Authors: Kate Watterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Western, #Erotica
Even in her drowsy state, she registered the word, but strangely enough it didn’t cause enough alarm to even rouse the energy to lift her eyelids. The way Cole picked her up, so gently, and even the comforting circle of his arms as they rode earlier, belied the idea the man was a murderer. When she’d woken, cradled against his hard chest, the strong beat of his heart under her ear, and realized where she was with a stab of terror as the events of the night came rushing back, he’d known. Though he hadn’t said a word, he’d lightly touched her cheek in a gesture of comfort. Robert also, and Jace Vance, had been solicitous and gentle, as if she were a fragile object that might shatter at any moment.
Odd as it might seem, with no clothes except a man’s borrowed shirt, no money, no relatives and relying on the mercy of strangers, she felt safer than she had in a long time.
The hat was fine, for it covered her golden hair and shaded her face, and the shirt Jace had bought was deliberately a little big so those delectable breasts were not quite as noticeable, but unfortunately the pants fit perfectly.
“I’ve got a better eye than I realized,” Jace murmured hoarsely as they watched Victoria emerge from the patch of woods where she’d gone for privacy to dress. “Swear to gawd, I thought she’d look like a boy.”
“Yeah, well, you missed by a mile, Jace.” Robert studiously turned away to fiddle with something on his saddle so he wasn’t staring so obviously. “Those pants couldn’t show off she’s a girl any more if you tried.”
“Woman,” Cole corrected softly. “All woman. Damn.”
The gentle sway of her hips as she walked toward them was unconscious and graceful, and even with the hat pulled low, booted, dressed in male clothing, Lady Victoria was so obviously a female no one would be fooled.
“At least she can ride her own horse,” Jace said with a shade of protective defensiveness in his voice. “That’ll help.”
Help whichever one of them had her double on their mount not to have to ride all day with a perpetual erection. It went without saying it had happened to each of them, and they’d decided—not just for her sake—the faster she was covered from the top of her head to her pretty toes, the better. So Jace had been sent into the nearest town—all of them together were way too conspicuous—to buy a decent horse and some appropriate clothing. He’d gotten what he was supposed to purchase, but the hell of it was, it might just make things worse.
“It all fits quite well,” she said as she approached, her prim accent a reminder that while she might be out in the wilderness with nothing but wind-whipped prairie grasses and rolling vistas spotted now and then by patches of trees or willow-lined rivers, she was a proper, pampered English lady.
It had been three days since they’d found her, and Cole had to acknowledge she was game all right, for the days in the saddle had brought forth no objections, no feminine whining over the heat, the trail dust, the jolt of such a long ride. She’d tried to help out too, with camp chores, but that hadn’t been a very successful venture so far. Domestic skills were obviously left out of an aristocratic lady’s upbringing. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, it does fit,” Cole drawled ironically, his gaze skimming over her slender, shapely form. “Can’t be helped, I suppose. You ready to ride? We’ve been here half a day and I wouldn’t mind making some miles before sunset.”
She nodded, though he noted she looked at the glossy chestnut gelding Jace had purchased in town with trepidation. The horse seemed to have a decent disposition, and the owner had sworn it was well-behaved, but it did have some spirit and even now tossed its head against the reins in Cole’s hand.
He frowned and said bluntly, “You seem skittish about this, and the horse is going to sense it. You sure you know how to ride? If you don’t, we aren’t going to think less of you, but—”
“I could ride almost before I could walk,” she interrupted, a hint of indignation in her tone. “It’s just…well…the saddle.”
He and Robert and Jace exchanged glances, obviously all three of them wondering what the hell she was talking about. It was a perfectly good saddle, not new but not worn either, purchased along with the horse.
“I’ve never ridden astride. It isn’t…
,” she explained, and under the brim of her hat, her smooth cheeks held the hint of a blush.
Of course. The light dawned. She was used to riding sidesaddle, Cole realized, feeling a little like an idiot, but then again, who would even consider such an impractical bit of etiquette in the middle of godforsaken Kansas. When she’d ridden with them, she had always sat in front sideways, legs primly together.
