Authors: Kate Watterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Western, #Erotica
Fair enough. Actually, knowing her, Cole had expected he’d have to come clean eventually, because she wasn’t a biddable female—she’d never been one, and if she had those inclinations, she’d have stayed in England.
The room was still rustic at best and showcased her elegance even in her worn clothes, as she’d refused to wear the new ones yet. Cole understood pride, he had it in full measure, and none of them had said a word yet to her refusal to take the garments Jace and Robert had bought in town.
The least of their worries at the moment.
“I’ll answer them,” he told her quietly. “Each and every one, if, at the end of it, you agree to go somewhere safe.”
At some point she’d cleaned the windows, and the slanting sunlight showed painfully all the nicks in the plank floors, but they were also swept and wiped down, and the character appealed to him. What was a surface without some scars anyway? If a person lived on this earth long enough they had a few nicks and bruises. Character meant something.
Across from him, Victoria didn’t falter or look away, but then again, he hadn’t thought she would when this moment came. “Tell me.”
Two simple words. Such a complicated explanation.
But he’d just given his word, and if it would make her cooperate, he’d confess every sin that could be attributed to his admittedly tarnished soul. “I’ve already explained I’m wanted for killing a man. His brothers are looking for me, and they are not any more worthy to be on this earth than he was. They’ve been through Rio Verde, and it is possible they will eventually find this valley. I don’t want you here when they do.”
Victoria didn’t seem to know what to say.
“I’m not going to claim I’ve never deliberately broke the law.” His smile was grim. “I have. Not so proud of it, but I fell down a time or two. I was a rebellious youth.”
In retrospect, he recognized that maybe his father had held off marrying all those years because he was truly mourning. When he was younger, he’d disliked his father because he’d never married his mother, but now that he was older, Cole at least understood that a blue-blooded young man from a prominent family wasn’t allowed to marry an Indian maiden. He’d been torn between social stigmas and what he really wanted. At least Cole could say his father had never tried to deny him, and probably, when all was said and done, did his best.
People had worse things happen to them all the time. Victoria, for all her privileged background hadn’t done any better, and maybe worse. She had no one.
Well, not so. She had all three of them, and they were determined to keep her.
“I’m no angel either,” Jace offered in his usual reckless way. “I’m wanted in Texas for killing a sheriff that was not on the right side of the law. Don’t matter if he deserved it or not—take my word he did, and it was self-defense, at that—but I’m still not allowed to go back.
is my home.”
To his credit Robert added, “I’m not wanted for murder, but I’ve been willing to bend the law in a good cause all along. I make no excuses or apologies for anything I’ve done. I stand by Cole and Jace, and I always will. I believe a lot more in morality than I do in justice, especially when west of the Mississippi. One day there will be law here, but that day hasn’t really arrived yet. We need to rely on ourselves.”
To say Cole was moved by the unequivocal loyalty was not adequate. It wasn’t that he didn’t know it, but the three of them would never have discussed it if it hadn’t been for Victoria, and truthfully, maybe it should have been said before.
“This is my new home too,” she said after a reflective moment, her expression softening. “Now convince me why I need to leave it. You say they
find it. Why not wait and see if that happens?”
This was why his gods allowed him to love her. Cole knew it. There was never a need for hysterics with Victoria, even in a moment like this that tested the ultimate loyalty in a woman who had been betrayed by just about everyone in her life.
She would go, she just wanted to know why, and she deserved that.
“They’ve managed to get this close. It’s better if we just go after them. And in the meantime, you need to be in a place where we don’t have to worry about you.”
Her gaze touched on him and then swept across to regard Robert and Jace. What she saw there must have been convincing enough, because Victoria set aside her fork in a careful way. “What mountains? Those?”
The Rockies sat in their jagged splendor, regal in their crowns of timbers, the tree-lined scepters gilded by the dying sun. The air was so crisp it felt like Cole could reach up and break it.
“Not quite so far. About a half-day’s ride at a good pace. I have a friend with a cabin in the foothills,” he said evenly. “I’d trust him with my life, which means I’d trust him with you, and until this is resolved, I want you there, out of harm’s way.”
