Authors: Lori Austin
The duster and slouch hat he’d worn in Abilene, along with a gun belt, had been discarded atop a nearby table. Not very original, but combined with a French accent it had obviously done what he’d meant it to do.
Made the count disappear.
He still wore the black trousers of the Russian aristocrat, but he’d removed the silky black shirt and lay bare-chested and barefoot, a glass of amber liquid in his long-fingered, magical hands.
Those hands. She still thought of them some nights when she couldn’t sleep.
Alexi’s gaze flicked from the woman’s pale peach breasts to her face. “
” he ordered, which, when she didn’t move, he followed with a heavily accented, “Get out.”
She tossed the brush onto the dresser with such force it bounced off the mirror and onto the floor. “Since when d’ ya like boys?”
“Go,” he said, eyes returning to Cat.
The woman stomped her foot. “This is my room!”
Alexi slid his attention to the redhead. She gulped, grabbed a robe, and fled.
He made no move to rise, just sipped his drink, then set the glass on the flat plane of his belly. A droplet of water rolled onto his skin, leaving a glistening trail along the curve of his waist. “You see something you would like,
He dropped the accent, but his return to foreign endearments reminded Cat exactly what kind of man Alexi was. She yanked her gaze from his stomach and cleared her throat. “We need to talk.”
He sat up, the movement languid yet quick, the uncoiling of an annoyed snake, prepared to strike but too warmed by the sun to actually bother. “Have you at last given up searching for your outlaw needle in the midst of the great American haystack?”
As Alexi stood, then moved past her, Cat caught a hint of his scent. No matter how far they traveled, no
matter the mud or the heat or the filth, Alexi always managed to smell as if he’d just danced in a rainstorm.
Glass clinked as he poured another drink. The shade of the liquid hinted at brandy, but it could be anything. Alexi drank whatever could be had for free.
“Why do you insist on spending your life on the back of a horse, dressed like a peasant boy when, with very little effort, you could be one of the wealthiest women west of the Mississippi? No.” He lifted his glass to the ceiling. “In the entire country.”
“Don’t bother,” Cat said. “I’m not coming back.”
Alexi considered her as he sipped, his throat flexing, then releasing as he swallowed. “Even if I can give you what you’ve been searching years to find?”
Her skin prickled, and she said again what she seemed to say a lot whenever she came near Alexi Romanov. “Say what you mean.”
“Why do you think I came to Abilene?”
“Because you regretted selling me out?”
He lifted a dark, slim brow. “You know I never waste time with regrets.”
Did that mean he’d sold her out or didn’t it?
“I sold nothing to no one,” Alexi snapped. “Least of all a woman I’d prefer in my—” He paused at her sharp glance, and the corner of his mouth quirked. “Life. If you were dead, whatever would I do?”
“The same thing you’ve been doing since I left,” Cat muttered, thoughts on the redhead who’d recently fled the room.
“Nothing could entice me to hurt you,” Alexi said.
Cat didn’t believe him. For a price, Alexi would do anything.
He sighed, obviously reading her eyes, her face, her mind. “I came to you because there’s a bounty.”
Now they were getting somewhere. “On who and how much?”
. For more money than even I can count.”
“Me?” Cat laughed, but the sound held no humor. When did it anymore? “What the hell did I do?”
“I told you in Abilene. You’ve become a legend.”
“Half of those stories aren’t even about me.”
“It doesn’t matter. Someone wants you dead. Or at least unavailable.”
“I haven’t broken the law.”
“No one’s going to pay a huge bounty on me.”
“The law has nothing to do with it.” He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “I misspoke. Not a bounty per se. More of an…incentive.”
“To kill me?”
“The bounty is dead or alive.” He spread his hands. “But you know what happens in those cases.”
bounty hunters, when given the choice, chose dead. Less trouble that way.
“You need to ask yourself,
who might wish to see you in the grave?”