He’d give his gun hand to see those lovely thighs spread apart and himself cock-deep between them, but for now, she needed to forget how she’d been raised and climb on the damn horse. It was well past noon and the sooner they were on their way, the better.
“It’s done here.” He led the horse toward her, hoping she was right and could handle the animal, because it seemed a mite skittish. “I’ll help you mount up.”
He instructed her to grab the saddle horn and put her left foot in the stirrup and then helped her swing into the saddle, adjusting the stirrups to the right length with deft movements before mounting his own horse. To his relief, he saw within the first few minutes she was telling the truth, for she handled the horse with the unconscious instinctive ease of experience, and at least he could relax about that worry.
It seemed natural to fall in next to her, though Cole hadn’t been aware this protective side of him existed. For someone who looked so fragile and dainty, Lady Victoria had adapted pretty well to her circumstances, though he did wonder if she recognized the predatory male interest directed her way.
By all three of them. He hoped this wasn’t going to become a problem.
“This seems strange, but in truth, I think it is more comfortable.” She looked adorably surprised, with wisps of golden hair brushing her neck and her fine brow furrowed. “I thought it would be very awkward to ride astride.”
“I’m trying to picture how to perch only on half of a horse,” Cole told her truthfully. “What a stupid contortion. It’s far safer to sit right in the middle. Besides, I promise you, out here, practicality is much more important than what anyone might think of your manners.”
“There is no ‘anyone’,” she responded with a small laugh. “I was unaware places like this existed. No one lives here. I don’t know if you can imagine, but after the bustle and crowded humanity of London, this is like another world.”
She shot him a sidelong look. “More than imagine, I’d guess. You aren’t a stranger to big cities. Where did you attend university?”
Their little English lady was not only lovely, but she was also astute. “Out east,” he admitted. “My father insisted, and with my heritage, he had to use some influence to get me in. I took law, but it wasn’t for me.”
“Your speech gives you away.” She controlled her horse with a capable hand, obviously not even thinking about it. A small frown marred her smooth brow. “Your mother was…”
“Lakota,” he supplied.
“Lakota,” she repeated, the word obviously not familiar.
Cole grinned and indicated his hair with a gesture. “Pure bloodthirsty Indian.”
“I doubt she was bloodthirsty or your father would not have fallen in love with her and insisted his son go to university.”
The romantic sentiment was unsettling, but accurate enough he laughed. “Actually, you are right—she was one of the gentlest souls I have ever known.”
“Both of them are gone now.”
“Then the two of us have a lot in common. I am also alone.”
Cole was not at all convinced that a cynical half-breed outlaw had anything in common with a proper English lady, but he supposed what she said was true on that one point.
“You aren’t alone.”
Where the hell had
Before she could comment, her lovely eyes widening, he spurred his horse forward and took the lead, telling himself he needed to scout for trouble and he usually rode in front.
She was safe.
And yet she wasn’t.
A paradox if there ever was one. Victoria watched as her three companions efficiently set up camp in a small grassy area guarded by a ring of trees, their movements swift and sure. She’d come to know their habits, and
, in the past week “on the trail”, or so they called it.
Robert, polite and easygoing, with his quick smile and sun-touched chestnut hair, always solicitous. Jace, more intense, his soft, compelling accent and courtly manners balanced by an edgy wildness. He couldn’t be much more than her twenty years and yet the holster and gun belt buckled around his slim waist were well-worn, and he had the confidence of someone much older.
Cole was unique also, more brusque, cynical yet considerate underneath, the one most likely to be caught watching her, though all of them were aware of her presence at all times.
She felt a little like a doe who had stumbled into a bevy of stags during mating season. This was, she reminded herself, a foreign country—a wild, unsettled foreign country, and she was a woman without protection, but it wasn’t like she had a choice.
Odd, wasn’t it, how she didn’t feel uneasy or threatened. Maybe, she thought, throwing a sideways covert glance at her companions, she was more protected than any woman around. All three of them held a certain air of danger even she couldn’t miss, and it wasn’t just the arsenals strapped to their hips and saddles.
“I wish we had more to offer than this plain grub, miss, but it is the best we can do. I’ve been out each mornin’ hoping to run across a flock of wild turkeys, but haven’t been so lucky.”
