Authors: Patricia; Potter
A rare wave of loneliness swept over Morgan, and for the first time in his life, he felt intense jealousy and a longing that nearly turned him inside out.
“Touching scene,” he observed sarcastically, his voice rough as he tried to establish controlâof his prisoners and of himself.
He tried to discipline his own body, to dismiss the lingering, flowery scent of Lori, the remembered softness of her body against his. She was a hellion, he warned himself, not soft at all, except in body. He'd already underestimated her twice. He wouldn't do it again. He would get rid of her in Laramie.
But still his eyes couldn't move from the brother and sister. He couldn't remember ever having affection or softness in his life. There had been curt nods when he'd done something right, but never a gentle touch. And now he recognized a hunger for tenderness, one he'd never acknowledged before, and it angered him.
“That's enough,” he said. “I want to get going.”
“What about my sister?” Braden asked. “She can't stay here alone.”
“We'll ride to Laramie. I can put your sister on a stage there to Denver. I believe that's where your family was headed.”
“How in the Sam hill did you â¦?” Braden stopped. The Ranger had found him. He had known Lori's name. He obviously was goodâvery goodâat hunting men. It was something to remember.
Morgan shrugged. “Move,” he said. “I want to be on the trail in an hour.”
Lori had slipped from under her brother's handcuffed wrists and faced Morgan. “I'm not getting on any stage. I'm going with you.”
“The hell you are.”
“You can't stop me.”
“Oh, yes I can, Miss Lorilee,” he said curtly. “There's bounty hunters on my trail, and it's a damn long way. I don't need any added complications.”
Her chin went up, her legs braced stubbornly. Her eyes, all amber fire raked him. She was daring him to defy her, and Nicholas Braden was looking on with amusement, an amusement that did not Improve Morgan's temper.
“We've wasted enough time,” he said. He turned to Lori. “You can get his bedroll together. Two blankets. One change of clothes. Rain slicker. Coat. Tin plate. Cup.”
“And what can I take?” she said acidly.
He raised an eyebrow. “A dress, perhaps?” His tone was purposely insulting. He didn't want to feel what she was already stirring in him. He never felt emotions where his job was concerned, had never allowed them. That had been schooled into him since he was a tadpole, more thoroughly than his letters.
Her gaze turned to her brother, and there was another silent exchange that Morgan didn't understand. Then she turned back to him and gave him a blinding smile he sure as hell didn't trust. “Perhaps I will take a dress,” she said.
Morgan remembered the tales he had heard of her. The charmer. The come-on for fake medicine. For card cheating. The smile had a powerful effect as heat surged through him, lingering where it shouldn't.
He stood there, feeling like a fool, rooted to the ground as he tried to control the uncontrollable. It was an unfamiliar experience, and he sensed Braden's amusement grow stronger. There was a reckless streak in Nicholas Braden that irritated Morgan. He sensed that Braden took few things seriously, whereas he, Morgan, had always taken everything seriously. He wondered which way was the wisest, but only for the briefest of moments.
He was what he was, and he felt no need for change. “Ten minutes,” he said. “And we'll be riding out of here, with or without supplies for him.” He nodded his head at Braden.
The Bradens moved then. Morgan followed them into the cabin and ordered Braden to sit. Morgan didn't want both prisoners moving around a cabin that might contain some kind of usable weapon.
Morgan watched intently as Lori packed a bedroll, then took a small metal object from a shelf and moved toward her brother.
He intercepted her, confiscating the object in her hand. A harmonica.
“Surely you can't object to that?” Her voice was disdainful.
Morgan looked over to Braden. “Do you always let her do all your talking for you?”
Braden smiled and winked at his sister. “She does pretty well.”
Morgan shrugged, tossed the harmonica to Braden, who caught it easily in his manacled hands. He tucked it into his shirt pocket without comment.
“And you, Miss Braden,” Morgan said, turning toward Lorilee. “A violin? Guitar?”
“Oh I just sing, Ranger â¦?”
