Authors: Lynna Banning
He slid his revolver out of the holster on his hip, spilled the chambered bullets into his palm and thrust the weapon at her, holding it by the blued steel barrel. She knocked it out of his hand onto the ground.
His eyes narrowed into glittery emerald slits. “Pick it up,” he ordered.
“I can't. I am too stiff to bend over.”
“Then you shouldn't have dropped the gun. I said pick it up.” He put one hand at her waist and the other at her back and jackknifed her body. She groaned through gritted teeth.
“Pick it up,” he repeated.
She scrabbled on the ground and managed to grab the long barrel, but it was heavier than she expected. She couldn't lift it with one hand.
“Use two hands,” he ordered.
She pushed the weapon toward her other hand and grasped the handle.
“Now straighten up.” He bit the words out like firecrackers going off.
“You got me doubled over like this,” she said. “
can get me to straighten up.”
Too late she realized her mistake. He slapped one hand on her midsection, grasped her shoulder with the other and yanked her upright.
Her muscles screamed and she wanted to weep with frustration. She thought about stamping her foot onto his toe, but she knew she couldn't lift it high enough.
“Now,” he instructed, positioning her hand on the gun. “Fold your fingers around the butt and slip your forefinger onto the trigger.” He laid his hand over hers and curled her fingers over the handle. She couldn't hold up the weight, and the barrel drooped toward the ground.
“You right-handed?” When she nodded, he grabbed her left hand and pressed her fingers on the opposite side. “Hold it steady.”
“I am trying! It is too heavy for a woman.”
“Not too heavy for a crusader,” he said drily.
She glanced into his face. “You think I am a crusader?”
“Hell, yes.” He stepped behind her, brought both hands around her body and rested them under her forearms to steady her grip.
She didn't like the feel of him at her back. Or the warmth of his arms around hers. Or anything. He smelled of leather and wood smoke and sweat. Well, she acknowledged, she probably smelled the same. He didn't seem to mind, because he moved his jaw right up against her hair.
“Breathe in,” he said. “Now breathe out.”
She couldn't. Not with him so close. Not without revealing how uneven her breathing had become all of a sudden.
He lifted her forearms and the gun barrel leveled off parallel to the ground. “Now sight down the barrel.”
“Sight? What does that mean, âsight'?”
He snorted. “Hell, lady, it means aim the damn gun!” With his chin he nudged her head down. “Look through those two little notches and point the barrel at something.”
She'd like to point it at
. Instead she swung the weapon toward a low-hanging branch.
“Now squeeze the trigger.”
She heard a metallic snap.
“Good. Now we'll try it with a bullet.”
Patiently Hawk showed her how to crack open the chamber and slide the cartridges into the slots. She was a quick study, and that surprised him. He only had to show her something once. She was obviously intelligent. Probably had attended some fancy girls' school, maybe even college.
When she'd loaded his revolver he instructed her about not swinging the barrel around but keeping it pointed down, then showed her how to release the hammer.
“Okay, now aim at something.” Hawk stepped in behind her again and watched her point the weapon at another tree branch.
“Try not to hit a bird,” he joked. She didn't even crack a smile. “Don't wait too long or your hands will start to shake.”
“My hands are already shaking,” she said. Her voice was shaking, as well.
“Bring the barrel up slowly. Now hold your breath and sight. When you're ready, just squeeze back on the trigger.”
The revolver discharged with a sharp crack, and the kick propelled her backward into his chest. Instinctively he grabbed her shoulders. “A gun always pushes back when you fire it, so you need to be ready.”
He liked holding her that way, her backbone pressed against his chest. Her head just fit under his chin. Damn, her hair smelled good, like lemons and some kind of soap.
He could feel every breath she took and he wasn't liking his reaction one bit. He wanted to slide his fingers around to her chest, cup her breasts and feel her heart beat under his thumb.
He snatched his hands away so fast it was as if a bee had stung him. Now, that was an interesting reaction.
No, it was a damn worrisome reaction. He didn't have time to dally with a woman, especially this woman, all proper and educated and remote.
