by Ruth Ann Nordin and Stephannie Beman
Series: Wild Hearts
Genre: Historical Western Romance
Lillian Christian believed she left her troubles behind when she headed west to be the mail-order bride of Mr. Charles Gray. But her troubles are just beginning. Taken from the Stagecoach by a group of outlaws looking for Mr. Gray’s intended, she finds not everything is as it seems and no one is safe.
A simple rancher who just wants to be left alone, Mic, leader of the Nichols’ Boys Gang, is forced into the life of an outlaw and the distasteful act of kidnapping a woman. But he won’t let his honor stand in the way of protecting his family or helping the innocent woman’s whose life he’s destroyed. He’ll do what he has to to fix the mistakes of his past, and hopeful he’ll be the only one to pay the price.
The Stagecoach Bride Excerpt by Ruth Ann Nordin
and Stephannie Beman
South of Laramie, Wyoming
Lillian Christian examined the desolate territory as the stagecoach bumped along the trail. She had left everything she knew behind. Risked everything. Hoped for the best. Feared the worst. Would being a mail-order bride to a man she barely knew bloom into love, or would she be doomed to a loveless marriage?
She dropped her head into her hands and rubbed her throbbing temples, willing the persistent pounding away. The trip to Cheyenne had been lengthy and she thought the stagecoach would be a refreshing change from being stuck in a small seat in an overly hot and crowded train car. She was wrong.
The final stretch of her journey should have gone faster than the rest of it. She had come all the way from Virginia, after all, and she was only a few hours from Laramie. But the stagecoach ride seemed even longer. The constant swaying from side to side and the thick dust that slipped past the heavy curtain to choke her, only made it unbearably stuffy inside the coach.
“Oh, those mountains are absolutely breathtaking,” the woman beside her gasped in awe. “Don’t you think they’re absolutely breathtaking?”
Lillian pressed the handkerchief closer to her mouth and nose before focusing on the scenery. The mountain range loomed in the distance, lush and green, and far bigger than she was used to. She had to admit the sight was impressive and they seemed to disappear into the sky. “They are lovely.”
The woman dropped the curtain back into place, blocking the worst of the dust and plunging them back into gloomy darkness. She turned toward Lillian. “Where are you going?”
“Medicine Bow. And you?”
“The same place.” With an excited smile, the pretty young blonde held out her hand. “I’m Maggie Jefferson.”
“Lillian Christian,” she said, reaching for the woman’s hand. The stagecoach jerked to the side, throwing her into Maggie. She righted herself. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for.”
Lillian bent to pick up the drawstring purse that had fallen off her lap. The stagecoach dipped and a couple of her hatpins fell to the floor, causing her hat to fall off her head. Quickly grabbing her things, she straightened and adjusted her hat, slipping the pins back where they belonged. It would probably remain on her head for another hour before the pins were shaken loose once more.
“That’s a remarkable shade of red,” Maggie said.
Her eyebrows furrowed. “Pardon?”
“Your hair. I’ve never seen such a deep shade of red. In fact, I don’t remember seeing anyone with red hair.”
“It’s not a common color.” And that was why Lillian hated it and attempted to hide it as much as possible under her hats or bonnets.
The curse of red hair was that certain colors didn’t look good on her, leaving her with a very limited selection of clothing. Mostly she kept to muted shades of blue, green, and brown because her brother refused to pay for the more garnished shades of lavender and teal.
With an uncertain smile, she smoothed her new green travel dress and asked, “What are you going to Medicine Bow for?”
“My parents passed a while ago, so I’m going to help my uncle and his kin at their ranch.”
Lillian inspected the faded floral pattern on the blonde’s dress. “Where did you come from?” she asked to fill the silence.
“Minnesota. I took care of cattle out there, so I have some experience.”
“Are you looking forward to living here?”
“I think so. It’s certainly breathtaking. ” She touched her arm and nodded toward the mountains. “Did I mention how breathtaking those are?”
Lillian smiled, amused by her enthusiasm. She wished she could share it, but starting a new life wasn’t going to be easy. Not that she had anything worth going back to, but that didn’t matter. “Yes.”
“So, what are you going to Medicine Bow for?”
“I came to marry Charles,” she struggled to remember his last name, “Gray.”
Right. It was Gray; like the color of storm clouds.
She didn’t know why she came up with that analogy, but it was the first thing she thought when she answered his ad in the paper. There were many ads for mail-order brides, but her heart went out to him. A widower with a three-year-old son who needed a mother. How could she not come out for a struggling rancher with a young son?
“So you’re a mail-order bride?” Maggie asked, her eyes wide. “How brave. I couldn’t marry a man I’d never met.”
The sharp crack rang through the air, startling them both. Men shouted. The stagecoach picked up speed, veering dangerously. Another crack rang out and Maggie shrieked, grabbing hold of Lillian.
Belatedly, she realized the cracks were gunshot echoes, not pieces of the coach breaking off. Another gunshot rang through the air and the two women shrieked again, ducking from the windows.
“What’s going on?” Maggie asked, fear in her voice.
“I-I don’t know.” She didn’t dare look up through the window to see. Wasn’t that how men died in the dime novels? “Do Indians live around here?”
“I don’t know.”
