Authors: Rachelle Morgan
This book is gratefully dedicated to Micki Nuding and Lucia Macro, for saying yes; to the incomparable “Avon Ladies,” for their spirit and generosity; and always, to my very own Mr. Morgan, who never fails to amaze me.
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“YOU THINK YOU KNOW SO MUCH ABOUT WOMEN,” ANNIE SCOFFED.
“I know what they want, and I know how to give it,” Brett replied calmly.
It wasn't a boast, just a simple fact that had the power to kindle a fire in the pit of her stomach. “And what does the woman get out of it?”
“She gets to feel needed. Cherished. Desired.” Each word fell in tempo with her heartbeat. “Think about it, Annie.”
She did. In excruciating detail. Worse, she remembered seeing him in the creek. All that muscle. All that power. All that .Â .Â . utter and absolute
. And it could be hers with a crook of her finger. She could hardly remember the last time the blood in her veins felt so hot.
“Is bedding women all you think of?” she demanded.
Brett looked at her. “Bedding
is all I can think of.”
West Texas, Early 1870s
hey'd come for the horses.
Choking dust still haunted the earth torn up by a thousand hooves. The stench of pillage and desolation twisted around a cold March wind. Blackened embers smoldered from what remained of a home that only hours before had rung with the promise of a future filled with laughter, adventure, and a love so powerful that nothing had existed outside it.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
.Â .Â . never had a phrase been more fitting.
Annie Harper rose from where she knelt in front of a freshly dug grave, dropped the rock she'd used to pound a crude wooden marker into the ground, and pulled the edges of her shredded blouse together over her naked skin. If the mustangs had been all they'd taken, Annie could have dealt with it.
The loss of her husband, though .Â .Â .
She shut her gritty eyes and bowed her head. Why'd they have to kill him? He'd only been trying to protect what belonged to him. His horses. His home.
It was hard to believe that only yesterday they'd been planning another excursion into the canyon. Only yesterday they'd made wagers on which of them would spot the herd first, and who would capture the most profitable mares to take to auction, and whether or not they'd see the lead stallion.
And only yesterday she'd celebrated love, success, and happiness in her beloved's arms, never imagining that come dawn, yesterdays would be all she'd have left to hold.
A coldness invading Annie's breast, she backed up several paces from the grave, turned away from the rising sun, and walked, neither knowing nor caring where her legs took her.
When she reached the edge of the property she looked backward one last time, first at the empty, broken corrals, then at the smoldering mound of rubble beneath the cottonwood trees, then at the plain wooden cross sticking up through the prairie grass like a brittle bone.
They'd come for the horses .Â .Â . but they'd taken so much more. They'd taken everything worth living for.
Four years later .Â .Â .
hat no good, dirty, rotten son-of-a-bitch.” Brett Corrigan stormed into his study, toward the walnut cabinet across the room.
His foreman followed at a slower pace, wisely saying not a word. In the year since Brett had first taken over the ranch and made it his own, Wade Henry had learned that when his boss's temper let loose, it was safer just to keep his distance until it ran its course.
With the strength of the fury building inside Brett, it might be awhile. He loosened his kerchief with a single jerk, sloshed three fingers of bourbon from the decanter into a cut-crystal glass, and downed the liquor in one swallow.
“You want me to round up the men, Ace?” Henry finally ventured.
“And spend another month chasing a shadow?”
“We gotta do somethin'. That devil thinks your ladies are free for the takin'.”
“I know!” Brett slammed the empty glass against the cabinet top. “I know.” This wasn't the first time that cunning rogue had slipped onto the Triple Ace and stolen his stock. Over the last two months, Brett had lost almost a dozen horses to the wild black stallion they'd taken to calling Blue Fire. And last night he'd managed to lure away two of Brett's best Arabian fillies.
The timing couldn't be worse, either. Those fillies were just about to go into season, and he had a prime Thoroughbred stud waiting in the wings to service them. Albert Moore, a Kansas cattle baron with interests in racing, had already claimed the foals, and extended a promise of more contracts to come if the bloodlines were kept clean.
“Damn that rogue!”
Brett poured himself a refill, then strode to the vast window overlooking the bald landscape of the Triple Ace. He wondered again why he'd chosen this God-forgotten place to settle. There was nothing to boast aboutâjust twenty thousand acres of sand and sagebrush, with a few juniper shrubs thrown in to break up the monotony. If the land hadn't come to him fair and square, he'd never have ventured onto it, much less decided to raise horses again.
