Authors: Patricia; Potter
Lori felt sick as she thought of the trap awaiting Nick.
She fought even harder against her bonds. And for one of the few times in her life, she prayed.
Nick Braden looked forward to a good rabbit stew. Lord, but he was hungry, and Lori was a good cook.
He'd been furious when Lori had followed him to Wyoming, but since they had arrived at the ranch three months ago, she had proved to be invaluable, first in helping him complete the cabin and now with the corral. And she was a cheerful companion, seldom complaining except good-naturedly.
It had always seemed a miracle to him that ten years after his own birth, his parents had had another child, Lori, and then a third, Andy. He'd wondered aloud once why Lori and Andy were so fair when he was dark. His mother had quickly explained that he must have taken after her father's side of the family, the dark Irish, while Lori and Andy resembled their father's Viking ancestors. Because Nick's question seemed to distress his mother so, Nick never mentioned it again.
The cabin came into view, smoke curling pleasantly from the chimney. He had already dressed the two rabbits caught in snares he'd set yesterday, and Lori would have baked fresh bread. This afternoon they would finish the small corral and start a makeshift stable. Winter wasn't far away. There was so much to do to prepare for it, but every time he viewed this land, he felt a new surge of optimism.
He'd yearned so long for a place to call home. He wanted to make it a home for the whole family. The gunfight a few months ago had made him realize how much. He had almost died then. If he'd been a second slower â¦
Regret rushed through him. Wade Wardlaw had been little more than a kid, but he'd given Nick no choice. Wade was going to kill Andy, who was no match for him, so Nick had stepped in, even though he'd never been in a gunfight before. He hadn't even known whether he could actually shoot another human being; he hadn't known until he had done it.
He tried to push the feeling away, though he knew it would always be with him. Nick had done a lot of things as a kid, conned and cheated and even stolen, but he'd never felt as if he'd really hurt someone, taken from someone who couldn't afford it. And now, feeling the responsibility for Andy and Lori, he was trying his damnedest to mend his ways.
The cabin looked peaceful, welcoming. He spurred his horse into a trot and rode up to it. As he tied the horse to one of the new fence railings, he felt its sturdiness with no little satisfaction.
He strode to the door, smiling. Lori would be pleased with his catch. She excelled at rabbit stew, using wild chives and potatoes and the spices she hoarded.
He opened the door and stopped suddenly. Instead of Lori, he found himself looking at a man sitting relaxed in one of his chairs, a six-shooter pointed straight at him.
The man's face was covered with a week's growth of beard, and a mustache sat above his lips. Nick had once grown a mustache, then shaved it off.
But he realized in that split second that if he had allowed it to grow, he might well have been looking at himself in a mirror.
And he saw that same, stunned knowledge in the cold, hard eyes of the man holding a gun on him.
Morgan studied the other man with wary interest. He had known from the poster, of course, that Nicholas Braden resembled him, but he hadn't expected a likeness this remarkable.
Braden was probably five pounds heavier, his hair a little longer. While more tidily cut than Morgan's, it curled slightly in the same unmanageable way.
Most startling was the color of Braden's eyes, almost the same dark indigo-blue under thick dark eyebrows. Morgan had more lines around his, engraved there by many hours in the sun, and his mouth had a harder look to it, a slight twist that reflected his own deep cynicism. Braden's eyes appeared a degree lighter, but that might have been the light in the room, and they were more curious than cynical. His skin wasn't as weathered, as sun darkened as Morgan's, and Morgan noted instantly that Braden wore his gun on the left rather than the right, as Morgan did.
But other than those slight differences, seeing Nicholas Braden was like looking in a mirror. An involuntary shiver snaked down Morgan's back as he registered all the details. He could almost believe kinship if he hadn't known it impossible. He had the odd feeling that he was about to arrest himself.
He shook the notion from his mind. “Drop those rabbits on the table,” he said curtly, “then your gunbelt.”
Braden didn't move. “Where's my sister?”
“The little hellion? Safe enough, Braden, if you do as you're told.”