Lillian dragged Maggie down to the safety of the floor. At least she hoped it was safer than the bench. The coach bounced and careened wildly. Gunshots rang out around them.
The two huddled on the floor, jerking forward as the coach came to an abrupt halt. Silence reigned for several moments, as if the world stood still. Lillian held her breath, hoping the nightmare would be over. Maybe they would be robbed and the men would leave.
And then the world began again. Horses neighed and gunshots were exchanged.
Lillian squeezed her eyes tightly shut and prayed that nothing would happen to them. Holding a shaking Maggie, who was mumbling incoherently about robbers and dying, Lillian hoped they’d somehow survive this attack.
“Throw your guns aside and no one will get hurt!”
Lillian stiffened at the gruff voice coming from behind the stagecoach. Goodness! Did he mean her and Maggie?
Rising to her knees, she tentatively peeked out the window. She could only see one man with a shotgun on horseback a ways off, too far to be the man who’d spoken. How many were there?
Another man moved into sight, a bandana over his nose and mouth, his hat low on his head, leaving only his eyes showing. It was impossible to even tell what they looked like, but they had their guns pointed at the driver and the gunman who was supposed to protect them in this untamed wilderness.
The man turned toward the window, and she wondered if his eyes could pierce the darkness. She ducked back inside. Maybe if the men didn’t know they were here, they would take what they wanted and leave.
“Throw your guns aside!” the attacker repeated, impatience in his tone.
“Can’t do that, son,” the gunman sitting next to their driver said. “We have nothing of value.”
“You have something we want,” a second man—the one by the window—yelled.
Lillian gulped. What did he mean by that? She and Maggie were just two helpless women. She shivered and held onto Maggie who was huddled on the floor of the stagecoach. She closed her eyes, willing the driver and gunman to give the men whatever they wanted so they’d go away.
“It ain’t worth it, Jim,” the driver told the gunman. “Let them take what they want and go.”
“What’d ya want?” their gunman demanded.
After a tense moment of silence, the first attacker barked, “First, put down your guns!”
Lillian held her breath, not sure if it was better if they obeyed or not. Two heavy thuds on the dirt told her they chose to obey.
She squeezed Maggie. Now the attackers would come to get whatever they wanted. She just hoped they would take their things and let them continue safely on their journey.
But she didn’t hear the sound of someone hopping on top of the stagecoach to grab the trunks. Instead, the door flung open. She let out a startled cry. Her eyes flew open and she found herself staring at a revolver.
A huge man stood before them, the wind blowing his duster. He scanned the interior of the stagecoach. Beside her, Maggie cried and buried her face in her shoulder.
He slipped the revolver into the holster at his hip. “No one will hurt you, ladies.”
Surprised by the tenderness in his tone, her gaze went from his gun to his startling blue eyes, the only feature she could see on his face, thanks to the red bandana covering the rest of him. They looked so kind and sincere, yet she wouldn’t trust him any more than she could trust the others.
“I need you to come out of the coach now,” he continued, his voice soothing.
Though she sensed a struggle in his stormy blue eyes, as if he wasn’t happy to be doing this, she gave a slight shake of her head and tightened her hold on Maggie.
“Everything will be alright,” he urged, extending his hand forward.
“Hurry up!” the second man, still on his horse, called out. “We got to get out of here.”
The first man glared at him. “They’re scared enough without you adding to it. We have time before Charles Gray comes looking for his missing bride.”
Charles Gray? His missing bride? Lillian’s lower lip trembled. They wanted her? But why? She only knew Charles from the letters they’d exchanged, and she had no enemies this far out West.
The man on the horse huffed and moved his horse closer to the coach. “Which one do you think it is?”
The man glared at his fellow robber. “Be careful. You’re scaring them.”
“With his face, he’d scare the toughest woman,” another man joked.
The second man rolled his eyes. “This is taking too long.” He urged the horse toward the back of the coach where Lillian heard him pull at the ties holding the luggage. “Help me with this.”
Now what were they doing? She wanted to ask the first man why the second one was going through the luggage when they said they came for Charles Gray’s bride—her. Oh God, what did they want to do to her? And why?
The first man sighed and reached for Lillian and Maggie. “Come on.”
Lillian shook her head, moving them further into the coach and out of his reach. He sighed and made a move to step into the coach.
“Promise you won’t hurt us and we’ll do it.”
He nodded, stepping back. “I promise. No one will hurt either of you.”
“Just-just give us a moment. Please.”
Lillian glanced at Maggie and swallowed the lump in her throat. Still holding to each other, the two women emerged from the stagecoach. Lillian’s knees felt unbelievably weak, and had she not been leaning on Maggie, she would have collapsed to the ground.
She glanced at the driver and gunman who remained as still as a stone while one of the men pointed a gun at them. She couldn’t blame either of them. She counted five outlaws surrounding the coach. It was very bad odds. They were as helpless as she and Maggie were.
“Hurry up!” another one of their attackers hissed as he scanned their surroundings for any sign of trouble.
A loud thud, followed by another, drew her attention to the luggage. Two of the bandits were pulling trunks and bags from the stagecoach. She wanted to protest, to plead with them to stop because that was all she and Maggie had, but her throat constricted. She could hardly breathe, let alone talk.