What the hell had ever made him think he could take a handful of bony nags and turn them into valuable breeding stock? His father was probably laughing his fool head off.
Think you're so high and mighty, don't you, boy? You couldn't raise a good horse with a windlass.
Brett's grip tightened around the glass. No, he wasn't going to fold his hand yet. Call it pride, call it arrogance, call it simple greed. This piece of Texas might not look like much now, but by God, it belonged to him, along with everything on it. One day the Triple Ace would be the most prosperous horse farm in the territory. No wild mustang with a fancy for his fillies was going to cause its failure before it even had a chance to succeed.
But how did he stop the wretch? And just as important, how did he get his fillies back before the stallion ruined them?
Brett glanced over his shoulder at the bowlegged man standing between matched black and burgundy-striped armchairs. Wade Henry looked like a hundred other veteran horsemen Brett had seen in his lifetime: gaunt cheeked, bristly haired, skin beaten into bronzed grooves by more than half a century of relentless Texas sun. What's more, he had exceptional horse sense. That alone made him worth keeping on. What would
do if he stood in Brett's boots?
He folded the temptation to ask Henry for advice almost as soon as the notion formed. Bosses gave the orders; hired hands took them. The rule had been bred into Brett so deeply that crossing that boundary had never entered his mind before, and probably wouldn't have now if he didn't feel so damned helpless. But the word of a leader was second only to God's, and allowing a hireling to influence his authority eroded the workings of the whole outfit. As with every other decision that affected the Triple Ace, this one rested solely on his shoulders.
Brett swirled the bourbon, and as he watched the amber liquid lap against the rim, he considered his options. Angry as he was, he'd castrate the stallion if he could get his hands on him. Unfortunately, his men couldn't get close enough to rope him, much less bring him in.
Chasing him off hadn't worked, either; he'd just come back again and again, slipping past the guards under the cover of darkness, collecting a couple more missies for his harem, then disappearing the same way.
Maybe he should just hire a sharpshooter to solve the problem once and for all, Brett thought with a sigh. No one would fault him for it; he wasn't the only rancher in the area to have lost valuable horses to the wild herds. Still, he had a hard time with that idea. As infuriating as it was to have his stock stolen right from under his nose, a part of him couldn't help but respectâeven admireâthe stallion's boldness. Hell, if half the Triple Ace colts had that kind of gumption, he'd make a fortune.
Brett's head slowly lifted.
Arabian grace and speed .Â .Â . Mustang stamina and grit .Â .Â .
Why hadn't he thought of it before? Not everyone could afford Thoroughbreds. Local ranchers and the military were just as hungry for good mounts as wealthy businessmen. Breeding a couple of his mixed blood mares with the stallion could produce foals worth quite a tidy sum.Â .Â . .
All it would take is someone smarter and more cunning to bring him in.
Brett abandoned his drink and headed for the door, for once not giving a gator's hide that his spurs might chip the flagstone floor. “I want the patrol doubled on the boundaries,” he instructed Henry. “Have the men rotate in eight-hour shifts. Do anything you have to to protect those mares.”
“Where are you goin'?”
Brett grabbed his hat and duster off the rack by the front door. “To find someone to catch that devil,” he said, jamming on his Stetson. “If he wants my horses, he can have themâon
Hire a thief to catch a thief.
The phrase repeated itself in Brett's mind several hours later as he flipped through the ring of wanted posters in the jailhouse lobby. Dead. Dead. Captured. Dead.
The door opened, sending a wedge of light across the pocked plank floor. “Afternoon, Sheriff,” Brett said without glancing up.
“Corrigan.” Ike Savage hung his hat on a wall peg near the door, then lowered his lumpy frame behind a scarred desk cleared of everything save a dented tin can of pencils. Long black sideburns framed the sheriff's bloated cheeks and a thick mustache drooped low over his puffy lips. “Don't tell me you've developed an interest in the law.”
“Only when it suits my purposes,” Brett answered evasively. He'd met Savage a year ago in the poker game that had won him the Triple Ace. Brett hadn't had much use for the man then, and didn't have much use for him now. Whether because of the badge he wore or a distrust of the man himself, Brett couldn't say, but he'd learned a long time ago that the less said around Ike Savage, the better.
