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Authors: Bobbi Smith

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Romance, #Western, #Westerns

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BOOK: Sweet Silken Bondage
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"All right, Poke." Reina finally gave in. She'd wanted
to keep an aura of aloofness about her to dissuade any
attempts at familiarity by the other passengers, but ever
since they'd pulled out of Monterey this cowboy had
been persistent in his efforts to draw her into conversation. There was nothing threatening about the old man,
it was just that she didn't want to be bothered, not by
him or anyone else. Even so, she realized now in
agitation that nothing short of a withering look and a
cold, cutting dismissal would discourage him, and Sister Mary Regina couldn't do that.

The cowboy smiled widely as if some great event had
occurred. "How far ya going, Sister?"

Reina was annoyed, but drew on some deep inner
resource to manage to give Poke her most serene smile.
"I'm traveling to Fort Smith." It occurred to Reina that
she had never had to smile so much in her whole life, as
she had since she'd donned this habit. She almost felt as
if her face was going to crack into a thousand pieces
from the falseness of the effort. No matter how beatific
she appeared, there was nothing rapturously happy
about her. Still, it amazed Reina how others responded
so openly to her display of seemingly tranquil spirit. It
was almost as if they were drawn to her.

"Fort Smith?" Poke gave her a look of even greater
respect. "Oooh-wee, Sister, that is one hell of a...er,
uh, excuse me, ma'am, uh...ladies." He looked a bit
shamefaced as he realized what he'd said in front of the
women, and he hurried to apologize to Reina, to the
young Melissa and to her matronly mother, Ruth
Hawks, who was sitting on the other side of her.

"That's all right, Poke," Reina said graciously, and it
amazed her to see him almost beam at her forgiveness.
His reaction gave her cause to think. All her life she had
demanded imperiously that her wishes be met, and they
had been. Now, seeing how this cowboy responded to
her sweetness, she realized she might have accomplished the same thing at home without all the tirades.

"As I was sayin', Sister," he went on after clearing his
throat, "that is one heckuva long trip for a lady like
yourself to be makin'."

"Yes, I know," she agreed, fighting to keep from
sounding too disgusted over the thought of at least
another ten days of travel in this miserable vehicle.
"But, one must do what one is called to do." She thought
smugly that her response sounded suitably reverent.

"What are ya gonna be doing back there?" Poke
refused to let the conversation die.

"God's work, of course," Reina responded, pleased
with her inspired answer, yet wondering just how much
longer she could keep deflecting his queries without
seeming rude. Knowing how much men liked to talk
about themselves and sensing that Poke had no intention of shutting up any time soon, she turned the
questioning to him. "How far will you be traveling?"

"Me?" He seemed surprised that she even cared to
ask. "Oh, I'm only goin' as far as Fort Yuma."

At this news, the precocious little Melissa spoke up
with childish enthusiasm. "My Mama and I are going
there, too! My father's there, and we're going to meet
him."

"I'll bet you're excited aren't you, little one?" Reina
asked knowing that Sister Mary Regina would show
interest.

"Oh, yes! Papa said in his letter that I can even have
my very own horse once I get there! Right, Mama?"

"Right, Melissa," her mother answered, giving her an
adoring look.

"That's wonderful," Reina responded and then found herself adding almost wistfully, "When I was at home, I
had my own mare. She was a beauty, too."

"I bet you miss her, don't you?" Melissa sympathized.

"Yes, you know I do. But it seems so long ago now
since 1 left home..." Reina gave herself a mental
shake. It had only been four days since she'd run away,
and yet it felt like an eternity.

"Couldn't you have taken her with you?"

"No, I'm afraid not," she answered honestly. Dorado,
her beautiful palomino, was so distinctive that she
would have been easily recognized had she tried to
bring her along.

"Then why did you leave her?" Melissa asked, expecting a simple answer in her childish perception.

"Sometimes, other things become more important in
life." Reina clasped her hands tightly in her lap as the
terrible memories of her last encounter with her father
rifled through her. She had managed not to think about
it for some time now, but the remembrance renewed the
pain of her parting. She loved Rancho Alvarez. She'd
never wanted to leave, but her father had left her no
choice.

Melissa saw Reina's expression turn melancholy, and
she quickly apologized, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to
make you sad."