The first man stepped over to her and studied her for a long moment before he reached out to brush a lock of red hair that had fallen from her bun. “Nice color. Distinct.”
She jerked away from him, nearly knocking poor Maggie over. “You have no right to touch me!”
The others stopped looking through the baggage and glanced in her direction.
He grinned. “Spirited too. How did a girl like you get mixed up with a man like Charles Gray? He’d crush you without a thought otherwise.”
“My dealings with Charles Gray are none of your business.” Really! Who did he think he was?
“That’s where you are wrong, cikala wiwayaka. Charles Gray is our business and as his intended, you are too.”
Her gaze swept over the other four bandits then back to him. “I don’t know any of you.”
The second man grunted and dropped the packages he was sorting through. He stormed over to her and pried her away from Maggie. “Now stop it! We have work to do.”
When he tried to force her hands behind her back, panic took over. She kicked at his shin and he loosened his hold on her hands. Jerking free she struck out, whacking him across his head. The solid crack startled her, though it hardly seemed to slow him.
He reached for her hands again. She fought against his superior strength, her arms flailing, her nails raking over his leather coat instead of his face. Her hand connected with the brim of his hat, knocking it off and revealing dark brown hair pressed down with sweat. Encouraged, she grasped a fistful of hair and pulled as hard as she could.
Letting out a loud roar, he shoved her away. She stumbled and collided into a solid chest. Strong arms closed around her, and despite her struggles he didn’t budge. His grip around her only tightened until she couldn’t move. Opening her mouth, she screamed at the top of her lungs, her sole remaining defense.
The second man swore and stomped over to her, hands clenched at his sides, his breathing heavy. “You’re not worth the trouble. We ought to leave you here to rot!” He motioned to his head where he was missing some hair.
Surprised, she glanced at her closed fist and saw the big lump of hair in it. Cringing, she shook the hair free of her hand.
“That’s what you get for being rough with her,” the first man growled behind her. “She’s scared and she didn’t need you bullying her. Tie her up so we can get this over with.”
The second man glared at her and picked the rope up from the ground. Grabbing her hands, he wrapped it around her wrists.
She winced at the force he used.
“Brother, if you keep it up, I’ll tan your hide,” the man behind her growled. His tone filled with warning and promise.
She didn’t doubt that he would do just as he threatened. Apparently the second man knew it too. He glanced up, glaring at the man behind her, but his actions grew gentle. He muttered something under his breath about obstinate women, dishonest men, and brothers who thought they were in charge.
Lillian glanced at Maggie who was being held by one of the younger bandits. No one tied her hands together. No one mentioned wanting her. No. They wanted Charles Gray’s intended. They were after her.
“What are you going to do with me?” Lillian asked, directing her attention to the man holding her. At least he seemed nicer than the one knotting the ties around her wrists.
He didn’t answer her. Instead, he led her to a horse that was nipping at the scraggly grass at its feet. She dug her heels into the ground hoping to slow their progress, maybe even stop it. But he was far stronger and her boots weren’t suitable for the outdoors, causing her to stumble.
She might have fallen, but his hold on her didn’t slacken and his pace slowed until she managed to regain her balance before he had to embrace her again. She really didn’t want anyone but her intended to hold her in such a familiar way, even if there was nothing romantic about it.
“Now see here,” their gunman called out, “you can’t do that. Mr. Gray’s expectin’ her and there will be hell to pay.”
“I expect so,” the man beside her said, mirth in his tone. “We’re counting on it.”
She glanced from the gunman to her abductor. “What do you mean by that?”
Ignoring her question once again, the man lifted her as if she were no lighter than a feather and settled her on the saddle. For a moment she teetered, grabbing the saddle horn for balance, not that the man’s hold on her loosened until she was settled firmly on the saddle.
With one hand he touched her right leg, and she kicked him, unbalancing herself. He grunted, the only sign that she’d hurt him. His hands returned to her waist, keeping her from falling off backward.
“You have no right to touch me so intimately,” she hissed. Oh of all the liberties this man was taking with her person!
Keeping a steadying hand on her waist, he touched her leg again. “Put your right leg over the saddle horn, cikala wiwayaka. It’ll keep you from falling off.”
Gritting her teeth, but not seeing any other choice, she obeyed. He instantly removed his hands from her and mounted the horse in one fluid movement, evidence that he was accustomed to riding it.
She briefly noticed the way his body conformed to hers, cradling her, and her face grew warm. Tears of anger and shame stung her eyes. This was a disgrace. No man should be handling her like this. It just wasn’t right. She was a lady, not a whore.
“No!” Maggie cried, trying to free herself from the man holding her. “You can’t do this! You can’t take an innocent woman and…and…”
Lillian understood what she was saying. Neither of them knew what would happen, and quite frankly, they didn’t want to explore the possibilities.
“Did you give them the letter?” her abductor called out as he shifted behind her and wrapped his arm around her waist.
She grimaced, hating the close proximity of this situation but worrying it would only get worse once he had her at his place…wherever that was.
One of the bandits nodded and gave an envelope to the driver who slowly took it.
He pocketed the letter and looked at her abductor. “Don’t you hurt her!”
