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Authors: Madeline Baker

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Chapter Two

 

Brandy lifted her arms over her head and stretched. Wild West Days had been a huge success. In another few minutes, Ruth Scott would come to take her place in the booth, leaving Brandy free to enjoy the last few hours of the festivities.

Brandy smiled as she filled a paper cup with sarsaparilla and handed it to Nancy Leigh.

Nancy’s mother, Ramona, paid for the drink. “Nancy can hardly wait for the hanging,” she remarked with a grimace. “I don’t know what you told the kids on Friday, but it sure made an impression.”

Brandy shrugged. “I just told them that no bad deed goes unpunished, and that J.T. Cutter had been hanged for his crimes.”

Ramona nodded. “Well, you know kids today. They seem to be intrigued by violence. I’m not sure this is something Nancy should see.” She glanced down at her daughter and grinned. “Of course, she loved
Jurassic Park
. I guess if that didn’t give her nightmares, nothing will.”

Brandy laughed as Ramona and Nancy walked away. Moments later, Ruth Scott entered the booth to relieve her.

Brandy wandered through the town, admiring the decorating committee’s handiwork. Colorful red, white and blue bunting had been strung across Main Street. False fronts covered the more modern-looking buildings, giving them a look of the Old West. Most of the townspeople wore old-fashioned Western clothes.

Brandy glanced down at her own dress. It was made of blue gingham, with a full skirt and a wide blue sash. She wore a matching bonnet that tied beneath her chin in a perky bow. She knew some of the women even went so far as to wear corsets and bloomers, but Brandy thought that was carrying things just a bit too far. It was bad enough to be burdened down with a half-dozen petticoats. No one need ever know that, beneath her old-fashioned blue gingham frock and ruffled white cotton petticoats she was wearing a pair of black lace panties and a matching bra.

Lifting her skirts, she stepped off the curb and crossed the street, waving to Brant Wilkins, who was the chief of police, as she passed the courthouse. Wilkins looked right at home in a pair of whipcord britches, a white shirt, black string tie, and scuffed black boots. A holster was strapped to his right thigh; a five-pointed star was pinned to his black leather vest.

At supper time, she made her way over to the chuck wagon for a plate of biscuits and beans.

She wandered through the town for the next hour, flirting with Eddie Crow Killer, who had been the resident blacksmith in Cedar Ridge for over twenty years, catching up on the latest gossip with Myrna Ballantine, who owned the beauty shop.

Finally, it was time for the hanging.

Brant Wilkins led Paul Jackson down the center of Main Street toward the gallows, which had been built at the far end of town.

The townspeople fell in behind the condemned man, spreading out in front of the gallows while Paul Jackson, in his guise as J.T. Cutter, climbed the thirteen steps to the gallows.

Brant Wilkins asked J.T. if he had any last words. With a sneer, Paul Jackson glared at the crowd, then shook his head.

Father Dominic, clad in long black robes, said a prayer for the condemned man, then Cecil Mallory, who was playing the part of the hangman, slipped a black hood over J.T.’s head.

For a few moments, Wilkins, Mallory, and the priest blocked the crowd’s view of J.T., and Brandy knew that an incredibly lifelike dummy was being substituted for Paul Jackson. Later, Paul would come back and haul the dummy away.

Father Dominic and Wilkins stepped back, their expressions somber. And then Cecil Mallory’s hand closed over the lever that would spring the trap.

Even though almost everyone in the crowd knew that it was a dummy about to be hanged, there was a tense moment when Mallory’s hand tightened on the lever. Brandy heard several of the people around her draw in a sharp breath and hold it.

And then Cecil Mallory pulled the lever and the dummy, which was stuffed with cotton and weighted with sand and rocks, dropped through the trap door.

Amid sporadic cheers and applause, the crowd turned away from the gallows and headed for the high school where the town band was tuning up. For those so inclined, there would be dancing until midnight and then Wild West Days would be officially over until next year.

Brandy started to turn away and then, with a frown, she took a step forward and stared at the dummy, which was spinning slowly. It was amazing, how lifelike it looked.

And then she heard a groan.

Brandy glanced around, wondering if someone was playing a macabre joke on her, but there was no one there. And then it came again, a low groan filled with pain and despair.

“No,” she said, taking a step backward. “It’s not possible.”

It couldn’t be alive. It was only a dummy. She knew it was. She had helped sew the thing together.

Another groan sent her running forward, her mind conjuring all sorts of scenarios: one of the teenagers had decided to play a trick that had backfired, Paul Jackson had decided to commit suicide…

Feeling slightly foolish, because she knew in her heart it was just a dummy, she lifted the thing’s legs, legs that should have been stuffed with cotton, but instead felt firm. And warm. And alive.

