation, she slipped her hand in the crook of his arm. “Where are we going?”

“Depends.” He tucked her in close, ignoring her effort to keep a distance.

“On what?”

“Where’s the nearest yahoo that can marry us nice, tight and legal?”

“I heard Judge Carlson will be over in River’s Bend tomorrow afternoon.”

“Then River’s Bend it is.” He looked down at the top of her head, noticing a few tendrils of hair escaping her bun. They had a tendency to curl. “Where’d you leave your buckboard?”

“At the livery.”

“Then the livery it is.” Since the livery was two blocks down at the edge of town, he didn’t alter their course.

Her gloved fingers grazed the bruised knuckles of his left hand. “Thank you.”

He slid his free hand over hers before it could escape. “I may not know much about being a family man, but there’s one thing you won’t have to worry about.”

Her “What?” was soft, almost shy. He wondered if she was embarrassed to be seen with him, or if she was regretting their deal already.

He looked down again, but he was still talking to the top of her head. “Being manhandled by strange men. I know how to take care of my own.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

He’d been expecting a little more enthusiasm for his declaration. The woman made no sense, but since she was giving him the things he’d always wanted in life, he supposed he could allow her a few oddities. Things could have been worse. She could have been the hysterical type.

A fly landed on his cheek and he brushed it aside. Elizabeth flinched and he wondered if she’d truly believed him when he’d told her he’d take care of her. He did an inventory of what he could see. The hand on his arm was shaking, he realized, with tiny, nearly imperceptible tremors.

His free hand brushed his leg as he stepped around an oncoming woman with children. The calluses on his fingers scraped across the cotton of his blue denim pants, bringing to mind their differences. He supposed he couldn’t blame her for worrying. There wasn’t that much of her to go around and, from the looks of things, her first wedding night had given her cause to be cautious. He opened his mouth to launch another assault on her fears when she forestalled him with a proper, “Excuse me.”

He stepped off the end of the wooden sidewalk. Turning, he held out his hand to help her down. The gloved fingers that rested in his were trembling. A quick glance at her face revealed it was as white as a sheet. “Are you all right?”

“Could we get off the street?”

It might have been his imagination, but he thought her grip a little desperate. He looked around. “The alley’s deserted,” he pointed out dubiously.

“That’ll be fine.”

“If you say so.” He’d never escorted a lady into an alley before, but there was always a first time for everything.

As soon as the buildings blocked out the bright sun, the tremors in her hands spread to her body. “Are we alone?”

“Yes.”

The tremors grew to shudders and her teeth clattered so hard they nipped the end off every word. “Are you sure no one can see?”

He wondered if she were given to fits. “The only company we’ve got are a couple of cats and they’re too busy to pay us much mind.”

“Good,” she sighed, closing her eyes.

“Are you all right?”

She collapsed against him. He looked into her waxen features. He guessed he could take a dead faint as an answer to his question.


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