Under A Colorado Sky
Disclaimers: This is an Uber western loosely based on two certain characters we all know and love. The characters in this particular story, however, are mine alone along with the rest of the tale. Please ask for permission before “borrowing” anything from this story.
Sex: Haven’t decided yet, but probably if my editor has any say in the matter! This story deals with love between two women…if this bothers you, if you are too young for this type of story, or if it’s illegal in your area, please find other reading material. There is a very good possibility that this story will have at least one explicit sex scene in it.
Violence: Yep…it’s a western…what did you think?
Copyright: February 1999
Editor: L. Atlas (to whom I give many thanks and my undying gratitude)
Author’s Note, June 1999: A reader was kind enough to question the existence of high-powered binoculars in the time setting of this story. Upon doing research, I found that binoculars were invented in 1871, the phrase “high-powered” in 1893. I corrected the story and used “spyglasses” instead. I also made a few other minor technical corrections…italics and so forth. Thanks for all your feedback, gentle readers.
Red Muldoon was a huge, bear of a man. A thick, dirty mane of red hair crowned his head, an equally thick red beard covered the scars on his face, and tufts of hair poked out of a too-tight prison shirt. Barrel-chested, with tree trunk limbs and meaty hands, he had killed several men by shear brute strength and had never feared anything or anyone. Now he found himself riding furiously trying to save his own life.
He had killed three prison guards while making his break, stopping long enough only to grab their weapons and a horse, and he knew that he could kill any of the other guards if they were foolish enough to follow him. It wasn’t them he was afraid of…it was the man he knew they would send after him. The bounty hunter who waited for rewards offered on outlaws to reach one thousand dollars before his interest was piqued. The man who kept just inside the line of the law and killed just as mercilessly as the men he hunted.
The name alone sent an unaccustomed chill down Muldoon’s spine despite the scorching heat of the late summer sun. He let out a rumbling growl and spurred his stolen mount harder, ignoring the lather that caked its sides and the milky froth bubbling from its mouth. Ten yards further, the horse collapsed in exhaustion, its sides heaving in a futile effort to breathe. Muldoon cursed virulently and staggered away from the beast, forcing his legs into a run and sparing not a thought to the agonizing death he left behind. His mind continued churning thoughts of the specter he knew was on his trail.
No one knew exactly who Ty Mason was or where he came from. Some tales said that he had been raised by wolves, eating raw meat and drinking blood from the kills. Still others said that Indians had raised him, and he became the fiercest warrior the tribes had ever seen. Calmer minds said that he was merely a man whom the Civil War had twisted into a killing machine, turning his eyes into ice and his heart into cold steel.
Of course, no one knew that the man who had become a figure of legend in the untamed west was, in fact, a woman. That bit of knowledge was a closely guarded secret known only by a few, and they were all long dead. Red Muldoon knew nothing of that, or of the fact that Ty Mason was much nearer than he ever thought possible.
Muttering her own curses, Ty Mason quickly slit the lathered horse’s throat, ending its misery. Two long strides took her back to her own mount where she paused to give them both some much-needed water. Stroking its midnight coat soothingly, she whispered in the stallion’s ear, causing it to nod its graceful head at her. Once she had him calmed from the stench of fresh blood, she remounted and cocked her head. Her sharp hearing picked up the sounds of harsh breathing and her startlingly blue eyes glittered with suppressed rage. Bad enough to kill humans, but to ride a defenseless animal to its death was too much. She nudged the stallion gently and headed for her prey.
She hadn’t ridden far when she spotted him. The gray of his prison uniform was dulled to charcoal beneath sweat and grime. His hair stood out in a red mass of filthy curls and his breathing was even more labored than it had been a few moments before. Still, her hand flashed behind her and drew her Winchester from its saddle sheath. The butt was pressed against her cheek and steadily aimed before Muldoon even heard the sound of the horse behind him. He whirled quickly and lost his balance, sprawling awkwardly on the ground. The barrel of the rifle never wavered from its aim at Muldoon’s forehead as Ty cocked the hammer back.
“We can do this the hard way or the easy way, Muldoon. Don’t matter to me.” The icy blue glare and the raspy voice of death stilled Muldoon’s hand as it reached for his gun. The bore of the rifle seemed a mile wide as he stared down into its black depths. Then, suddenly, he grinned showing crusted, yellow teeth.
A courage borne of desperation welled up within him and he laughed. “So, ya’d take me in dead then.” He shrugged with feigned nonchalance, taking in the tall, solid build of Ty Mason with a practiced glance. I’ve got a hunnert pounds on ‘im easy. He can’t be more’n one seventy-five. “After all the tales I heerd, I’d a thunk ya’d need more’ve a challenge. Or ya skeered I’ll hurt ‘cha?”
“Drop your weapons.” Ty Mason’s voice was raspy, just above a whisper, but its cold menace was loud and clear. Muldoon quickly stripped off the stolen gun belts and threw them at the stallion’s hooves. The horse didn’t move a muscle. “Shirt.” Again the whisper and Muldoon scowled fiercely as he ripped the shirt from his chest, the hilt of a knife protruding from his belt.
Ty watched carefully as the knife landed in the pile, and allowed a feral smile to cross her face. She, too, had heard tales. Red Muldoon had been compared to a grizzly bear in size and temperament, and fought with just as much viciousness. The men he had killed in fistfights no longer looked like men by the time he was through. They were bloody piles of meat.
She eased off the horse gracefully, keeping her rifle trained on her prey at all times. Mud brown eyes glittered at her as she unbuckled her twin holstered gun belt and draped it across her saddle. Eyes still locked, she thrust the rifle back into its sheath and began her advance, her smile mocking the huge man.
Muldoon felt his confidence falter slightly at his opponent’s expression. The man seemed like he was actually looking forward to getting the life beaten out of him. Circling slowly, he sized up the bounty hunter again to see what he may have missed. He stood at an even six feet tall, broad shouldered with muscles bunching underneath the black cotton shirt. Deep-chested, his frame was solidly built, but not heavy, powerful, yet not overtly so. Rolled up sleeves showed corded bands of muscles up his forearms, and though his pants were loose across the hips, they tightened over heavily muscled thighs. Muldoon’s smile resurfaced as he decided that it would be a good work out, but not a problem.
Then a hard-knuckled fist clipped his jaw and he saw stars.
He shook his head grimly and barreled into his opponent, trying to get him in a bear hug to crush his ribs. Ty sidestepped at the last moment and watched Muldoon slam into a tree. He came up growling and ran straight into another hard fist to his ribs. Something cracked, but he came on anyway and swung a roundhouse that caught Mason on the shoulder. He felt Mason give, and swung again, but missed by a wide margin. He whipped his head around and growled as Mason danced out of his reach. “Stand still, ya bastard.”
Ty grinned, blue eyes flashing fire. “Come get me.” For some reason, the gravelly whisper incensed the outlaw and he charged again. Ty ducked down low and slammed her shoulder into Muldoon’s stomach. His breath came out in a rush, but he managed to get a grip on Mason’s hip and he pawed him into the bear hug. They stood nose to nose for endless moments, Mason straining against the arms that were tightened down around her own and Muldoon squeezing as tightly as he could. Then Ty reared her head back and slammed it forward, smashing Muldoon’s lips against yellowed teeth. Blood spouted everywhere and Muldoon’s hold slipped enough for Ty to break free. They stood toe-to-toe, trading punches until both were half-blind from blood dripping in their eyes.
There was no sound in the clearing, save hoarse gasps, the pounding of flesh against flesh, and the occasional groan or curse added in for good measure. Muldoon finally decided he had had enough and swung a vicious uppercut. Ty ducked and returned with the heel of her hand up and into Muldoon’s nose. The bones shattered and pierced into his brain. It took him a long time to fall, but he was dead before he hit the ground.
She looked down at the body in disgust. Not because she had killed him, but because now she had to lift that huge bulk onto the back of her horse to get him to the nearest town. “Damn it.” Her ribs ached, her back ached, her jaw ached, and her left eye was swelling shut.
Her hand reached unconsciously to the scar on her throat, hidden beneath a red bandana, the only splash of color on her all-black outfit. A habit had formed, over the past five years, of rubbing the scar when she was deep in thought or disturbed by something. The old wound only hurt when she had to talk a lot, which wasn’t much of a problem since she rarely had anyone to talk to anyway. And the damage the bayonet had caused to her vocal chords served to mask any trace of femininity, aiding in her disguise. It had been a mixed blessing.
With a sigh of defeat, she pulled her black Stetson low across her short-cropped black hair, strapped her gun belt back on, and whistled the command for the stallion to kneel. It took a few moments, but she managed to wrestle the bulk of the dead outlaw across her saddle and tie it in place. “I know, boy,” she replied to the baleful glare the stallion gave her. “He probably weighs more than you do.”
Ty paused a few moments longer to get her bearings and realized, with some relief, that she wasn’t far from Cedar Creek. It was a middling-sized town, but it had a sheriff’s office where she could turn in the body for the reward. And, to her recollection, it had a decent saloon where she could relax for a bit. The town was only about an hour’s walk to the west, so she gripped the reins and started on her way.
Helen Duncan herded her three children through the dry goods store, stopping every now and again to slap a hand and heave an exasperated sigh. “Brianna Jolene!” she finally snapped out. “You’re worse than the little ones! Now stop grabbing for the candy, get the flour, and let’s go. Your father’s waiting for us.”
Faded brown eyes met sparkling green and the older woman’s frowning features softened. Brianna was her eldest child and the apple of her and her husband’s eyes. Gentle and loving, and pretty as a picture with her sea green eyes and strawberry-blonde hair, the petite girl was a natural charmer. Unfortunately, she also had a mischievous streak a mile wide, and sometimes drove her parents to distraction.
Brianna’s father had long since refused to go into any type of store with her, out of self-preservation and an earnest desire to try to keep at least some of his hard-earned money for necessities. His little charmer had talked him into more trinkets than he cared to admit.
“Leroy!” Helen sighed again as her son ran out of the store. She caught the back of Lily’s dress just as she started to run after him. “Oh no, you don’t. You stay right here and help me with these packages.” She gently prodded the eleven-year-old to the counter and glanced worriedly out the door. Her husband, George, hadn’t pulled up with the buckboard yet and she was concerned for her middle child. Birthing Leroy hadn’t been easy and he was now a strapping fourteen-year-old with the mind of a five-year-old.
“Don’t you worry none, ma’am. The townsfolk’ll take care of him.”
She cast the storekeeper a shaky smile and nodded. “I know, Wilbur. We were very lucky to find a town with such understanding people in it.”
Wilbur ducked his head as a flush spread up his gray-stubbled cheeks. “Yer nice folks. We try to take care of our own.”
The sound of the buckboard clattering up reminded her of the reason they were there, and she hurried to finish the transaction so she could find her child. She and Wilbur exchanged bemused glances as Brianna hefted the twenty-pound bag of flour over her shoulder and started out the door.
“Don’t worry, Mama. I’ll get him,” she called out over her shoulder. “Here, Papa. Leroy’s run off again.” Brianna stopped long enough to heave the flour into the bed of the buckboard and get her hair tousled before taking off down the street.
“George, you really shouldn’t let her do all those heavy chores.” Helen leaned into the thin frame of her husband as she watched Brianna turn the corner towards the Sheriff’s Office.
George Duncan smiled fondly down at his wife and ran a tired hand through his thinning brown hair. “And who else would there be to help me, my dear? You have enough to do seeing to the house and the children. She’s seventeen and more than strong enough to lend me a hand.” And Leroy’s attention span was too short for him to be of much use, though George was careful to give the boy smaller tasks to make him feel important. He gave Helen a gentle squeeze and turned back to loading their supplies.
Brianna rounded the corner and spotted Leroy just as he reached out a hand to touch a darkly clad man on the shoulder. Before she could call out, Leroy was flat on his back with a pistol pressed against his forehead. As she ran toward them, she saw the two exchanging words and she prayed fervently that the stranger would realize that her brother was harmless and choose not to kill him.
She was still a few yards away when the dark stranger hauled Leroy to his feet and pushed him in her direction. As her brother ran toward her, she saw tears beginning to spill from green eyes that were a mirror image of her own. Even as she hugged the taller boy closely and murmured comforting words, she felt anger building up at his harsh treatment. “Stay here, Leroy,” she said firmly. “Don’t move.”
Ty Mason bit back a sharp retort when she felt a strong grip on her arm trying to pull her around. She thought she had convinced the half-wit to go back where he belonged. As she turned to tell him to go home again, her mouth opened and stayed that way at the vision before her. The eyes were the same color green, but these sparkled with intelligence and not a little anger. Strawberry-blonde hair capped a face that was amazingly beautiful, in spite of, or maybe because of a fierce, defiant scowl. The slender form hidden beneath a faded red gingham dress fairly trembled with the girl’s fury. Ty was shocked into immobility. Unfortunately, the furious girl wasn’t.
“How dare you put a gun to my poor brother’s head! Anybody with the sense God gave a goose would know he’s perfectly harmless!” Getting only a sharply raised eyebrow in response, Brianna continued, one hand leaving her hip to poke a sharp finger into the tall man’s chest. “Why don’t you find someone your own size to pick on? Or are little boys all you can handle?” She rattled on, recklessly ignoring the blazing look she was receiving from a pair of incredibly blue eyes. Well, one blazing eye…the other seemed to be swelled shut. Brianna really didn’t want to focus on it for fear of completely losing her train of thought.
Ty opened a mouth that had shut tightly in shock, then closed it once more when the girl took a deep breath and started in again. The sharp poking was beginning to hurt, but she wasn’t sure how to stop the girl without resorting to tossing her over her knee for a good spanking, which she was in sore need of, if her mouth was any indication.
“And I’ll have you know…” Brianna’s voice trailed off at the sudden thump of a huge body falling off the horse at the rail. With a sinking feeling, she realized it was a huge, dead body. She turned wide eyes to the man she had been so emphatically chastising and suddenly knew, without a doubt, that he was the one who had killed him. She barely registered the grin on the man’s face as she turned and fled.
Ty was still grinning when the sheriff came out to take care of the outlaw’s remains. Sheriff Tom Young grinned back. “I see you’ve met Miss Brianna. Her family has a homestead just a ways north of here.” They both looked toward her retreating figure and the sheriff chuckled. “She’s a little spitfire, that one. ‘Specially if you pick on her brother.”
“I can see that.” Ty just barely kept from asking for more information about the girl, and instead turned her attention back to more pressing matters. Not long afterward, she was headed toward the saloon for a much-needed drink and a bath, a note for the bank tucked into her pants pocket.
The sheriff watched him go with a thoughtful look in his eyes. Lawmen shared their own type of information, and Ty Mason was known as a hard, but trustworthy man. He kept to his own business and caused no trouble those rare times he was in a town. The sheriff nudged the dead outlaw with the toe of his boot…and to kill Red Muldoon in a fistfight was no small feat. He glanced back in the direction Brianna had gone and smiled again. Mason was also not known for letting anyone touch him, but he hadn’t moved a muscle while Miss Brianna was poking away at his chest. His smile widened. Maybe he could keep that ill-fated wedding from happening yet.
“Are you sure everything’s okay, Brianna?” George called over his shoulder. Brianna and Leroy exchanged glances. They were riding in the back of the buckboard, their parents and Lily up front.
“Yes, Papa. We’re fine.” She forced a cheerful note in her voice to reassure him. When they had returned to the store, she had made up a story to explain Leroy’s tears, saying he was afraid of being in trouble for disappearing. They were both uncommonly quiet during the ride, which had caused their father’s concern. Neither she nor Leroy wanted to tell him about the dangerous looking gunfighter who had scared the living daylights out of them.
Once they arrived at the homestead, Brianna was too occupied with unloading the supplies, helping with dinner, and taking care of chores to think about the blue-eyed stranger. It wasn’t until she had tucked her siblings into bed and managed to get Lily asleep that his image came to mind.
“Sister? D’ya think he really woulda shot me?” Leroy’s thick, slow voice quavered a little with the question. He’d been struggling to stay awake just to ask that.
“I don’t think so,” Brianna answered thoughtfully. “If he was going to shoot anyone, it would probably have been me for yelling at him.” She smiled as she spoke to show her brother she was just joking.
“I think you scared him, sister.” His eyes were wide with admiration for his pretty sister’s bravery. He had trouble saying her name, so he simply called her ‘sister’.
Brianna laughed softly. “No, little brother, I don’t think I scared him at all. I think he just didn’t want to do anything right in front of Sheriff Tom’s office.” She tilted her head and regarded Leroy intently, causing him to squirm. “What did he say to you?”
Leroy’s face flushed and he gripped the threadbare edge of the blanket tighter. “He said I shouldn’t go around touching people I don’t know.” He scrunched his eyebrows together trying to remember everything. “That if’n I knew what was good for me, I’d go back home.”
Brianna took a gentle hold of his hand. “What did you say?”
The flush deepened. “Told him I just wanted to pet his horse,” he mumbled. “He said his horse don’t like no one but him. Then he picked me up and told me to go home again.”
“Shhh…it’s okay, Leroy. It’s over now. He won’t hurt you.” She started getting up to go to her own room when another thought struck her. After a moment’s hesitation, her curiosity won out. “What did his voice sound like, Leroy?” She could almost hear a deep, honey smooth voice in her head. Then she shook herself and waited patiently for the answer.
It took a bit longer for Leroy to think it out this time. His face lit up when he finally figured out how to describe the sound. “You know how Papa’s voice sounds when he’s got a prickly throat?” he asked her excitedly. Brianna nodded, frowning. “Well, that’s what it sounded like, only he kept whisperin’…like he couldn’t talk no louder.”
For some reason, Brianna couldn’t picture the stranger being sick. He sure looked healthy enough to her. At least under all that blood and dirt. She sighed quietly, reminding herself that she’d probably never see him again anyway. Checking Lily one more time, she whispered a soft good night to both of them and left the room. She snuggled into her own straw-filled bedding and drifted into dreams of a knight with laughing blue eyes and a bright white smile.
Ty gently pushed the giggling saloon girl through the doorway, muttering thank you, but no thank you as she closed the door behind her. “Good Lord,” she sighed heavily. She eyed the steaming bathtub and warily took in the flimsy lock on the door. She reached for a heavy horsehide-bound chair and quickly jammed it under the doorknob. “That should hold it,” she muttered.