“Davis, Morgan Davis,” Morgan responded grimly, aware of the challenge in the room. They were both testing him. He didn't like it one bit. “And, Miss Lori,” he said with some sarcasm of his own, “I think you have five minutes to gather your belongings, or you'll go just as you are if I have to tie you over a saddle.”
“Whatever you say, Ranger,” she said sweetly, leaving him with the exact knowledge of what arsenic-laced sugar must taste like.
They didn't stop until well past nightfall. Even then Morgan was reluctant to bring a halt to their journey. He knew he would get no sleep tonight with the she-cat along.
He had placed her with her brother on the same horse, and had strung that horse and the pretty little mare on leads. Using the second pair of handcuffs, Morgan had fastened Braden to his saddle horn, giving his hands little room for movement. Lori was seated behind Braden's saddle, and Morgan knew she must be sore from riding the horse's backbone. Her head had drooped to the back of her brother's shoulder.
The arrangements were not the best, but Morgan feared that if Lori rode her own mare, she would try to get the reins of her brother's horse and make a run for it. He didn't plan to give her that opportunity, or any other.
Morgan found a stream and called a halt. He dismounted and tied his horse to a tree, then took the leg irons from his saddle bags. He went over to Braden's horse and offered Lorilee a hand, but she refused it, slipping gracefully from the back of the horse.
“Stay where I can see you,” he told her curtly. With a movement of his head Morgan ordered Braden down, his hands still locked to the saddle horn. When his prisoner was on his feet, Morgan quickly attached the leg irons before releasing Braden from the saddle.
Nick Braden said nothing, his face revealing little, but Morgan sensed the anger and tension in him as strongly as if it were his own. He didn't understand the bitter frustration that pounded at him, the frustration Braden must be feeling. It was almost as if he were in Braden's mind rather than in his own, and
was feeling a sense of outrage, of helpless fury â¦ when he should be feeling satisfaction.
He had no use for con men, for killers, and Braden was both of those. Morgan had never been purposely cruel to a prisoner, but neither had he ever been concerned about one's comfort.
But now â¦
Damn Braden and his sister.
Morgan's voice was harsh when he finally spoke. “Get accustomed to it, Braden. It's routine.”
Braden's eyes flashed his anger, the blandness gone. “You don't give a damn whether I'm guilty or not, do you?”
“No,” Morgan said flatly. “That's not my job.”
“Neither is leaving Texas. You have no jurisdiction here. You're just as bad as those bounty hunters you mentioned.”
Morgan shrugged, not acknowledging the thrust that hit its target. “Think what you want.” He went back to his horse and started unsaddling it, ignoring his two prisoners. When he was through, he turned back to them.
Lorilee had moved over to her brother and was studying his handcuffed wrists in the moonlight. “He's bleeding,” she accused.
Morgan unlocked the cuff on Braden's bloody right wrist. “You can use your bandanna to wrap it,” he said.
He unsaddled Braden's horse and gave his prisoner the reins to both the Bradens' horses. “Water them,” he ordered, knowing that the man wasn't going anywhere with the leg irons and that he probably could use a few moments for his private needs. He watched as Braden shuffled awkwardly toward the stream; then Morgan turned his attention to Lorilee, who was also watching her brother, dismay and concern making her face even more expressive, more striking. “You can gather some wood for a fire,” he said.
“Go to hell,” she said; and the bite was not in the words themselves, but in the almost broken way she said them. Her eyes were bright, too bright, almost shimmering in the moonlight, and he knew she was holding back tears. The glimpse of her silent pain hurt even more than that kick she'd given him earlier.
Even killers have family â¦ people who care about them. It doesn't change what they are, Morgan thought. And he knew he was right. He was a lawman. Lawmen didn't allow emotions to interfere with duty.
Hell, he didn't even have any emotions, he told himself. He was just tired. And it was going to be a sleepless night. His eyes studied her, and he saw her straighten, her back stiffen with pride. Her eyes still glistened, but she made no attempt to wipe them. She simply radiated mutiny.
“It's going to be cold,” Morgan said mildly. “I'll be staying awake, so I don't care that much, but Nick â¦” He used the shortened name on purpose, just as he had used hers. It showed his control and authority. He could do anything, say anything, and the Bradens could do nothing about it.