“What reason would I have to hurt a woman?” he asked softly.
The second bandit picked the guns off the ground and pointed them in the driver’s direction. “You make sure Charles gets that. If you don’t, she will be hurt.”
The man holding her sighed and gestured to the luggage. “Which is yours, Uzizitka?”
“Uh,” she swallowed back her tears, “the brown trunk.”
“Get it and load it on the horse.” He gestured to the other three bandits. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Finally,” the second attacker grumbled. He grabbed the trunk and cursed, waving the younger one to him. “What you got in here?” he grumbled.
The younger man laughed. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten how women pack.” They heaved the trunk on a horse and tied it on with the guns and rifles.
She blinked back more tears, barely aware that the driver was calling out that the bandits wouldn’t get away with this. The bandit who’d been holding Maggie released her.
Suddenly the attackers were hustling around to get on their horses, and before she knew it, they were galloping away from the stagecoach. The man kept a firm grip on her waist to keep her steady, and she was so scared of riding such a large beast that she held onto the saddle horn with all her strength. She didn’t have time to look back at the stagecoach. Whatever was going to happen, she just hoped she’d survive it.
They topped the rise and Mic glanced at Abigail, or Abby as they affectionately called her, and nodded. With her height, coal blackened hair, dirty face, and oversized men’s clothing, she looked like a man if someone didn’t look too close. As long as she stayed quiet, kept her hat pulled down, and guns out, few people would see beyond the disguise.
Abby grinned, breaking away from the group. They all knew their jobs and for the moment, Abby had done hers. Noah and Caleb followed her. They’d travel parallel to the coach until it made it safely to Laramie, protecting it from any more mishaps that might befall the driver and gunman without their guns to defend themselves. Then they’d circle around the town and enter from a different direction once Abby cleaned up and changed her duds for a dress.
Mic couldn’t stop the grin from spreading across his face. Abby in a dress was the most humorous thing he’d seen in a very long time. She’d flat out refused to be seen in one during their younger years and hadn’t worn one, despite their mother’s nagging until a few months back. Of course, by then the need for her to be a woman in town was far more helpful than her helping around the ranch.
The smile died on his lips. Abby and Caleb were, by far, safer on the ranch than in town, but the need to have eyes and ears in town was far more important at this point in their plan. It meant he had to stay focused, stay firm, and do a distasteful deed to keep his family alive. It meant he had to kidnap a woman and frighten her near-to-death so he could send a clear message to Mr. Charles Gray.
He couldn’t afford to be sidetracked by the woman nearly sitting on his lap, her trembling body pressed so close to his own, and the gentle scent of her rose and honey perfume filling his nose. The woman had to be terrified and all he wanted to do was stroke her fire red hair and comfort her as he would his sister. He wanted to reassure her that she wouldn’t be hurt and everything would turn out all right.
But he didn’t know if everything would turn out all right. He couldn’t say what Charles Gray would do when he found out the Nichols boys had stolen his precious mail-order bride. He only hoped he wouldn’t hurt the woman because of him.
He tried to ignore the twinge of guilt that twisted in his gut and slowed his horse to a ground-eating canter. Jimmy Boy, nickered and pulled at the reins, wanting his head to race ahead of the others.
The woman stiffened, drawing closer to him as Jimmy Boy’s movements threatened her precarious position on the saddle.
Mic shoved aside the sudden warmth her actions created and reminded himself that she was a frightened woman who would probably gut him if given the chance.
“How long am I going to be on this horse?” she asked, sniffing.
He tightened his hold briefly, like he’d done with Abby in the old days to reassure her. Then, thinking it might make her feel better, he released the ties that bound her hands together. “We’re about a day’s ride from camp.”
Wade’s gelding sidled up beside them and Wade jerked the bandana from his face. “Do we have to listen to her snivel the whole way? Can’t you gag her?”
“Well, excuse me for being abducted,” she snapped, glaring at him. “If you take me back to the coach, I can be out of your hair. Then you can grunt and beat rocks together like the Neanderthal you are.”
He groaned. “Another learned person. God must hate me.”
“Another learned person? I’m sorry. Am I using words too big for you to understand? Me go to coach. You be happy.”
Mic chuckled. The girl was a spitfire, able to hold her own despite her fear. “It’s all that sinning you did as a boy. He’s making you pay now,” Mic teased, pulling the bandana from his face.
“So when’s he going to punish you for being a hellion?” Wade asked with a grin. “I seem to remember—”
Mic shifted the girl’s weight and her hands scrambled on his arm as he leaned over and slapped his brother upside the head. “No telling tales.”
The girl glanced between the two, her red eyebrows furrowed, although she didn’t say anything.
Wade laughed. “Maybe our little prisoner wouldn’t look so comfortable sitting in your lap if she knew more about you.”
Mic groaned. Wade had a big mouth and he had a feeling it was going to get him in trouble with the soon-to-be Mrs. Charles Gray. “I think she’d prefer my company to yours right now.”
She looked at him, a worried frown on her pretty face and he had the urge to smooth the furrow from her brow. “Neither one of you are gentlemen.”
“Mic’s being the perfect example of a gentleman in this Territory. Besides, we all can’t be like the men back East. Weak men don’t survive here long.” Wade glanced at her, giving her the devilish grin Mic remembered from their childhood. It meant trouble. “For that matter, neither do weak women.”