Ty had made the grave error of flirting with the girl downstairs in the saloon. She had accomplished the goal of getting a nice, warm bath set up and had almost accomplished getting a flesh and blood back scrubber to go along with it, much to her surprise. She knew women found her attractive, but the intensity of some of their reactions always managed to surprise her, and she refused to sacrifice her male persona in exchange for physical release. She’d managed for twenty-five years with only a few kisses here and there, and figured she could make it another twenty-five, if she lived that long.
Shaking her head slightly, she went to the small window and made sure the shutters were closed. Satisfied that no one could see in, or get in, she began methodically removing her clothes. Dusty, black boots came off with twin thuds, gun belt was draped across the headboard of the bed, black shirt fell to the floor in a ball, and a carefully wound length of cloth became unwound and landed on top of the shirt. She took in a grateful gulp of air and wished, for the umpteenth time, that she were a little less well endowed. Stripping quickly out of her pants and under shorts, she eased into the hot bath with a satisfied sigh and rested her head against the high back of the tub.
Strong, slender fingers gripped a bar of lye soap and the washrag, and she began scrubbing herself until her skin fairly tingled. She could still smell the scent of death on her skin and couldn’t relax completely until she’d done her best to rid herself of it. Finally scrubbed to her satisfaction, she leaned her head back again and let her thoughts wander.
They wandered straight to red-gold curls and flashing green eyes, a beautiful heart-shaped face and pert nose, a slender chin jutting out in indignation, and hips that swayed delightfully as the girl hurried away. “Brianna.” Ty bolted upright as the girl’s name escaped her lips in a soft sigh. “What the hell?” She muttered curses under her breath as she briskly toweled her long limbs dry. Her bare feet stamped across the rough floorboards until she stood in front of a small mirror. She tried to distract herself by examining her swollen left eye.
The swelling had gone down quite a bit already and, though it was still a nasty purple, at least she could see out of it again. Her eyebrow rose as she studied the rest of her face. Her black hair was cut short above her ears and curled slightly where it met the collar of her shirt. The top was cut a little longer, so she could comb it back to keep it out of her eyes. Thick, black eyebrows arched over light blue eyes giving her an air of menace. Her cheekbones were high and sharply defined—many thought she was part Indian, but she wasn’t. Her nose had been straight and nicely shaped until she’d caught a fist a few years back; now there was a small lump in the bridge of it. Slightly full lips were set over a strong jawbone. A rather handsome man, some would say—gorgeous, others would say. The reflection scowled darkly and Ty stamped back over to her saddlebags to pull out clean clothes.
She berated herself the entire time she was wrapping a clean cloth around her breasts and pulling on her clothes. Why on earth was she so interested in how she looked to other people all of a sudden? It sure as hell hadn’t mattered this morning when she was tracking down her prey. And it hadn’t mattered when she called out the sheriff with blood and dirt still caking her. Sea green eyes flashed again and Ty scowled even fiercer. Oh, no. I’m gonna get good and drunk tonight, then I’m gonna ride out of here tomorrow, and that little spitfire can find herself another beau.
Ty was halfway down the stairs to the saloon before she realized that she’d even considered being the girl’s beau.
She had schooled her features into a blank, hard mask by the time she strode from the small hallway into dusky expanse of the saloon. She scanned the room with a studied look, her ice-blue gaze causing four townsmen to quickly resume their poker game, muttering amongst themselves. The six other regulars buried themselves in their whiskeys and beer. The only person to meet and hold her cold glare was the sheriff, who was lounging at a dark table in the far corner. He tipped his beer to her in wry acknowledgement. She scowled in answer and stepped up to the nicked mahogany bar.
“Shot of whiskey and beer.” The bartender’s eyes widened at the low rasp. It sounded harsh, like sandpaper across metal. His slight hesitation earned him a narrow-eyed glance, and he hurried to get the drinks before the man had a chance to show him the punishment for slowness. It was pretty quiet in the saloon, but it was only midweek. Come Friday and Saturday, the place would become packed with rowdy cowhands anxious to spend their pay, seek some relief in the arms of the saloon girls, and just blow off some steam.
“Mason, join me,” Sheriff Young called out. The bartender heaved a sigh of relief as the bounty hunter shrugged and made his way to the sheriff’s table. Ty Mason was known to be slow to anger, but rattlesnake mean when he was. There were many men who wouldn’t dare rile him, and the bartender was definitely one of them.
The two eyed each other for a long while, then the sheriff smiled. “I sent a wire to Pueblo. They’ll be glad to hear Muldoon’s been taken care of.” Steel blue eyes watched him steadily. He tried a different tack. “There’s been some interesting goings on around here. Rancher by the name of Todd Lundgren has decided he’s partial to a small tract of land north of here.” Jaw muscles clenched almost imperceptibly. The sheriff took a moment to sip his beer. “Seems there’s a creek that flows through that area that he’s decided is necessary for his cattle.”
Ty sat back in her chair and downed the whiskey. Quicker than a flash, the mug of beer was tipped back and drained. In moments, the friendly saloon girl from upstairs was at her side with refills. She pouted prettily when she was pointedly ignored, and flounced away, muttering snidely about highfalutin’ drifters.
“Well, now. There’s a lot of people whose past won’t stand up to scrutiny. But, Mr. Lundgren…his appears to be squeaky clean.” He pulled a dagger out of his belt and cleaned his nails with intent concentration. A sly look at his drinking companion saw jaw muscles clenching and unclenching dangerously. “Seems, though, that he’s been married three times, and all three wives met with unfortunate deaths. He’s spreading the word that Miss Brianna will be wife number four.” He leaned forward and stuck the knife into the tabletop. “Pretty convenient way to get land, eh?”
Ty felt her heart stop beating, then restart painfully. Her nostrils flared as she tried to regain some composure, though she appeared quite calm to anyone watching her. What the hell did she care about what was happening around these parts? If the sheriff had suspicions, then by damn, let him deal with it. Ty would be gone in the morning. Brianna’s reflection stared back at her from her mug.
“What’s it got to do with me, Sheriff?” she finally asked. “I’ll be moseyin’ on come daybreak.”
Sheriff Young looked at the man thoughtfully. “I kinda thought you could help her out. Her and her family, I mean…seventeen’s awful young to die,” he added bluntly.
Ty snapped forward in her chair and slapped her palms on the table. “If some young farm girl wants to get herself married, I sure as hell ain’t gonna stop her,” she growled.
“Mason, that man is an animal and I don’t have enough proof to put him away before someone else gets hurt.”
“So, what? You want me to kill him for you?” Ty sneered at him. “That’s called murder, Sheriff. I ain’t wanted for anything yet, and I’m not about to start now for some snot-nosed kid.” Ty’s temper was beginning to boil and she viciously pushed images of Brianna’s blood-soaked chest from her mind. The creaking of the swinging doors caught her attention and she watched the sheriff’s face harden. She rose casually and swung her chair around to straddle it backwards, managing to slide it further to the left as she did so. That got her a better view of the saloon and the man swaggering to the bar, while making it appear that she was deep in quiet conversation with her companion.
“That’s him,” the sheriff whispered unnecessarily. Ty had already figured that out by the way two overgrown thugs had followed the skinny man in. Bodyguards, no doubt.
Todd Lundgren was dressed in a black, broadcloth suit and gray boots with over-sized silver spurs on the heels that jangled when he walked. He was a thin man with sharp features and thin lips. His eyes were set too close together and he reminded Ty of an overgrown weasel. Everything about him spoke of a man who was trying hard to appear debonair and worldly. Ty had seen the type before and was almost certain there was a cruel streak hidden just below the smooth surface.
Her skin crawled with the thought of him marrying the farm girl. Brianna may be a spitfire, but she would be no match for Lundgren. She toyed with several ideas to disrupt Lundgrens’s plans, but discarded them all. Every one of them ended up with her at the wrong end of a lynching party.
She turned her cold gaze back to the sheriff. “Got any ideas?” she asked in a clipped whisper.
Sheriff Young grinned broadly. “As a matter of fact I do. He’s been talkin’ up this wedding and all, but he forgot to do something…like ask Miss Brianna to marry him. The way I figure it, that means she’s still fair game for someone else to ask her.”
Ty’s eyebrow disappeared under the brim of her hat. “So I just mosey out to her place and ask her to marry me,” she answered flatly. The sheriff’s grin faltered. “Why don’t you do it?”
“I’m already sparkin’ a girl. She has a bakery shop down the street.” He leaned in closer to the bounty hunter. “Look, I know you can’t just get hitched with her. I thought if maybe there was some competition, Lundgren would get antsy and screw up. Heck,” he continued, “you might not have to get hitched at all!”
Ty frowned down into her beer. She was sure there was a law somewhere about women marrying women. She’d had no trouble passing as a man, but she’d spent very little time in any type of civilization. She mostly wandered through the western states and territories with no company but the earth and sky. When she needed supplies, she was in and out of towns within a day. Even when she was bringing in outlaws, she only stayed a night at the most. She wired the money East, then was gone again.
It was too easy to let down your guard when you stayed in one place too long. You started making mistakes and people started asking questions. She really hated questions. Ty sat forward and steepled her slender fingers in front of her mouth. Sheriff Young visibly relaxed, seeing Ty seriously considering the matter. She was getting bored, and the money she’d sent East would serve its purpose for a while yet. This would be a good test of her disguise. Hell, she’d passed for seven years and she was damn good at everything she set her mind to. If she could woo and win a respectable woman, no one would ever suspect her true nature. This might even be fun and she hadn’t had fun in a long time.
Ty took another long, hard look at the man at the bar. Yes, this could be fun. The only thing she hated more than men who were cruel to animals, was men who were cruel to women. She had a feeling Todd Lundgren was cruel to both.
She stood up and flipped her chair back around. “I’d better turn in,” she said clapping the sheriff on the shoulder. “Got some sparkin’ of my own to do tomorrow.”
The sheriff watched the powerfully built man stride to the stairs and smiled. Yessiree, things were looking up already.
The day dawned crisp and clear. A few fat clouds drifted across the bright blue Colorado sky and birds sang merrily to greet the day. Brianna missed most of it since she was still rubbing sleepy eyes. She could never understand why dawn had to come so darned early. Stumbling into the barn, she murmured a quiet good morning to her father.
George smiled fondly at his eldest child and motioned to the milk cows. As he continued to muck out the horse stalls, he kept a close eye on his daughter. She had a tendency to lean her head into the cow’s side as she milked, and more than once had fallen back to sleep. She’d almost gotten herself trampled the first time it happened. She’d slipped off the short milking stool and landed right under the cow’s feet; only her father’s quick reaction had gotten her out of harm’s way in time.
Their eyes met and Brianna flashed him a grin, green eyes sparkling. “I’m awake now, Papa. Don’t worry.” He chuckled in answer, then climbed up into the loft to fork fresh hay into the stalls.
He frowned slightly as a conversation he’d had with the sheriff came back to him. He’d gone into town a few days before to pick up some items from the blacksmith and the sheriff had pulled him aside to speak privately with him. He leaned on the pitchfork and gazed down at his daughter thoughtfully.
“Brianna. What do you think of Todd Lundgren?” He kept his voice casual to keep from swaying his daughter’s answer one way or the other. She’d always been good at reading people, seeming to know what they needed to hear. He wanted her honest opinion.
Brianna scowled down into the half-full milk bucket. Her fingers tensed, causing the cow to moo in discomfort, and she absently patted the coarse-haired hide in apology. “I try not to think about him at all, Papa,” she finally answered. “He makes my skin crawl,” she added bluntly. She glanced up to the loft to see her father giving her a troubled look and her heart fell. “Why’d you ask?”
Her father turned away uncomfortably and continued his chores. “Sheriff Young seems to think he’s interested in courting you.”
Sea green eyes widened in shock, then narrowed quickly in anger. “He’s not interested in me, Papa,” she spat out. “You won’t sell, so he figures he’ll get our land through me!”
The sound of horse’s hooves kept George from answering and he quickly climbed down the ladder. “Stay here ‘til I call you, Brianna,” he whispered on his way past her. He knew she’d be peeking out the barn door the second he was through it, but as long as she stayed out of sight, it was fine with him.
Ty Mason sat atop her black stallion, uncomfortable as all get out. Her new blue jeans were too tight because of the rolled up cloth she’d shoved down her crotch to enhance her disguise, and her new red shirt was making her skin itch like crazy. She silently thanked God that it was cooler out that day, so she didn’t have to deal with sweating on top of everything else.
She was running through all the instructions the sheriff had given her earlier and had worked herself into a near panic by the time she heard the creak of the barn door opening. Watching the slender work-worn man walk toward her, she had to quell a sudden urge to jab her heels into the stallion and take off. Instead, she pasted what she hoped was a friendly smile on her face and waited for him to approach.
“Hello there. Is there something I can do for you?” Brianna’s father’s manner was polite, but cautious. He’d caught sight of the twin colts on the man’s slender hips and wondered if Lundgren was going to try for his daughter and his land by force.
Ty cleared her throat nervously. God, she hadn’t realized it was going to be this hard. She’d rather face an entire gang of outlaws than try to ask this man for permission to court his daughter. “Ah, yes, actually. I‘m here to, ah, talk to you about your daughter.” Ty felt a flush creeping up her neck and the red bandana tied there was tightening like a noose. It took all of her considerable will power not to tug at it.
George tilted his head slightly and hid a smile behind his hand. Brianna took after her father quite a bit. He was pretty good at reading people himself, and this was one nervous gunslinger. He studied the man in silence for a moment, noting how easily he controlled the huge horse beneath him, and his firm, but gentle touch on the reins. He also noticed that he was keeping his hands up on the saddle horn, as far away from the worn walnut grips of his guns as he could without being uncomfortable. His voice was surprising. For some reason, George had thought it would be a deep baritone, but it was a raspy whisper. Not harsh, but definitely at odds with the size of the man. He would have stood silent longer, but he saw the light blue eyes darkening in anger and he held his hand up.
“Why don’t you let me take your horse, Mister…?”
“Mason, Ty Mason,” Ty answered quickly, relieved that she had apparently passed the initial inspection. “Just call me Ty.”
George nodded and allowed his smile to show. He waited as Ty dismounted, then tied his horse to the rail in front of the porch. He waved for Ty to take a seat in one of the chairs on the porch and settled himself comfortably in another one. There was a wooden glider at the other end of the porch and he wondered idly how much use it would be getting in the near future. He and Helen had spent quite a bit of time sitting on a glider back east while he was courting her. His musings were interrupted when Helen popped her head out the screen door.
“Tea or coffee?” She asked without preamble. If her husband had the man sitting on the porch with him, then he must be nice. She had a lot of confidence in her husband’s opinions. Todd Lundgren had never made it off his horse.
George glanced at his guest. “Coffee’s fine, ma’am, thank you.” Ty answered. George smiled again. Handsome and polite, he thought to himself.
Ty took her hat off and held it in front of her. She couldn’t remember if you were supposed to take your hat off in the presence of ladies even if you were outside, or not. She figured it was better safe than sorry.
Helen returned with the coffee and leaned down to whisper in her husband’s ear before she went back inside. “She’s going to make sure our two youngest stay out back while we talk,” he answered the questioning look.
Ty nodded and glanced around casually. A chicken coop was off to the left of the house, and to the right there was a small corral next to a fairly large barn. She detected the faint odor of a pigsty and figured it was behind the barn. As her gaze swept past the barn, she caught a glimpse of red-gold hair and she smiled in reflex. When she turned her head back to George, she saw his eyes were twinkling.
“She’s finishing up some chores.”
Ty felt the flush come up again and twisted her hat in suddenly sweaty hands.
“So, how did you meet my daughter, Ty?”
“We, uh…kinda ran into each other in town yesterday. She came to get her brother.”
She hoped silently that the man wouldn’t ask for any more details than that.
George raised an eyebrow. Ah, that explains the quiet ride home, he thought to himself. He thought Brianna was rather flushed when she had come back to the buckboard with Leroy in tow.
“Mind telling me what happened?” he asked mildly.
“Well, your son…Leroy is it?” At George’s nod, Ty continued. “He came up on me from behind and surprised me. I had my gun on him before I even thought about it.” She watched the other man’s face closely for a reaction. Not even a twitch. Good poker player, she thought to herself. She took a sip of her lukewarm coffee. “As soon as I saw his face, I knew he didn’t mean no harm, so I told him to watch who he was coming up on like that and told him to go home. I imagine I scared him a bit,” she added reluctantly.
Ty glanced involuntarily toward the barn and her features softened. George was startled by the transformation. A wide smile crossed the gunslinger’s face and George could see the gentleness beneath the hard exterior. He decided then and there to allow him to court his daughter, even though he was still concerned about exactly what the man did for a living.
Ty turned twinkling blue eyes to the girl’s father. “Well, to be blunt, sir, she tore me up one side and down the other for being such a bully to her brother! Pretty much told me I didn’t have the sense God gave a goose.”
They both chuckled at the image of the petite blonde having to tilt her head back to berate the tall stranger. George had no doubt that his daughter would take on a grizzly bear if she thought it was trying to hurt one of her siblings. And the poor grizzly wouldn’t stand a chance.
“If you still want to court her after all that, then I won’t stand in your way. She can be pretty mule-headed sometimes, Ty.” He went on, “But she’s worth more than all the gold in the world to me.” George’s tone held a challenging note.
Ty gazed at him steadily, considering her words carefully. “I’ll never hurt a hair on her head, sir,” she responded finally. “And no one else will, either.”
George knew, without a doubt, that Ty was referring to Todd Lundgren. “Glad to hear it, son.” He stood casually and stretched his slender frame. “I think I’ll go see what Helen is fixing for lunch…Brianna’s in the barn.” With that, he opened the screen door and left Ty to her own devices.
I’m a bounty hunter, she told herself firmly as she checked on the stallion before heading to the barn. I track and capture dangerous outlaws for a living. I’ve hunted for bears, cougars, and coyotes. I’ve even spent a week trapped on top of a mountain in a blizzard, and survived to tell the tale. I will not be cowed by a little slip of a farm girl!
Her courage thus fortified, she threw back her shoulders, drew herself up to her full six feet and strode confidently into the barn. She met a startled green-eyed gaze, promptly forgot everything Sheriff Young told her to say, and just stared at the small blonde.