Even more important, he didn't have the guts for it. Not anymore.
hey arrived in Gillette Springs just as the sun dipped behind the mountains to the north. The trunk sat waiting in the hotel foyer, as Hawk had instructed, so he arranged for a room. The women ordered a bathtub to be brought up. He made sure they bolted the door and strode off to find the sheriff.
The man's office was just three doors down from the hotel, but nobody was there. A sign stuck to the door read At Polly's Cage. Back at five.
Good idea. He could use a shot of whiskey before heading back.
“Sheriff Davis in town?”
The pie-eyed deputy leaned against the polished wood bar and sent Hawk a sloppy grin. “Leadin' a posse up to Idaho,” the paunchy man allowed with a derisive snort. “Left me in charge, he did. In charge of what, I'd like to know. Nuthin' exciting ever happens in this town.”
“Might be something exciting tonight,” Hawk offered. “Suffragette lady's making a speech.”
“Oh, yeah, I heard about her. Over at the church, seven o'clock.”
“Listen, Deputy, someone took a shot at the lady two nights ago in Smoke River. Think you should...” Hawk leaned toward him and lowered his voice. Then he stopped short and studied the man. Old. Out of shape. And drunk. This deputy couldn't protect a dog from a flea.
Hell. All he wanted to do was head back to Smoke River and forget the woman now taking a bath at the hotel. He wanted to get as far away as possible from Caroline MacFarlane.
But he couldn't leave her to the protection of this sorry excuse for a lawman. He ground his teeth until his jaw hurt.
“How about you make sure nobody sits down in that church tonight without removing their sidearms. Pile 'em up on the back pew and guard them.”
“Oh. Oh, sure, mister. I'll do that for sure.”
And not much else, Hawk realized. The minute Caroline entered the church she would be a sitting pigeon. Hell and damn, he couldn't leave her. When he returned to Smoke River he'd send off a stiff note to Sheriff Davis about his derelict deputy, but for tonight, Hawk figured he'd have to stand in. Maybe he'd have to rethink the whole thing to keep this headstrong woman safe.
He grabbed a bath and a shave at the barbershop across the street from the saloon, then went up the hotel stairs to tell Fernanda and Caroline what not to do tonight.
* * *
“Whatever do you mean, don't wear this dress? This is my most tailored suit. It is perfectly proper and stylish and it commands respâ”
“It makes you look stiff and superior and men hate women like that.”
Caroline drew herself up as tall as she could and glared at him. “Oh, they do, do they? Well, let me tell you something. It is not
I am trying to reach, Mr. Rivera. It is the
I want to hear my message.”
“No, it isn't. It's the men you need to convince. The women are already on your side.”
Fernanda laid a restraining hand on her arm. “He is right,
. It is men who will be voting to give the vote to the women.”
Rivera yanked open the door to her wardrobe where she'd hung up her dresses and flicked through the hangers. “Wear something frilly,” he said. “Something with ruffles or bows or ribbons or something.” He pulled out her flounced yellow skirt.
“That is meant for a party or a reception. It is entirely too dressy for speech-making.”
“Wear it anyway.”
The man was impossible. She eyed his selection with trepidation. It was entirely too frivolous for playing the role of aâwhat had he called her?âa crusader?
Oh, Mama, I am beginning to wish I had known more about what I would be getting into
But Fernanda had a point; it
men who would be voting to change the suffrage law.
“IâI cannot do it. I refuse to...to...well, seduce the men with a pretty dress.”
“You want to win the war,” he grumbled, “you do what you have to do.” He reached over and plucked the pins holding her bun at her neck.
“And wear your hair down.”
She gasped as her hair tumbled free. “Just what do you think you are doing?”
“Damned if I know,” he muttered. “Keeping you safe. Out of the line of fire from some crazy gent who wants to stop you.”
“Oh.” The look on his face stopped every protest she could think of.
“Look, Caroline,” he said. “I don't believe in your cause. I don't want you women to win the vote. But I also don't want you to get yourself killed.”
“Oh,” she said again. Suddenly all the air whooshed out of her and all her brave words dissolved into thin air. Very well, she would do it. She would wear the yellow dress. She would be soft and feminine and she would win the vote of the men on behalf of the women. Rivera was right. It was +exactly like going to war.
But oh, Lord, no one had told her how frightening it could be.
