THE WRONG MAN
Deserted by her father at the tender age of seven, Jenna Leigh-Whittington had taught herself to ride, shoot, brawl…and steer clear of the opposite sex. But now, in a lonely Utah canyon, the Pinkerton agent has drawn her gun on a rugged stranger—only to discover that, far from the dangerous outlaw she’d been tracking, he is Branch McCauley, hired gun…and the most irresistible rascal ever to tempt and torment a woman!
THE RIGHT WOMAN
If there’s one thing McCauley trusts less than a female, it’s a female who packs a six-gun. But what a woman! Vowing to bring the sensuous hellcat to heel, McCauley has no inkling that their passionate battle of wills has just begun. Taming Jenna will be the most seductive—and satisfying—job he’s ever taken on.
A man’s naked chest was one thing, Jenna Leigh-Whittington told herself as she crept through the brush. After all, this was 1879, not the dark ages, and she was no stranger to the sight of an unclothed male. Back home in Illinois, farmhands often went shirtless, toiling under a broiling sun.
Besides, Jenna had decided fifteen years ago at the ripe age of seven never to make the same mistake her mother had in giving her heart to a man. So a chest was all Jenna had expected to see of the masculine form.
Now she was fully grown and over a thousand miles from home, in Utah, dressed as a boy and doing a cold, dangerous job no one believed a woman could do. Scary, but worth it because it would insure her freedom. At the moment, rather than fearing for her life, she fretted over the possibility of having to inspect a man’s bare bottom.
Jenna’s short Indian-style bow tangled in the bushes as she sneaked closer to the camp she’d discovered thanks to its telltale scent of coffee. She worked the bow free without a sound. The damp ground beneath her knees smelled of summer growth. She gave a mental grunt of disgust at the dirt and grass stains being ground into her coat and trousers. Hopefully, they would not be her only souvenirs from tonight’s adventure. She needed the reward money success promised.
Rewards didn’t truly matter, though. All in the line of duty. A man’s duty. Which she was doing.
For days, Jenna and her sorrel, Gent, had tracked her quarry from Denver to Cheyenne and on west through every godless whistle-stop along the Union Pacific Railroad. So far he had escaped her without granting her a single peek at him. He knew good horseflesh; she had to give him that.
But now she had him—trapped in a dead-end draw west of Evanston, surrounded by aromatic sagebrush, sego lilies, jackrabbits, and the red crenellated sandstone cliffs called Echo Canyon.
To avoid detection, she had left the sorrel in the main canyon and threaded her way up the draw on foot. The branches thinned and she could see him now, leaning against a saddle on the ground and gnawing a stick of jerky. Beyond the campfire, a horse stomped and swished its tail. Jenna envied the horse that long tail. A whole hoard of mosquitoes busily sucked her hide. She didn’t dare slap at the pests. Too noisy.
Muscles of iron strained the seams of the man’s chambray shirt and tan denim trousers as he sat up to dig another strip of jerky out of his saddlebag. A black Stetson shadowed his eyes. The dim light from the fire made determining the color of his mustache and beard difficult, but they looked dark. Dark enough for her to feel confident she had indeed found the man she sought.
Black Jack Mendoza, cardsharp, frequenter of saloons, consort of soiled doves, train robber, and murderer.
A desperate, dangerous man.
Jenna’s mouth went dry as gunpowder at the thought of facing him alone. Too late to worry over that now. Swallowing convulsively, she drew her .44 calibre Starr army revolver and prepared to confront the man. She eared back the hammer with her thumb and the click shattered the still night like the roar of a cannon.
The man lunged to his feet, his gun drawn so fast she never saw his hand move.
“Easy, mister, put the gun away.” Jenna’s voice came out a hoarse croak. “I’ve got you covered.”
Branch McCauley froze, his keen eyes seeking his adversary among the shadows, his guts gripping his backbone like an angry badger.
He must be getting old, letting himself be taken unaware like this. Had Mendoza circled back on him? The voice sounded young. Hell, he hoped some idiotic kid hungry for fame hadn’t followed him from one of the railroad towns he’d traveled through searching for Mendoza. McCauley would far rather face off with a fully grown, cold-hearted killer.
Face carefully blank, body alert, he eased the gun into its holster and waited for his adversary to reveal himself. Finally, the intruder stepped into the fire’s glow. McCauley frowned.
A boy? What…he couldn’t be more than thirteen or fourteen. Damn.