Brianna tilted her head to the side, smiling quizzically at the gunslinger. “Is there something I can do for you?” she asked, unconsciously echoing her father’s earlier words. When he didn’t respond immediately, she took advantage of his silence to study him casually. She noticed, with some surprise, that his clothes were brand-new, and she had the inane thought that he cleaned up well. Even with the fading bruise around his eye he was, by far, the most handsome man she had ever seen. She barely resisted the urge to straighten the bandana that was twisted slightly around his neck.
The barest flicker of pain crossed Ty’s features as she reached up to adjust the bandana herself. It was hard to say who was more surprised, Brianna or herself, when the girl reached out a small hand and touched the side of Ty’s neck gently.
“Does it hurt? Do you need something to put on it?” Brianna’s eyes were soft with concern.
“No, that’s all right,” Ty replied, sucking in a quick breath. “I’ve been talking too much, is all.”
Brianna laughed lightly. “You talk so seldom that it actually hurts when you do?” she asked teasingly. Her eyes sparkled merrily as a tinge of color crept up the handsome stranger’s cheeks. She had no idea why she felt so safe teasing a dangerous gunslinger, but she somehow knew that she had nothing to fear from him. Her features softened at the sound of his voice, the raspy whisper sending tingles down her spine.
Ty managed a small, rueful smile and chuckled. “An old wound that didn’t heal right,” she explained, arching a dark brow at the girl. “I had to go through your father to see you.” Brianna flushed becomingly and Ty’s heart leapt in her chest. God, she’s a beauty! She began to seriously consider going through with marrying the girl. Who has to know the truth? she asked herself. Brianna does, her conscience answered.
“Inside or outside?”
“What?” Ty was sure she had missed something while she’d been spinning fantasies of white picket fences.
Brianna sighed and spoke slowly, as if she were talking to Leroy. “Does your throat hurt on the inside or the outside?” Her stomach was doing flips at the thought of this man talking to her father about her. Did that mean he was considering…? No. That was too much to hope for.
“I’m okay. Really.” Ty would have been willing to swallow broken glass if she thought that would help her in her suit for this girl’s hand. “Look, do you want to go for a walk or something?”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she knew she had spoken too sharply. Brianna’s face fell and her eyes darkened with hurt. Ty felt like a first-class heel. She opened her mouth to apologize, then held her hand out awkwardly, suddenly not sure what to say.
Brianna drew herself up stiffly, with a look in her eyes that Ty was to become extremely familiar with…stubborn determination. She smiled sweetly and Ty knew for sure that she was in trouble. “Why don’t you go out back and wait for me. I just have to run into the house for a shawl.” Without waiting for an answer, she brushed past the man and headed for the side door of the house.
“Damn, damn, damn!” Ty shoved her sorely abused hat back onto her head and left the barn at a slower pace, kicking the dirt with the toe of her boot as she walked around to the back of the house.
The sound of children laughing brought her attention to the creek that was sheltered by trees some one hundred yards from the house. Ty smiled as she recalled more of the sheriff’s instructions. “Remember, if you can get Leroy and Lily to like you, you’ll be half-way there. They’re all very close.”
Plan A was out the window, so Ty went for Plan B.
Helen Duncan looked up in surprise as Brianna came banging in the side door. “Did Mr. Mason leave already?” she asked, with no little concern. From what her husband had told her, Ty Mason would treat her daughter with respect, but she knew Brianna and was afraid she had run him off without giving him a chance. Helen had no wish to see Brianna forced into marriage with Todd Lundgren.
Brianna stopped short, realizing suddenly that she hadn’t even known the man’s name. “No, Mama. He’s still here. I wanted to get him some hot tea.” She continued to the stove, wondering how she was going to find out his first name without making a fool of herself. Her father saved her the trouble.
“He said to call him Ty, Helen. You left him out there alone?” He directed the question to Brianna.
“He’s too stubborn to admit his throat hurts, so I’m going to make him some honeyed tea whether he likes it or not,” Brianna stated emphatically, oblivious to how it sounded.
George and Helen exchanged amused glances. Their little girl was already sounding like a concerned wife. Poor Ty, George thought. He doesn’t know what he’s getting himself into.
“That’s nice of you, dear.” Helen handed her a large mug for the tea.
Brianna poured a healthy dollop of honey into the steeping tea and gave her parents a shy smile. “I like him,” she stated simply. She didn’t notice their pleased expressions as she left the kitchen, carefully balancing the steaming mug.
She glanced around worriedly when she didn’t see him at once, then she heard husky laughter mixed in with childish giggles. Smiling slightly, she headed for the creek.
“I think you two are cheating!”
“Hey! Them’s fightin’ words, mister!” Leroy giggled.
“We’re not cheatin’!” Lily piped in. “You just don’t know how to play!”
Brianna held the tea gingerly, trying not to spill it as her own giggles threatened to overwhelm her. She leaned against the back of a pine tree and peeked around, trying to see without being seen.
Leroy and Lily were sitting cross-legged on the ground, sticks and rocks placed strategically in front of them. Ty had removed her gun belt and was squatting on her heels with her hat tucked down low on her forehead to block out the mid-morning sun.
She had her back to the house.
“You know what men like me do to cheaters?” She gave the children her most menacing glare and they erupted into giggles again.
“We…we weren’t cheatin’!” Lily finally gasped out. “Honest, we weren’t!”
Ty growled soft and low in her throat. In a lightning fast move, she dove across the playing area and wrapped Lily tightly in her arms. Long, slender fingers dug into the sensitive flesh of the girl’s ribs and Lily began laughing hysterically. Not wanting to be left out, Leroy jumped onto Ty’s broad shoulders and started yelling at the top of his lungs. “I’ll save you, Lil! I got him! I got him!”
Brianna watched the trio rolling in the dirt and shook her head, laughing at the sight of the gunslinger being mauled by two young children.
“You’re going to ruin your reputation, you know,” she finally called out.
Ty jerked up out of the pile, a huge grin on her face and her eyes brighter than the sky. Brianna was mesmerized.
“Okay, enough.” Ty unwrapped herself from her tormentors and stood, dusting off her jeans. “They were cheating,” she said sheepishly, pointing a thumb behind her.
“Were not!” two voices answered in unison.
“Were too,” Ty hissed back.
Brianna shook her head again and walked toward them. Ty was distracted by swaying hips and almost missed the mug being pushed into her hand. She raised an eyebrow in mute question.
“For your throat,” Brianna answered, giving a silent challenge in return.
Ty pursed her lips thoughtfully for a moment and, wisely, took a sip of the tea with no further comment. Her eyes widened as she tasted the honey, and she smiled her appreciation over the rim.
Brianna put her hand on Ty’s shoulder and stood on her tiptoes to whisper in his ear. “There are no rules in that game, you know. They make it up as they go along.”
Ty choked on the tea. Brianna’s warm breath in her ear sent tremors of liquid fire through her veins, and she clenched the mug to keep from dropping it. “Really?” she answered weakly.
Brianna nodded with a smug smile. “Really.” Inexplicably pleased with herself, she turned and shooed her brother and sister back to the house. There was a lot of grumbling, but they finally got the hint and left the couple alone. Then she turned back to Ty in time to see him stoop to retrieve his gun belt. “Do you really need to put them back on?” she asked, pointing to the guns.
Ty sobered immediately, eyes glinting coolly. “The world’s not always a safe place, Brianna. Not even in your own backyard sometimes.”
By unspoken consent, they started walking along the bank of the creek. It was a few moments before Brianna dared to speak again. “Why are you here, Mr. Mason?”
“Ty. Call me Ty, please.” Ty’s glance was almost shy.
Brianna smiled. ” All right…Ty. Why are you here?”
There was no getting around it this time. Ty took another sip of the cooling tea and let it soothe her throat. It did feel better. “I asked your father if I could court you.” She stopped and looked at the stunned girl. “If you don’t mind, that is.”
Brianna reminded herself to breathe. Oh, my. “I…I don’t mind,” she answered shakily. “I don’t know what you could see in a farm girl like me, though.” Her voice shook uncontrollably and she wished, desperately, to start the conversation over again.
Smoky blue eyes captured her and she felt like she was drowning. “You’re a beautiful woman, Brianna. I’m surprised I didn’t have to wait in line.”
The husky whisper did her in. Her eyes widened and she watched in bemusement as Ty tilted down toward her. Her eyes flickered shut as soft lips brushed her own, and she pressed further into the kiss, heart beating frantically against the walls of her chest.
It ended much too soon and Brianna sighed at the loss. She opened her eyes to see Ty smiling down at her. “I should say I’m sorry…but I’m not.” Ty ran a finger gently down Brianna’s jaw line and knew she had lost any hope of leaving this battle unscathed. “Are you?”
Brianna answered by leaning her head into Ty’s chest and sighing again. They stood for several minutes with their arms wrapped loosely around each other, hearts beating rapidly. Brianna felt as though she could stay in these strong arms forever…she felt warm and completely safe, and for some strange reason she felt like she had come home at last.
Ty, on the other hand, was struggling with a sudden rush of fear. Against all reason or logic, she had allowed herself to follow her heart, and now reality was crashing in on her. There was no way she could offer this girl what she needed. There was no house with a white picket fence, no safe and secure job, no children…the mug of tea shattered in her
tightly clenched fist and both women jumped.
“Damn! I’m sorry, Brianna!” Ty whipped off her bandana and awkwardly tried to wipe away the tea that was steadily dripping down the girl’s back.
“Ty…Ty! It’s all right!” Brianna twisted around, grabbing for the bandana. She captured it and a darkly tanned hand in both of hers, and waited patiently for Ty’s muttered apologies to stop. “What’s wrong, Ty?”
Ty’s jaw worked silently as she tried to formulate a coherent answer, and she cast her eyes desperately around the area trying to avoid confused green eyes. A glimmer of light from within the trees across the creek caught her attention and she felt her entire body still. “Hush.” She placed her free hand over Brianna’s mouth. A moment later the glimmer came again and she smiled grimly.
She eased her hand away and rested it lightly along Brianna’s cheek. Ice-blue eyes met green intently. “There’s someone watching us.” Brianna gasped and Ty placed her thumb across the girl’s lips. “I need you to act as casually as you can. Just help me pick up the glass, then we’ll head back to the house. When we get there, I want you to go inside and tell your father.”
Brianna nodded slightly. “What are you going to do?” Her eyes were wide, not with fear, but with excitement, causing Ty to relax and chuckle.
“I’m going to go see who it is,” she answered with a hint of a smile curving her lips. She chucked Brianna under the chin. “And you’re going to stay inside for the rest of the day!” She raised her hand at Brianna’s protest. “No argument. Stay inside and I’ll be back once I find out what’s going on.”
“But the chores…!”
“Your father can do them. Just tell him to stick close to the house.” A quick kiss silenced the rest of Brianna’s protests. They were both quiet as they picked up the shards of glass and started for the house.
Brianna turned at the door to speak again and was stopped by twinkling blue eyes.
“I’ll buy you a new dress, I promise,” Ty whispered huskily.
A pleasant shiver skittered down Brianna’s spine and she simply nodded with a shy smile. It was long moments before she stirred herself to go inside, her fingers trembling over lips that had been so gently kissed.
Ty found the watcher’s hiding place with little trouble. She had left the homestead and headed in the general direction of town, then circled back to reach the copse of trees from behind. From the looks of it, either the man had been there a while, or he had spied from there many times before. The undergrowth was well trampled and littered with cigarette butts. Fresh boot prints led her to where a horse had been tethered to a slender pine tree and she nodded thoughtfully. The prints weren’t too deep and the impression from the horse’s hooves only changed slightly once the man was mounted, leading her to believe it was a fairly small rider.
She went back and stood by the tree the man had been hiding behind. Her eyes glinted with cold fire. The entire back of the homestead was visible from here. With a spyglass, a person could see everything. And if they could read lips… “Bastards.”
Ty’s expression never changed from its cold mask in the two hours it took her to scout the terrain surrounding the small farm. Small stands of trees dotted the area and tall grasses hid dips and valleys in the ground elsewhere. There were plenty of places where a person could lay hidden from sight until the enemy was almost upon him. She found three more spy sites, but no trace of the men who used them. She resisted the urge to search for more tracks, knowing a small blonde was waiting impatiently for her return, and she finally allowed herself a small smile. In the space of twenty-four hours, the girl had managed to insinuate herself tightly into the bounty hunter’s cold heart. Ty couldn’t think of any way to get her back out even if she wanted to.
Her mind was occupied coming up with different ways to explain her situation to Brianna as the stallion trotted down the road to the homestead. It took her all of a split second to react to the plucking at her sleeve. In a swift move, Ty was off the horse with her rifle grasped firmly in her hands, the sharp report of the gunshot still echoing in the air. A muffled grunt escaped from her as she executed a tuck and roll that saw her safely behind a large outcropping of rocks.
Steel blue eyes searched the surrounding area, coming to rest on a hillock fifty yards away. Her keen eyesight picked up the barrel of the rifle and she aimed carefully, squeezing off a round and smiling in grim pleasure when she heard a distant yelp. Another carefully aimed shot sent the man’s hat flying from his head as he retreated to his horse. She waited until the sound of hoof beats disappeared before she stood to retrieve her own mount.
It wasn’t until she was swinging into the saddle, that Ty realized she’d been hit. “Damn…this was a new shirt!” She twisted her head around, trying vainly to see the wound. The bullet had grazed her upper shoulder and the edges of the hole in her shirt blocked her view. The wound wasn’t life threatening by any stretch of the imagination. Ty was more concerned with having to mend the hole in the shirt. Sewing wasn’t one of her strong points, and there was more than one scar on her body that wouldn’t look nearly as bad if she’d have let someone else stitch her up. Ty muttered curses all the way back to the homestead.
“Brianna, it’s just a flesh wound! Would you just slap a bandage on the damn…I mean, darn thing and be done with it?” Ty was at her wit’s end. She had barely explained the situation to George when his daughter spotted the blood and let out a scream. The next thing she knew, she was sitting in front of the fireplace in the living room trying desperately to keep her shirt on, and Brianna was shouting orders like a five star general. Good Lord, if Brianna had been in charge, the War of Northern Aggression would have been over with in a month!
It had taken some fast-talking, but Ty had managed to be left alone long enough to strip off her shirt in privacy. A blanket was wrapped strategically around her chest, leaving only her upper shoulders bare for her diligent nurse to work on. A nurse who was now standing in front of Ty with her hands on her hips and sparks of green fire shooting from her eyes.
“I am not going to just slap a bandage on it! That wound has to be cleaned and medicated so it won’t get infected!” Brianna wondered briefly how this stubborn man had managed to live this long without succumbing to massive infections.
Ty rolled her eyes heavenward and sighed. “Okay, okay! Just get it over with. I have to get back to town and talk to the sheriff at some point in my lifetime!” She turned her gaze to the polished floor at her feet, as Brianna stepped behind her. She missed the small smile of triumph that graced the girl’s lips. She was too busy trying to ignore the delightful sensations emanating from where Brianna was touching her.
“Grown men don’t pout…you’re going to ruin your reputation.”
“Oh God.” The phrase escaped Ty’s lips before she could stop it. Brianna’s warm breath in her ear was wreaking havoc with her senses. She closed her eyes tightly and prayed for mercy.
Brianna’s eyes were sparkling with something besides anger as she continued to dress the wound. She caught herself just before she started humming happily. Somehow she knew Ty wouldn’t appreciate it.
As she finished securing the bandage, she found her fingers lightly tracing the corded muscles beneath the smooth flesh of Ty’s shoulders. She watched, as if from a distance, her fingers slowly travel up to play with silky black hair and found herself wishing it were a bit longer. A low-pitched growl startled her from her musings.
“Br…Brianna…” Ty stopped to clear her throat. She twisted slightly to look at the girl. Dazed green eyes stared into warm blue. “…you’re killing me,” she finished softly.
“I…I’m sorry, ” Brianna stammered back. “I don’t know what came over me.”
Ty gave her a quirky grin and laughed easily. “Well, I do, but I don’t think we’re quite ready for that yet.” She chuckled and cocked her head to the side as Brianna blushed hotly. “Now go.” She made a shooing motion with her hands. “I have to get dressed.”
Once Brianna left the room, Ty eased the blanket off and put her shirt back on. She shook her head, remembering the panic when she realized Brianna wanted to tear the damn thing off her shoulders. She rubbed the back of her neck absently. It still tingled from the girl’s touch. Oh, yeah. This one’s trouble with a capital T. She was still smiling as she walked into the kitchen.
Brianna and her mother were busy at the stove. The two youngest were sitting wide-eyed at the table and George was leaning against the outside door, looking out with a worried expression. Ty spared Brianna a quick wink, which made the girl blush again, and then motioned for George to follow her outside.
“Are we in danger?” George asked without preamble.
Ty’s expression sobered immediately. “No, sir. I don’t think so. They’re just trying to scare me off right now.” Her eyes never stopped scanning the area as she continued. “I think you’ll be safe. Lundgren tries to keep one step inside the law, so he won’t do anything directly against you. He wants to get your land legally and he can’t do that without Brianna.” Ty’s jaw muscles clenched just thinking about it.
“You watch your back, son.” George was deadly serious. “I don’t want my daughter losing someone she loves before she even gets him.”
Ty turned startled eyes to the farmer. Loves? “Loves?” she repeated out loud, her voice a shocked whisper.
George smiled, his eyes dancing with laughter. “She’s like her mother in a lot of ways, Ty. It took Helen all of three hours to get me to propose to her when we first met!” He laughed out loud. “You should have heard her when she found out we had to wait two months to get married!”
Ty grinned, not sure whether to be embarrassed or whoop with glee. She opted for the more subdued hearty handshake. “I’ll try to make sure I stay alive for the wedding.”
George gave the bounty hunter a sly look. “The judge will be here in a couple of weeks, you know.”
Ty realized, with a sense of utter futility, that she had lost complete control of the situation. And for some reason, she didn’t care in the least.
She managed to get all the way back to town without getting killed, her mind enveloped in a warm vision that had sparkling sea-green eyes. Ty Mason was completely at the mercy of the Fates…and the Fates dearly loved a good romance.
The housework was done, the children’s lessons were finished, and every bit of mending Brianna could find was completed. She sank back into her mattress and let out a heavy sigh. Nothing had kept her mind from wandering back to the bounty hunter and the feel of his skin under her fingertips.