And that was a bit more than he’d intended to say, but he did want her to realize how important this was to him.
To them all.
“You are saying I must go or I’d be a liability.” Luminous azure eyes looked back at him. “I understand.”
The subdued inflection in her voice cut him inside. He should tell her that yes, she was a liability, and yes, she
going. But he couldn’t. Cole took a moment. Then he said against his better judgment, “No, Victoria, you don’t have to go. Or ever do anything you don’t want. Your life here is about the choices you wish to make, not the choices we make for you. Would we like you to go? Yes, we would, or we wouldn’t ask, but never do you
to do what we suggest. We are all partners, or else it wouldn’t work. Just think about it and let us know what you decide. It would be easier, but I can’t say easy is always best, just in this case, it looks like it to us.”
It was new for her. The males in her life—her father especially—had always dictated her actions, and being told she had a choice was unique. And she found having that decision to make was a bit frightening, at least considering the question of the moment. Victoria looked at the three men around the table and found the decision was really no decision at all. Jace, Robert and Cole might not demand, but she certainly hoped she was astute enough to know that in this environment, where civilization was only remotely present, her pride might cost them their lives, for there was absolutely no doubt all three of them would sacrifice anything to keep her safe.
It was humbling, actually, to go from literal riches to nothing and then find treasure of a completely different kind. There were no galas and fine balls in her future, no rich gowns, no servants…but she didn’t miss any of that. There was also no censure, no prying eyes, and a glorious sunrise while sipping coffee on the front porch eclipsed any fashionable rout. Besides, while cultured gentlemen may wear pristine linens and expensive cologne, they couldn’t match the smell of clean sweat or the vision of a honed male body stripped to the waist as he worked honestly to provide and protect.
But she had a few rules. “I will go as long as you promise to return—all of you—to retrieve me when it is over.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jace, as always, was irreverent, but his eyes were intent, and the way his long fingers played with his spoon spoke measures about his unrest. “As good as said as done. We won’t be in much danger, so don’t worry.”
He was not a good liar.
“If that were true, you wouldn’t feel the need to hide me away.”
Cole intervened. “We need to leave straightaway. Just pack up a few things and we’ll get your horse saddled.”
“Who is taking me up there?”
“I am.” He met her gaze. “Greer won’t let just anyone approach, and he doesn’t know Robert or Jace. He’d take a bead and they’d be dead.”
Jace’s jaw set. “As if he could. I—“
“He’s the best long-range shot I’ve ever seen except maybe Robert, hands down,” Cole interrupted, his confidence in Greer Talbert undisputed. “If you want to sneak up on him, I don’t advise it. No one can get close. That’s why I trust him.”
Robert stood then, taking his plate and reaching over to take Victoria’s as well. “I’m going to have to trust you, so then trust him, and I think you both had better hit the trail. This needs taken care of, and if you ask me, the sooner the better.”
It was a relief to feel a twinge of amusement at such a time, and Robert’s matter-of-fact tone brought it. He would always—
—she knew, be the practical one: calm, even-tempered, kind…apparently even when facing a possible bloodbath with a deadly bunch of outlaws.
And Jace would be reckless and wild, and Cole the main target… If she thought about it too much, Victoria knew she would be so unsettled she’d just make the situation worse. Rising from the table, she said, “I’ll go get together a few things.”
It didn’t help her hands were shaking as she tucked a blouse into her bag, or that the new dress Jace and Robert had bought was laid out on her bed, the blue material pretty with tiny pink roses, and truly, even though she had much finer clothing back in England, nothing had ever moved her quite so much.
Cole was waiting in the dilapidated courtyard, the reins of her mount in his hand, his face inscrutable. It was Robert who lifted her into the saddle. His hands lingered at her waist. “This isn’t going to take long.”
She wished she could believe him. Victoria noted the golden highlights in his hair, the determined expression on his handsome face, and swallowed hard. “I hope not. And not just for my sake, but I’m going to miss you.”
And the ranch. She would miss the low, sprawling house, the leaning barns, and the whistle of the wind at night. Having a home again, she was not interested in losing it, but that was hardly a consideration compared to the safety of Cole, Robert and Jace.