She gasped as a jolt of electricity ran up her arms. For a moment, everything went black and she had the fleeting impression that she was plunging into a dark tunnel, spinning out of control.

When she opened her eyes again, the rope had snapped and the effigy was lying on the ground.

Feeling lightheaded, she stared at the form lying at her feet, felt her heart begin to pound and her blood run cold as the thing groaned again, then tried to sit up.

Brandy took a step backward, refusing to believe what she was hearing, what she was seeing. Someone was playing a horrible, twisted joke, and when she found out who it was, she was going to tell him exactly what she thought of such a cruel hoax.

The dummy moved again, writhing on the ground, a muffled oath coming from beneath the hood.

Brandy took a wary step forward. Whoever had perpetrated this farce had apparently hurt himself when he fell, she thought, and it served him right. He was lucky he hadn’t broken his fool neck.

Kneeling beside the fallen man, she untied the ropes that bound his hands and feet, removed the noose from his neck, then lifted the hood from his face.

She had expected to see one of the local teenage boys grinning up at her. Instead, she found herself staring into the face of a stranger.

Startled, she drew back. “Who are you?”

J.T. stared at the woman a moment, then lifted one hand to his throat. “Who are you?” he asked hoarsely.

He glanced around, wondering where the bright light had gone, wondering if he had dreamed it all. Wondering if he was in hell, but then he took another look at the woman. No, this definitely wasn’t hell. Heaven, maybe, judging by the ebony-haired angel kneeling in front of him.

“I asked you first,” Brandy retorted.

“Most folks call me J.T.”

“Yeah, right.” Brandy shook her head in exasperation. “This silly game’s gone far enough. Are you hurt?”

“Not as hurt as I should to be,” he rasped with a wry grin. “I expected to wake up dead.”

“You’re hardly that.” Brandy stood up and offered him her hand, noting the ugly red mark that circled his neck.

J.T. looked up at her for a moment, then took her hand and let her help him to his feet. He staggered backward, reaching out to steady himself against the frame of the gallows. He felt a little dizzy and his throat felt like it was on fire, but other than that, he seemed unhurt, when, by all rights, he should be dead.

Brandy studied the stranger while he gained his equilibrium. Dressed in a long-sleeved black shirt, black wool pants and expensive boots, he was tall and broad-shouldered, with dark brown hair and eyes so dark they were almost black. His jaw was square, his nose straight, his lips finely shaped and full. He looked to be in his early thirties.

“Come on,” she said, thinking he was far too old to be playing such a potentially fatal joke. “You look like you could use something to drink.”

J.T. shook his head. He couldn’t be seen in town. The people of Cedar Ridge thought he was dead, and he intended to keep it that way.

He frowned at he stared at the woman. He couldn’t have her running to the sheriff. Unconsciously, he massaged his neck. Hanging was something he definitely didn’t want to try again.

He needed to get out of town before anyone else saw him, needed time to think. He glanced up and down the street. A big black and white pinto stood hitched to the rail outside the doc’s office a few doors down.

“Well, since you seem to be all right, I’ll just be going,” Brandy said.

“I don’t think so.”

Before she could protest, J.T. grabbed the hood and yanked it over the woman’s head, swung her up in his arms, and ran toward the horse. Dropping her facedown over the pinto’s withers, he took up the reins, swung up into the saddle, and headed out of town, one hand splayed across the woman’s back to hold her in place.

“Put me down!” Brandy yelled. “Damn you, let me go!”

J.T. swatted her across the rump, hard. “Shut up, woman, I don’t want to hurt you none, so don’t provoke me.”

Brandy bit back the sharp retort that rose to her lips, frightened by the prospect of violence at the man’s hands.

The jarring ride made her ribs ache, the thick black hood made breathing difficult, the touch of the man’s hand, firm upon her back to hold her in place, was disconcerting.

Who was he? At first, she had thought it was Jordan Hailstone or one of the other teenage boys playing a trick on her, but this was a man, not a boy. A man with hard cold brown eyes. Who was he, she asked herself again. And where was he taking her?

She strained her ears, trying to determine where they were. The horse’s hoof beats sounded muffled and that in itself was strange, because all the roads out of town were paved. If he was going east, she should be able to hear the sounds of Allen’s Old-Time Honky Tonk Bar. If they were headed north, she should be able to hear the sounds of the square dance being held in the rec hall of the high school. The main highway ran east; there was a gas station and a mini-mart on the south side of town.