Anger flushed Braden's face. “If you've hurt her â¦”
“You're in no position to make threats,” Morgan said, his gaze lowering for just a second to his Colt Peacemaker.
“Who in the hell are you?”
“Morgan Davis. Texas Ranger. And now you have five seconds to drop that gunbelt.”
Morgan watched as Braden hesitated, obviously weighing his options and finding them wanting. Morgan half expected to find the rabbits thrown in his face, and he prepared himself for just such an attack.
Finally Braden carefully set down the rabbits and unbuckled his gunbelt, lowering it to the floor. “Lori?”
“Like I said, safe enough.” Morgan stood. “Step away from the gun.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Take you back to Texas.”
Braden's face darkened, his body tensing. “I've dropped the gun,” he said grimly. “Now where's my sister?”
“Safe,” Morgan said. “Not far from here.”
Braden moved a step toward him. “You haven't hurt her â¦”
“I think it's the other way around,” Morgan said ruefully, moving the gun slightly in warning. He threw the pair of wrist irons over to Braden, who let them drop to the floor.
“Pick them up and put them on.” Morgan's voice was like the handcuffs he'd thrownâhard, merciless.
Braden eyed them as a man might look at a rattlesnake.
“Do it, Braden. I don't have to take you back alive.”
“I'm worth as much dead as alive, am I?” Braden said bitterly.
“Five thousand dollars, either way.” Morgan watched Braden's face pale. Apparently the man hadn't known.
Braden's gaze didn't falter, though, didn't move away from his. Morgan realized Braden was no coward. Nor a fool. He was weighing Morgan, just as Morgan was weighing him.
Braden finally spoke after digesting news of his worth. “Why don't you just have done with it now?”
“I don't fancy traveling with a corpse for weeks,” Morgan said, “but give me trouble, and I'll endure it right enough. Now lock those handcuffs on, and we'll go see how your sister is making out.”
Something flickered in Braden's eyes. Then he picked up the irons and fastened them on himself. The chain between them was no more than twelve inches, having been made to Morgan's specifications.
Morgan rose slowly and holstered his own pistol, then picked up Braden's gunbelt and draped it over his shoulder. “First,” he said, “we'll fetch my horse and then see to Miss Lori.”
Morgan wasn't proud of using a woman as a weapon, but he soothed what reservations he had by assuring himself his plan was easier on everyone than killing Braden.
He prodded his captive again. “Up that hill.”
Braden hung back. “What's a Texas Ranger doing in Wyoming?”
“In case you haven't noticed, Braden, it's my face on that poster as well as yours, and I've already had to kill because of it.”
“My life for yours, is that it?” Braden said bitterly.
killed that boy, I didn't.”
“That boy was a man aiming to murder my brother.”
“So you murdered him instead.” Morgan made his voice deliberately contemptuous. He saw no need in continuing this conversation. His only job was bringing the man in. “Get going, Braden.”
Braden moved slowly, obviously testing him, his forbearance, his alertness.
“The longer you take,” Morgan said, “the longer your sister is going to be very uncomfortable.” He was learning what motivated his prisoner, what prods to use. What would he use tomorrow? Or the days after, when the sister was gone?
Braden picked up his pace, Morgan's hand guiding him toward his horse. He wished he could have left Braden in the cabin, but there was no lock on the outside of the door, and nothing in the cabin to which he could have handcuffed Braden. And it was possible this short trip might give him some measure of the man without the disturbing presence of his sister.
The thought of her was not welcome. What in the hell was he going to do with her?
He couldn't leave her out here in these hills alone, though she seemed capable enough of taking care of herself. Too damn capable, he thought.
Laramie was a day away. He would take her there, put her on a coach to Denver. The rest of the Braden clan had been heading in that direction.
When they reached Morgan's horse, Morgan took the reins in his hands and they started the downward trek. Braden was being cooperative, but Morgan had had a taste of Braden-family resistance, and he knew his prisoner was just waiting for an opportunity.