Cat considered and came to the disturbing conclusion that a better question might be,
lexi watched Cat’s face. As usual, he could divine none of her thoughts. She’d learned from him well. Too well, he often thought, when he had occasion to think of such things. Perhaps she would have been better served to scream and cry for all she had lost. Maybe then she wouldn’t have become this.
But Alexi didn’t believe crying changed anything, and raving against death…He gave a mental shrug. What good did that do?
When she’d come to him and asked that he teach her all that he knew, Alexi had believed Cat merely wanted to get away from her past. Didn’t everyone? He’d never suspected what she was really up to.
The creation of Cat O’Banyon. Would he have refused to help if he’d guessed the truth?
Alexi released a short, amused puff of air. There’d never been any question of leaving her behind. From the first instant he’d seen her, he’d yearned.
Standing in the rain, which traced like tears down her agonizingly pale face, the pain she had not yet learned to conceal stark in her brilliant green eyes. He’d wanted to make that pain go away, and he’d gone about it the only way he knew how.
Alexi shook off the memory and murmured, “
, is the list so very long?”
She glanced up. He was captured anew by her eyes—no longer sad, no longer
thanks to him—which were still brilliant green and so lovely. One day, he vowed, those eyes would again reveal her soul.
“I can think of quite a few.” Her lips tightened. “But most of them are in jail or—”
“Dead,” he finished. “Thanks to you.”
Which might be why.
“No,” Cat murmured as if he’d actually spoken. He really had taught her too well to read faces if she could read his. “Their loved ones are either outlaws themselves and too damn selfish to care about anyone else or regular folk who are horrified at what their flesh and blood has done. None of them are going to waste a cent on me.”
Which left one other option. Alexi waited for her to catch up. It didn’t take long.
“Oh,” she whispered.
“Yes,” he agreed.
Alexi blinked. “Pardon?”
“If he’s nervous enough to put a price on my head, then I’m getting close.”
Alexi smacked himself in the temple with the heel of his hand. “You’ll be getting
“They’ll have to catch me first.”
“I caught you.”
Cat scoffed. “I knew it was you.”
,” he murmured. “You did not.”
Something flickered in her eyes—fear, doubt, anger; he’d never been certain with her—and he pressed on, hoping that maybe this time she’d listen. “Those men in Abilene were good. They followed me for thirty miles after I left you, and they nearly caught me.”
Her brow creased. “Did you kill them?”
Alexi managed to cover his wince by taking a healthy swig of his watered-down wine. Then he gave her a bland look, and her mouth tightened.
never kill anyone.”
He didn’t. Not anymore.
“How did you get away?” she asked.
“They did not pay attention and…” Alexi waved his hand.
“You were gone.”
” he murmured, and drank again.
“Then we have no problem. They’ll never find you here, and they won’t find me anywhere.”
Alexi’s temper snapped, and he set the glass down on the dressing table too hard. It cracked up the side. At least it was empty. “You are not invisible. And it’s a simple matter to bribe a lawman. The next time you bring in a bounty, Lord knows who might be waiting for you.”
“I don’t think—”
“You don’t,” he interrupted, “and you need to start. The truth may be hard to come by, yet every truth has a price.”
She remained silent for a moment and then: “What do you suggest?”
“Travel with me.” She opened her mouth to refuse—he could see it in her face—but he kept right on talking. “It’s the best way to keep you safe.”
She stiffened. “I don’t need any help.”
“Of course not,
You have never needed anyone or anything.”
Her eyes narrowed. She sensed the sarcasm even though his voice had held nothing of the kind. When it came to hiding things, Alexi was as good as she was.
“You cannot continue the way you have been,” he said softly. “Not until this threat is past.”
Cat bit her lip. He was right. But would she admit it?
“If I hide,” she said, “I’ll never find him.”
That scenario would be quite all right with Alexi. “Isn’t it better to confront this fellow on your own terms, with the upper hand, rather than allow him, or those he’s hired, to back you into a corner?”
“No one backs me into a corner,” she muttered.
Alexi lifted his brows. He had.
She looked away, the slight flush across her cheeks telling him that she remembered. “I assume you have a plan.”