“So strong men go around kidnapping helpless women?” Her mocking tone dripped with a sarcasm that made Mic wince. “Real strength comes from within, not from a gun or by forcing your will upon another.”
Wade’s face hardened and the tic beneath his eye pulsed. It was a bad sign and Mic guided Jimmy Boy away from his brother. “What do you know about anything? You’re a spoiled, highborn lady marrying a monster for money. Shut her up, Mic, or I will.”
Wade’s gelding leapt forward, galloping over the ground at breakneck speed. The horse carrying the woman’s trunk was forced to follow over the rocky, sagebrush covered terrain toward the tree line and the mountains ahead.
Mic worried about him and the horses. They couldn’t afford to lose either. Wade was a powder keg waiting to explode and he’d take everyone with him when it happened.
“I hope he runs off a cliff,” she muttered.
“He probably does too,” Mic said quietly. “You stay away from Wade, you hear?
“Because I don’t know what he’d do to you and I promised you everything would be all right.”
She hesitated but then said, “That’s the first question I’ve asked that you’ve answered.”
“It’s the first one you’ve asked that I can tell you the answer to.”
“Are you going to hurt me?”
“No, Miss. My mama raised a better man than that.”
And if she knew what he was doing now, she’d take the razor strap to his hide and then put him to work until he couldn’t move. Probably a good thing she wasn’t around to see what had become of her children. Outlaws, each and every one of them.
“Where are we going?”
He knew he shouldn’t tell her. If she ever escaped or Charles paid the ransom for her, she’d be able to lead the lawmen back to them, yet he couldn’t add to her fear. She was a gentle bred woman from back East if he guessed her accent right. Her clothes were well made and expensive. She wasn’t like the strong women who came out West with their husbands and helped carve out a home in this desolate place.
He lowered his head beside hers, raising his arm to point. “See that ridge? There’s a homestead cabin that I’m taking you to.”
“Will it be just…um…” She cleared her throat. “We won’t be alone, will we?”
He turned his face away, hiding his smile. “Noah will come back when they know the coach arrived in town safely. Caleb won’t be back for a day or two with supplies and news. I’m sure Wade, in his anger, will beat us to the cabin, so it might be the two of us tonight.”
“No women?” she asked, her voice raising several octaves in panic.
“No women except you, Uzizitka,” he affirmed.
She stiffened, pulling away from him and holding tighter to the saddle horn. Her pale, bloodless knuckles were almost blue through the lace gloves she wore.
He sighed, wishing he could see her face and understand what was going through that mind of hers. Not that he would understand what he was seeing if he did. He’d never been very good at reading people. He could understand cattle and horses. He could read the changes in the seasons and the tracks on the ground. His world didn’t lie or cheat or kill without warning. Nature was truthful, brutal, and kind.
It was better for them both if he keep his distance. If he remembered why he was doing this and didn’t allow himself to worry about a stranger. He had to remember, that no matter what atrocity he was being forced to carry out now, it was better that he be the monster than sensitive Noah or young Caleb. Neither boy should be tangled in this mess, yet Charles had dragged them all into a war that could only end in death. And now Mic was bringing another innocent with them.
His stomach lurched at the thought and he prayed to God that he wasn’t destroying them all. That He’d look over the innocent in this coming fight. That if anyone should pay for their sins, that it would be Charles and himself.
Tired of the long silence and his own thoughts, he shifted in the saddle. “What’s your name?”
She brushed her cheeks, her gloves coming away wet. “I’m supposed to be Mrs. Charles Gray.”
“But you aren’t yet, so what name do I call you?”
They rode in silence, coming ever closer to the forest and his safe haven. He’d be home by noon tomorrow and there would be one more mouth to feed, one more person in his home.
With another sniffle, she said, “Miss Christian.”
He held out his hand. “My name’s Mic. It’s nice to meet you, even under the circumstances, Miss Christian.”
He purposely left out his surname, knowing it was rude, but then she already thought him a brute so missing a few manners wouldn’t surprise her. The less she knew about him and his family, the safer she would be when this was done.
She looked at his hand and shook her head. “I see no reason to get familiar with you.”
He tugged on a lock of brilliant red hair trying to escape its pins, an action that annoyed Abby, who had the same hue of red, only lighter. “Manners, Miss Christian. I have no intention of being too familiar with you.”
She swatted at his hand, almost losing her balance, and grabbed the saddle horn. “I should hope not! I’ve been born and bred a lady. Back in Virginia, I attended the finest school the state had. I’m not to be treated like a common whore. I hope you remember that tonight.”
Mic laughed and loosened his hold on her waist now that she was steady. So that was what she was worried about. “You are a delight, Miss Christian, and I can promise you, no one will touch you in such a way.”
With a glimmer of hope in her tone, she asked, “You won’t? And you’ll make sure no one else will?”
“My dear, poor mama would rise from her grave if we even thought such a thing,” he said as they entered the forest. “Besides, Wade is very much in love with his wife, Caleb has an eye on a girl of his own, and Noah wouldn’t know what to do with a woman if he caught her. And I’m not saying he isn’t capable of catching the eyes of a girl or two.”