There was something odd there. She couldn’t quite figure out what it was yet. Her experience with men was decidedly limited to the few men in her family, and to the few men she had met in town. She didn’t really count Todd Lundgren; their conversations had been very terse and awkward and she hadn’t allowed him close enough to touch her. Well, except for that time he had grabbed her hand and kissed the back of it. It was supposed to be a courtly gesture, but she had washed her hands as soon as she got the chance.
With Ty it was different. Just by closing her eyes, she could feel his soft lips brushing against hers in an oh-so-gentle kiss. And the feel of his muscles under firm flesh had been like smooth satin. She sighed dreamily in remembered bliss. She wondered briefly if the rest of him was just as silky-smooth, then tried hurriedly to change the direction of her thoughts as a blush heated her skin, and tendrils of warmth flooded through her veins. Her hands trembled as the unfamiliar sensations took over her body and she pressed her face into her pillow to try to smother her moan as confused tears slid down her cheeks.
Brianna finally drifted into an exhausted sleep, her mind overcome by the new feelings she was discovering. Nothing her mother had told her had prepared her for the longing she felt for this stranger who had entered her life so suddenly. Her sleep was so deep that she was unaware when she was lifted from her bed and carried out of the house to waiting horses.
“Careful, dammit! The boss doesn’t want her hurt!” The seedy looking man speaking fumbled in a saddlebag for a bottle and a rag. With exaggerated care, he soaked the rag and pressed it to the girl’s face. “Don’t want you waking up too soon, sweetheart,” he cackled quietly. “It’s a long ride to the line cabin.”
“C’mon, Charlie! Tie her up and let’s go!” Charlie’s equally seedy looking companion stared at the dark night sky uneasily. It wouldn’t be long before the clouds covering the full moon dispersed and exposed the men’s activities to anyone watching. Jack checked the cloth covering their mounts’ hooves while Charlie dealt with their unconscious captive. In a matter of moments, they had disappeared into the darkness.
Brianna awoke with a pounding head and a mouth that felt like it was full of cotton. It took a great deal of effort, but she finally cracked her eyes open far enough to realize she was no longer in the safety of her bedroom. She was lying on her right side on a small cot covered by a musty, threadbare blanket and, as she struggled to get into a more comfortable position, she discovered her hands were tied securely behind her back.
A harsh voice from across the long room caused her already rapid heartbeat to increase its pace. “So, you’re awake, little girlee. If’n you behave, maybe Jack and me will be nice enough to untie you for a bit.” The man who belonged to the disembodied voice reached out and lit an oil lamp, throwing the interior of the building into stark relief.
A quick glance around her showed Brianna that she was in a one-room cabin, much longer than it was wide. There were two other cots at right angles to her own, a cast iron stove in the center of the room, and a rickety set of table and chairs on the far end. Dust and cobwebs covered practically everything, including the beat-up chests at the foot of each bed. It was obvious that the cabin hadn’t been occupied in a long time. The squeak of door hinges brought her wandering attention back to her captor. No, captors, she corrected herself silently as she watched a tall, ill-kempt man join the one who had spoken to her.
“Wh…who are you? What do you want with me?” Brianna rasped out. She shivered involuntarily when both men grinned at her, showing crooked tobacco-stained teeth. The taller man stepped close to her and caressed her cheek with a grubby hand. Her nostrils flared as the stench from his unwashed body hit her full force.
“You, me an’ Charlie are gonna get to be real close friends.” Jack’s dark eyes glittered with lust as he stared down at the helpless girl, enjoying the look of fear she couldn’t hide.
“Yeah, ” Charlie piped in, licking his thick lips suggestively. “And if you play nice, maybe we won’t have to hurt ya.”
Brianna shrank back in terror as two pairs of hands reached for her and she began sobbing uncontrollably as she struggled to get away from them. The sound of fabric tearing and harsh fingers tugging at her spurred her efforts to get free. She lashed out wildly with her unbound feet, managing to catch one in the groin and the other in the ribs. As she drew back her feet to kick the groaning men again, a shot rang out startling all three of them.
Todd Lundgren advanced through the door, a harsh scowl darkening his features. His darting eyes took in the scene quickly; the girl panting heavily, face stained with tears, and his two men clutching their individual injuries, their eyes as wide with fear as the girl’s. Curling his lip into a sneer, Lundgren fired twice more and watched in cold satisfaction as both men crumpled to the floor, dead before they landed.
He turned his cold regard on Brianna and, to her amazement, began to chuckle. “I am so sorry, my dear,” he stated solicitously, once he had regained control of his mirth. “They had strict orders not to harm you in any way.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” Brianna’s voice cracked as she spoke, her throat painfully parched from the chloroform and the exertion of the previous fight. Her fear was rapidly changing into anger and she struggled to sit up to face her tormentor.
“I’ll answer your questions in due time, my dear. First, let me get this place cleaned up for you.” Glancing once at the bodies on the floor with cool disdain, Lundgren turned and strode back out the door.
He returned quickly with three more men and, in short order, they removed the bodies and mopped up most of the blood coagulating on the hardwood floor. Brianna kept her gaze resolutely on the wall and suppressed a shudder at the sounds of the bodies being dragged outside. A touch on her shoulder brought her attention back to her kidnapper. Despite her revulsion at his touch, Brianna let Lundgren hold her head steady as he held a tin cup of water to her dry lips. As soon as she drained the cup, she jerked her head away from him.
Lundgren’s lips thinned in a grim smile, even as his loins tightened in response to Brianna’s defiance. With an almost dainty gesture, he swept dust off the nearby bunk and settled his spare frame onto it. He kept his dark gaze on the young blonde until she was squirming uncomfortably, then he slowly let his eyes drift down her lithe little body.
Brianna felt her skin crawl as the man’s black eyes took inventory of her form. It took great effort but she managed not to let her contempt and fear show on her face as his features flushed with lust. She shifted once more, then gasped in shock as his hand shot out and grabbed her breast in a harsh grip.
“You’re mine, Brianna. No one else’s,” Lundgren hissed. His other hand shot out to grasp her arm and he yanked her toward him for a brutal kiss. “The judge will be here soon, and once we’re wed no one will stand in my way.” His evil eyes glittered as he took in her bruised lips, and he chuckled coldly.
“Ty will stop you, ” Brianna spat out confidently, then shrank back in shock as Lundgren tipped his head back and exploded in laughter.
His laughter stopped abruptly and he stood to leave the cabin once more. “Mason will be dead soon, my dear, if he isn’t already,” he said over his shoulder. “It would be best if you just reconciled yourself to being my happily wedded wife.” He stopped halfway out the door to look back at her pale face. “I look forward to taming that unruly spirit of yours.”
A flash of gleaming white teeth and sparkling blue eyes followed Brianna into darkness as her sorely abused body and spirit gave up their fight and she slipped into unconsciousness.
“I want no mistakes made this time,” Lundgren ground out to the two men waiting by the door. “Make sure Mac and Willie did the job right.” His feral black eyes gleamed with hate. “If they didn’t, you two need to finish the job.” He waited a moment for the men to nod their agreement and head for their mounts, then strode across the clearing to where five more of his ranch hands stood. After ordering two of them to stand guard inside the cabin, he sent the last three out into the surrounding trees to take up strategic positions—just in case Mason proved more difficult to kill than he anticipated.
As his men spread out to follow his orders, Lundgren glanced up at the steadily darkening sky. He’d been in Colorado long enough to be wary of its quickly changing weather patterns and he shivered in anticipation of the snowstorm that was brewing. It was strange how it could be sunny and warm one day and then dip to below freezing the next. He shook his head to be rid of the idle thoughts and turned his attention back to gaining control of the entire town and its surrounding area. Within a week he would be the sole owner of every source of water Cedar Creek depended on to survive.
He mounted his chestnut mare gracefully and turned her toward his vast ranch. Only one man stood in his way and soon, very soon, he would be six feet under and an obstacle no more. Three men shuddered as demonic laughter echoed through the trees, glad to be out of sight of the heartless man who owned their souls.
Ty Mason headed for the boarding house with a small smile tugging at her lips. Her dreams had been filled with thoughts of a certain strawberry blonde, and the feel of tender flesh beneath her fingers. A flash of heat darted from her chest to her lower body, as her suddenly active imagination took off and she had to struggle with her self-control to keep from bursting into an all-out grin. Before falling into slumber the night before, she had run through all the arguments against courting the pretty farm girl—they had all fallen to the wayside by the memory of how the girl’s lips felt against her own. Ty knew she would do whatever it took to win Brianna and keep her by her side forever.
She spotted the sheriff waiting at a table for her and spared him a nod before a matronly woman hurried up to her and took her hat. “Hello, Maria. How are you today?”
Maria’s face flushed at the deep, raspy tones and she bobbed a quick curtsey without thought. She smiled up into sparkling blue eyes and wished fervently to be thirty years younger so she could lead this handsome young man in a fine dance. “I am fine, senor,” she responded breathlessly, leading the bounty hunter to the sheriff’s table. “I will be back uno momento with your coffee and breakfast.” She fussed slightly with the tablecloth until Ty winked at her and she hurried off to bring him his coffee and some sweets she had been saving.
“What?” Ty asked defensively as she settled into her chair.
Tom laughed at the scowling bounty hunter and shook his head. “Y’know, for someone who has such a deadly reputation, you can sure charm the ladies!”
Ty gave the sheriff a mock glare, then gave in to a smile. “Must be my southern heritage,” she drawled out, causing the sheriff to laugh out loud in surprise at the dark man’s sense of humor.
Two plates filled with heaping piles of eggs, potatoes, bacon, and steak being deposited in front of them effectively halted the conversation. Maria walked away from the table, beaming in satisfaction as the two men dug into their breakfast with hearty appetites.
The sheriff had just sat back and patted his full stomach when the door to the boarding house crashed open. A young boy stood in the doorway looking around wildly until his eyes finally focused on the men at the table. “Two men just rode in looking for Mr. Mason!” he gasped out. “They look really mean!”
Ty stood slowly and walked over to the boy, putting a steady hand on his trembling shoulder. “Calm down, son. Where are they now?” The boy gulped in air and pointed to the western end of the street where two horses were just coming into view.
Sheriff Young came to stand by Ty’s side as they looked down the street. “Need help?” he asked quietly.
Ty stared intently at one of the men, images of others flashing through her mind until she came up with a name. “Mac Horton,” she stated flatly. At the sheriff’s questioning glance, Ty elaborated. “I killed his brother six months ago. Seemed he didn’t take kindly to being brought in.”
“So, you want help?” the sheriff asked again. He stepped away from the door when Ty shook his head and watched the young man step out into the street. He heard a gasp behind him and he turned to find Maria standing close by. “Don’t worry about a thing, Maria,” he told her wryly. “It’ll take more than two men to take Ty Mason down.”
Ty stood in a relaxed stance, waiting patiently for the two riders to come closer. She had already loosened her guns in her holsters, and let a familiar coldness sweep over her features. Her eyes were chips of ice as she watched Mac Horton dismount and her lip quirked when the other man chose to dismount ten feet away from his partner. Think it’ll be harder for me to hit you over there? she asked the man silently, then she turned her attention back to the more dangerous of the pair.
Horton exchanged a quick glance with his partner to make sure he was in position. Looking back at Mason, he felt his heartbeat pick up and adrenaline surged through his body at the thought of finally getting his revenge. A tendril of doubt curled through his mind as he noticed the bounty hunter’s relaxed stance, looking for all the world like they were going to have a pleasant conversation rather than try to kill each other.
“You killed my brother,” he blurted out. Mason only nodded, a slight smile playing across his lips and the cold, blue eyes never wavering. Horton clenched his jaw. He wanted to see fear, anger, anything but the cool amusement the bounty hunter was showing. He sneered as he tried to goad Mason again.
“I can’t wait ‘til the boss lets us have our turn with your blonde bitch. She looks like she’d be a good….” Horton’s eyes widened as he suddenly lost his ability to speak. It felt like a sledgehammer had hit his chest. As he looked down, his mind barely registered the blood pouring out of the bullet hole in his chest. His last thought before he died was, I never even saw him move! His partner hit the hard-packed earth scant seconds after he did with a bullet hole in the exact same place.
Cold fury radiated through Ty’s frame as she slowly reholstered her guns. A flaring of her nostrils was the only sign of the sheer will power she was using to keep from ripping the dead man limb from limb as an example to others of what would happen if anyone dared hurt Brianna. She vaguely heard her name being called and she turned slowly to face the sheriff. With some shock, she noticed George Duncan standing next to him, his face filled with a mixture of fear and grief.
Two short words and Ty felt her life crashing around her. Even the death of her twin brother, Tyrel, had not aroused the rage and pain that consumed her at this moment. The world around her disappeared as she closed her eyes tightly and delved deep within herself to try to reclaim the icy calm that had kept her alive for so many years. When she opened her eyes, the two men facing her stepped back involuntarily in fear. Pale blue eyes of flame glared back at them and when she spoke, the harsh rasp of her voice sent shivers of dread down their spines. “I’ll kill them all.”
George Duncan swallowed audibly as he tore his gaze from the enraged man who was making his way swiftly to the stables. “Sheriff, I….”
“I’d better follow him, ” Sheriff Young interrupted. “Or he really will kill them all.” In a matter of moments, George Duncan was alone in front of the boarding house, his mind reeling from the terror he felt since first awakening and finding Brianna gone. He had held a brief hope that his daughter was with Ty Mason, but that had vanished when he saw the look on the man’s face when he heard that she was missing. “They know not what they have done,” he whispered as Maria gently led him inside to join the rest of his waiting family.
Sheriff Young caught up with Ty just as he reached the stables. Grabbing the bounty hunter’s arm to slow him down, he suddenly found the business end of a Colt .45 under his chin. He had no doubts that he was closer to death than he had ever been.
“Don’t–ever–touch–me,” Ty snarled, her tenuous grip on her anger slipping dangerously. The last time her rage had taken control, two entire Yankee camps had been wiped out: one hundred men dead because they had been the closest to Ty’s home where her twin brother and his family had been slaughtered. Knowing only that it had been done by a Yankee patrol, Ty had crept through the two camps and exacted her vengeance. When in doubt, kill them all was the mantra that ran through her mind that bloody night. And she had.
“Ty.” The sheriff swallowed convulsively as he hastily dropped his hand from the man’s arm. “We need to make a plan. We can’t just barge in and shoot everyone in sight.” When the Colt was put back in its holster he almost wept with relief.
A feral grin swept over Ty’s face. “Why not? You wanted Lundgren taken care of. I’m going to take care of him.” She swiftly saddled her horse and threw her gear up behind the saddle. “If you’re coming with me, you’d best hurry. I won’t wait around for long.”
Ty checked her ammunition and her weapons as she waited for the sheriff to return. He was back moments later with boxes of shells under his arm – enough ammo for a small army. The sheriff could only hope that they wouldn’t need it all.
“Boss, I don’t think this was such a good idea.” Shorty Calhoun sat on the very edge of a high-backed chair in Todd Lundgren’s den. He’d been Lundgren’s foreman for two years and he still had trouble reconciling the man’s violent temper and actions with his conscience. Sure he was paid extremely well, but that didn’t stop the nightmares he still had sometimes of the deaths of two of Lundgren’s wives. Shorty had been a silent witness for both, and he was glad he hadn’t been around for the death of the first wife. From what he had heard, hers was the most violent. He shivered involuntarily at the thought, remembering the bodies he had helped bury. Neither woman was recognizable after what Lundgren had done, and he shuddered at what fate may have befallen the first wife. A sharp bark of laughter brought his mind from the past.
“I don’t pay you to think, Shorty. I pay you to follow my orders without whining about it!” Lundgren snarled. “That damned bounty hunter is getting to be a thorn in my side and I want him stopped! Now!” His hand slammed down on the top of the desk in emphasis, making Shorty jump.
“All right. Anything you say, boss. But I’ve heard he’s pretty fast with a gun. Are you sure the boys’ll be able to handle him?”
Lundgren smiled with no humor, his eyes drifting to a point just over Shorty’s shoulder, his thoughts obviously elsewhere. “If they can’t, I’ll just have to get someone who can. As for the girl,” he paused and the smile grew colder, “once I’ve had her in that cabin long enough, she’ll be willing to do anything I want. I’m sure she won’t want anything to happen to her poor little brother and sister.”
The foreman shivered as his boss’ gaze settled back on him, measuring and finding him lacking. “And if you don’t think you can do your job, I’ll find someone to replace you as well. Do you understand me?”
“Don’t you worry, boss. When you give the order I’ll knock them kids off faster’n killing a gnat.”
“Good. I knew I could count on you.” Lundgren swiveled his chair to face the window behind him and Shorty knew he’d been dismissed. His hands trembled slightly as he jammed his hat back onto his balding head, and practically ran out the door. The money was swiftly becoming not enough to soothe his battered conscience. A fast horse to Mexico was high on his list of priorities, Lundgren be damned.
Lundgren steepled his fingers in front of his face and stared sightlessly out the window. Mason’s arrival and pursuit of the Duncan girl had forced him to alter his carefully laid out plans. Kidnapping the girl added risk; he didn’t like risks. His eyes glittered evilly as he thought over the situation.
The judge was on his way, but it would take a few days for him to arrive. Too much could go wrong in that time span. The only thing to do was to take the girl and meet him halfway. By the time anyone realized they were both gone, it would be too late. They would be husband and wife, and no one could stop him from taking over the entire range. Even if the boys didn’t succeed in killing Mason, he knew someone within a hard day’s ride that could do the job.
Pounding hoof beats interrupted his thoughts. Minutes later, he watched as Mason and the sheriff galloped up and swung off their horses. Gunfire erupted as his men opened up on the two, and Lundgren hurried out of the den to gather some clothing and get to his horse. He cursed roundly as his plans were altered yet again.
Ty ducked instinctively as a bullet whizzed by her head and she dove off her stallion and rolled behind a water trough. “Oh sure,” she said sarcastically to the sheriff as he rolled to a stop beside her. “Let’s just go to the front door and knock.”
There was a brief flurry of shots exchanged before Tom could respond. “Hell, I’m the sheriff! How was I supposed to know they’d shoot at me?”
A surge of adrenaline coursed through Ty and she grinned at the sheriff, eyes sparkling like blue diamonds. “Those two slack-jaws we left a mile back should have been your first clue, Sheriff!”