He watched her swallow hard to keep from retorting, her fingers fisting at her sides. He sensed the content of her internal debate. Was it worth fighting him now when he was alert? Or should she wait? She didn't want to wait. She would have happily killed him at the moment, and he knew it.
“You enjoy this, don't you?” she finally said through clenched teeth.
“No,” he said softly, surprising himself with the admission. It lost him some of that control, but despite his better judgment, he didn't want her thinking him an unfeeling monster. “No, I don't enjoy it, but that doesn't make any difference.”
“What would make a difference?” Her voice had softened. It was an offer, pure and simple, and Morgan felt his gut tighten. She hated him. He could see it in her eyes, yet for her brother's sake she was offering herself to him. He felt as if a knife had been thrust into him and twisted. He turned away.
“Nothing, Miss Lori, and I don't think your brother would have liked hearing that last question.”
“What do you care?”
Morgan faced her. “Is there anything you wouldn't do to free him?”
“Do you have a sister?”
He shook his head.
“A brother? Anyone?”
He didn't answer this time, just stood there, a bleakness washing around him, a loneliness so strong he couldn't move, couldn't think, couldn't reply. The silence answered for him, and a flicker of understanding crossed her face, then disappeared. She turned away from him and started picking up twigs, branches. She didn't look at him again, merely gathered up the makings of a fire.
In an hour a fire was going, and Morgan had spitted the rabbits Braden had trapped earlier. A pot of coffee sat on the edge of the fire, and the flames hissed and sizzled with the juices of the cooking meat. Lori had bandaged both of her brother's wrists, and they sat together, the two of them united against Morgan.
Nick took the harmonica from his pocket and started to play. He was good, and the mournful ballad that permeated the night air with sorrow increased Morgan's own sense of isolation. Occasionally the two men's eyes would meet, would question, would duel. And Morgan felt that odd kinship again. It was only that Nick Braden resembled him, he told himself. And then Morgan would find Lorilee's gaze on him, studying, weighing, judging.
After a silent dinner Morgan tethered Braden to a tree. He knew he should tie the girl, too, and he walked over to her, taking his bandanna from his neck, intending to use it. But when he took one of her wrists, he saw the dried blood from earlier, and he sighed. His eyes met hers, and her chin lifted, almost daring him to bind her again. She even put her two wrists together in front of her.
“Go ahead,” she said, “if you're afraid of me.”
Morgan felt like a damn fool for the second time that day. “Not likely, Miss Lori,” he said grimly. “Children don't frighten. They're just damn nuisances.”
Her eyes glittered, but she managed a smile. “Do you still hurt, Ranger?” she said with feigned concern.
He did. But he sure as hell wasn't going to let her know it. “Hell, I've been hurt more by a mosquito,” he said.
Her smile broadened wickedly, and Morgan realized she didn't believe him. She had known exactly how much she had hurt him. That realization did not improve his temper. And he wasn't going to give her the satisfaction of feeling important enough to be trussed up.
“Go to sleep,” he said flatly.
“You're not going to tie me?”
“Don't test me, Miss Lori. You weren't tied up long enough today to know exactly how uncomfortable it can be.”
“As my brother knows?”
He didn't answer. Nick Braden was going to be very uncomfortable before this journey was over, but that wasn't Morgan's concern.
“Damn you,” she said quietly, and turned away from him.
“Miss Braden,” Morgan said, and this time there was no mockery in his tone. She turned around. “I'll be awake tonight, so don't do anything you or your brother might regret.”
“I wouldn't dream of it,” she retorted.
He watched as she undid both her and her brother's bedrolls and helped Braden wrap himself in the blankets. She leaned down and whispered something to him, and in the moonlight Morgan saw a slight smile come to his face. Morgan's gut knotted, and he felt like the outsider he'd always been. He realized Lorilee Braden thought she had gotten the better of him, and perhaps she had, but only because he had allowed it. He simply didn't have the heart to bind her tonight merely because she was loyal to her brother. She had committed no crime, done nothing wrong, and he appreciated loyalty, even when it was misplaced. And Christ knew he had gone without sleep before for lesser reasons.