Authors: Kathleen Morgan
© 2011 by Kathleen Morgan
Published by Revell
a division of Baker Publishing Group
P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287
E-book edition created 2011
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.
Colorado Rockies, late July 1851
A giant, blood red moon rose in the blackened sky. The air lay still, warm, and heavy with moisture from an impending storm. Cattle in the stock pen bawled loudly, milling about until dust blanketed them in churning, choking clouds. Yet, as sweltering as the eve was, the hand clasping the revolver shook with an apprehensive chill.
Swathed in shadow, the man dropped the empty liquor bottle and dug into his trouser pocket, extracting a rumpled handkerchief. “It’s time for that reckoning, Wainwright!” he snarled as he mopped his sweaty brow. “Time to settle up, you lowlife, lying varmint. Whatever comes of this night, you’ve only got yourself to blame.”
He stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket, checked his revolver one more time, then stepped from the shelter of the barn. Staggering toward the small cabin, he fumbled as he tried once, then twice, before successfully cocking the gun.
“Wainwright!” the man croaked out the word, his voice raw and whiskey belligerent. “Get your sorry hide out here. You’re not getting my ranch without a fight.”
For a long moment, all was quiet. Then an oil lamp flared brightly within the dwelling and the sound of muffled voices spilled from the open windows. Footsteps echoed on the pine plank floors.
The front door swung open. Light streamed out onto the hard-packed dirt to puddle before the little house.
A man’s tall frame filled the doorway. One hand gripped a rifle. Behind him the form of a woman, heavy with child, moved.
“Who is it, Edmund?” she murmured anxiously. “What does he mean? Was this his ranch?”
“Not now, Mary,” her husband growled, never taking his gaze off the disheveled man standing but fifteen feet away. Gently, he pushed her back inside. “Let me handle this.”
“It’s over, Caldwell!” Edmund Wainwright then cried. “I won your place fair and square. Now, it’s mine. Get on with your life, and let me and my family get on with ours.”
“It’ll never be over!” Jacob Caldwell bellowed back. “We’re ruined, me and my wife, and you tell me to get on with my life? Why, you blackhearted, cheating card shark! It won’t be over until one of us is dead. Now, come on out. Fight me like a man.”
“You’re drunk. I won’t fight a drunk.”
Caldwell’s trigger finger jerked convulsively. A shot cracked through the air, the sound echoing down the valley and out to the mountains as the bullet spent itself just shy of the porch.
“Come on out, you lily-livered coward, or I’m coming in to get you!”
“Have it your way, then, you whiskey-besotted fool,” Edmund Wainwright roared. “If you’re so set—”
A movement at the far edge of the cabin caught Caldwell’s eye. He swung toward it, stumbling. Inadvertently, his finger once more squeezed the trigger.
Again, the sound of gunfire exploded in the air. This time, though, it was followed quickly by a child’s scream.
Wainwright lunged from the doorway, his rifle clattering onto the porch as it fell from his grasp. “He’s shot you,” he cried as he ran to where his son now lay crumpled on the ground. “That crazy fool’s gone and shot you!”
In stunned disbelief, Jacob Caldwell lurched back. He stared at the sight of his enemy kneeling now to gather up the bleeding child into his arms. Unbidden, a crazy impulse to fire pierced his drunken fog.
Do it. You’ve got nothing to lose. If the boy dies
. . .
Lightning slashed across the sky. A woman’s scream tore through the air, the onrushing crack of thunder adding its own spine-chilling emphasis. Caldwell’s hand froze in its upward swing.
He stood there for what seemed a lifetime, then shoved the revolver into the back of his trousers. “As I said before, Wainwright,” he muttered as he staggered into the blackness from which he’d first appeared. “Whatever comes of this night, you’ve only got yourself to blame.”
Rain began to fall in loud, splattering plops. Caldwell paid them no heed. As he hurried away, though, another cry rose on the wind that had swiftly followed in the wake of the storm.
A woman’s cry . . . one that suddenly changed from agonized sorrow to a keening, physical anguish.
Colorado Rockies, early September 1878
“I can’t, Papa. I just can’t!”
Sarah Caldwell turned a pleading gaze to the unkempt man squatting beside her, hiding in the shadow of the Wainwright bunkhouse. For an instant, their glances locked.
He stared back, a hard, implacable look in his eyes. The faint ember of hope that her father might relent, even at this late a moment in their unlawful plan, died.