He flipped over another page. The sketches contained some of the most plug-ugly desperadoes he'd ever set eyes on. Cheats. Murderers. Bandits. “You've got quite a collection here.” He thumped his finger against the stack of posters. “How many of these are still on the loose?”
Ike withdrew one of the pencils and tapped it against the desktop in a swift, hollow rhythm that set Brett's teeth on edge. “Two. Maybe three.” Ike shrugged a meaty shoulder.
“Losin' your touch, Sheriff.”
Savage stiffened at the jibe. “What's this all about, Corrigan?”
Brett smiled. “Just passing the time till your deputy shows up.” A familiar burst of robust laughter outside put a genuine smile on Brett's face. “Ah, speak of the devil.Â .Â . .”
A second later, a tall, lean figure swaggered through the open doorway. Favored with long, sandy blond hair, piercing blue eyes, and a careless charm that seemed to draw women to him like dew to wild rye, Jesse Justiss was probably the only man in town who gave Brett a run for his money when it came to the ladies. He was also dependable, discreet, and a damn fine poker playerânot to mention the closest thing to a friend Brett could claim.
Spying him, Jess grinned. “Well, look what the dogs dug up! What brings you to Tascosa?”
“Actually, you do.” Brett tipped his hat in the Sheriff's direction, then walked out onto the weather-warped boardwalk with Jesse. If anyone could give him the answers he sought, Jess could. Though at least ten years his junior, the man could find a needle in a haystack before it even got there. Brett had always wondered why Jesse was wasting his time working for a worm like Savage when he could be putting his sleuthing talents to better use.
In silence, Brett fired up a cheroot, offered one to his friend, then pocketed his container of matches.
“Store-bought smokes,” Jesse said, popping the end into his mouth. “Must be serious.”
Brett took a deep pull of the tobacco and squinted into the sunlight. “I'm looking for a thief.”
Jesse grinned. “Someone run off with one of your women?”
“No, something more irreplaceable,” Brett said. “I had a couple more horses turn up missing.”
“Ah, so that's why you were rifling through the wanted posters. I take it you didn't find the crook who took them.”
“Actually, I know who took them. I was looking for a crook to steal them back.”
Jesse threw back his head and laughed. “I should have guessed.”
“Unfortunately, I couldn't find a decent horse thief in the bunch. Most of them have either been hanged or sent to prison.”
“Or hightailed it to greener pastures,” Jess added. He inhaled, then exhaled a stream of smoke. Around them, a warm wind kicked up balls of dust and sent them rolling down the street like tumbleweeds. A pair of hawks circled high above a thicket of sagebrush, waiting for an unwary rodent to emerge.
“You know, it's too bad Mustang Annie isn't around anymore,” Jess said after a spell. “This sounds like something right up her alley.”
“Who's Mustang Annie?” Brett asked, his interest snared.
“Hell, Brett, have you been living under a rock? I didn't think there was a man alive who hadn't heard of her!”
“Who is she?”
“Only the most notorious con artist and horse thief since Joe Flick.”
Brett had never heard of Joe Flick, either, but chose not to further reveal his ignorance.
“Shame, too. She used to be a hell of a mustanger. Every horse trader and rancher in four territories would have sold his soul to have her join his outfit. There wasn't a maverick she couldn't catch or a bucker she couldn't settle. Between you and me, I think that only played to her advantage.”
“Well, she had herself quite a scam going there for a while. She'd get herself hired on with some outfit, tame the wildest broncs for the boss, and collect her fee. A couple weeks later, the horses would turn up missing.”
Brett's mind began to whir with possibilities. He hadn't considered hiring a woman. Females were put on earth to grace a man's arm and warm his bed, not sling ropes and chase horses. But if she could recover his fillies.Â .Â . . “What ever happened to her?”
Jesse shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. She disappeared about five years ago. No-body's seen hide nor hair of her since.”
It seemed awful strange that such a notorious woman could just up and disappear. Of course, if she were responsible for the disappearance of freshly broken broncs, as Jesse had implicated, it was highly likely that she'd finally gotten caught and wound up being the guest of honor at a necktie social.
On the other hand, if she was just lying low.Â .Â . .
“You won't find her, Corrigan,” Jesse said, as though reading Brett's mind. “Even Savage hasn't been able to pin her down.”
With a sly grin, Brett loosened Fortune's reins from the hitching rail and swung into the saddle. “Maybe he hasn't been looking in the right places.”