Authors: Kate Watterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Western, #Erotica
For Juanita Brand in friendship and the recognition of a kindred soul.
The setting of most of this story is in the state we know as Colorado today. In 1857 Colorado was not even a territory—that was established in 1861. It consisted of parts of the territories of Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico and a little bit of Utah. So, no, there are no mountains in Kansas now, but once upon a time, there were.
The smell of smoke woke her right before the screams began. Lady Victoria Mead sat up, feeling disoriented at the burst of sudden sound around her.
What the devil is going on?
The wagon was on fire, she discovered that soon enough, for the ceiling burst into flames in a rush of heat and noise. She scrambled up, flinging the blankets aside, and heard the staccato sound of gunfire add to the general confusion. Panicked, she crawled to the back and slid out without even bothering to grab her robe, her heart pounding. It was very dark, and the night sky, which could be so spectacular, was dead black with heavy clouds. The only illumination was the vivid fiery evidence of disaster in the form of dozens of burning wagons. It lit the area and reflected eerily off the melee of fleeting forms and men running everywhere.
It was chaos, and she had no idea what to do.
A scream locked in her throat as a horse and rider suddenly loomed out of nowhere. She had a brief impression of a fierce face, bronzed bare chest and then pain as hard hands swept her up and an unladylike shriek escaped her throat.
At the moment of captivity, she understood.
It wasn’t like she hadn’t been warned of the tensions between the settlers and the native people who occupied the land. It was just that the journey so far had been so tame it was almost tedious, and she hadn’t expected the attack. Obviously neither had the scouts who rode along with the wagon train.
The warrior ignored her furious struggles, and all she could hear was the incessant screaming, some of which were probably her own cries for help. She could feel the thundering power of the horse and her captor’s implacable grip as she lay sprawled facedown across his thighs, his hand twisted in her long hair and holding her still though she tried to desperately squirm free.
The retort was lost in the general wild confusion of noise, but she felt the effect when the bullet hit. Suddenly her abductor loosened his grip and swayed, and she heard him say something in a language she had never heard in her life. The horse didn’t slow, not even as his rider pitched off, and suddenly she was pounding away from the fire and turmoil in a violent rush of muscled runaway power.
, she thought dimly as she clung to the neck of the fleeing animal.
The pall of the smoke, the eerie quiet and the carnage he was more than happy to leave behind. Cole Thune nudged his stallion and abandoned the wagon train massacre with relief.
“Damn,” Jace Vance muttered, his horse cantering alongside. In the midmorning sun, his young face looked pale under the brim of his hat. “That’s not something I’d care to see again.”
“Me either,” agreed the third member of their small party, his mouth set in a thin line as he rode on the other side. “Relatives of yours, Cole?”
Cole gave his friend a sardonic look. Few men had the nerve to make joking remarks over his half-breed heritage, and besides, Robert Forester knew full well Cole’s mother had been Lakota. “They didn’t leave any of their dead behind, so it’s hard to know what tribe might have attacked those poor devils.”
“No survivors.” Forester shook his head and squinted at the horizon where the sun had just come up. Incongruous to the carnage they had just witnessed, the morning was clear and beautiful with the sky deepening to a stunning pure blue and a cool, clean breeze now that they were moving away from the still-smoldering wagons. “Whichever bunch is so riled up, let’s move along so we don’t run into them.”
“Amen to that.” Though he’d seen his share of violence, Jace was younger than either of them and he looked grim and stricken. Even his usual lazy air and soft Texan drawl were in abeyance.
Cole felt a bit stricken himself by the graphic scene of violence and destruction, but he’d learned a long time ago to keep emotion under control. Anyone who decided to brave the West needed to realize it wasn’t the friendliest place, not by a long shot. He’d adopted the policy of looking ahead rather than regretting the past, and it had worked pretty well so far. “We should make decent time today. I’d guess we’ll reach the valley in less than a week.”
It was true—the open prairies had started to break up, and rolling hills and small groves of trees now spotted the landscape. Soon they’d see the glory of the Rockies, but there were still quite a few miles to go before they got to the ranch.
He couldn’t wait. He had the deed in his pocket, and it was tied up tight and legal. No more drifting, no more riding a grub line and God help him, no more bloodshed and dodging the law. Years passed, names became obscure, even one as infamous as his with a little luck.
They rode on until thankfully the scent of burnt cloth and wood faded and the sun inched a bit higher. It was warming up, he noticed with a grimace, and was probably going to be a scorcher later on.
“Hey, Cole, Rob, what in the hell is that?”
He glanced in the direction of Jace’s pointing finger and frowned. They’d just ridden over a small ridge and at the bottom was a vale with a cluster of cottonwoods and a tiny stream. Something white showed through the underbrush, and as they urged their horses closer, it became evident that someone was there, lying under a small bush.
A woman, Cole realized incredulously as he pulled up, swung out of the saddle in a quick motion and went over. It had to be from the mass of golden hair spilling over the grass. As his companions dismounted, he knelt down beside her limp form.
She was half-naked, the garment loosely draping her slender body torn almost to her waist, and the part of the thin material that did cover her was damp with morning dew, leaving little to the imagination. She breathed, Cole could see it from the lift of her full breasts, the opulent flesh quivering as her chest rose and fell. Pale, wet, with her sticky lashes on her porcelain cheeks and her lissome body barely covered, she was like some sort of bizarre erotic mirage.
What every man might dream of, Cole thought as he looked at her. A gorgeous, almost-nude woman in the middle of literally nowhere. They hadn’t passed a town in days.
For a long moment, none of them spoke, the two other men peering over his shoulder. Cole had a hard time finding anything to say. Finally, Robert murmured, “Jesus. I’ll be damned.”