“Get dressed,” Hawk ordered. “I'll walk you to the church in ten minutes.” Like a good soldier, she didn't even flinch. Made him wonder something else about her.
He closed the door and paced up and down the carpeted hallway outside and tried to figure her out.
* * *
The church was filled to overflowing. The mix of seated men and women was about even. Deputy Saunders had secured all the sidearms on the back pew and was standing guard over the pile of holsters and gun belts and revolvers. At least he had sobered up.
Hawk had arranged with the minister to use the entrance in back of the pulpit so Caroline would not have a long walk up the aisle. Fernanda was already seated in the front pew, her face looking serene and her hands folded in her lap. But her dark eyes were wide with apprehension.
Caroline stood next to him, waiting for the last of her audience to squeeze into a pew. She took his breath away in that yellow dress. Hell, she'd have every man in the church in love with her before she even opened her mouth.
She, too, looked calm. Resolute. Suffused with soldierly purpose. He'd seen lieutenants with less steel in their spine.
She also looked female as hell and too vulnerable. His chest tightened just a fraction more than he liked.
Beside him, she drew in a shaky breath and started forward.
“Wait.” He laid his hand at her waist and pulled her to a stop beside him, then slipped the small pistol he'd bought out of his vest and pressed it into her hand.
“What is this?” she whispered.
“It's a pistol. It's lighter than my revolver. Carry it in your skirt pocket.”
“Careful,” he said. He closed her fingers around the gun butt. “It's loaded.”
She snatched her hand away, then nodded. “Thank you.” He watched her slip it into her pocket.
“Ready? Let's go.”
As he had instructed, she moved through the doorway and quickly placed herself behind the minister's solid oak lectern. Hawk followed, seated himself on a side chair just behind the pulpit, and scanned the crowd. Quietly he laid his revolver across his lap.
The audience couldn't see the weapon; besides, every eye was glued to the vision in yellow standing at the front of the church.
“Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Caroline MacFarlane.” She kept her voice low and even, not a hint of harangue or inflammatory words. Good girl.
“I want to tell you about my mother, Evangeline MacFarlane. When I was old enough to notice such things, I became aware that myâ” she hesitated and Hawk tensed “âmy father struck my mother. He did this often, almost every night, and he made no attempt to hide from me what he was doing.”
She paused and Hawk focused on the men in the crowd. Some looked angry; some looked a little guilty; but most bore a look of concern.
“When I was twelve years old my mother took me away from our home. She said she could not live like that any longer, and no matter how my father begged and pleaded, she refused to go back.”
The women in the audience nodded and murmured to each other. A few even dabbed at their eyes.
“But my father went to court. And the judgeâ” Again she stopped and this time she swallowed hard. “The judge said my mother had to return to my father, had to live with him even though he mistreated her. He said it was the law in Massachusetts, that if a woman left her husband, she forfeited her right to her children.”
Hawk studied the faces of the men. No doubt some of them beat their wives. Maybe they felt they were justified; maybe a few felt guilty. But not one of them challenged Caroline or shouted an insult. Instead, they waited to hear her next words.
“My mother decided this was wrong, that forcing a woman to live with an abusive husband was wrong. She moved us into a room at a boardinghouse. Later, to save herselfâand meâshe left him for good and took me with her. She joined a group of women and spoke out against this injustice, and other injustices against women. We traveled all over the country, and everywhere we went, my mother spoke out to support women.”
In the uneasy silence, Hawk finally began to breathe easier. It was not an unruly crowd; the men were stirred up, he could see that, but they weren't violent.
Caroline went on, her voice still soft. “Did you know that here in Oregon a woman cannot divorce a man for cruelty or abandonment? And that if a woman earns any money of her own, it goes to her husband?”
She paused again. “Ladies and gentlemen, do you think this is fair?”
There was a sudden commotion at the back of the church. Hawk lifted his revolver, shielding it from view with his hand, and thumbed back the hammer. But the cause of the disturbance was a young boy of about eight or nine, who darted up the aisle to where Caroline stood and thrust a folded piece of paper into her hand.
“Man said to give you this,” he panted.
She unfolded the note and gasped. Then she looked over at Hawk.
Her face had gone white as milk.