But all she heard was the sounds of the horse’s hoof beats and the pounding of her own heart.

It seemed like hours before he stopped. She felt his hands close around her waist and then he lifted her from the pinto and removed the hood.

Brandy glared at him, certain she had at least three broken ribs. “What the hell are you doing?” she exclaimed, too angry to be cautious.

J.T. raised one dark brow. She was something when she was riled up. Her bonnet was askew; her eyes, clear and gray beneath thick ebony-hued lashes, were bright with anger. She had delicate features, a mouth made for kissing, suntanned skin that was smooth and unblemished.

“Well?” She glared up at him, her fists on her hips, as she waited for an answer.`

“I’m saving my hide,” he retorted. “What the hell do you think?”

Brandy glanced around. The landscape looked familiar, yet she didn’t recognize anything. There were no houses in sight, no telephone poles, no electrical wires, nothing. And yet she could see the big yellow bluff that had overlooked the Ten Trees Mall. But there were no long, low buildings in sight, nothing except the shallow stream the horse was drinking from and, in the distance, ten windblown trees and a…

Brandy blinked twice…a weathered stage station, its windows shuttered against the night. She could see several horses standing head to tail in a peeled pole corral.

Brandy stared at the man calling himself J.T.. “Where are we?”

He frowned at her. “Ten Trees, where do you think?”

Brandy shook her head. “No. That’s impossible.”

“Impossible or not, that’s where we are.”

Brandy whirled around, her gaze probing the darkness. The mall was gone, and so was the gas station. There was no sign of the bus station, or the car wash…no, it was impossible. She was dreaming, having some sort of horrible nightmare.

She gasped as the man took hold of her arm.

“What the hell’s the matter with you?” J.T. demanded gruffly. “You’re white as a ghost…”

A ghost! Damn! He was the only ghost around here.

J.T. ran a hand through his hair as it all came back to him, the noose, the waiting, the horrible sensation of falling, choking, and then that bright other-worldly light.

He swore under his breath. It had to be a nightmare. He was probably at the hideout, passed out in his cot, drunk as a skunk… But even as he tried to convince himself he was dreaming, he knew, deep in his gut, that he’d been hanged and given a reprieve. A year. He had one year to redeem himself.

J.T. stared at the woman, and grinned in spite of himself. For a man who was supposed to be on the road to redemption, he hadn’t gotten off to a very good start.

Chapter Three

 

Brandy stared ahead into the night, her mind in turmoil. Who was this man? Where was he taking her? And where were they? Every so often she spied a familiar landmark—an oak tree that had been struck by lightning, an odd pile of boulders, a stand of timber. And yet, as familiar as these were, everything else was completely foreign, like the stage station at Ten Trees. She knew such a depot had existed back in the 1800’s, but it had been burned to the ground in an Indian attack in the summer of 1876…

She felt her captor’s arm tighten around her waist and she wondered again who he was. He had said his name was J.T… No, it was absurd. Didn’t bear thinking about. Couldn’t be…

Unbidden came the jolt of electricity that had snaked up her arm when she first touched what she had thought was a dummy.

“No.” The word whispered past her lips. It was inconceivable. Totally, completely impossible.

A shiver of apprehension swept through her when he drew his horse, his
stolen
horse, to a halt. Oh, Lord, what now?

J.T. dismounted, then reached for the woman. He swore under his breath as she recoiled from his touch.

“Listen, lady, I’m not gonna hurt you,” he said irritably.

“Yeah, right,” Brandy muttered. “That’s why you kidnapped me.”

He swore again; then, grabbing her around the waist, he hauled her out of the saddle and set her, none too gently, on her feet.

“Get some wood,” he ordered curtly.

“Get it yourself.”

“You want to eat, you’ll get some wood.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Fine.” He reached past her for the rope coiled around the saddle horn.

By the time Brandy realized what he intended to do, it was done. She stared at rope that bound her wrists, and then glared up at him.

“Is this necessary?” she demanded angrily.

“I think so.” He flashed her an insolent grin, then took the other end of the rope and secured it to a tree branch high over her head, leaving enough slack so she could rest her hands in her lap.

Fuming, Brandy sat down on the ground, glaring at him as he walked into the shadows.

He returned a short time later carrying an armful of sticks and kindling, and a rabbit. He paid her no heed as he dumped the firewood on the ground, then rummaged through the saddlebags. She heard him grunt with satisfaction as he pulled a tinderbox and a knife from one of the bags. Minutes later he had the rabbit skinned, gutted, and spitted over a small fire.