"I'm not sad," she told her, managing a weak smile.
"I'm just a little homesick, I guess."

"I can see by your habit that you've already professed
your final vows," Ruth said gently and with the utmost
respect. "But you look so young, Sister, have you been
with your order a long time?"

"Long enough," Reina returned all too honestly, wishing with all her heart that none of this had ever happened. "I suppose I should be used to being away from
home by now, but I'm not."

"I understand, but I'm sure you keep busy."

Reina thought of her mad dash to the convent and
then her hectic, secretive trip into town to catch the stage. "That's true. It seems there's never a dull moment
anymore."

"What do you do?" Melissa wondered with open
curiosity.

"Oh, I pray a lot," Reina replied vaguely with a smile
meant to disarm the little girl's interest. She really
didn't want to talk about life in the convent for fear that
they might ask too detailed a question. Maria had
counseled her extensively before she'd fled into the
night to make good her great escape, but Reina was well
aware that there was a lot she still didn't know about
being a sister. "In the convent we have morning prayers
followed by mass, then vespers in the evening and
meditation..."

"That's all you do? Pray?" the youngster repeated in
disappointment, thinking a life of such holy devotion
sounded terrible. "Why would you want to do that when
you could be home riding your horse?"

"Melissa!" her mother scolded. "You mustn't talk to
Sister Mary Regina that way."

"Yes, Mama" she responded contritely and then
apologized. "I'm sorry. Sister."

"Don't worry, Melissa. I remember I felt the same
way at one time," Reina told her. Had she ever! When had it
been? Twenty minutes ago?

"What happened to change your mind?" the inquisitive child wanted to know.

"It occurred to me almost overnight that this was the
only path to my salvation," she answered calmly, knowing that what she was telling her was the complete truth.

"Oh." Melissa frowned, trying to understand, but
meeting with little success. "Still, it must be kind of
awful wearing all those clothes all the time. Don't you
get hot?"

"Melissa!" Again Ruth was shocked by her question.
"Sister, I'm sorry. Melissa's never had the opportunity to
talk with a nun before. She doesn't realize..."

"Believe me, Mrs. Hawks, I understand," Reina soothed the embarrassed mother, then looked to the
young girl. "Yes, Melissa, it does get very hot." Reina
tried not to think about the sweat that was beading her
brow and trickling miserably down her back. "But it's
well worth it. The rewards for tolerating such a little
inconvenience and discomfort will be tremendous," she
assured the child, dwelling not on the terrible heat and
resulting misery, but on the glory of reaching New
Orleans, safe and undetected.

"Betcha you're gonna get even hotter before we get to
Fort Yuma," Melissa declared knowingly. "Papa always
writes and tells us that it gets real hot down there."

"I'm sure he's right," Reina replied. The thought of
the long miles across the territorial badlands after leaving Yuma had her more concerned than the trip to
Yuma. This habit she'd borrowed was downright stifling, if the truth be told, and she wondered how she was
going to survive the desert climate dressed like this since
it certainly wouldn't do for her, Sister Mary Regina, to
start stripping off layers of clothes just for the sake of
coolness.

Reina thought of the comfortable, loose-fitting skirts
and blouses she'd left at home then, and the many hours
she'd spent relaxing in shaded coolness of the patio of
Rancho Alvarez with its splashing, gurgling fountain,
and another wave of homesickness threatened. With an
effort, she put it from her. She had made her choice,
and she would see it through. No matter what, she
would not go back unless she was assured that she
wouldn't have to marry Nathan.

Reina was dwelling on that thought, when suddenly
and unexpectedly, the sound of rapidly fired gunshots
ruptured the quiet of the afternoon. Taken by surprise,
the driver reacted instinctively, lashing furiously at his
team. Spooked by the gunfire and stung by the whip,
the horses responded, whinnying in terror as they took
off at a dead run. Within the coach, Reina and the
others were thrown from their seats as the stagecoach gave a maddening lurch and then took off.

Poke recovered first and quickly drew his revolver as
he tried to get a look out the window. Seeing the bandits
galloping at top speed in pursuit of the stage, he ordered
tersely, "All of you stay the hell down! Sorry, Sister!" He
began shooting out the window in an attempt to drive
them off, but the jouncing of the stage made his shots
far less than accurate.