A wide-brimmed hat failed to hide the soft, delicate face of his opponent, untouched by a man’s razor. Baggy trousers and an oversized coat hung on the slight frame like a half-stuffed scarecrow. The boy carried a short bow over one shoulder, a quiver on the other. And somewhere in between, the puerile assumption of manhood. He had eyes the size of tin plates—fear induced, McCauley reckoned—and small, slender, fragile-looking hands. Chances were that the look of fragility was deceptive, considering die heavy weapon the kid had aimed at his chest.
Definitely not Mendoza.
McCauley’s jaw clenched. Blasted kids. They saw only the glory side of killing. Never the ghosts. The regrets. He’d thought he’d left his reputation behind in the Colorado gold camps. Wrong, obviously. He sure hoped he wouldn’t be seeing this boy’s pretty, innocent face in future nightmares. Nightmares peopled by the dead of McCauley’s past.
Jenna scowled as she studied the man by the flickering glare of his campfire. He had the right build and appeared close to thirty, Mendoza’s age. But something didn’t fit.
The Denver police chief had described her quarry as a spoiled aristocrat, too busy wooing Lady Luck and every other female to be much of a train robber, let alone a killer. But the rogue in front of Jenna looked too lean and hard to be spoiled, too wary and aloof to be a ladies’ man.
To Jenna he seemed the perfect gunslinger: cold, tough, and ready to spring. Like a big yellow cougar perched on a ledge. Or a rattler, tightly coiled. Either way, his bite would be deadly.
In spite of the cool night breeze, sweat oozed from her pores. She couldn’t forget that lightning draw. Why had she come here? How had she expected to take an outlaw Pinkerton’s other agents had failed to bring in? No, she refused to think that way. She was every bit as capable as any man to capture Mendoza. She had to believe that, the same way she had to do what she’d set out to do. Only one question remained: Was this Mendoza or not?
“Who are you, mister?”
“Who am I? Hell, who are you? ”
Blast! Did no male exist in this empty wilderness who wasn’t so taken with himself that he couldn’t cooperate for a change?
She took a calming breath. A body could catch more flies with honey than vinegar, old Charley Long Bow used to say. Jenna figured flies might fancy the hairy creature facing her, so she decided to try being friendly. “Listen, I smelled your coffee and hoped you might spare a cup, is all. You can understand me being a mite leery of walking into a stranger’s camp without knowing who I’m hooking up with.”
Firelight glinted on the man’s straight white teeth as his whiskers parted in a cold smile. “Don’t recall inviting company, but I’ll play your game. Name’s Branch McCauley. Now it’s your turn.”
His smile unnerved her. It held no humor, only a lethal sort of grimness that cannoned her stomach into her throat and made her wish she’d wired William Pinkerton for instructions instead of going off half-cocked this way. “I’m Jim…Jim White,” she lied.
“All right, Jim, how about some honesty? You come here looking for me?”
“I’m not looking for anyone named Branch McCauley. If that’s who you are, you’ve nothing to worry about.”
The wide, innocent eyes McCauley studied held honesty. He relaxed. “In that case…be glad to pour you some coffee.” He reached for the battered graniteware pot. His visitor’s next words froze him in a half-stoop: “I’d feel more welcome if you’d set aside your gun first.”
Cool as Montana sleet, McCauley straightened, hand poised above his holster. “Reckon you would. Wouldn’t do much for my sense of well-being, though.”
So much for trying to be friendly, Jenna thought. What now? She clenched her knees together to still their shaking and swallowed the fear knotted in her throat.
“Look.” McCauley shifted his weight to one leg. “Why don’t you put your gun away and have a sit? Could be I might know something about the hombre you’re hunting.
Hombre. Sounded Spanish. Like Mendoza. It must be him. She had to get his gun away from him. Surprise seemed the best means. She squeezed the trigger of the .44 Starr. The bullet kicked dirt onto the man’s scuffed boots. He jumped and let out a yelp as though she’d set his feet afire.
“Dammit, kid, going up against me won’t get you anything but a six-foot hole in the ground.”
“Shut up and toss over your gun or I’ll turn them boots into sieves. ‘Course, my sights might be a bit off.” She raised the muzzle toward his groin.
“You made your point,” he growled as he unbuckled his gun belt and tossed it over.
Instead of the fancy weapon she had expected a gunslinger to own, an ordinary, six-gun lay at her feet. No ivory handle or engraved barrel. Only an ordinary .44 Peacemaker, crafted and worn for one reason—to kill. The thought did funny things to her innards.