In spite of what she’d said about not being hungry, Brandy’s mouth watered as the scent of roasting rabbit filled the air.

The man who called himself J.T. squatted on his heels in front of her, his hands resting on his thighs. They were large hands. A thin white scar zigzagged across the back of the left one.

“So,” he drawled softly, “who are you?”

“Brandy Talavera.”

He raised one black brow in what she guessed was amusement. ”Brandy?”

“My father named me after his favorite drink.” She paused a moment. “Who are you?”

“Like I told you, folks generally call me J.T..”

“What’s your last name?”

“Cutter.”

Brandy let out the breath she’d been holding. It couldn’t be. It was just a coincidence, nothing more. “Where were you born?”

“Why? You planning to write a book about me or something?”

“No. I’m just…curious.”

J.T. shrugged. “For what it’s worth, I was born in Texas. Anything else you’re hankerin’ to know?”

“What are you going to do with me?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

J.T. grinned ruefully. She was a mess. Her hat was hanging down her back, dangling by the ribbon. She’d lost her hairpins and her hair fell over her shoulders in wild disarray. Her dress was wrinkled and covered with trail dust; there was a smudge of dirt on her cheek. For all that, she was the best-looking woman he’d seen in a long while.

With an effort, he dragged his gaze from her face and went to look after the horse.

By the time he’d finished unsaddling the horse, the rabbit was cooked. He had fully intended to let the woman go hungry, just so she’d know who was boss the next time he told her what to do. If she had asked him for something to eat, he probably would have refused. But she didn’t ask. She just sat there, her skirts spread around her, her bound hands folded primly in her lap, and stared at him.

“Shit!” He tore off a chunk of meat and handed it to her.

She accepted it without a word of thanks.

Muttering an oath, J.T. returned to his place by the fire, wishing he had a bottle of Jack Daniels and the makings of a smoke.

He slid a glance in the woman’s direction. She had finished eating and now sat with her hands folded in her lap again, her back against the tree. She had removed her hat. He could see it on the ground beside her, an indistinct lump in the darkness. He couldn’t see the expression on the woman’s face, but anger and indignation radiated from her like heat from a furnace.

He took a last bite of meat, tossed the bones into the fire. Picking up the saddle blanket, he carried it over to the woman and dropped it in her lap.

“Best get some sleep,” he growled. “We’ll be leaving at first light.”

“I have to go home.”

“’Fraid not.”

“You don’t understand. I
have
to get home. My animals…”

“What?”

“Animals. You know, dogs, cats, horses. Who’ll feed them if I’m not there?”

“Beats the hell out of me.”

She raked him with a disdainful glance. “I should have known better than to think you’d care.”

“Oh, I care,” he retorted. “I like animals a hell of a lot more than I like most people. But right now keeping my neck out of a noose is a lot more important to me than whether your critters get fed.”

There was no point in arguing with the man. Muttering under her breath, Brandy stretched out on the ground and pulled the blanket over her as best she could. Resolutely, she closed her eyes. This was just a bad dream. Tomorrow, she’d wake up in her own bed and have a good laugh.

 

Brandy groaned softly as she came awake. The first thing she noticed was that her room seemed uncommonly bright. The second was that her mattress seemed harder than usual.

Then she opened her eyes and reality appeared in the tall, lanky form of the man calling himself J.T. Cutter.

“’Bout time you woke up.” Leaning down, he grabbed the blanket, then turned on his heel and ambled toward the horse.

Brandy glared at his broad back, trying not to notice the muscles that rippled under his shirt while he saddled the pinto. She felt awful. She had the world’s worst case of morning breath. And she needed to attend to a very personal need without delay.

She felt a rush of color wash into her cheeks at the prospect of asking Mr. J.T. Cutter to loose her hands so she could go to the bathroom…she glanced at a clump of scrub brush, grimacing as she realized that, out here, that scrawny clump of brush
was
the bathroom.

“You ready?”

She looked up, her gaze trapped by the coldest pair of brown eyes she had ever seen. She didn’t know who he was, but this morning, with his long hair tousled and the beginnings of a beard shadowing his jaw, he looked every inch the outlaw.

“I asked if you were ready.” His voice was rough, irritable, as if he wasn’t used to repeating himself.

“Yes, but I need to…” She looked up at him, silently begging him to understand. “You know.”

Grunting softly, he reached down and untied her hands.

Brandy struggled to her feet, quietly cussing her voluminous skirts. Wearing a half-dozen ruffled petticoats and an ankle-length skirt made up of yards and yards of blue gingham was okay for a few hours one day a year; out here, in the middle of nowhere, it was definitely a hindrance. Pity the poor pioneer women who had been forced to wear corsets under their clothing day in and day out, tightly laced to within an inch of their lives.