“Give my sympathies to Wade’s wife. As for Noah, don’t tell him what to do with one.”
Mic winced. The sharp pain of memory rising. He ruthlessly shoved it back and chuckled at the irony of her statement. “If I see Wade’s wife, I’ll let her know you sympathize for her.” He halted Jimmy Boy and swiftly dismounted. “And I have every intention of letting Noah figure it out himself. It’s much more amusing to watch a boy stumble around after a girl and win her affections.”
Night would be coming soon and he wanted to have camp set up before then. He looked around for Wade but didn’t see him. He probably hadn’t stopped at the designated campsite and Mic couldn’t blame him. Miss Christian had landed an unintentionally hard blow to his brother’s ego. He was most likely sulking further up the mountain. At least Mic hoped so.
He reached up and lifted the witty Miss Christian from the horse and set her on her feet, reluctant to release his hold on her. “We’ll camp here tonight. It’ll be dark soon and the ground is too treacherous to travel safely.” He untied the knots from her wrists, glad to see that although his brother had tied them a little too tight in his anger, it hadn’t been tight enough to cut off her circulation. “Don’t wander far from camp.”
Miss Christian pulled her hands from his, tilting her head up to look at him. “Why not?”
He tapped the tip of her nose. “While I might be a Neanderthal, Uzizitka, I’m not nearly as dangerous as the bears, mountain lions, wolves, Indians, and other cave-dwelling humans around here.”
She scanned the trees surrounding the small clearing, her eyes resting longer on the ring of stones around a pit, and then moving on. “There can’t possibly be all those dangers out here. It looks like a peaceful area.”
“City folk.” Mic laughed, turning to Jimmy Boy and unbuckled the saddle straps then pulled the tack from his back. “The nearest town is a few days walk. The nearest neighbor’s a half day ride.” He tied Jimmy Boy and started picking up kindling for a fire while he spoke. “The nearest Indian settlement is to the west of us, but their scouts like to hunt nearby. Cattle are easier prey than deer and buffalo.”
She smoothed out her skirt. “Where will we go tomorrow?”
“Further up the mountain. We’ll reach the cabin by noon.”
“Then we wait for a response.”
He knelt beside the fire pit, placing the pine needles, twigs, and larger sticks into a tepee shape. Pulling the kindling box and matches from his coat, he quickly had a fire burning merrily, and not a moment too soon. The world around them darkened and the temperature started to drop. A storm was coming.
Taking what little he had from his saddlebags, he offered the newspaper-wrapped meal to Miss Christian: a hunk of bread, a chunk of cheese, and several slices of jerky strips. “Hungry?”
She studied the contents for a moment before gingerly accepting it as if it would suddenly come alive and nip at her. She slowly peeled aside enough newspaper so he could examine the bread, poking at it and frowning. Then she sniffed the cheese and grimaced. After that, she picked up a piece of jerky and asked, “What’s this?”
“What’s beef jerky?” She appeared genuinely confused by the hard strip of beef.
“Really? It’s a staple out here.”
She shot him a pointed look. “Don’t take that tone with me. I never saw this thing before. I grew up in Virginia. We didn’t have,” she sniffed it, “beef jerky. What’s it made of?”
Mic shook his head; he couldn’t believe it. “Strips of beef, smoked to preserve it. Ice is a rarity out here unless it’s winter. It’s the only way to keep a side of beef from rotting.”
She handed the meal back to him. “Do you have anything else?”
Mic groaned and whipped out his gun. He fired into the trees. Miss Christian started, eyes wide. A second later a large dove plunked to the ground, its head completely gone.
Turning his attention back to her, he asked, “Can I interest you in a bird, cikala wiwayaka?”
She dug a handkerchief out of her pocket and placed it over her nose. “That has to be the most revolting, absolutely disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”
He strode over to the dove and picked it up by the feet, blood dripping from the neck. “They taste like chicken.”
“Get it away from me!”
“Rule one, nothing goes to waste,” he said, sitting down to pluck out the feathers, the blood seeping onto his leather chaps.
“Excuse me,” Miss Christian mumbled, rushing from the clearing.
Mic shook his head and started the process of cleaning the dove, whistling as he worked.
Lillian hurried away from Mic, her feet carrying her as fast as she could go before the bile rose up in her throat and she couldn’t hold down what little was left in her stomach anymore. She fell to her knees and threw up, gripping the blades of grass in her hands and wishing to God this whole sordid ordeal had never happened. When the urge to vomit finally passed, she crawled to a clean area and collapsed. She wanted to cry, felt it would help her, but she had no more tears.
She’d spent most of the day crying. First, when she woke up that morning and then again after the bandits captured her. Why her? What did they want with her? Did it have something to do with Robert? She shivered and closed her eyes. No. He couldn’t know. She’d been very careful to conceal everything she was doing. She was safe. Well, as safe as could be, all things considered.
She hoped Mic could be trusted, hoped he meant it when he promised her that he wouldn’t hurt her or allow the others to hurt her. A cool breeze passed over her, making her shudder. She curled up into a ball and took in what little warmth she could. It’d be dark soon. Already the pinks and oranges in the sky had given way to grays and blues. How she wished she was on the coach. That was the only way she’d know for sure she could be safe. Once she was married, Robert wouldn’t be able to have her.