When they returned to the cabin, Morgan tied his horse next to Braden's similar-looking animal. A pretty little palomino mare was enclosed in the new corral. The sister's horse. Golden and graceful, the mount suited her. He wondered briefly whether it was as spirited as its owner, then chided himself for that moment of fancy. He would be rid of her tomorrow, and in any event, she hated him. He had no doubt that she would continue to hate him.
Morgan had little experience with women other than the soiled doves he and his fellow Rangers patronized. He was always on the move, never in any place long enough to develop any ties. He had none of the social graces decent women required. He had been raised in a rugged, dirty cow town by a succession of Rangers, and he'd received little formal education.
His practical education, though, was unparalleled. He could shoot the eye of a rabbit from two hundred yards, follow any trail of man or beast, live off the land for months at a time, and fight as dirty as any low-down horse thief. His sense of honor revolved totally around his fellow Rangers and duty. He was a Ranger through and through, never wanted to be anything else, couldn't even comprehend an alternative. He'd served as deputy, then sheriff, in lawless Texas towns during the years the Rangers had been disbanded after the war, but he'd just been waiting. He knew the Rangers would be reactivated. There had never been a force as close-knit, as effective, as the Rangers.
And arresting Braden was like any other job, except he had a personal interest. Seeing his face on a poster had been, by God, an insult to all he was. He had little sympathy for the man responsible for it.
And he damned well didn't like the way his attention kept going back to the little spitfire who was sure to make the next twenty-four hours hell.
As if his prisoner read his mind, Braden balked at moving again. “Where's my sister?”
“In back,” Morgan said. He led the way to the tree several yards behind the cabin. The two prisoners saw each other at the same moment, and Morgan noticed her gaze resting briefly on the handcuffs before she glared at him.
Braden walked over to his sister, stooped down, and awkwardly pulled the gag from her mouth. “Are you all right?”
Morgan leaned back against a tree lazily and watched every movement, every exchange of silent messages between the sister and brother. He felt a stab of longing then, a regret that he'd never shared that kind of caring or communication with another human being.
Braden tried to untie his sister, but obviously he was having trouble maneuvering with the handcuffs. Morgan heard a muffled curse and saw the woman's face tense with pain.
“Move away,” Morgan said to Braden. Again Braden hesitated.
“Dammit, I'm not going to keep repeating myself.” Irritation and impatience laced Morgan's words.
Braden stood, took a few steps away.
“Farther,” Morgan ordered. “Unless you want her to stay there all night.”
Braden backed up about ten feet, and Morgan took his place beside Lorilee Braden. Using a knife from his belt, he quickly cut the strips of cloth binding her. Unfamiliar guilt rushed through him as he saw blood around her wrists. He hadn't tied her that tightly, but apparently the cloth had cut into her skin as she struggled to free herself.
He put out his hand to help her up, but she refused it and tried to gain footing by herself. But her muscles had apparently stiffened, and she started to fall.
Instinctively reaching out to help her, Morgan dropped the knife, and he saw her go for it. His foot slammed down on it, and her hand went for the gun in Braden's gunbelt.
“Dammit,” Morgan swore as he spun her around, his hand going around her neck to subdue her. From the corner of his eye he saw Braden move toward him. “Don't,” Morgan said. “I might just make a mistake and hurt her.”
All rage and determination, she was quivering against him, defying him with every ounce of her being.
Braden had stopped in midstride, anger darkening his eyes. “You do real well against women, don't you?” he taunted.
Morgan had always had a temperâhe felt ready to explode nowâbut his voice was even and cold when he spoke. “You'd better tell your sister to behave herself if she wants you to live beyond this day.” When his arms tightened around her, she wriggled to escape his hold, and his body reacted to the feel of her against him. It puzzled him. It infuriated him. He didn't like what he didn't understand, and he couldn't understand his reaction to this she-cat. She was trouble, pure trouble, but a part of him admired her, and he despised that admiration as a weakness in himself. “Tell her!”
Braden's voice was low but authoritative, and Morgan felt her relax slightly, then jerk away from his hold and run to Braden. He watched as Braden's handcuffed hands went over her head and around her, holding her as she leaned against him. A criminal. A killer.