Shoulders back, chin high, she stalked off toward the brush, quietly cursing her abductor every step of the way. She had to get home. But how?

Lifting her skirt and petticoats, she squatted behind a bush, her gaze darting back and forth. Lord, there could be snakes out here. Belatedly, she realized she didn’t have any toilet paper with her. Not even a Kleenex. And it was all
his
fault!

J.T. tapped his foot impatiently. What the hell was taking the woman so long? And what was he going to do with her?

He frowned, wishing he had a cigarette and a cup of coffee, and then he swore. He’d been hungry before, he could survive on an empty stomach for another couple of hours. If his calculations were right, there was a small town about ten miles north. To the best of his recollection, the town didn’t have a telegraph office, so the local law would have no way of knowing about his escape. They could get something to eat there, and maybe pick up some other necessities, as well. He made a mental list while he waited for the woman: a gun, a hat, some provisions, another horse. All he needed was some cash…

He stared thoughtfully at the rifle in the saddle scabbard. The town had a bank. Banks, even small ones, had money.

His thoughts came to an abrupt end as the woman reappeared. What was her name? Whiskey? No, Brandy. Brandy Talavera.

“Ready?” he asked curtly.

“Does it matter?”

“No. Come on, I’ll give you a leg up.”

“I can manage.”

“Suit yourself, sweetheart.”

He stood back, his arms crossed over his chest, while she slid her foot in the stirrup, then struggled to pull herself into the saddle.

A sound of disgust rumbled in his throat, and then she felt his hands at her waist. Strong, sure hands that lifted her as if she weighed nothing at all.

When she was settled, he vaulted up behind her. One arm circled her waist, the other reached for the reins as he clucked to the horse.

“I hate you,” she muttered.

“Think I care?”

“I don’t think you care about anything.”

“You got that right.”

Brandy stared straight ahead, trying to ignore the viselike grip of his arm around her waist. He had rolled his sleeves up to his elbows and she stared at the fine dark hair sprinkled over his arm. She was very aware of his nearness, of his breath feathering against her hair, of his broad chest at her back, of his thighs cradling her hips. Even through layers and layers of sturdy cotton cloth, she could feel his heat.

They rode for hours, always headed north, toward Montana. The sun was hot and bright and she wished she’d remembered to pick up her hat. The silence between them grew louder with each mile that passed. She was acutely aware of every move he made, every breath he took.

She hated it. She hated him.

And she was afraid of him. But she was more afraid of something that grew increasingly more evident as the day went on. Her world no longer existed. She recognized the countryside, but the houses, the telephone poles and electrical wires had all disappeared. The highway was gone, and in its place lay miles and miles of broken terrain and dull red hills.

Maybe he really was J.T. Cutter…

She swallowed the panic rising in her throat. If he
was
J.T. Cutter, then this was 1875 and everything, and everyone, she had known was gone…no, not gone, she amended, just not born yet.

It couldn’t be…and yet she couldn’t forget that peculiar electrical jolt that had raced up her arm when she touched him, that momentary sense of disorientation as if she was being hurled through time and space…

“No.” She shook her head, refusing to believe. “No!”

“You say something?”

She glanced over her shoulder. He was staring at her, his gaze cool, his face hard and implacable.

“No.” She felt the blood drain from her face, felt her hands go cold. J.T. Cutter was a bank robber, a horse thief, and who knew what else?

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” he asked gruffly.

“You really are J.T. Cutter, aren’t you?”

J.T. shook his head. He’d told her who he was at least twice.

She couldn’t look at him anymore. Staring ahead, Brandy tried to make some sense of what had happened. She had touched him and somehow, she had been whisked into the past. But why? And how was she going to get back home?

The town rose up without warning, the same dusty shade of gray-brown as the earth. It took a moment for Brandy to realize that it was real, and just not a mirage.

She blinked and blinked again, and when it didn’t disappear, she felt a flutter of hope. A town meant people. Maybe she could find a way to escape, or, better yet, attract the attention of the sheriff. Cutter was a wanted man, after all. If she could just get the lawman’s attention, she’d at least be able to escape from Cutter.

She felt a growing sense of disappointment as they rode down the main street. It was only about a block long, and it appeared to be the only street in town. She glanced right and left, noting two saloons, a shabby hotel, a small mercantile, a livery barn, and a barber shop. A squat square building that called itself the Charon Bank was located next to the sheriff’s office.

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