She looked to where her two older brothers stood behind them. Caleb’s and Noah’s features mirrored the same ruthless determination. Sarah inwardly sighed.
They’ll follow Papa in this, just as they go along with most every other fool scheme he cooks up.
“Please, Papa,” she said, trying one more time. “I-I’ve changed my mind. Stealing’s wrong no matter how much we need the money. And now you want me to do . . . do this? I can’t. I just can’t.”
His gnarled hand jerked her to him. “Oh yes you can, girl!” His lips hovered inches from her, and his low-pitched voice grated against Sarah’s ears like gravel over a washboard. “It couldn’t get any better than this. Wainwright and most of his men are gone on the fall roundup, and there can’t be more than a servant or two in the main house. And the only able-bodied man left on the ranch is that hand over yonder. I didn’t bargain on him being so close by, but what’s done is done. Besides, we’ll be back in no time.”
“But Papa, that wasn’t the plan—”
Her father’s grip tightened. “Sarah, no more, do you hear me? We’ve all got to play our part. And there’s nothing so hard in doing what comes natural. Do you want Danny to die, just because you won’t dirty your purty little hands?”
At the reminder of her seven-year-old brother, Sarah’s gut clenched. With a strength that surprised even her, she twisted free of her father’s grasp.
A grudge, twenty-seven years of soul-rotting enmity, had brought them to this. Though she and her brothers hadn’t even been born when it had all begun, the consequences dogged their lives as relentlessly as they did her father’s. It didn’t matter that she wanted no part of it. They were family. And family stuck together through thick and thin.
She expelled a rueful breath. “Have it your way then, Papa. I’ll do it, but
because of Danny. I’ll do it this once, but never,
“Don’t make such a fuss, little sister,” Caleb hissed over her shoulder. “If you play your cards right, all that hand’ll have time for is a few kisses before we’re back. That’s
we expect of you.”
Noah laid a hand on her shoulder. “It’ll work out just fine, Sarah. You’ll see.”
As her father stood, she shot her oldest brother a grateful look. Twenty-one-year-old Noah had always been her best friend and confidante. He’d also never been all that enamored of their sire’s often harebrained schemes. In this particular case, though, like Sarah, Noah felt compelled to carry out the robbery for their youngest brother’s sake.
The three men pulled out flour sacks with makeshift eye hole openings and tugged them over their heads. Then, though well aware the ranch was minimally staffed, they checked their revolvers one last time before making their stealthy way toward the large white-frame house. Once her father and brothers were safely around the back, Sarah stepped from the protection of the bunkhouse and strode toward the barn. As she walked, she licked her lips—a nervous gesture that never failed to soothe her jangled nerves. Never failed, that is, until today.
How am I going to charm that man?
she wondered, fixing her sun-squinted gaze on the back of the tall, shirtless figure standing in the back of a wagon unloading hay. He was powerfully built, the play of muscle and sinew along his arms and shoulders moving in rippling, effortless precision. The hot Indian summer sun beat down on him, and sweat gleamed on his body.
Sarah swallowed in distaste.
What if he does try to kiss me?
At the consideration, her gut churned unpleasantly.
I’ve only kissed a boy for the first time last month, and that just because it was my eighteenth birthday. How am I ever going to make a grown man think I know what I’m doing?
She toyed with the top button of her white cotton blouse. Heat flared to her cheeks. Bosoms. She was going to have to show her bosoms.
But all men liked bosoms. That much was evident from watching the town’s crib girls whenever she thought Papa wasn’t looking. Yet would bosoms be enough in this case? She wouldn’t know unless she tried.
With a small sigh, Sarah loosened the first three buttons. A trickle of perspiration slid between her still modestly exposed cleavage. She bit back a tormented groan.
Mama, forgive me,
she thought, her face flaming fire hot.
I know you raised me better than this, but you’re not here anymore to talk sense into Papa, and what else can I do?
She halted, jerking her embarrassed gaze down to her long skirt. The coarse brown cloth stirred in the weak breeze.
Maybe a show of limbs might help too. The crib girls certainly seem to think it does.
After a passing hesitation, Sarah grabbed the skirt’s front hem and tucked it into her waistband. A shabby petticoat and hint of slim legs appeared.
A movement just then caught her eye. The ranch hand jumped down from the wagon and disappeared from view. Her pulse quickened.
What if he’s gone up to the main house? Papa and my brothers are sure to be inside by now.