She gauged the distance between them and the bunkhouse where Lundgren’s men were holed up. She’d have to be fast, but if the sheriff could cover her, she thought she could make it safely. A bale of hay lay conveniently next to the corner of the building, perfect to set the place ablaze.
“I’m gonna smoke ‘em out.” She pointed toward the bale. “Cover me while I get over there. And for God’s sake, keep your head down!”
The sheriff gingerly touched the scrape on his forehead where a lucky shot had grazed him before Ty had killed the two men waiting in ambush. “After this is all over, you and I are going to have a serious talk about respect for the law,” he drawled even as he hunkered down lower behind the trough. His hand shot out and grabbed Ty’s arm, then released it immediately. “What about the house?” he asked quickly before Mason could say anything about touching him.
“If anyone was in there, they’d be shooting at us by now. I don’t know where Lundgren is, but I’d bet he hightailed it to wherever they’ve got Brianna.”
The sheriff nodded, then settled himself into position. At a signal from Ty, he began firing at the bunkhouse, giving the bounty hunter some breathing space as he began his dash for the side of the building.
Ty pumped the action on her rifle furiously as she ran, getting off as many shots as she could while she made her way to the bale. A curse exploded from her as her leg was knocked out from under her, and she did a tuck and roll to make it the rest of the way. She gasped for breath as she hid behind the bale, and examined the wound in her leg. She gave the sheriff a brief thumb’s up before she tore her bandana from her neck and tied it around her thigh. “These are new pants, goddammit!”
She smiled grimly upon spotting an open window on the side of the bunkhouse. She worked loose a hefty clump of hay and sparked it, then tossed it through the opening. She pushed the rest of the bale close to the wall and set it alight as well, then scrambled away from the building toward the stables.
Ty had to give them credit. It took the men a whole five minutes before they started pouring out of the doorway, coughing and hacking. It took even less time for her and the sheriff to corral them, tie them up, and find out the location of the line cabin where Brianna was being held.
“You get these men back to town and I’ll go after Lundgren.” Ty didn’t even look up as she adjusted the bandana around her wound, a scrap from her new shirt helping to plug the hole.
“Ty, you’re wounded. You can’t go after him alone. We’ll take them back and go after Lundgren with more men.” The sheriff didn’t even attempt to offer to help with the bandage. He’d already received one icy glare from the bounty hunter when he’d mentioned it the first time.
Ty finished her task and straightened up to full height. “You saying I need help?” Her eyes glittered coldly and the sheriff gave her a shaky smile.
“Ah, no. Not at all. Never mind. I’ll just get these cowpokes to town and you,” he waved his hand in the general direction of the line cabin, “do whatever you need to do.”
Ty relented and clapped the sheriff on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. It’s Lundgren who needs to be worried.” She strode to the stallion with no trace of a limp, and swung into the saddle with the grace of a panther. Her tone changed to a low growl. “He’ll never hurt another woman ever again. Especially mine.”
The sheriff’s eyebrow shot up in unconscious imitation of the bounty hunter’s and he felt a shiver run down his spine. He almost wished he could be there to see that. No, maybe not. His gaze drifted to a body sprawled by the stable doors, its head twisted at an odd angle. Only one person had tried to fight and Mason had broken his neck with one audible snap. The rest had given up in short order. He shook his head and turned his attention back to the prisoners. Mason would be fine. If anyone could succeed against high odds it would be him.
Lundgren’s trail proved easy to follow. The man was obviously in a hurry and made no attempts to cover his tracks. Ty’s mouth curled up in a sneer as her eyes restlessly scanned the area, subconsciously noting how the terrain of the land was changing; sparse scrub grass with small thickets of trees changing to denser tracts of pines and firs. Even the covering of needles on the ground did nothing to hide her prey’s trail.
Her thoughts cast ahead to where Brianna was, her heart clenching with unfamiliar fear. Somehow, someway, the small blonde had wrapped herself around Ty’s heart, and the mere thought of losing her to anyone, much less that madman, scared the hell out of her. I’m coming, Brianna. Be strong for me. A rare prayer from a battle-scarred woman was sent across the Colorado sky, and Ty hoped desperately that it would be enough to get her there in time.
Her hands reined in the stallion almost before she had even registered the sound of metal upon metal. The well-trained horse didn’t make a sound as its rider eased from the saddle, strong fingers sliding the rifle from the sheath strapped to its side. Noiselessly, Ty crept closer to where her instincts led, boots barely moving the pine needles beneath her.
A hushed murmur of voices drew her forward, rifle held at the ready, eyes narrowed to icy slits. Well-honed senses swept outward, silently telling her where the two men were located and how far apart they were from each other. Just as she drew the rifle up to nestle it against her cheek, she felt the air move behind her and she rolled, wincing as a bullet tore across her upper arm.
Then all hell broke loose.
Livid curses split the air, mingling with wild gunfire. Ty scrambled back into the cover of the trees, pumping the action on the rifle and hearing the satisfying noise of bullets meeting flesh. A flash of blue caught her eye and she turned and fired again, smiling grimly as the man who had shot at her from behind crumpled to the ground. Swinging back around, she fired off another shot then tossed away the empty rifle, quick hands drawing the six-guns and firing again.
A lucky shot, she would think later. Her torn sleeve caught on a branch, slowing her just enough for a bullet to find its mark in the thick muscles just above her hipbone and driving deep. Through a red haze of pain, she continued firing until there was finally blessed silence. Five men lay scattered among the pines, their blood slowly seeping into churned up earth, Ty’s harsh breathing the only sign of life among the tall trees.
Her face was a set mask of pain as she made her way back to her horse, stumbling as she reached him and grabbing for the pommel. No time. No time. Her mind repeated it over and over as she dug into the saddlebags for more bandages. She tore off a strip and quickly wrapped it around her upper arm, tying it off with her teeth. It was just a crease, so she wasn’t too concerned with it, but the wound above her hip… that was something else entirely.
She used her elbow to hold a square of cloth over the jagged entrance while her hands took over the task of reloading her guns. A muffled groan slipped out of her as she leaned down to recover the rifle where it had fallen. Her hands shook slightly as she reloaded it, and she frowned in concentration. Closing her eyes tightly, she repeated a mantra to herself and forced the pain to recede deep within her. There would be time enough to deal with that later. Now, she needed to find Lundgren and make sure his worthless life was ended as painfully as possible.
Steady once again, she poked the cloth into the hole of her wound and then wrapped another strip around her waist to hold it in place. New pants ruined. New shirt ruined. How the hell am I supposed to court a girl properly looking like this? she asked herself sardonically. She carefully swung up into the saddle and glanced down. Yup. Boots are scuffed, too.Her eyes glittered dangerously as she let the idle thoughts push the last evidence of pain even deeper, and her feral smile would have chilled the strongest of hearts.
The slightest of pressure urged the stallion forward and she headed toward the cabin, the fading light guiding her the rest of the way in silence.
Lundgren cursed as the struggling form almost knocked him over again. “God damn it, woman! I’ll knock you out if I have to!”
Brianna twisted her body one last time in a futile effort to get free, then quieted in the face of the threat. She’d never free herself if she were unconscious. Lundgren had tied her hands in front of her and forced her out of the cabin just as the last echoes of gunfire had split the air. He had arrived an hour before, sending the two guards out to join the others as reinforcements, and her heart had leapt when the first sounds of the fight had drifted through the air to them.
He’s here! I knew he’d find me! Her elation was short lived as she had realized it would be five against one, but the panicked look in Lundgren’s eyes steadied her. If he had been confident of his men’s abilities, he wouldn’t be dragging her away from the cabin now and darting fearful glances into the woods around them.
Brianna’s eyes widened with a different type of fear as Lundgren dragged her to two waiting horses. She hadn’t been able to ride a horse since she was ten years old. One of her family’s old mares had gone half-blind and skittish, and kicked the young child square in the chest one day when she was careless enough to walk behind her.
Lundgren thought the stiffening of her body was another attempt to delay him, and he cracked her viciously across the face with the palm of his hand. Green eyes filled with tears causing him to laugh harshly. “Get used to it, bitch. I’m not nearly done with you yet.” His fingers dug cruelly into the soft flesh above her elbows as he lifted her into the saddle.
Brianna stared blindly ahead as her heart raced in her chest painfully. She hardly noticed her hands being tied to the pommel, or her feet being lashed into the stirrups. All she felt was the simple-minded terror of being on the horse. Her body lurched forward as Lundgren tugged the horse’s reins to lead it, and her fingers tightened convulsively trying to keep her balance.
Please, Ty. Find me. Oh God! I don’t know how long I can do this. She closed her eyes tightly and let her thoughts center on coal black hair, bright blue eyes, and a bold smile. Her body slowly relaxed as ghostly arms wrapped around her, soothing her with their strength. She slowly reopened her eyes, filled with a new determination to help Ty however she could.
“You know, he’s going to find us,” she stated quietly to the man a short distance in front of her. “And when he does, you’re going to really regret this. Maybe you should let me go and save yourself.”
A hard yank on the lead rope made the horse rear and almost unseat the girl. She clutched at the saddle horn as blazing, black eyes glared back at her. “Shut up!” he spat out, his face flushing with anger. His eyes widened with rage and disbelief as the farm girl he thought would be so malleable stuck her tongue out at him.
His thin form fairly trembled with fury as he dismounted and strode back to his captive, a small riding crop that had been hidden before suddenly in his hand and slapping smartly against his thigh. He licked his thin lips in anticipation as the girl flinched, and he raised the crop to strike her with it, not hearing the hoof beats until it was too late.
The intense waves of rage and protectiveness surged through Ty so quickly her body reacted before her mind fully registered what was happening. She was hurtling off the back of the stallion and slamming into Lundgren’s body, giving no thought to the wounds she had sustained.
Lundgren turned, hoof beats and then a low growl stopping the movement of his arm. Then he was flying backwards, Mason’s long arms wrapped around his torso and the two of them tumbling across the pine-laden ground. A grunt escaped him as they rolled, and he flailed wildly with his arms trying to get loose from the strong grip. A jab with his elbow was rewarded by the sound of a soft hiss of pain, and he struggled free from the loosened hold.
“You won’t win, Mason. She’s mine now just as she was before you came.” He narrowed his eyes as he and Ty circled each other, his gaze taking in the bloodied outfit of his enemy. A sneer curled his lips as he took note of the wide patch of blood above Mason’s right hip. Black eyes met ice blue in silent battle, then Lundgren lunged, aiming his fist at the worst of Mason’s wounds.
Ty turned at the last moment and cracked the back of Lundgren’s head as his momentum pushed him past her. She had just enough time to brace herself before Lundgren turned and struck her again. They exchanged a flurry of blows, enough to make her realize that Lundgren was much stronger than he looked. A hard clip to Lundgren’s jaw sent him sprawling backward on the ground.
Ty spared a quick glance towards Brianna to make sure the girl was okay. Green eyes widening alerted her, and she returned her attention to Lundgren who had taken advantage of the distraction to stand and pull out a knife. The adversaries circled each other once more, Ty’s eyes glinting with dangerous sparks and a feral smile gracing her lips.
This was what she lived for, the only thing that made her blood run through her veins with an adrenaline rush. A fight where not only physical strength was required, but a keen eye and sharp instincts, and the winner would be the only one left standing. Muldoon had been a clumsy ox–strong, but stupid. Todd Lundgren was different. His slight physique had required him to learn how to use other means to beat an opponent, aided by an uncanny skill with the blade. Ty had learned a lot from the sheriff during their ride to Lundgren’s ranch, and she wasn’t about to underestimate the thin man circling her. Not when there was a little, green-eyed blonde depending on her.
Brianna struggled with the rope binding her to the saddle horn to no avail. The flash of the knife slashing through the air filled her heart with fear for the bounty hunter. She had seen the blood caking his clothes, and knew that he was seriously wounded. Her elation at being rescued had faded quickly at the sight.
Oh, God. Please give him strength. Please. Frustrated tears flowed down her cheeks as she was forced to merely watch while the two men fought. She blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision as the men feinted back and forth. She tried to keep quiet, but every time the blade sliced through Ty’s clothes a gasp of horror escaped her.
Suddenly Ty fell to his knees, and Brianna stood straight up in the stirrups in reaction. She felt the flesh tearing from her wrists from the ropes biting in, but her attention was solely on the drama unfolding before her. She watched in horrified dismay as Todd’s arms lifted high above his head, readying for the killing blow, then she dropped abruptly back onto the saddle when Ty’s hand flashed out and Todd fell backwards.
Ty struggled forward to re-grip the knife protruding from Lundgren’s bowels. Her face was a feral mask as she glared down into his rapidly paling face. “What’s the matter, Lundgren? Didn’t think a woman could beat you?” The vicious hiss was followed by a harsh twist of the blade, carving it further into Lundgren’s flesh. Ty was rewarded by a flash of horrified understanding in Lundgren’s eyes before death claimed the wretched dog.
Ty wasn’t quite sure later how they had accomplished it, but somehow she had released Brianna’s bonds and they had made their slow, torturous way back to the long cabin. Her last memory was of staring up into glorious green eyes, before the darkness mercifully stole her away.
Brianna’s hands shook as she rushed about the one-room cabin. It was a stroke of good fortune that supplies had been readied for a long stay. There was plenty of food, wood for the stove, and stashes of other supplies necessary for living far from town. Pans of water were already heating on the stove, and she found the bandages she was seeking under the other cot in the room.
Her lips moved silently in prayer as she cleaned Ty’s face off and tended to the small gashes she found. Taking a deep breath, she steeled herself for removing what was left of his shirt. With infinite care, she pulled away the tattered cloth–then her brows furrowed as she found another strip of cloth wrapped around his chest. She saw no blood, but she cut away that strip with great care as well. She gasped in astonishment.
She ran trembling fingers across her eyes and then peeked again. Yes. Two full breasts, marred slightly from the pressure of the binding. Her eyes wide, she stole a glance at Ty’s face, breathing a sigh of relief when she saw he…no, she… was still unconscious. The sight of the pale and drawn features brought her attention back to where it was needed, and she focused solely on finding and treating the bounty hunter’s wounds.
For hours she sat by Ty’s side, running cool cloths over her forehead and murmuring softly to her when she tossed restlessly. She tried vainly to keep the blankets over Ty’s naked body…as much to keep the bounty hunter warm as to keep herself from staring at what was so obviously a woman. Her thoughts ran in a chaotic jumble, alternately chastising her for being so blind, and raging at Ty for such a terrible masquerade. By the time dawn’s light started to creep through the oilcloth covering of the windows, Brianna had succumbed to exhaustion, her weary body draped gracelessly across the hard wooden chair she had pulled next to the cot.
She awoke to harsh breathing and Ty struggling to get out of bed. It took all of her strength to wrestle the woman back down and it wasn’t until she began humming tunelessly that Ty finally settled back into a quieter sleep. Ty’s face was flushed and her body radiated heat. Brianna quickly rounded up the buckets and fled from the cabin to the stream outside. When she returned, it was to spend even more hours bathing the woman with cool cloths, dipping them into the water to chill them again, and then starting the process all over.
Gooseflesh rose on her arms as she heard the hoarse voice screaming in feverish pain. Tears dripped from her eyes unnoticed as she continued to try soothing the bounty hunter, stopping only long enough to change the dirty bandages and apply clean ones.
“TYREL! TYREL! Damn them! I’ll kill them all, I swear it to you, brother!”
Ty had risen half out of bed, then dropped back limply after the screaming tirade. Brianna shuddered at the violence of the outburst, but her natural curiosity made her wonder who this Tyrel was. Before too long she learned all about Ty’s murdered family: her brother, her brother’s wife, their two-year-old daughter, and their infant son. All killed by a Yankee patrol except for the little boy, who had survived despite a horrible slash across his little belly.
But Ty hadn’t known that until much later. After she had already wiped out the Yankee camp, and had signed on to the closest Rebel outfit. She had done the next best thing she knew, and had anonymously arranged for the boy to be taken in by friends of the family. All this and more, Brianna learned by the feverish woman’s bedside. Her heart broke over and over again at the harsh life Ty had been forced to lead.
After a few days, Ty’s fever finally broke and Brianna stumbled from the cabin to breathe in deeply of the fresh air. The wounds were healing quickly, but Ty had yet to recover consciousness. Brianna knew it was just a matter of time before she was forced to make her own decision. Could she still love Ty knowing she was a woman? Could she forgive her the lie?
She didn’t know. She just didn’t know.
Ty swam lazily up through red-tinged darkness, her mind floating by silent images of death and destruction, fire and despair. So far away she thought she could never reach it, she saw a dim glow. She struggled harder then, trying to reach the warmth, tears falling from her eyes in her desperation to touch the form hidden within.
“Easy now. Easy.” Soft hands took her own and she felt her body relax, muscles easing from the light, lilting voice she remembered from…somewhere. She frowned in concentration, then gasped as pain shot through her head. Slowly the memories came back: two men dying in a dusty street, a building set afire, echoes of gunshots and a burning pain in her side, and Lundgren.
“Lundgren!” She bolted straight up from the cot, only to find strong arms pushing her back down. The pain was real now, and she clenched her jaw tight trying to force it away. But she hurt everywhere, and a harsh gasp escaped her.
“He’s dead. You killed him. It’s over now.” Brianna’s voice broke, and she stood quickly to get new bandages before Ty could see her tears. She was exhausted, too little sleep and the barest of meals finally catching up to her. Though her wounds were minor by comparison, the emotional upheaval she had gone through served to shatter what little control she had left. Bursting into heart-wrenching sobs, Brianna fled the cabin.
“Damn it!” Ty struggled out of the blankets covering her, intent on going after the girl. Wincing in pain, she finally got rid of them then stopped in mid-motion as she glanced down at herself. She was completely naked, save for bandages wrapped around her various wounds.
Ty sank back onto the cot and groaned again, partially from pain and partially from horrified disbelief. “I was gonna tell you,” she whispered softly, knowing that it was far too late now.
All the gentle ways she was going to break the news to Brianna flashed through her mind, and she gave a humorless laugh. “It’s over now.” The girl’s words hit her like a whip and the bounty hunter cried the first tears since the death of her family. It truly was over…before it even had a chance to begin.
She drowned quietly in her grief for a few moments, before grimly pulling herself together. Ty had no idea how long she had been unconscious, but it was long enough for her wounds to begin healing. And that was too long, as far as the bounty hunter was concerned. With eyes gone a flat blue-gray and her face a set mask, she began scavenging around for clothing.