“All right,” she said, getting back to business. “You aren’t going to like this, mister, but I don’t know any other way to be sure who you are. Drop them trousers to your ankles.”
Jenna cringed at the hard, icy tone, but she hollered back at him: “You heard me… Drop ’em!”
Seconds passed like hours while he glared at her. When he released the first button of his tight denims, heat suffused her face, but she could not remove her gaze from the big hands as they worked each successive button free.
He pushed the trousers off his slim hips and she held her breath. Stiff and dirty, they fell no farther than his knees. Underneath were faded one-piece woolen underwear like her own, so tight they left no doubt about his masculinity.
Without trying, her voice came out low and husky. “Now turn around and drop the back flap.”
“Just a goshdanged minute!” He took a step toward her and stumbled over the denims shackling his legs. Cursing, he poked a finger at her. “I don’t bare my ass for any man, let alone some slick-jawed brat hankering to make a name for himself. You hear me?”
In answer, she fired another shot, nicking the toe of his boot. He sprang back and nearly fell.
“I may be young,” she snarled, “but I know how to shoot. Now turn around and drop that flap. Or do you want me to shoot the buttons off?”
McCauley scowled like a bear with a paw caught in a trap. But he shuffled in a half-circle putting his back to her. Then he unbuttoned the flap and let it fall, revealing two tight cheeks as white as the moon rising in the east. Jenna edged closer and strained to see the three-inch-long scar Mendoza had supposedly received fleeing a jealous husband’s bullet.
Nothing. Only smooth flesh over firm muscle.
The man angled a glance over his shoulder. “Well, you through gawking, or would you like to see more?”
Jenna felt heat flash clear through her body. “Sorry, mister, you aren’t the one I’m looking for. I’ll be leaving now. Just keep those hands in the air, count to a hundred real slow, and everything will be fine.”
A century passed before Jenna felt safe enough to stop along the Weber River for a few hours sleep. After unsaddling and brushing down the sorrel, she set out to gather enough cottonwood branches for a small, smokeless fire as Charley Long Bow had taught her. If only the old Indian could have seen her tonight. Jenna knew he would have been proud of her.
Six months of nagging Pinkerton and spying on train conductors who were pocketing the fares they collected had won her this assignment in the glorious West. And not one thing had gone right since she had arrived.
Under the guidance of a Pinkerton agent named Snipe, she was to have befriended a certain whore, then passed on to him any information she gleaned on Black Jack Mendoza’s whereabouts. But Mendoza had gotten to Snipe first. Jenna couldn’t work with a dead agent. Common sense would have sent her back home. Financial desperation and the snide comments of the Denver chief of police about a woman’s proper place drove her to try catching the killer herself.
Something barked directly overhead. She jumped and let out a strangled yelp as an owl, sounding more like a dog than a bird, exploded from its perch and vanished into the night. She stepped between two trees and scrubbed a spider web from her face. When something skittered through the soggy leaves at her feet, she let out a yelp, jumped a good three feet, and scurried back to camp.
A mouse. It had to have been a mouse. Jenna hated rodents even more than she hated men.
Independence and the glorious West were losing their appeal. For two bits, a hot bath, and a feather bed, she’d seriously consider throwing it all away.
While she waited for the coffee to boil, she went down to the river and tugged off the new boots she’d insisted on buying, winning old Charley^ disgust. High heels, pointed toes, and fancy stitching. Her feet throbbed. She flexed her pinched toes and thought again about that hot bath. Tonight, a foot-soaking in the river would have to do.
The cold water numbed the pain. She massaged each half-frozen foot and wondered how Will Pinkerton had taken the news that she had gone after Mendoza alone. No doubt he would have ordered her home with the excuse that no woman could handle a dangerous job like catching killers. But Jenna hadn’t come West to be safe. She’d come to find a man.
Two, counting Black Jack Mendoza.
Tonight had been a mistake. Even she had to admit that. She’d never heard of Branch McCauley, but she could see he was rough and dangerous, a combination she found oddly exciting. More than exciting, she thought, as the memory of his woolen underwear molded to his body sent frissons of warmth spiraling once more through her veins. What would he look like, she wondered, without the awful beard?
Her only answer came in the form of four distinctive clicks from a Peacemaker being cocked behind her.
Jenna sprang up from the bank and spun about, her hand darting for the Starr and finding her holster empty.