Homes, she’d found already in her life, were replaceable. Love was not.
Lightly, she touched his hand where it rested on her knee. “Every minute,” she added on a whisper.
“That feeling,” Robert said with a hint of good humor but also a husky undertone, “is reciprocated three times over. We are not abandoning you, Victoria. This is just so we can get this over with, because it is going to happen one way or another. There is nothing the three of us want more than peace and quiet.”
She nodded, glancing away.
“And you,” he added. “We all want you too.”
The words were comforting, but truthfully, she was intelligent enough to know that they were worried about the situation. Otherwise, would it be necessary to hide her away? “I’d prefer it if you all would just come with me. If it’s so safe—”
“Hiding doesn’t work.” His face was implacable behind his usual affable expression. “Ask Cole. Life has a way of catching up with you. I’m not saying he ever went looking for trouble; I know him, and it wasn’t that way. But it found him just the same, and really, it’s best done this way.”
Maybe she would have simply nodded and ridden on, but his hands still clasped her waist, and at the last minute, he pulled her back out of the saddle and kissed her, their bodies pressed together. It wasn’t very characteristic, but then again, she was finding that Cole might seem implacable but he actually was sensitive in some ways, Jace was wild but also tenderhearted, and Robert was the calm one, but he wasn’t entirely predictable either.
And she kissed him back. Fervently, putting everything of herself she could into it, her arms around his neck.
“Take good care,” she managed to say as they finally parted, and Robert smiled ruefully and helped her back onto her mount.
“Of all of us,” he acknowledged, now that her departure was inevitable. “It’s hell sometimes to be the only one with an ounce of sense.”
That won a snort from Cole, but it did make her laugh and she needed that.
Then they turned their horses and headed toward the mountains.
They rode into town together, three abreast, armed, ready, and Jace felt the telltale flicker of death run along the street like wildfire.
He didn’t want it…he’d never wanted it, not even when he’d known he was doing the right thing, doling out justice where otherwise it wouldn’t happen. But in his mind, there was right and there was wrong. The law was all well and good—mostly good, he wasn’t against lawmen, but there were far too many bad men out there, and far too few good men to control them.
This needed to happen, and when Cole had ridden down from the mountains that morning, his face set, Jace and Robert had been waiting, saddlebags packed, weapons loaded, their cause worthy. Even if Victoria wasn’t in danger, the Saxons needed to be eliminated. Taken off God’s green earth, annihilated so that the West, which was dangerous enough, was a safer place.
He didn’t mind being a part of it at all.
“I’ll go in first,” he said as the dust puffed up from the dry street under the hooves of their horses. “The minute they see Cole all hell is going to break loose, so let’s be ready with guns blazin’ if that’s what it takes to settle this.”
“A bloodthirsty approach,” Robert commented, his dry tone balanced by his somber face, “but maybe not unwarranted. We aren’t dealing with an unknown quantity. Lawrence and his outfit aren’t going to fight fair if they get wind of us riding in.”
“Did we ever think they would?” Cole expertly loosened the rifle in the sheath attached to his saddle. “Why the hell would they start now?”
It was impossible for Jace not to shoot his friend a glance. “This has been preordained ever since that first time you faced Lawrence Saxon. I never did think you should avoid this, and with Victoria in a safe place, let’s just clean up this mess, shall we?”
“Avoid?” Cole’s eyes glittered for a minute as he shot over a glance. Already the townspeople were taking notice, but then again, Cole was pretty noticeable. “I take offense at that, Jace. I was doing my best to not stir up trouble as we settled into the ranch, dammit.”
“Doesn’t work,” Jace told him laconically. “Trouble jest naturally comes along. You know that.”
After a minute, Cole said, “Yeah, I do.”
“While your mutual philosophical approach is appreciated,” Robert murmured, his gaze scanning the dusty street, “let’s talk about it some other time. We can go to the saloons, as there is hardly any other place besides the store and the hotel, and if we want to spread the word about who we’re looking for, that is the perfect place to start.”