“I could send Mikhail—”
“No!” Her frantic gaze met his; her hands clenched and unclenched. “
have to kill him.
. No one else.”
“Does it really matter who kills him,
il mio cuore,
as long as he’s dead?”
“It does,” she insisted. “Promise me you won’t send Mikhail.”
Promises, for Alexi, often begged to be broken. So he shrugged and murmured, “As you wish.”
She stared at him for several moments. Would she leave right now, refusing his protection and help? It wouldn’t be the first time. Then her shoulders slumped, her hands unfurled, and she turned her head away. “The plan?”
“You will travel with me. We will make our way to Denver City.” He had been there as a child; he knew the place well.
“Why Denver City?” she asked.
“Because that is where your dead-or-alive body must be delivered and where the incentive will be paid.” He tapped his forehead. “We will be smart. No one will search for Cat O’Banyon in my wagons. No one who matters will pay us any mind. We will discover the
identity of the one who wants you dead—” Alexi spread his hands.
“Then I’ll kill him.”
The redhead, whose name was Hazel, proved to be quite the shrew. When she returned and discovered Alexi in the process of leaving—even though he’d promised to take her along—she threw a screaming, stomping, cursing fit.
“Take her,” Cat said. He was going to need a bedmate and it wasn’t going to be Cat. Just because she had been once didn’t mean she would be again. She didn’t think she could be. Alexi was too—
Cat broke off the thought before it could form—complete with imagery—in her head. Alexi was a lot of things, most of them
something. She didn’t need to get specific, even with herself.
Cat watched the argument in amusement until Hazel snatched up Alexi’s empty glass and threw it at Cat’s head.
“I’ll meet you at the wagon,” Cat said, and left Alexi to tell Hazel she would not be joining them.
Alexi didn’t care for theatrics. Unless they were his own.
The Mississippi River, dotted with barges and boats of all shapes and sizes, flowed briskly beneath the moon. Alexi’s wagon had not only been moved but also refashioned into a plain covered wagon once more. No one who had seen it earlier would recognize it now as the count’s conveyance.
Cat approached warily. She knew better than to sneak up on—
“Miss Cathy.” The low, slow voice came out of the darkness an instant before he did.
“Mikhail.” Alexi’s right hand. She’d heard them refer to each other as brothers. She’d never been sure if they were truly of the same blood or merely lifelong friends. Alexi’s explanation of the relationship changed with the direction of the wind. According to Mikhail they’d been together since childhood.
Cat had her doubts that Alexi had ever been a child.
Mikhail, on the other hand, was a little boy in a giant’s body. He could break thick tree limbs in two as easily as he broke legs; he could crush a head with as little effort as he crushed an egg. Whatever task Alexi asked of him, Mikhail performed.
“How have you been?” Cat asked.
“I missed you when you went away.”
People weren’t nice to Mikhail, something Cat had never understood. Why would you poke a stick at a man of his size? Unless you wanted to die.
But Mikhail had a calm disposition; in truth, he never lost his temper, which to Cat only made the violence he committed in Alexi’s name more frightening.
“I missed you too,” Cat murmured. “But I had to go.”
Mikhail’s clear gray eyes met hers. “Why?”
She had never told him about her past; she’d never really told anyone. Not everything.
“There are bad men. I catch them…”
Or kill them.
“So they don’t hurt anyone else.”
“Oh.” He nodded. “I remember.”
Unease trickled down Cat’s back. “What do you remember?”
“Some folks gotta be punished. You and I are the same.”
Cat opened her mouth to deny this, then snapped it closed. Justice was justice, especially out here. Just because Cat brought the bad men to meet a fate decided
by a court—unless, of course, they forced her to decide their fate herself—and Mikhail meted out justice decided by Alexi didn’t mean she was right and he was wrong. Sure, Alexi was playing God, but then…
Cat contemplated their sole means of transportation before removing what remained of Clyde’s bounty from her pocket and handing it to Mikhail. “Can you fetch me a wagon of my own and some horses?”
Mikhail shook his big head and frowned. “He won’t like it none.”