Victoria accepted the plate Jace handed her, noting the usual beans and biscuits with a less-than-enthusiastic eye, though she would never complain. “Wild turkey?”
“A big, ungainly bird, miss,” he said, dropping down next to her in his easy way with a grin. “Except when in flight or on your plate.”
His boots were dusty, his pants worn, and he wore odd leather covers over them they called chaps. With his hat off, his hair was tousled attractively, and he smelled like the wind with a dash of camp smoke and a hint of horse. It wasn’t at all unpleasant, which surprised her. “You have a plethora of unusual animals here.”
“Unusual to you, maybe. Not to us.”
That was probably true. Victoria took a forkful of beans, trying to have a new appreciation for the salty taste and soft texture. She chewed and swallowed. “I suppose England would seem strange to you.”
“Strange? I’m not so sure, miss. Are all the women there as beautiful as you? I haven’t ever met a woman who could compare to the glory of a sunset across the mountains.”
She was not unused to admiration in the eyes of men; she just was much more accustomed to it when in a crowded ballroom with a suitor about to bend over her gloved hand. This young man’s openness was appealing because there was nothing cultured about it—no posturing, no poetic floweriness for the sake of seeming to be charming or gallant. It was flattering because she thought he meant exactly what he said.
“I am sure it is like anywhere else. We are all different.” She added softly, “But thank you. What a lovely compliment.”
“Jest the plain ole truth.” He smiled, a boyish grin that transformed his already handsome face. “I usually talk pretty plain, but you…”
He trailed off suddenly and rose to his feet, all at once grim. The wind whistled eerily through a nearby copse of trees. “Cole?”
“Yeah, I smell it.”
Confused, Victoria tried to register anything new but noticed nothing except the smoke of the fire and the exotic odors of the trees and various grasses.
Robert swore under his breath. “I catch it too. How far off?”
“We need to move. The Cimmaron is pretty close. Two hours’ ride, maybe. I hoped to cross it in the daylight, but we don’t have one hell of a lot of choice, do we? Let’s go.”
She stared at Jace, who bent and took her plate out of her hands. “The Cimmaron?”
“It’s a decent-sized river,” he said somberly. “Good thing we’re this close.”
“Why?” She got gingerly to her feet, wobbling just a little. The hours in the saddle weren’t the easiest on her posterior and aching thighs.
“Prairie fire, miss. I’ll eat my boots if it doesn’t smell like one, and I reckon they ain’t tasty. Come on.”
His grasp on her hand was steely, and a few minutes later she found herself lifted back on her quickly saddled horse, her three companions swinging themselves gracefully onto their mounts, their faces set.
“Stay with her,” Cole ordered, and, as usual, he rode ahead, setting a brisk pace. Robert and Jace hemmed her in, one on either side, and she caught the sense of urgency in the way they kept glancing back.
What the devil?
She dared a backward glance but saw nothing, though she did now detect the hint of acrid smoke.
Less than a half hour later, when it looked like the sun was coming up behind them though it should have been dead dark, she truly became alarmed. Her horse, easy enough for her to manage at first, now tossed his head and fought the bit, and even the men had trouble with their mounts, murmuring soothing words to the animals as they spurred forward. Though they had to be tired from the long day, the horses were not difficult to urge to a gallop.
Speed, the wind, the landscape flashing by…
Cole reached the river first, his horse splashing in as he whipped off its back. He came forward and caught her reins, and her horse waded in to its haunches. Moonlight rippled off the churning water, and Victoria gasped as she was hauled from the saddle and pulled against a hard male body with an iron grip across her waist, breast to chest. “Hold on.”
“For what?” she asked, barely able to breathe.
“You’ll understand soon enough,” he interrupted. “Can’t you hear it? It sounds like a low wind at first and then thunder in the distance. Look at the horses.”
He was right. The animals tossed their heads with increasing agitation, whinnying and thrashing in the water. What’s more, other creatures, also fleeing the oncoming wildfire, streamed into the water. Rodents first, ignoring them as they paddled by in droves, and then bigger animals: wolves, which didn’t even glance their way, the smaller coyotes, deer, even snakes, some five or six feet long, swimming past as if they didn’t exist, heading for the opposite bank.