Brianna stood in the doorway uncertainly, hands twisting the fabric of her dirty and tattered nightgown, watching Ty struggling to pull her boots on. She had managed to find a pair of serviceable pants, and a worn flannel shirt covered her broad shoulders. The shirt remained unbuttoned and Brianna tried desperately to keep her eyes away from the sight of full breasts swaying with Ty’s movements.
“I–I could help you with that, if you want.”
Ty’s head jerked up and a boot went flying in response. She sighed heavily, then turned a startled gaze toward the door when she heard a muffled giggle. Relief washed over her and she gave the girl a wry smile. “I thought you left.” She eased back onto the small cot as Brianna stepped further into the room, stopping to pick up the stray boot.
“You shouldn’t be up yet. You were pretty badly hurt, you know.”
“Folks will be looking for us soon. I’d rather….” Ty looked down feeling an uncomfortable flush heat her cheeks. “I’d rather be dressed when they come barging in here.” Her hand fell on the cloth she had given up trying to wrap around her chest, and the flush deepened.
Brianna noticed the movement but ignored it for the time being. Instead, she knelt down by the cot and eased the boots onto Ty’s feet, one after the other. She prayed silently for her hands not to tremble…or wander. While Ty was unconscious, she had slowly given in to her curiosity and touched the smooth flesh that beckoned to her, fascinated when it felt as soft as her own.
Caring for the bounty hunter’s intimate needs had left Brianna feeling very confused about what she really wanted and needed. She had always seen herself growing up and marrying, having children and grandchildren, sharing her life with a loving man whose face she could never quite picture. When Ty swept into her life so suddenly, her future husband’s face took on dark, chiseled features with a beautiful smile and twinkling blue eyes…and just as suddenly the dream was swept away by the sight of a woman’s body hidden beneath a gunslinger’s clothes.
The boots finally on and the pant legs pulled down over them, Brianna stood back up, at a loss as to what to do next. The still unbuttoned shirt inexorably drew her eyes and she found it suddenly difficult to breathe.
Ty sat completely motionless, afraid that if she moved or said anything, the farm girl would run again. The tip of Brianna’s tongue peeked out to moisten dry lips, and Ty thought she would faint from the strain of keeping silent. She knew what had to be done next. But she also knew there was no way she could ask it of the innocent, young girl.
Wide, green eyes looked into deep blue. “You’ll have to take the shirt off again.”
Before Ty could reach to remove her shirt, soft hands took hold of the material and eased it off her shoulders. Fingertips grazing along her back caused her muscles to twitch in reaction, and she swallowed audibly.
“Can I ask you a question?”
Ty nodded mutely as she watched Brianna pick up the new binding cloth. The girl’s close proximity was doing odd things to her concentration, and she desperately hoped she’d be able to answer.
“Were…were you just playing with me?” Brianna rushed on, afraid she’d lose her nerve if she paused too long. “I know I’m just a farm girl, and you’ve probably had a lot of women more sophisticated than me. But I….” Her voice cracked and she laid her palms against Ty’s ribs to steady herself. “I really liked you.”
Impossible as Ty thought it was, she felt her heart break again at the soft, trembling words. “You have to wrap it tight,” she murmured quietly.
Both women were silent as Brianna finished securing Ty’s breasts in their cloth cocoon. When she started to step away, Ty grasped her hands gently in her own. “I wasn’t playing, Brianna.” Blue eyes trapped green in unguarded intensity. “At first I just wanted to keep Lundgren away from you, but….” She shook her head and looked down.
“But what, Ty?” Brianna knelt down to look into the bounty hunter’s eyes. “Please.”
Scarred knuckles traced Brianna’s soft cheek, Ty’s eyes begging silently for understanding. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I…you….” She sighed and tried again. “I think I fell in love with you when you were swearing at me in the street.”
“I didn’t swear!”
Ty’s lips twitched in a grin. “Close enough, darlin’.” The endearment tumbled out of her mouth easily, and Brianna felt a warm feeling chase through her. “Anyway, I was trying to figure out how to tell you about–this, when everything happened. I’ll get my things together and head on out when we get back to town.”
Ty’s heart was beating a rapid tattoo in her chest, and she felt the tears threatening to rise again. She loved this woman more than she’d ever thought she was capable of and it scared her to death. Then to have her so calmly helping with the most obvious part of her charade, well, Ty didn’t know what to think anymore. By all rights, Brianna should have been running full tilt for the safety of her family, not making her flesh dimple up in goose bumps by trailing her fingers up and down her ribcage…. Wait a minute, here.
Ty drew in a shaky breath and recaptured Brianna’s hands. “What are you doing?”
Brianna’s eyes were a luminous green as she shivered in pleasure at the low, gravelly voice. “Making sure you don’t leave me,” she replied bluntly. She gathered her newfound courage and leaned forward to place a kiss on soft, yielding lips.
Ty melted, the burning pain of her wounds receding into the background as she devoured the sweet mouth offered to her. Hands separated, Ty’s sinking into silky hair, and Brianna’s sliding over strong ribs to clasp her arms around a broad back. All doubts disappeared and Ty reveled in the sensations coursing through her. Gently and slowly, she traced her tongue along Brianna’s lips, asking silently for entrance. When Brianna obliged, Ty moaned deeply and pulled the girl closer to her chest, her hands moving to caress Brianna’s back through the thin cloth of her dress.
Sparks skittered along the length of Ty’s body, making her pulse race and the loose fitting pants she had confiscated feel unbearably tight. Her tongue delved into the moist cavern of Brianna’s mouth and she knew she had never tasted anything sweeter. They were so close she couldn’t tell which of them was trembling more, and she finally pulled away with a harsh gasp, tilting her head until their foreheads rested against each other.
“Oh my God.”
Brianna reluctantly pulled her body away from Ty’s warmth so she could look into her eyes. They were dark with passion and Brianna shuddered in reaction to it. “That was….”
Ty smiled slightly, staring with some bemusement at the flushed face of her love. “Yes,” she whispered softly. “It sure was.”
“Ahem.” The sound of a masculine clearing of the throat nearly drove the two women apart, but Ty managed to retain her grip.
Sheriff Young was treated to the most vicious glare he had ever had the misfortune to receive and he beat a hasty retreat from the long cabin, almost tripping before regaining his balance and scrambling back to the waiting wagon.
“We’ll…ah…just wait out here for a few minutes. They’re…ummm…not quite ready yet.” George frowned in confusion, but the sheriff’s pale features made him think twice about going to investigate himself. The wedding might just have to be sooner than they’d anticipated, that was all.
Ty eased back and smiled apologetically at Brianna. “Sorry, darlin’. I didn’t want him to see me.”
Brianna glanced down and smiled shyly, small fingers moving to button the shirt up properly. “I guess we need to go out there,” she murmured, gently smoothing out the soft fabric.
“Brianna. I don’t….” Ty sighed heavily. “I don’t want anyone to know about this.”
Brianna’s heart tugged painfully in her chest. “Us, you mean?”
“God, no! I meant about me…being a woman and all.” The pain flared in those beautiful green eyes, tearing a new wound in Ty’s heart. She reached out and smothered the girl in a hard hug, her raspy voice whispering across Brianna’s ear. “I would shout my love for you from the tallest mountain if I could.”
That made the blonde giggle, and got her a raised eyebrow. “I’ll settle for a whisper,” she grinned.
“I love you,” Ty dutifully whispered, closing the distance and sealing her words with a soft kiss. “Now I have to stand up, darlin’. Can’t keep them waiting any longer than we already have.”
Brianna backed away and watched with concern as Ty struggled to her feet. It took a few minutes but she finally got her shirt tucked in, then started to buckle on her gun belt. Her face was ashen by the time she was through, and Brianna was near tears. Jaw clenched tightly, Ty finally handed the gun belt over for Brianna to carry. She just couldn’t stand the weight of it pulling against her wounded side.
“C’mere.” The girl rushed to her side and Ty wrapped her left arm over her shoulder. When they exited the cabin, it looked just as if they were a young couple out for an evening stroll. Only Ty and Brianna knew how much effort it took for Ty to walk the torturous yards to the wagon where the sheriff and Brianna’s father stood.
As soon as they reached the side of the wagon, Brianna gave Ty’s waist a slight squeeze and went to hug her worried father. Sheriff Young watched the touching reunion for a few moments, grateful the girl appeared to be unharmed, then turned his attention to the bounty hunter.
“We found the men and Lundgren,” he said quietly. “We buried what was left of them. Wasn’t much point to trying to bring ’em back with us.”
Ty simply nodded in acknowledgement. She had figured the wild animals would have found the bodies by now. Her eyes sparkled with grim amusement. “I’m surprised they’d have touched Lundgren.”
The sheriff gave a short bark of laughter. “Turns out he was good for something, after all.” Sharp eyes took in the pallor of Mason’s face, and the way his knuckles were whitened by his tight grip on the sideboards. “Your horse stabled?”
Receiving a blank stare, Sheriff Young pursed his lips and headed for the small lean-to partially hidden by the long cabin. His respect for the young farm girl increased by several notches when he found Mason’s horse, and two others, obviously well fed and cared for. It didn’t take too much figuring to realize that Mason had been wounded pretty badly, and that Brianna had somehow managed to take care of not only the bounty hunter, but the animals as well.
Ty closed her eyes after the sheriff walked away. Waves of dizziness were pounding over her and only her stubborn pride was keeping her on her feet. She couldn’t tell where the burning pain of one wound ended and another began. Full lips tightened to a thin line. Her entire body felt on fire.
At the sound of her name being called, Ty struggled to open her eyes again. George Duncan stood close by, face etched with concern. “We need to get you into the wagon, son, and I don’t want to hear any arguments.”
Ty’s lips twisted in a weak smile as she looked from George to Brianna and back again. “With all due respect, sir, I think I’m all argued out.” Her raspy voice was barely audible.
Father and daughter worked as a team and tried to be as gentle as possible. Still, by the time they had the gunslinger into the back of the wagon, Ty had passed out from the pain. Tears streaked unnoticed down Brianna’s face as she crawled in beside her. She sat with her back against the sideboards and lifted Ty’s head to rest in her lap, a trembling hand stroking thick, dark hair.
George met the sheriff at the lean-to, and together they brought the horses out, tethering them to the back of the wagon. It was a subdued group that started the long, careful trek home.
“But he hasn’t asked me yet.” The words were almost a whisper as Brianna looked to her mother in silent appeal.
Helen dropped a comforting hand on Brianna’s shoulder as she leaned over and poured the men more coffee. She was terribly proud of her daughter after watching her seeing to Ty Mason’s wounds and getting him comfortable before letting herself be taken care of. Brianna had been practically asleep on her feet in exhaustion, yet she didn’t stop until her tasks were done. Even after sleeping for eight hours, Brianna’s face was still pinched and pale from her ordeal.
And now this.
“Sheriff, don’t you think…”
“Mrs. Duncan, please.” Sheriff Young held his hand up tiredly. “Your husband and I have been over and over this. There’s already been talk in town.” He cast a sympathetic glance towards Brianna. “Regardless of why, a young woman who spends three days alone with a man who is not her husband is compromised. There’s no other way.”
Helen Duncan sat down heavily in a chair next to her husband and accepted his hand gratefully. “But they were going to be married in any case. Why does it have to be so rushed?”
The sheriff looked at George in mute appeal. “The sooner they’re wed, the sooner talk will die down. Helen,” George gazed steadily at his wife and tried not to notice the tears shimmering in her eyes, “her reputation has been sullied. Without a husband, there’s no telling what kind of men we’ll have sniffing after her.”
George sighed and raked his hand through his hair. “Brianna, I’m sorry. But it’s true. And we can’t take the chance that Mr. Mason will just up and leave as soon as he’s healed. We really don’t know him.”
“Well, I know him and he wouldn’t do that to me. He l-loves me.” Sparkling tears that had lain in wait finally coursed down too-pale cheeks and Brianna gave in to her sobs.
“Brianna. Brianna, honey. C’mon…let’s leave the gentlemen to their coffee and go outside for a bit.” Helen ushered her oldest child out of her chair and led her outside, but not before casting her husband a frigid glare making him wince.
“Oh, Mama! This isn’t how it was supposed to be!” Brianna threw herself into her mother’s arms and sobbed bitterly. The ride home the day before had been nightmarish, with the sheriff making her tell her story repeatedly and every noise Ty made jarring on already frazzled nerves. She had thought their ordeal was over once they made it to the homestead, and then this morning Sheriff Young had broken the news that the Judge would be arriving the following week to perform the wedding ceremony. At the homestead, no less.
No pretty wedding gown, no blushing bridesmaids, no flowers, and most of all, no doting groom. She held little hope that Ty Mason would be happy about being forced into marriage–regardless of the fact that she knew Ty loved her.
“Brianna. Look at me, child.” Helen pulled her daughter’s chin up gently to get her full attention. “This isn’t what I wanted for you. You know that. But you have a young man in there who loves you very much, and you love him. Right?”
Brianna nodded her head shakily, eyes red-rimmed from crying.
“A lot of people don’t have even that when they start out. They’re forced together through circumstance and they don’t even know each other. Your father and I were very fortunate that we loved each other and that it was an advantageous match for our families. Our parents could very easily have kept us apart.” Helen took a deep breath and sighed. “All I really want for you is to be happy, Brianna. And if Ty Mason is the person that makes you happy, then nothing else matters. Do you understand?”
Brianna sniffled a little and then nodded again. “Do you think he’ll be very mad?”
Helen laughed lightly, her hands idly caressing Brianna’s hair. “He’ll be furious, my dear. But he’ll get over it.” She winked at her daughter and whispered, “Just tell him he won’t get another kiss out of you until he agrees.”
“Mother!” Brianna protested, giggling.
“And a few well timed pouts won’t hurt either,” Helen added mischievously. “Now, come on. We’d best check on the children. They’ve been awfully quiet this morning.”
Brianna shivered as she stood up. “It’s getting a lot colder out, too.” Mother and daughter stared up at the overcast sky. The wind had begun to pick up, bringing with it a hint of frost and it was apparent that the warm weather had finally gone past. Winter would soon be here in earnest.
Ty Mason sat half upright with a pillow supporting his head and upper shoulders; a thick quilt pulled up and held tightly under his chin. Sheriff Young thought the bounty hunter looked like a recalcitrant child and only the fierce glare in the ice blue eyes kept Tom from laughing at the image before him.
That and the fact the bounty hunter’s hand was a little too close to his six-gun for comfort.
“I did what you wanted,” Ty growled out. “Lundgren is dead and Brianna is safe. I will not protect her from one unwanted marriage, just to force her into another.”
Sheriff Young perched on the edge of the small desk chair and tried not to sigh. He’d been arguing for hours; first with Brianna’s parents, then Brianna, and now with Ty Mason. He couldn’t understand why they were being so difficult when it was obvious to anyone that the two loved each other and would get married at some point anyway. They just had to move up the timetable for propriety’s sake.
“Call me Mr. Mason,” Ty shot back.
Tom stood back up abruptly and began pacing back and forth in the small bedroom. The room was directly off of the kitchen, a fact which had made it easy for Brianna’s kidnappers to steal her away from the house with no one the wiser. Tom’s eyes glinted with humor as he recalled George’s comment about the type of men who would be after his daughter now if the bounty hunter refused to marry her.
He very carefully kept his back to Ty as he idly looked through a book that had been lying on Brianna’s desk. “All right. You win. We’ll just set Brianna down and give her a list of the eligible men in town and ask her to choose. That way you’ll be off the hook and Brianna will have some sort of say in the matter.” He put the book back down and slowly turned to gauge Mason’s reaction.
Ty’s scowl got even darker as she tried to bring up the faces of the men she had seen while she was in town. Rowdy, immature cowhands, shopkeepers old enough to be Brianna’s fathers, a worn-out miner who was in love with a whiskey bottle–all in all, not an encouraging list.
“Tyrel Mason!” The sheriff jumped a foot in the air and Ty almost lost her grip on the quilt.
“What?” Wide blue eyes stared at the irate blonde in the doorway.
Brianna gave the sheriff a withering glare and motioned him toward the doorway with her head. Tom was more than happy to oblige. Once he was out of the room, Brianna dragged a chair over and wedged it beneath the doorknob to make sure no one else could enter unannounced.
Ty watched all this with a distinctly uneasy feeling, which got even worse when Brianna stamped over to the bed and proceeded to yank the covers back, almost ripping Ty’s fingers off in the process.
“I need to check your wounds,” Brianna stated, her gentle touch belying the harshness of her tone.
“I…they’re feeling a lot better,” Ty offered hesitantly. “You…umm…stand outside the door long?”
Brianna didn’t answer as she checked the many bandages, rewrapping some and removing others where the wounds had healed enough not to need the protective covering. After she completed her inspection, she sat on the edge of the bed, clasping her hands together to try to hide their trembling.
“Did I hurt you?” she asked quietly, finally meeting Ty’s eyes.
“No. Not at all.” Felt pretty damned good, actually.
“Good.” Brianna remained silent for a moment, then turned to face the bounty hunter a little more fully. “I didn’t realize you wanted to be let off the hook, Mr. Mason.”
Uh oh. Guess she was outside the door long enough.
“I know that the…situation…is a little more complicated than my family and the sheriff realizes, but I thought we had that settled. Back at the cabin.” Brianna twisted the material of her dress in her fingers and took a deep breath. “I made my choice in front of the Sheriff’s Office a week ago,” she continued softly, keeping the light blue eyes trapped with her own. “I thought you had made your choice, too.”
Ty was feeling a little light-headed. All the anger she had felt at being forced into a marriage drifted away as Ty finally realized who exactly it was that she’d be marrying. She cleared her throat and carefully placed a large hand over Brianna’s smaller ones, squeezing them gently. “I can be pretty stupid sometimes, Brianna.” Her lips twisted in a wry grin. “I just don’t like being told what to do. Even when it’s something I really want to do in the first place.”
“I’ve been alone for a long time, Brianna. Too long, I guess.” Ty ducked her head, trying to get away from those piercing green eyes that seemed to see right through her. “I just…can’t hardly see why you’d want to marry me.” Her voice cracked and she had to stop. She hadn’t cried in a long time either.