The robbers saw that someone was shooting at them
from inside the coach, and they shot back. Bullets
exploded into the wood around the window where Poke
crouched, and he ducked down by the women, taking a
minute to reload.

"Sister, you'd better start prayin', 'cause these look
like some real mean bastards!" he said seriously, meeting her dark-eyed gaze full on.

Reina saw the seriousness in his regard, and a shiver
of apprehension frissoned down her spine in spite of the
heat. "I'll pray for you, Poke."

"You damn well better pray for all of us," he growled
as he finished shoving the bullets into his gun's chamber
and then maneuvered himself back up to the window.

Clay slowed his horse to a walk as he neared the small
pond. Except for a couple of hours sleep the night
before, he'd been riding almost non-stop since leaving
Monterey a little over a day ago. He was agitated and
angry, but knew it did little good to cater to those
emotions. He had to concentrate on the job at hand. He
had to find Reina Alvarez, and he had to find her fast. It
was the only way he could save Dev from being caged
like an animal in the jail cell.

As he drew to a stop at the water's edge, Clay
dismounted and allowed his horse to drink its fill. His
thoughts were determined as he surveyed the surrounding area, trying to calculate how far he'd come and just
how much farther he had to go. He'd been cutting across country, making every effort to catch up to the
stagecoach that had departed Monterey for Los Angeles
two days before him.

It wasn't sheer speculation that had convinced Clay
to track down this coach, but a good deal of checking
and double-checking with Alvarez and his men before
he'd left. Their thorough, but fruitless search had led
him to believe that the girl had fled the area. When he'd
informed his employer of his opinion, Alvarez had
immediately suggested that Reina might be on her way
to New Orleans where she had close friends. Inquiries
at the stage depot had turned up the fact that there were
four passengers on the stage that had pulled out two
days earlier-two women, both of them relatively
young, an old man and a child. Clay had felt almost
certain that one of the women had to be Reina, and he'd
decided to act on that hunch. So here he was, out in the
middle of nowhere, trying to catch up with the stage he
suspected Reina Alvarez had taken.

Leaving his mount to finish drinking, Clay moved off
to sit down in the shade of a nearby tree and try to relax
for a minute. Try as he might, though, thoughts of
Dev's perilous situation haunted him, and not for the
first time since he'd been trapped into taking this job,
Clay silently cursed the woman who was the cause of it
all.

In anger and annoyance, Clay pulled the small oil
portrait of Reina Alvarez her father had given him from,
his pocket. He stared down at the picture of the beautiful woman, studying her every feature, committing this
vision of her to his memory. Though the old man had
cautioned him that the portrait was two years old, Clay
doubted he would have any trouble recognizing her. In
the tiny painting, she was wearing a fashionably lowcut, emerald green ballgown, and the expression the
artist had rendered on her lovely features was quite
regal. Her ebony hair was drawn up and away from her
face, and then left to fall, unbound in a black, silken cascade about her slender shoulders. Her eyes, Clay
realized, were her most attractive feature. Wide, dark
and fathomless, they were the kind of eyes a man could
lose himself in. Her complexion was flawless, her nose
perfect, her mouth definitely kissable, and he wondered...

Clay suddenly realized the direction his thoughts
were taking, and he grew even more irritated. Gorgeous
though she might be, he wanted nothing to do with her.
Forcefully, he reminded himself just what kind of a
woman she was. She was a greedy, selfish witch, exactly
like his mother, and he would not allow himself to forget
that ever again. He would find her, and he would take
her home to her father and loving fiance, and that was
all he wanted to do with her.

Agitated and knowing he shouldn't be resting and
taking it easy while Dev was stuck behind bars, Clay got
to his feet and strode purposefully to his horse. He
paused there only long enough to stuff the picture of the
Alvarez girl in his saddlebag, then gathered up the reins
and vaulted easily into the saddle. He had just put his
heels to his mount's sides when he heard shots being
fired in the distance. He didn't know what was going
on, but it sounded like trouble. Urging the horse to a
full gallop, he raced off in the direction of the gunplay to
see what was happening.

BOOK: Sweet Silken Bondage
5.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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