His grin amounted to a slash of white in a mat of tight, dark curls. “That’s right, kid.”
Motioning her back to camp with her own gun, he dropped the Peacemaker into its holster. “Haven’t seen a single-action Starr like this since the war. It’s a good gun. You steal it from your daddy?”
“No, it’s mine.” Jenna picked up her boots and edged around him.
Sitting by the fire she brushed the dirt from her feet and pulled on her socks. The man’s smile, illuminated by the fire as he hunkered opposite her, unnerved her almost as much as his hard, icy gaze. Both spoke eloquently of revenge. Tall and long-limbed, he might have been good looking if not for the beard. The men she thought killed her father had worn beards. Ever since she turned seven, she had connected face hair to sorrow and death.
“Yours, huh?” McCauley’s voice ground out deep and gruff and edged with doubt. “I suppose you’re going to tell me your father gave you permission to run around the countryside ordering men to disrobe at gunpoint, too.”
Sudden and surprisingly sharp pain pierced her vitals. “My father doesn’t give a damn what I do. An old Indian gave me the gun.”
Empathy washed over Branch. His own childhood had been full of love and the rowdy kind of fun only a bunch of siblings could provide. The loss of so much of his family and his sudden expulsion from home had fortified Branch’s appreciation for his happier beginnings. Every boy needed guidance. Obviously, Jimmy White had no one to guide him except some old chief full of ancient pride and tall tales of a warrior’s bravery. It explained the bow and arrows. And the pride. “Sorry, kid.”
“Keep your empty apologies and get on with what you came for.”
The defiant thrust of the boy’s chin and the stiffness of his thin warrior’s shoulders dulled the edge of McCauley’s anger. Spunk. The boy needed it, alone at his age. Yet if he accosted many more people the way he had Branch, he wouldn’t live long enough for his voice to stop switching from soprano to alto in a single sentence. “What do you suppose I came for?”
“It sure wasn’t to borrow sugar. Are you going to drag it out all night?”
“No, turnabout is fair play.” It irked Branch that he felt a need to justify his actions.
Jenna held her spine as stiff as a branding iron, her fear tightly contained, while the man tucked the Starr into his waistband and sat on a half-decayed log. Her gaze slid to the bow and arrows by her saddle. Much too far away.
“Well—” McCauley thumbed his hat back on his head. “—gonna drop them trousers or are you waiting for me to display some fancy shooting to match yours?”
Jenna didn’t dare let him touch her, for fear he’d discover her true gender. She took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry about before. You fit the description and—” McCauley’s eyes narrowed. His hand inched toward the Starr. “Get to it.”
She turned her back and hiked up her coat. The blood pumped loudly in her temples. With shaking fingers, she unfastened her gun belt, dropped it to the ground, and fumbled with the rope holding the baggy trousers around her waist.
“Hold it.” He crooked a finger at her. “Over here.” McCauley pointed to a spot directly in front of him. So close he’d not only be able to see her bottom, he could kiss it. A shiver, half-terror, half-thrill, slid down her backbone.
Jenna averted her face to hide the heightened color in her cheeks. She considered snatching a brand from the fire, then decided he’d probably take it away before she could use it on him. Silently she prayed he would be content with humiliating her.
But Branch McCauley had other plans.
The moment she dropped the back flap of her one-piece underwear, he yanked her face-down on his lap, holding her in place with one hand while the other hammered her bare buttocks. She clutched his thigh with both hands to keep her breasts from rubbing against him and bit her inner lip to keep from crying. Inside, she seethed.
“This will teach you,” he said between slaps, “to go about pulling stunts on men who’re as likely to kill you as look at you.”
He had expected the brat to fight and howl until his eardrums burst, but so far the kid hadn’t moved a muscle or let out a peep.
“You’ve a lot to learn about being a man.” Smack! “Lesson number one: Never draw on a man you aren’t prepared to kill.” Smack! “Two: Never take on a man bigger than yourself; and three: If you don’t want to be found, stay away from water and forego the fire. Should of thought your Indian friend would have taught you that much.” With one last smack, McCauley shoved the kid off his lap.
Jenna landed with a thud on her inflamed fanny and shot to her knees, one hand kneading her tender flesh while she bellowed, “How dare you!”