“Ty.” A soft hand gently cupped Ty’s cheek, almost destroying the bounty hunter’s composure. “Ty, I love you. I don’t care who you were. I don’t care that you’re female instead of male. I don’t even care if we live out in the middle of some godforsaken wilderness. As long as I’m with you.” Brianna forced Ty’s gaze to meet her own. “You’re who I want. No one else.”
Ty tried one last time to get this small, beautiful woman to see reason. “I can’t even give you children, Brianna.”
Brianna gave out a half-sob, half-gasp as she wrapped her arms around broad shoulders that were shaking with suppressed emotion. “Oh, Ty! Then just give me you,” she pleaded earnestly. “It will be enough. I swear it.”
Ty pushed her away and Brianna felt a small pang of hurt until she realized that the bounty hunter just needed some space to collect herself. Brianna settled back on the bed; her heart pounding in her chest as she waited for Ty’s response.
For her part, Ty couldn’t figure out why she was fighting so hard. She knew she couldn’t live without this woman. Had known it since the little, blonde spitfire had poked the hell out of her chest while she yelled at her. Ty was pretty sure she still had the bruises.
Her mouth curled up in a small smile. “What if I make you sleep on the hard ground… with no blankets?”
Brianna drew her shoulders back and gave Ty her best haughty look. “I’ll use you as a blanket.” Ty laughed.
“Okay. What if I make you lug all our gear around?”
“Gonna sell your horse, Mr. Mason?” Brianna retorted with an impish grin. Then she curled her arm in an attempt to show off her muscles through the material of her dress. “I can carry it. Don’t you worry about a thing.”
Ty laughed until she thought her stitches were going to come out. “Okay, okay! I give up!” She sobered up and leaned forward; her eyes soft and serious. “Then I guess I better marry you before someone else finds out what he’s missing.”
Brianna smiled through the tears suddenly pouring down her face. “And here Mama said it would take threatening you to get you to agree,” she laughed in relief.
“Threatening me?” Ty asked in surprise. “I’m a vicious bounty hunter! What kind of threat would work on me?”
Brianna tilted her head, then leaned in until their mouths were almost touching. “I was supposed to tell you I wouldn’t kiss you again until you said yes.”
“Oh,” Ty responded weakly, feeling shivers run up and down her back from the whisper of Brianna’s breath across her face. “That would have worked.”
Brianna laughed and straightened back up much to Ty’s consternation. “Hey!”
“What?” Brianna’s eyes twinkled at the frown on Ty’s face.
“I said yes, so I get a kiss. Right?”
Green eyes batted coyly. “Think you feel up to it, Mr. Bounty Hunter?”
Ty let out a soft growl and pulled the girl into her arms, ignoring the stab of pain in her hip. “I’ll always feel up to it, sweetheart,” she murmured as her fingers wrapped in golden hair and Brianna’s lips covered her own.
The day of the wedding dawned crisp and clear, a shaft of sunlight darting through a break in the curtains and waking the wounded bounty hunter. Ty eased up into a sitting position and was pleased to note she was moving easier. There was still a lot of pain in her hip, but her other wounds were almost completely healed.
Sharp blue eyes lit on her saddlebags and she frowned thoughtfully. After listening carefully for a few moments, she decided she was alone in the house, so she took a deep breath and carefully got out of bed. There was a decided limp in her gait, but Ty managed to get to the desk without incident. She grinned at the thought of what Brianna would say if she knew she’d gotten out of the bed.
The grin slowly faded as she dug into the saddlebag and drew out a package wrapped in oilcloth. With a tenderness she rarely showed, Ty carefully opened the parcel. Sunlight gleamed dully off the metal and Ty Mason–the most feared bounty hunter west of the Mississippi–blinked hard against the mist of tears clouding her vision.
Strong, slender fingers polished the golden band with a bit of cloth. “Not exactly what you had in mind for your little girl, was it, Mama,” she whispered softly. Sad blue eyes lifted to stare out the window. “You’d really like her, though. She’s sweet and gentle and pretty as a picture. And she’s a little spitfire like Daddy always said you were.”
A tiny smile tugged up the corner of her mouth, as she tucked the wedding ring away before rising to stand at the window. “I’ll take good care of her, and I’ll try my best to make her as happy as Daddy made you. I really wish you were here.” Her voice broke on the last sentence and she leaned her forehead against the cool glass, completely unaware of the bedroom door opening and closing behind her.
Ty stifled a gasp of pain as she whipped around to face her visitor. “Damn, Leroy! You’re getting as bad as your sister.”
Leroy chewed his lower lip and thought a bit about that one. All he did was walk in the room, right? Fingers crinkled the paper in his hands and he scuffed his foot along the floor. “I–I didn’t mean to be bad, Mister. I just wanted to give you this.” Leroy’s voice shook and his head hung so low his chin was almost touching his chest.
Ty felt like an idiot. Especially after glimpsing the tears glistening in those green eyes so like Brianna’s. She sighed heavily and made her way back to the bed. “I’m sorry, Leroy. You weren’t bad…I just didn’t hear you come in, is all.” She grinned and winked as the boy finally looked at her again. “Your sister sneaks in and tries to catch me doing something wrong,” she told him conspiratorially.
Leroy smiled back, his hurt feelings already forgotten. “You mean like standing up when your s‘posed to be sleeping?”
“Exactly,” Ty laughed. “So whatcha got there, son?”
“It’s a picture. Lily helped me some.” Leroy blushed, embarrassed now to be giving a gunfighter a silly drawing. “She helped me with the colors and stuff.”
Ty unfolded the paper and stared silently at the crude drawing of what she supposed was her on her horse riding off into the sunset. She pursed her lips slightly and cleared her throat. “This is a really nice picture, Leroy,” she began softly. Serious blue eyes caught Leroy’s. “But, I guess I can tell you this…”
Leroy watched the bounty hunter carefully, wide-eyed that he’d be telling a kid like him a secret.
“I don’t plan on leaving here anytime soon. Would you mind if I stuck around for a while?”
The grin on Leroy’s face lit up the entire room, and the boy let out an exuberant whoop of joy. “That’d be great, Mister! Sister really likes you and,” he ducked his head shyly, “I do too.”
Ty ruffled the dark head fondly and chuckled. “Well, that’s good to hear, son. Especially since I’m going to be your new brother.”
Leroy whooped again and danced around the room. “Can I tell Lily? Please, can I?”
“Sure you can.” Ty smiled as Leroy bounded out to go spread the news. Guess they weren’t all that sure I’d be staying, she thought to herself.
The door opened again just as she was easing back onto the bed. Her eyes lit up with a twinkle as she watched Brianna’s slender form sway toward her. “Hi,” she whispered quietly.
Full lips tensed against a smile. “You’ve been out of bed, haven’t you?” Brianna asked sternly, taking in the small lines of tension around Ty’s mouth and the pallor of her skin.
Dark eyebrows rose in question. “What makes you think that?” Ty asked innocently.
Brianna tilted her head and put her hands on her hips as she surveyed the room. “Your saddlebags have been moved, there’s a mark on the window, and you’re on top of the covers instead of being under them like you’re supposed to be. And,” she added, putting a hand up to stop Ty’s protest, “you’re white as a sheet, which you weren’t when I checked on you earlier.”
“Well, hell,” Ty muttered. “You sure you aren’t with the Pinkerton’s, Missy?”
Brianna laughed softly as she gestured for Ty to pull up her nightshirt. “Someone has to keep an eye on you, sweetheart. It’s a wonder you haven’t escaped and taken your horse out for a run.”
“The thought crossed my mind,” Ty responded dryly. “But there’s this little blonde who’d beat me up if I tried.”
The blonde in question flashed a bright smile, then bent to her task. Ty contented herself with watching the play of light in strawberry-blonde curls as her bandages were changed, reaching out a hand now and then to stroke the soft skin of Brianna’s arm.
“You’re making this awfully difficult,” Brianna murmured, a slight tremor in her fingers as she finally finished and pulled Ty’s shirt back down, grateful that it hid the smooth expanse of skin she was desperately trying not to caress.
“Good,” Ty whispered back. “Tom stopped by to see me yesterday.”
Brianna frowned at the abrupt change in subject. “Yes?”
The bounty hunter took Brianna’s hands and tugged her down to sit next to her. “He sent out telegrams to the family’s of Lundgren’s late wives. And to the people he forced into selling.”
Strong fingers traced designs on the back of Brianna’s hands, while Brianna waited patiently for Ty to get to the point. “What has that to do with us?” she asked when it appeared Ty wasn’t going to continue.
“Well, he said…now, if this bothers you, I’ll drop it and think of something else, okay?”
Brianna sighed and leaned in to give her husband-to-be a quick kiss. “Ty, just tell me. It can’t be that bad, whatever it is.” She eyed Ty’s serious expression. “Can it?”
“Hard to say,” Ty mumbled. She’d already learned not to take Brianna’s reactions for granted. Brianna had asked for her opinion the day before on what she should wear for the wedding. Considering there would only be the family and the sheriff and the sheriff’s girlfriend, Ty had answered that what she had on would suit her just fine. The blonde had run from the room crying, leaving a bemused gunfighter behind her. Ty had thought that the new gingham dress Brianna was wearing looked pretty damned good on her. She sighed at the memory. It had taken hours before the girl had forgiven her and come back to the room, and Ty still didn’t have a clue as to what she’d said wrong.
“It seems no one really wants the land back. They’ve already made homes elsewhere. So the sheriff thought we might be interested in taking it.” Ty’s heart sank as Brianna stood and walked away from her. Ah, hell. Here we go.
Brianna gazed out the window, standing in almost the exact spot Ty had earlier. She’d never been to Lundgren’s ranch, but the thought of living in his house…. She shuddered slightly. It was simply too much to ask of her.
“I don’t think I could do that, Ty. Live in that house, not knowing what he did to those poor women in there, not knowing what hell those walls witnessed.” Her body shuddered again.
“Brianna.” The sound of her name in that raspy whisper made a tremor run through Brianna for a completely different reason. “Please…come here.”
The girl slowly walked back to the bed and, at Ty’s motion, eased herself down to snuggle against the bounty hunter’s side. “I’m sorry.”
“Shh…it’s all right, darlin’.” Ty’s hands soothed over Brianna’s back much like she was calming a skittish filly. Tendrils of warmth snaked through her as Brianna cuddled even closer, and Ty fought to keep her mind on the conversation. She was painfully aware of the soft breasts pressing into her side.
“We wouldn’t have to live in his house. We could tear it down, if you like. Rebuild either there or somewhere else on the property.” Although Lundgren’s house was situated perfectly, the sun rising at the front of the structure and setting at the back where it could be seen from the bedroom windows, and the view of the mountains was spectacular. “Or we could just take a parcel closer to here and build on it. Whatever you want, Brianna.”
Brianna shifted slightly so she could see Ty’s face. “I thought you wanted to be out on the trail again, catching outlaws and things.”
“Well,” Ty drawled, “I figure the honeymoon should last for a couple years, at least. Might’s well be in a comfortable bed.”
That got a shy, pleased giggle and a pretty nice one-armed squeeze. “You’re not tired of me already?”
“Not even close,” Ty whispered, dipping her head down to steal a kiss. “I have plans for you, darlin’, and they include a lot more than you coming in here to change my bandages.”
“Oh,” Brianna sighed, lips parted in a silent invitation for another kiss.
“Damn!” Ty glared at Brianna’s father, who was standing in the doorway trying not to look toward the bed where his little girl looked entirely too comfortable.
George cleared his throat again. “Your mother wants to see you, Brianna. Company should be coming any time now.”
“Okay, Papa.” Brianna escaped the bed with as much dignity as possible under the circumstances, and hissed at her father on the way by. “Be nice!”
George rolled his eyes heavenward and shook his head. “Be nice, she says. What’s she expect me to say to you, anyway?” he asked the bounty hunter.
Ty smile slightly and gestured for George to take a seat. “Well, you’re here so I guess you want to say something to me.”
The man was silent for several long minutes, staring down at work-worn hands. “She’s very special to us, Mr. Mason,” he finally said, looking up with sad brown eyes. “I’m trusting you to take care of her. Give her a happy life.” He held up a hand when Ty started to speak. “Let me finish…please. I don’t know what you have planned once you heal up and you’re ready to travel again. But I–we would like to see Brianna, and you, every now and again. Maybe on holidays….” His voice trailed off.
“Sir, I’m not taking your daughter away from you,” Ty said quietly. “I’ve asked her to think about taking over all or part of Lundgren’s land. She doesn’t want to live in his house, but we could tear that down…build a new one. Whatever she wants, sir.” Their eyes met and Ty went on. “Winter’s coming. I thought we could stay at the boarding house in town until I can see about building our home…wherever she decides.”
A chill ran down her spine. “Our home.” She never thought she’d hear herself say that.
“I’m glad you’re going to be staying around,” George admitted, shoulders slumping slightly in relief. “You can stay here, you know. You don’t have to move into town.”
“Thank you for the offer.” Ty hesitated. “No offense, but I think I’d be more comfortable in town.”
George nodded in understanding and smiled at the bounty hunter. “Wouldn’t be much of a honeymoon with the parents underfoot.” They both chuckled, then George got a thoughtful look. “There was a small cabin on the outskirts of town. I wonder if it’s still empty… It’d be perfect for you through the winter.”
Ty relaxed against the pillow. The cabin would be exactly what they needed. What she needed. After being on her own for so long, even the past few days of confinement in the house had driven her close to her breaking point. The boarding house had been the only thing she could think of to retain her sanity…there would still be people around, but she figured if she rented out the rooms around them, she’d have a little breathing space.
“I’ll ask Tom about it when he gets here. Thank you, Mr. Duncan.”
George tilted his head and grinned. “Call me George. We’re going to be family soon.”
Blue eyes twinkled. “Then you’d best go back to calling me Ty…George.”
The noise of a wagon pulling into the yard filtered into the room. “This is it,” George stated. “I’ll leave you to get dressed, Ty.” They exchanged a firm handshake, then George went out to see to the new arrivals.
Brianna found her mother in her parent’s bedroom digging through a chest at the foot of their bed. “You wanted to see me, Mama?”
Helen straightened and smiled at her daughter. “Yes, I did. I have something special for you.” After making sure the door was securely closed, she drew Brianna over to the chest.
Reaching in, she pulled out an ivory gown trimmed with lace, smoothing the fabric with gentle hands as she held it up in front of Brianna. “It will probably be a little long, but you won’t really be walking much in it,” she told her with a bittersweet smile.
“Oh, Mama!” Brianna’s eyes filled with tears as she looked back and forth from the wedding dress to her mother. “It’s beautiful,” she murmured.
Helen gathered her in for a hug, squeezing her gently. “A girl needs to be dressed properly for her wedding. We may not be able to give you the frills that go along with it, but at least you’ll have this.” She paused to blink back her own tears. “I hope you’ll find as much joy in your marriage as I’ve found in mine, Brianna.”
The next few hours flew by as the two women prepared themselves. The sheriff’s future bride, Mabel, was brought in to give them a hand. While Helen was out fetching her, she made sure to tell George to keep the menfolk and children entertained until they were ready. He grumbled good-naturedly, but gave in to her wishes. At long last, Brianna stood in front of the full-length mirror, her body trembling slightly as her mother put the finishing touches on the gown.
The ivory dress had a scooped collar with lace trim along the hem, and satin ribbons tied into tiny bows at the waist. Puffy sleeves were gathered at the elbows and wrists, while the cloth hugged Brianna’s torso. Frilly crinolines flared the bottom portion out into a bell shape. Brianna felt like a princess.
“You’re beautiful, dear. Now let’s go find your prince.” Helen had listened many a time to her daughter’s childhood dreams and was profoundly grateful that her daughter was marrying a man she loved. They shared one last hug, then went out let everyone know it was time.
There was only one tense moment in the ceremony. When the judge asked Brianna to love, honor, and obey, the room had gone deathly quiet. Ty had finally sighed and changed the vows slightly. “Will you at least promise to try to obey?”
That got laughter from everyone, and Ty was treated to the sight of the tip of a pink tongue when Brianna stuck it out at her. The rest of ceremony was mercifully quick, though Ty didn’t know whether she should be dismayed or relieved at its brevity. Kissing the bride brought quite another emotion, though…one she was intimately familiar with, and very happy to indulge in for long moments.
“I think the kiss is lasting longer than the wedding,” Sheriff Young muttered. Ty couldn’t even muster a small glare. Her grin was too wide.
The judge lingered long enough to extend his congratulations and have the papers signed, then he was on his way. The others settled down for a bit to eat before heading out as well. Ty managed to catch the sheriff’s eye as he went by.
“Sheriff. George tells me there’s a cabin on the outskirts of town. Do you know if it’s still empty?”
“Why, yes it is.” He looked a little surprised. “Why did you want to know?”
“Well, I figure Brianna would appreciate a place of her own, even if it’s only for the winter. It’s too late in the year to try to get a place built, and I was thinking that cabin would be just fine for us.”
Sheriff Young nodded thoughtfully, then Mabel broke in. “Don’t you two worry about a thing. I’ll get some of the women together and have it all cleaned up for you. And I’m sure the sheriff,” she nudged the sheriff with her elbow, “can get some of the men out to give us a hand.”
“Oh, yes, dear. Of course.” He shot Ty a wink. “We’ll have it all set by tomorrow night…unless that’s too soon, of course.”
Ty grinned. “Nope. That’ll be just fine, Sheriff. Thank you. And thank you, Mabel.”
The heavyset woman blushed and fluttered her hands. “Glad to help, young man. Glad to help.” Tom just shook his head and led her off to say their good byes.
When Brianna’s parents began readying the children, Ty arched a dark eyebrow.
“We’ll be heading into town tonight, ourselves,” George answered to the unspoken question. “Least we can do is give you two a bit of privacy. I’ll be back out in the morning to take care of the chores, then bring the wife and young ones out later in the afternoon.”
Ty nodded her thanks, then eased out of the way for Brianna to hug her father. Ty was embarrassed, yet pleased, when Leroy and Lily came up to hug her good bye, and she hastened to reassure them that they’d both be there the next day when they came home. They still weren’t sure what was happening around them and were afraid their sister was leaving them forever.
And then, finally, the new husband and wife were alone in the house. It was hard to say which of the two was more nervous…the hardened bounty hunter, or the innocent farm girl.
“Well,” Brianna began nervously, “I guess I should….” Her voice trailed off as she realized everything had been cleaned up and there was only one thing really left to do.