“I’ve always thought so,” Cole muttered. “Me too, I suppose.”
“That’s the truth.” Robert gave a small snort. “But I meant, what is she doing here?”
“The wagon train, I reckon.” Jace rubbed his jaw. “I’m surprised she got away, and how in the hell did she get this far? I bet we’ve come five miles.”
“Is she hurt?”
“Hard to tell.” Cole realized they all were staring at her bare breasts. He appreciated a shapely woman as much—if not more—than the next male, but she was not even awake, and as cynical as he had become, he felt guilty for looking at her. Tentatively, he reached out and touched her shoulder. “Miss?”
She wasn’t deeply unconscious, for she stirred a little and a moment later her eyes opened. They were a deep, perfect blue, framed by lush lashes, and the moment she focused on his face, they widened in pure horror.
Well, damn it, of course
. If she was the single living refugee from the ill-fated wagon train, waking to a man who clearly had Indian heritage bending over her wasn’t exactly going to give her comfort. Quickly, he said, “It’s all right.”
“No!” It was a gasp, part scream, part panic, and she sat up, the damaged white gown she was only half-wearing sliding completely off her slim, shaking shoulders. “Oh, God, leave me alone, please.”
“I’m not going to hurt you.” He tried to speak as calmly as possible and sank back on his heels, holding up his hands in an unthreatening gesture. “I promise. We were just riding along and saw you lying here. Tell me, are you injured?”
She fought to cover her nudity by snatching up the torn cloth, and semi-succeeded in shielding what he had already decided might be the finest pair of breasts he’d ever seen.
“No…yes, I don’t know.” Her response was punctuated by small sobs. “Where am I?”
“Western Kansas?” She looked dazed and her mouth trembled.
Her cultured but unexpected accent registered, and Cole frowned. “You’re English?”
She shivered, her eyes dilating as her gaze moved from his face to Robert and Jace, and then back to him. Her voice was barely audible. “Yes, from Wiltshire. But I am traveling with my aunt and uncle to California.”
Cole had learned a long time ago to not sugar-coat the truth, and he shook his head and said quietly, “Not anymore, I’m afraid.”
The man squatting in front of her was as foreign as the yawning cobalt sky, and the scent of pungent prairie grass very different from the verdant vegetation of her native country. Confused and disoriented, Victoria stared at him. He had sleek, dark hair worn long and straight, the glossy raven strands hanging past his wide shoulders. The features of his face were oddly elegant with high cheekbones, a square jaw and a straight, aquiline nose. There was no mistaking the shade of his bronzed skin or the midnight hue of his mesmerizing eyes. Though the hint of wildness was belied by the normal shirt and trousers, he had on strange, soft leather shoes of some kind, laced up to his knees. Under the plain cloth of his shirt, his chest looked imposingly wide.
“Did you try to carry me off?” she asked in a panic, the events of the evening before only flashes, like some vague nightmare full of fire and horrific screams. Her head ached. There had been shouting, and a man on a horse that came out of the darkness…
“I told you we just found you.” He looked back at her and shook his dark head. “Ask my pards here. I’m not exactly an angel, but no, I don’t kidnap women.”
that, but why was she sitting there with three men looking at her, and how had she gotten into such a position?
For heaven’s sake, to her horror, she was almost…naked.
“What happened?” Her nightdress was little more than shredded cloth and she could feel the breeze whisper across her bare shoulders. If she pulled it up any more it exposed her legs, and if she pushed it down it left her breasts almost entirely uncovered. She wanted to die of mortification, but her near nudity was no doubt the least of her problems. One of them, a handsome young man who couldn’t be more than a year or two older than she was, with blond hair and a lean, tanned face, gave her an openly sympathetic look. “You don’t remember anything, ma’am?”
Smoke, panic, shouts, gunfire…
“Not specifically,” she confessed, her mind whirling. “People were yelling, shots were fired…I think we were attacked.”
“You’d be correct in that assumption.” The dark-haired man rose in one lithe movement to what seemed like a towering height, his face impassive. “There are no others left alive, and everything was destroyed.”
She blanched at the blunt declaration, and one of his companions, this one with brown, curly hair she could see because he’d politely removed his hat, glanced at him in obvious censure. “
a sensitive declaration.” He turned to her. “Cole isn’t exactly gifted in the tact department, miss, but he’s right. I’m sorry, but from what we saw, you are the only one who got away.”
Her aunt and uncle, both dead? She had not known them well, but they had been kind enough to her in the short time of their acquaintance, and she felt the loss with true regret. “Dear Lord,” she whispered and turned her face away, her throat tight.
“I’ve a clean shirt in my saddlebag, let me get it.” The young blond man moved toward his horse with a slow jingle of spurs and a long stride. “She definitely needs something to wear.”
“Good idea.” The one referred to as Cole turned and surveyed their surroundings quickly, his dark eyes glittering. “We should probably ride on as fast as possible in case there’s more trouble. I’ve got an uneasy feeling being so out in the open like this. Can you stand?”
Realizing the question was directed at her, Victoria managed a feeble nod, though she was certain if she got to her feet one of two things would happen. Either she’d faint dead away from the realization she was suddenly stranded in the middle of the wilds of the American West with three strange men, or her nightdress would completely fall off.
Both sounded equally embarrassing and awful.
But better than perishing in a horrific massacre, she supposed, a hot tear trickling down her cheek as she thought of her aging relatives who had taken her in after the death of her brother. They hadn’t known her any more than she had known them, her father’s only brother having left England decades before. It had been daunting to sail off to America on her own, but she’d had little choice with no money or family left in England.