She took a deep breath and released it. The action calmed her, so she repeated it several times, taking comfort in the quiet of the evening. Even if it was getting cooler, she didn’t want to leave her spot. She wanted to stay here for as long as possible, suspended in time with nothing to worry about. This land was so different from what she’d been used to, but she had to admit that it was as beautiful as Maggie said.
She sighed and wrapped her arms tighter around herself. The day had been a warm one, hot even around the early afternoon, especially with all the commotion going on. Would Charles Gray look for her? Sure, he would. She had promised to come out to meet him. He knew she was on her way, knew to expect her in two days. He’d have to come for her. And when he did, maybe she’d be safe.
Lillian stirred from her slumber, aware that she was no longer chilly. In fact, she was very warm. And more than that, she felt protected. For a moment, she truly felt safe.
She shifted, expecting to feel the grass beneath her hand, but her fingers brushed worn cotton. Through her sleepy haze, she opened her eyes. The first thing she noticed was the fire nearby, its flames lapping lazily in the still night. She turned her gaze to the sky and noticed a few clouds, one of which partially obstructed the view of the quarter moon.
The second thing she noticed was the duster draped over her. The third thing she noticed was that she was curled up against Mic’s side.
Mic was dozing against the saddle, his arm resting at his side with his gun in hand, and his other arm was wrapped around her shoulders. That wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t bad either considering how close she’d been to him on the saddle.
What was bad, however, was the fact that her leg was draped over Mic’s leg in the most impure manner. If someone were to find them, they’d assume she was ready to…to…
Well, she hadn’t done anything with a man beyond dancing at a party, so she really didn’t know what she looked like she was doing. All she knew was that it was highly inappropriate.
Trying not to wake Mic, lest he discover her grievous behavior, she gingerly rose up on her arm, not minding where she placed her hand when she tried to roll away from him. Her hand just so happened to land below his belt, right on an unfamiliar bulge between his legs. She shrieked and quickly removed her hand from him.
“Get a handful?” he asked, his eyes just peeking out from below the brim of his hat and a sly smile spreading across his lips.
She shrieked again and tried to get away from him, but her foot caught on the bottom of her skirt and she fell against his chest, her body seeming to press more fully over his than before. Oh, the indignity of it all!
Mic grunted, his hands resting on her waist. “I’m not sure who needs protection from who, Uzizitka.”
“Unhand me at once,” she demanded, wiggling in an effort to loosen her skirt from his legs.
He released his hold on her and placed his hands above his head in a sign of surrender. Without his support, she fell back over him with a yelp of surprise. She scrambled to get off of him, her hands all over the place, touching places she had no business touching, as if she were a lady of ill repute.
Her cheeks grew even warmer when she saw him look away from her, laughter softly escaping from his lips. “It’s not funny!” She finally stood and brushed her skirt and shirtwaist in an attempt to hold onto what little dignity she had left. Her chin rose in the air. “I assure you that I’m not that kind of woman. You,” she cleared her throat and lifted her chin, her eyes keeping track of his expression, “you surprised me, that’s all.”
“Imagine his surprise,” Wade said from across the camp, standing from the fallen log. “I brought breakfast.”
Red spread across Mic’s cheeks and he had to clear his throat several times before he turned his gaze to Wade. “I’m shocked you even thought of it.”
Lillian gasped and picked the duster off the ground and covered herself, ignoring the fact that she was already fully clothed. “We were doing nothing wrong.”
Wade burst out laughing. “Darlin’, from where I was sitting, you had your hands all over my brother. If this territory was as civilized as where you come from, I’d have to insist you marry my brother for taking advantage of him.” He squatted down beside the fire, stoking the coals and adding a few more pieces. “You’re lucky us Neanderthals aren’t that civilized yet.”
Her entire face flushed with embarrassment. “B-but I didn’t realize I was with him.” She pointed toward the spot where she’d fallen asleep. “Last I remember, I was clear over there. Then I-I woke up a-and was there.” She motioned to Mic. “He carried me over here, by this fire. Without me knowing.”
Wade glanced at Mic’s flushed face and grinned even wider. “For shame, Mic. How could you be so mean as to move this poor girl out of the cold, cougar-infested forest and beside the warm fire? And then be a gentleman by giving her your coat and allowing her to take liberties with your person?”
Mic glared at Wade. “You’re not going to shut up about this, are you?”
“Not on your life. It’s payback for all the times you teased me about. . .” Wade’s face fell. “Never mind. Come eat.”
Lillian glanced between the two, wondering what Wade’s sudden change of mood was about, but since the focus was not on her, she was more relieved than curious. He could have all the secrets he wanted for all she cared as long as he never mentioned this humiliating experience to anyone.
“What’s for breakfast?” Mic asked, crouching down beside the fire. “Hopefully not dove.”
She frowned. “You killed that thing right in front of me. How could you expect me to eat it?”
Wade glanced between them and raised a brow.
Mic shrugged. “She didn’t like the jerky. I figured she’d prefer the poultry.”
“He killed food for you?” Wade asked her. “And you didn’t eat it?”