Ty stood, gingerly testing her weight on her injured leg before reaching her hand down to Brianna. “C’mere for a second,” she requested softly.
Wide green eyes stared upwards at her, then Brianna took her hand and Ty wrapped long arms around her. Ty buried her nose in silky blonde hair and inhaled the sweet scent of jasmine from the soap Brianna had used, tightening her hold as she felt the girl snuggle into her long form.
A deep breath and then another, then Brianna drew back to look into sparkling azure eyes. She gave a tremulous smile. “I have a surprise for you,” she offered, grateful that Ty seemed willing to take things slowly with her.
“Really?” Ty grinned and touched her nose to Brianna’s. “What is it?”
“It’s outside. C’mon, I’ll show you.” Brianna was careful to keep to Ty’s right side, her left arm wrapped around the bounty hunter’s waist in subtle support of the wounded woman’s weight, as she led her through the kitchen and outside.
Ty frowned in puzzlement as her new wife led her to a small building that she had thought was a storage shed or smokehouse. When Brianna opened the door, warm moist air billowed out and Ty smiled in appreciation. The structure housed a pot-bellied stove and a huge, claw-foot bathtub, with a bench along one wall and a table filled with soaps, wash rags, and towels sitting close by. The tub was already partially filled with warm water and more buckets waited to be filled with the water boiling merrily in pots on the stove.
“I thought you’d be pretty tired of sponge baths, by now,” Brianna told her shyly. “Mama set this up before she left…it should only take a few buckets to heat the water up properly.”
Ty had no idea what to say, so she merely drew Brianna close to her again and kissed her softly. They both trembled at the sensations the kiss aroused. “You’re amazing,” Ty whispered finally, dropping another light kiss on those sweet lips.
“Thank you,” Brianna answered, a flush rising to her cheeks. The flush grew even more pronounced as she continued. “You should probably get in while I’m here…in case you need help,” she murmured, eyes firmly on the floorboards.
A dark brow shot up and Ty stifled a smile. “All right, but maybe you should go change first.” Luminous eyes shot up to lock with her own questioningly. “That’s a beautiful dress and I’d hate for it to get wet…accidentally,” Ty explained, resolutely keeping her lips from twitching into a grin.
“I’ll…I’ll be right back,” Brianna choked out, her face flaming red, and she backed towards the door before getting herself turned around to dash to the house.
Ty watched her panicked escape with a bemused grin. “Ty Mason,” she muttered to herself, “you are a cruel, cruel woman.” Then she chuckled softly and sat on the bench to begin the arduous task of removing her boots.
She was just shrugging out of her shirt when a light tapping sounded at the door. “C’mon in,” she responded, then cursed at herself when she realized there was no way Brianna could hear her through the thick door. Ty rubbed her scarred throat in irritation as she rose and padded to the door.
Brianna was sure she was going to faint. Her hands trembled as they gripped her load of clothing tightly to her chest, and she couldn’t keep herself from staring at Ty’s heavily muscled stomach. It was one thing to see the bounty hunter in all her naked glory while she was unconscious or lying still while she tended her wounds. It was quite another to have Ty standing not two feet in front of her, looking decidedly dark and dangerous with her pants slung low along her hips and the broad band of cloth hiding the soft swell of bosom Brianna knew was beneath it. Brianna’s fingers tingled with the need to touch the woman before her, and tears welled in her eyes as she wondered if she was even allowed to touch her now.
Ty’s irritation faded quickly when she saw the tears well in Brianna’s eyes. Pulling her gently into the room, she wrapped her up in another hug. “Shhh. What’s wrong, darlin’?”
It took Brianna a few moments to gather herself together. “I-I’m sorry, here it’s our w-wedding day and I’m b-blubbering like some fool child,” she stuttered out between hiccups.
“Sit here, sweetheart,” Ty ordered, leading Brianna to the bench.
Miserable green eyes followed her movements as Ty dumped hot water into the tub and moved the table closer. Ty’s hip was aching with a dull throb, but none of the pain showed on her features. Once the water was heated to her satisfaction, she turned back and grasped Brianna’s hands gently. “Don’t be afraid,” she murmured softly.
Moving slowly and deliberately, Ty removed the cloth binding her breasts, then leaned down and stripped off her pants. She hoped that by making herself vulnerable first, it would put the young blonde more at ease. Seeing the wide-eyed gaze staring back at her, Ty wasn’t quite sure she had succeeded.
She also wasn’t sure if it was the steam in the room or the unwavering green gaze that was directed at her nipples, but her knees were close to buckling. She cleared her throat in a vain attempt to get Brianna to meet her eyes. “Look, I’m…umm…gonna get in the tub, all right? You can,” a deep breath to keep her voice steady, “wash my back, maybe, or even join me if you want.”
That got Brianna’s attention. Ty was suddenly snared by emerald pools and she stopped breathing. She wanted to touch the girl so badly she hurt, but she needed to keep Brianna calm. The girl looked like she was ready to bolt out the door any second.
“I’ll keep my eyes closed…honest,” she continued hesitantly. “And…and you can sit behind me so I can’t see.”
Ty was so caught up in her near panic that she almost missed the softly spoken acquiescence. “All right? Really?” She flashed a broad grin and put her hands on her hips in satisfaction. “Well, good then!”
Brianna’s giggle caught her off guard. “What?” Ty asked, frowning in confusion.
“You should probably get in the tub before I lose my nerve,” Brianna whispered, hiding a smile behind her hand. Seeing Ty strike such a masculine pose while she was completely naked was about to send the girl into a giggling fit.
Another flash of white teeth, then Ty was stepping into the tub, hesitating only when she felt a warm hand on the bare skin of her lower back. She murmured a “thanks” and let the small blonde steady her as she sank into the pleasantly heated water.
Brianna kept a careful eye on her new husband, smothering a relieved sigh when the sky blue eyes were hidden from view. It was silly of her, she knew. After all, she’d seen Ty’s nude form enough times while she tended her wounds, yet this was somehow…different. Her hands trembled as she unfastened the buttons of her dress and slipped it off, a rosy hue tinting her cheeks as she wondered what Ty would say when the bounty hunter found out she hadn’t put underclothes on.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the tub and placed her hands on Ty’s broad, muscular shoulders to balance herself. Another breath and she let her body slide into the tub, their flesh touching intimately for the first time.
Brianna’s breath caught in her throat when she felt two strong hands guiding her smaller legs down along Ty’s powerful thighs. Some minor adjustments and the two women were comfortably nestled in a tub that somehow seemed to be a lot smaller than it was a few minutes ago.
“Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Brianna squeaked out. “Wonderful. Never better.” Her eyes widened as Ty chuckled and she felt the smooth muscles under her hands vibrate. Without conscious thought, she let her hands travel across the broad expanse, tracing pale scars from old wounds, tenderly caressing the angry welts of new ones. She gratefully realized that most of the strong back was unblemished and she continued her exploration curiously.
She’d almost forgotten the flesh was attached to someone when a wet cloth was unceremoniously dangled in front of her face, accompanied by an odd choking noise. “Ty?”
Brianna was leaning forward as she spoke, so when Ty turned partially around to face her their lips were scant inches apart. Brilliant blue eyes sparkled at her and then those few inches were gone. The kisses were soft and gentle, small nibbles coaxing out sighs and Brianna thought her heart would explode from the sweetness of it all.
A calloused hand cradled her cheek and she heard Ty take a trembling breath. “If we keep this up, we’ll be consummating the wedding right here.” Ty gave a rueful smile and pressed the cloth into Brianna’s hand. “Bath first, okay?”
“I’m sorry. I just got….” Brianna let the words trail off as she caught a glimpse of a taut nipple. The tip of her tongue peeked out to moisten suddenly dry lips and she watched with some bemusement as her own hand edged forward to see what the wrinkled nub felt like.
Ty expelled a groan and captured the wandering hand. Ignoring the twinge in her hip, she turned further in the tub and wrapped strong arms around her wife, her lips pressing against the moist heat of Brianna’s neck. She kissed her way up to a tiny earlobe and nibbled its edge. “Bath,” she breathed.
“B-bath. Right.” Brianna shuddered in Ty’s embrace, her entire body aflame with the feel of skin upon skin. She was almost dizzy with the barrage of sensations coursing through her, but she managed to pull herself away from Ty’s lean form and lather the cloth.
Gentle hands washed as much of Ty’s body as Brianna could reach and she reluctantly gave up the cloth for the bounty hunter to finish the job. Then Ty maneuvered the two of them around so she could return the favor. Ty was feeling pretty proud of herself until she went to wash the small blonde’s hair—as soon as Ty’s slender fingers began massaging her scalp, Brianna began moaning deep in her throat. The dark haired woman swallowed heavily and tried her damnedest not to squirm against the ache in her groin.
One final rinse and the torture was over for the moment. Brianna rose from the tub first, turning to brace herself against the edge so Ty could follow her safely. They both realized at the same moment that they had lost the relative concealment of the water, and the air was charged with an awkward stillness.
Ty moved first, reaching for a towel and offering it with a hesitant smile. Brianna laughed softly and took it from the trembling hands. She stepped closer to the startled gunslinger and began drying her off, careful to steer away from potentially dangerous areas. Once again, Ty found herself short of breath as she took up another towel and gently patted down her wife. Still in complete silence, they turned their backs to each other and dressed themselves for the walk back to the house.
Ty unobtrusively studied Brianna’s bent head and the way the blonde twisted her fingers in the fabric of her dress. “Hey,” she called softly. Brianna looked up and smiled nervously. “I love you.”
The nervous smile transformed into a relieved grin and Ty found herself with an armful of happy womanhood. Completely ignoring any discomfort from her wounds, she swung her wife around in a circle and bestowed a kiss on warm lips before setting her back on her feet again. “I love you, too,” Brianna answered breathlessly.
They shared another long kiss, then walked arm in arm to the house, anxious to see what else the night would bring.
The soft glow of the oil lamp illuminated the room and cast dancing shadows across the two women changing into their nightclothes. Brianna struggled into a flower print nightgown while Ty slipped a thigh length sleep shirt over her head.
If it had been left up to the bounty hunter, she would have skipped the clothing altogether, but she still remembered her mother’s words of wisdom for this special moment, not to mention the conversation her brother had shared. It had been a few days past their fifteenth birthday and she had known that Tyrel had had ‘The Talk’ with their father.
“C’mon, Tyrel! All Mama told me was that I had to do what my husband said. And,” she had grimaced at the thought, “that the best a lady could hope for was for him to be gentle. There’s gotta be more to it than that!”
Tyrel had laughed at her in his new deep voice and shaken his head. “That’s pretty much what Papa said, Victoria Lynn. We men have to treat you ladies like delicate flowers and not inflict our baser selves on you any more than necessary.”
“Baser selves,” she snorted. “This delicate flower can beat you with one hand tied behind her back and you know it!” That had gotten her a wounded glare, but Tyrel hadn’t argued the fact. Victoria Lynn had been able to beat him up since they were twelve. Not something the growing man was proud of.
He leaned back against a tree and frowned thoughtfully. “It’s kind of stupid, really,” he admitted. “You’re supposed to marry a girl because she’s beautiful and will give you beautiful children, but Papa says I have to make sure all the lights are out before I touch her.” He glanced at his sister in confusion. “What’s the point of having a pretty wife if you’re not allowed to look at her?”
Victoria Lynn settled next to him and rubbed her chin. “Hmph. That doesn’t make much sense. Did he tell you to keep your clothes on, too?”
Tyrel nodded. “Yes. And to make sure that I only pulled up her gown enough to do my duty,” he sighed dramatically.
“Doesn’t sound like much fun,” she stated mournfully. “It’s a wonder people have children at all.”
“I guess that’s why they call it a man’s duty and a wife’s burden,” Tyrel agreed.
They’d sat quietly absorbing their new knowledge until they had suddenly looked at each other and grinned. “Beat you there!” Tyrel had yelled, jumping to his feet and running to the creek.
“Not fair!” Victoria Lynn shouted back, her long legs enabling her to catch up with him and they dove into the cool waters laughing with youthful exuberance.
The soft voice of her young bride brought the bounty hunter back to the present with a jolt. Her lips curled in a gentle smile as she noticed that Brianna was already snuggled under the covers, the faded quilt drawn all the way up to her chin. “Just thinking, sweetheart,” she rasped out quietly. “I’m sorry.”
Brianna inched her hand out from underneath the covers and stroked Ty’s forearm. “Do you…are you….” She sighed and tried again. “Have you changed your mind?” she finally got out with a nervous smile.
“No! No I haven’t, Brianna.” Ty sat still for the longest time and then breathed out a heavy sigh. She turned her body so she was facing Brianna, a long leg tucked up beneath her. Worried azure eyes studied the young woman’s face. “Did your mother talk to you about…this?” Slender fingers waved in a vague motion across the bed.
Brianna felt the heat rise in her face and she smiled shyly. “Yes, she did.”
“Oh. Good, good.” Ty gave her a weak smile.
“What’s wrong, Ty?” Brianna was more nervous about Ty’s odd behavior than she had been about the consummation of the wedding itself. Her mother hadn’t said anything about having to actually discuss the act. Brianna had thought they would just do whatever came naturally and that Ty would have enough experience for the both of them.
Ty brought Brianna’s hand up and dropped a kiss on her knuckles. A stalling tactic, maybe, but she couldn’t figure out a graceful way to get rid of the covers and do her duty like her brother had told her. No matter which way she thought about it, it just seemed awkward as all hell. We should’ve stayed in the damned tub. At least there she’d gotten to feel her young bride’s smooth skin against her own.
Brianna had an unexpected thought as she watched Ty’s gaze dart about the room and her eyes widened. “Honey? Haven’t you ever…done this before?”
Ty blushed furiously, both at the use of the endearment and at the thought of admitting she was untried. Bolting to her feet, she stood in front of the small window trying unsuccessfully to hide her uneasiness. “Women are supposed to save themselves for marriage,” she muttered at last.
Brianna sat up in shock, grateful her husband couldn’t see what was probably a most unladylike expression on her face. Once again, the odd combination of male and female that was Ty Mason struck her forcefully and she struggled to come to terms with it. A small smile started and slowly grew as she realized that she’d be the first to initiate the bounty hunter, just as Ty would be hers. She was both delighted and proud.
Easing out from under the covers, she took a few short steps and wrapped her arms around Ty’s waist, leaning her head against broad shoulders. “Good thing we’re married then, isn’t it?”
The tension drained away from Ty’s stiff form and she turned around to face her wife. A crooked grin lit her features and she chuckled before bending down to give Brianna a gentle kiss. “Did your mother mention anything about clothes?” she asked hopefully.
“Just something about them not staying on very long,” Brianna murmured in response, small fingers already reaching for the pearl buttons of Ty’s sleep shirt.
“Oh. Good, good.”
There were only the sounds of slightly elevated breathing and the rustling of clothing for the next few moments, as Ty fought with the slim ribbons that served as fastenings for Brianna’s nightgown. Small hands smoothing back Ty’s shirt and lightly tracing her breasts only served to make it impossible for the bounty hunter to concentrate. A frustrated growl slipped past her lips and Brianna laughed in response, taking pity on her husband and stepping away to remove her clothing herself.
Ty followed her example and their clothing hit the floor at the same time. Neither woman noticed the synchronicity of their actions—they were much too involved in staring at the sudden expanse of flesh bared to their gazes. Deep blue eyes shot up to misty green and Ty swallowed hard.
“You’re…built…differently than me,” she stated inanely.
Brianna ducked her head shyly, self-consciously running her fingers over the smooth curve of her waist and hips. Most of her strength was hidden by soft flesh and, while not heavy by any stretch of the imagination, she’d often bemoaned the sturdy nature of her build. “Good breeding stock” she’d once overheard someone tell her father. “Not in your lifetime,” her father had answered brusquely, which had made her feel a little better…but not by much.
To her dismay, her lower lip started to quiver and she automatically tightened her mouth to control it. Then the heat from Ty’s body enveloped her and Brianna sighed as she stepped closer. “Can I touch you?” Ty asked hesitantly.
Brianna nodded mutely and stood as still as possible as Ty traced the outline of her figure with the barest of pressure. “So soft,” came the quiet whisper, “so beautiful. Your skin’s like silk,” Ty observed, with a hint of awed wonder.
The young blonde looked up in surprise, catching the most breathtaking smile she’d ever seen. “You don’t mind?” she couldn’t help asking.
Ty frowned at her in confusion. “Mind what?”
“That we’re so different.” Brianna let her own fingers travel across Ty’s whipcord muscles. “You’re so lean and so strong….” Her voice trailed off as her hands dipped to the almost nonexistent curve of Ty’s hips. She shook her head as she motioned to herself. “I’m just…”
Two fingers placed across her lips silenced her. “You’re just the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. You’re perfect,” Ty told her emphatically.
When Brianna didn’t seem to be convinced, Ty tilted her head and studied her silently. She took Brianna’s hands in a gentle grasp and settled them around her neck, then took a half step closer, sliding her thigh between the blonde’s until there wasn’t a hint of space between them. The curves of their bodies fit as though they were made for each other—and as far as Ty Mason was concerned, they were.
“Absolutely perfect,” she whispered in her bride’s ear, strong arms holding her close.
“Mr. Mason?” Brianna finally spoke after giving Ty a gentle squeeze and lingering a bit longer in the warm embrace.
“Yes, Mrs. Mason?”
“Your hand is on my posterior.”
Ty jerked back as if she were stung and her face flushed crimson. “I–I’m sorry! I thought…”
Brianna just giggled at her and leapt onto the bed, somehow making the childish act look graceful. She gave the stunned bounty hunter her most seductive smile. “I’ve heard that gunslingers have to be very fast,” she stated slowly.
Ty watched her warily and nodded her head, having no idea where this was going.
“Do they have a lot of stamina, too?” Brianna asked, tracing an idle pattern on the quilt and looking up at her husband through her lashes.
Sparkling blue eyes narrowed and Ty flashed a wolfish grin. “More stamina than a farm girl, I’d bet,” she growled back and slowly stalked her way to her giggling bride.
The chapters will end different for the two versions. Chapter 18 will be for the NC-17 (hot monkey sex) version, while Chapter 18 for the PG-13 version will be the day after.PG-13 readers should jump to Chapter 19 to get back into the story.