She had no choice; she had to stop him. Sarah broke into a run, the movement of her bare feet on the drought-parched earth stirring little eddies of dust.
Do it for Danny . . . for Danny . . .
The man was standing beside a horse trough on the side of the barn, pouring water over himself, his strong, brown hands gripping a bucket high over his head. His face and upper body glistened as the water slid down his naked chest and long, sinewy arms. Sarah stopped in her tracks.
A dark brow arched as he caught sight of her. “And what can I do for you, little lady?” the cowboy asked, lowering the bucket back to the ground.
His voice, deep and resonant, rasped across the sensitive ends of Sarah’s tightly strung nerves. She choked back an inane giggle, forcing a slow—and what she fervently hoped was an enticing—smile to her lips.
“A better question is, what can I do for you?” Sarah purred, using a phrase she’d heard the crib girls use.
He stared at her as she once more moved toward him, his jet black eyes never missing a thing from the seductive sway of her hips to the unbuttoned blouse and revealing display of petticoat. And, as his appreciative gaze raked her, it was the hardest thing Sarah had ever done not only to endure his avid perusal but to keep on walking forward.
Finally, she halted a few steps from him. With what she fancied was a provocative toss of her long, pale hair, Sarah settled her hands on her hips. “Want to get to know me better, cowboy?”
He moved toward her until they stood but a hairsbreadth apart. Sarah’s eyes widened. Despite the day’s heat, a chill swept through her.
What do I do now?
He was tall, towering over her small form. At the realization of his inherent size and strength, a primitive, feminine fear washed over her. How would she hold his interest long enough to draw attention from Papa and her brothers?
An impulse to lift a prayer to God filled her. Mama had always taught her to turn to the Lord in times of need. But Mama had been dead five years now, and Sarah hadn’t prayed, much less set foot in a church, ever since. Besides, asking advice on how to tempt a man didn’t seem a particularly appropriate request of the Almighty.
Do what comes natural . . .
With trembling hands, she touched the bronzed form before her, sliding her fingers up a hard, muscled arm to trail consideringly across the water-damp hair on his chest. “Well, cowboy?”
A low chuckle rumbling in his throat, he pulled her to him. “Who are you, anyway? And is this just some game, one girl daring the other to try out her feminine wiles?”
For an instant, Sarah’s mind went blank.
Whatever is he talking about? Think. Think fast or all will be lost.
“And what if it
a dare?” she asked, sudden inspiration striking her. Her arms lifted to encircle his neck. “Either way, I win.”
His eyes narrowed.
How old is she? Seventeen? Eighteen?
And where had she come from? Was she some new hire to help with the household chores? If so, it was strange that he hadn’t noticed her arrival.
She had pretty green eyes, delectable lips, and a pert, charming nose in a face framed by a thick mass of corn-silk-colored hair. Far too attractive to be playing games with grown men.
A girl with her kind of looks was a powder keg on a ranch like this, lacking only a fool cowboy or two to set off an explosion. Better he nipped her fledgling seductress role in the bud. She needed a lesson—and badly—before someone less scrupulous took advantage.
With a wicked grin, his hands settled on the girl’s waist, and he pulled her even more tightly to him.
“Well, if that’s what you think, there’s a lot you can do for me, little lady,” he growled, his voice deep velvet and suggestive. “What exactly did you have in mind?”
The color faded from the girl’s face. For a long moment, he thought he had finally frightened her into backing off. Then thick, brown lashes fluttered prettily against her cheeks.
“Anything you like, cowboy. I only want to make you happy.”
Just as I thought
. The man’s mouth quirked in amusement.
She’s an innocent playing the woman.
He pulled the girl into his arms and lowered his head toward her. “Then, for starters, how about a kiss?”
Before Sarah could protest, his mouth slanted over hers. The shock of his warm, firm lips, so sure, so knowing, took her breath away. She gasped, her hands slipping from his neck to wedge between them. Jerking back against the solid, stubborn barrier of his arms, her hands balled into fists and she began to pound at the flesh so close to hers.
Compared to this bold assault, her birthday kiss had been little more than a chaste if awkward brushing of lips. Alarm filled her, the knowledge she had achieved her goal paling beneath the startlingly tantalizing onslaught of his mouth. Both repelled and strangely attracted by the conflicting emotions his kiss stirred within her, Sarah gradually ceased her pointless flailing. A moan, female and entreating, rose in her throat.