“Well, I,” she glanced at Mic then turned her attention back to Wade, “couldn’t. Its head was off and blood was all over the place.”
Even thinking about it made her sick to her stomach. She swallowed the bile that rose up in her throat and swayed, suspecting she was close to fainting and sure that the lack of food had a part to play in it. But even so, just thinking of that poor headless bird made her stomach roll in protest to any thoughts of eating.
Mic went over to her and tugged on a lock of her hair. “Buck up, Miss Christian. I promise not to do it again.”
She swatted at his hand. “Stop messing with my hair.”
She hated her hair and every time someone brought attention to it, it only made her aware that she wasn’t as pretty as the women with darker hair or blonde hair. As her brother used to say, the best hope she had of finding a respectable man was to be a good and decent lady. Her head hurt. She didn’t even want to think of what Albert would say if he found her lying in a man’s arms and touching him in places she shouldn’t.
“Please don’t tell anyone about the way I,” she gestured to the saddle and paused, “you know?” If Charles Gray found out… God help her, he’d send her right back to Virginia and to Robert. “Please don’t tell anyone?” Looking at Wade, she tightened her grip on the duster. “I wasn’t trying to do anything improper. I promise I won’t ever touch Mic again.”
Wade burst out laughing. “I’m sorry, but who would we tell? We’re walking dead men and I highly doubt they’re going to pause long enough to hear the story before they lynch us.”
“Wade! The less she knows, the safer she’ll be.” Mic handed her a plate of bacon, biscuits, and fried eggs. “Eat up.”
They were right. They were bandits. Who would listen to them anyway? Relaxing, she placed the duster by the saddle and said, “Thank you.” She sat on the ground near Wade and Mic, relieved to smell food she was accustomed to eating.
He raised a brow. “I’m glad the thoughts of our deaths bring you some peace,” Mic said. “Can’t say I’ll be enjoying it.”
“Me neither,” Wade chimed in. “Hopefully, the others will be spared.”
“I’m just glad I’ll never see the inside of a jail cell.” Mic shivered. “Or have to eat the food.”
She bit into the eggs and nearly choked on it, but before they could notice her hesitation, she swallowed. Now wasn’t the time to worry about the taste of something. As long as she didn’t have to eat something that was just shot in front of her, she’d manage. But if Mic thought this was better than jail food, she decided she’d starve to death before eating there. Once she managed to get the slimy eggs down her throat, she ate the bacon, which was a lot better than the eggs and wolfed down the biscuit, which tasted good enough to wash out the taste of those awful eggs.
This wasn’t the way she imagined her new start in life—being out in the godforsaken wilderness with two bandits who were holding her for ransom. But at least they hadn’t taken advantage of her and she’d take what little comfort she could until she was safe with her intended.
She wiped her mouth with the handkerchief and set the plate down. “Am I the first person you’ve kidnapped or is this how you make your living, kidnapping women and having their intendeds send the ransom?” If they ended up giving those women to their husbands-to-be, then she’d know there was hope for her.
Wade and Mic exchanged a look that Lillian wasn’t sure about. “I was an honest rancher once,” Wade said.
“I’m still a rancher,” Mic added, “who decided that kidnapping beautiful women would be fun. You happen to be the first.”
Wade snorted and stood to put out the fire. “And the last.”
Mic nodded in agreement and stood to saddle his horse.
She waited for a moment before asking Wade, “Will you two let me go when Charles Gray pays the ransom?”
He frowned. “Why would we keep you?”
She clenched her lips together and rose to her feet, careful so she couldn’t trip in her hurry to get away from him and his rude answer. Her cheeks burned with anger even as tears filled her eyes, but she refused to let him know his words bothered her. She hated him! She should have grabbed another lump of hair off his head, but she was weak and exhausted. She just didn’t have the fight in her today.
As soon as she turned her back to him and headed away from the camp and into the trees, she wiped her tears away. She should be relieved at his answer. At least they had no intention of keeping her. That meant she’d be with Charles soon, and the sooner she was with him, the sooner she could put this horrid experience behind her.
The snap of a twig was her only warning before Mic spoke, “Ignore Wade. He’s an angry little boy in a man’s body.”
She halted her steps and brushed more tears away. As much as she wanted to run off and escape this nightmare, another part of her needed someone—anyone—to say something kind to her. There was only so much she could bear before she gave up. And Robert had used that against her.
Mic touched her shoulder, bringing her thoughts back to the present. “Are you ready to go? Or do you need some time alone?”
Making sure there were no more telltale tears, she glanced at him. “Is he,” she nodded in Wade’s direction, “coming?”
“He’s gone ahead.”
“Alright. I’ll go with you, but I need to tend to something of a personal nature first.”
He nodded. “Don’t go far. I was serious last night about predators.” He reached out, brushing his thumb against her cheek. “Call me if you need anything.”
She blinked, surprised that he would show her such tenderness. Her face warmed, this time with pleasure, and she offered him a tentative smile. “Thank you.”
He touched his fingers to the brim of his hat and inclined his head. “Miss Christian.” He turned and walked away.
Feeling a little better about being kidnapped, she headed for the trees for some privacy.
Originally Published November 2013
Copyright by Ruth Ann Nordin and Stephannie Beman
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