McCauley shook his head. The kid had shown real grit before. Disgusted, he said, “You sound like a girl.” Indignation had Jenna shaking so hard, her hat shifted. The sight of McCauley rubbing his hand as though it smarted worse than her bottom infuriated her even more. She snatched up a handful of dirt and threw it. “If you followed your own advice, I wouldn’t have found you in the first place, you egotistical jackass.”
McCauley chuckled as he ducked, shielding his face with his arm. When he straightened, his eyes widened and his heart catapulted into his throat.
Young Jimmy White’s hat had fallen off. A fat braid the color of night dangled over one slim shoulder, reaching nearly to the waist. They stared at one another, as still as mule deer scenting danger. For the first time, Branch took in the wide, smoky blue eyes edged with thick black lashes. The thin, delicate brows. The pert nose, hinting of a stubborn streak. The lips, as masculine as a lace corset. He looked at his hand and a tingling sensation surged through him as he realized that the softly rounded bottom he’d pad- died belonged to no boy.
Jenna watched the man’s eyes sharpen with the dawning knowledge of her femininity. Fear accelerated her heartbeat. She snatched up her hat, stuffed her braid back under it, and lurched to her feet.
In a flash McCauley came off the log. He grabbed her by her coat and dragged her close. She stared helplessly as he ripped open her shirt to expose the high, firm mounds outlined by the form-fitting wool of her long underwear.
“Holy Mary.” He snaked out a hand and cupped a small round breast. “You’re a woman!”
Jenna swatted away his hand and jerked free. “If you have any ideas about taking advantage of the fact, you can forget it.” She shimmied her trousers up over her hips and secured them. Then, feet spread and fists balled, as Charley Long Bow had taught her, she took up the defensive stance the young men back home knew meant war.
McCauley stood there, his hand still cupped as though filled yet with the firm warmth of her breast. A feminine breast. Desire sizzled down his spine. Women were scarce in the gold camps, and it had been too long since he had lain with one. He could no more stop his body’s reaction than capture the moon. But he could show the girl what might have happened had she accosted Mendoza instead of him. Leering at her, he said, “Do you think you could stop me, if I did take such a notion?”
Her cocked elbows and pointed chin thrust out in challenge reminded him of a ruffled grouse with bristled feathers. The painful throbbing in his groin robbed the image of humor. “You ask for it, you know, riding around the countryside forcing men to drop their trousers for you. What in blue blazes are you trying to do, anyway?”
“That’s none of your business. I apologized once. I won’t do it again, so just get out of my camp.”
Long, silent seconds elapsed while he gazed at her. In spite of her blazing eyes and cocky stance, she looked young, small, and vulnerable. The image of his sister Maura waylaying a mob of Pinkertons while he slipped out the back door flashed into his mind. But Maura had Sloan and Dan and her own husband, Sell, to look after her. The prickly bit of femininity in front of him now had no one. “Sorry, can’t do that.”
“What do you mean, you can’t? Don’t you know the way back to your own camp?”
He chuckled mirthlessly. “Yeah, I know my way back. But my mother taught me better than to abandon helpless females in the middle of nowhere. No matter how tough they think they are. Tell me where you’re headed. I’ll see you get there, then go my own way.”
The words shocked her. McCauley had a good deal more reason to turn his back on her than her father had ever had, yet James Leigh-Whittington had abandoned her and her mother without a second thought. She studied the gunslinger with new interest. He must want something from her. Being a man, “what” seemed obvious. “I’ll kill you before I let you touch me again.”
McCauley rolled his eyes toward the stars. “Saints preserve us. You’re as trusting as—”
“As a hen in a den full of foxes,” she finished. “You can’t deny I’ve got good reason.”
Was his desire for her that plain? He resisted the urge to look down at the denims he’d already undone for her once tonight and gave a slow, lazy smile. “Not about to give me a chance to prove you wrong, are you?”
The firelight struck his face as he took off his hat to reshape the crown with thumb and forefinger. His beard wasn’t black as she’d first thought, but auburn like the flames mirrored in his cold green eyes. Eyes that hungered as though she truly were a hen and he a fox. “Would you?”
He shrugged. “Maybe not. Look, sweetheart, how many other men have you pulled this stunt on? And how have you escaped getting shot for it…or worse?”
His leering expression made her long to demonstrate how she dealt with insufferable, exasperating, egotistical jackasses like him. Unfortunately, her .44 Starr remained tucked in his waistband. If only she could reach the trigger. “I told you before, that’s none of your business.”
His brows lowered, shadowing his deep-set eyes. “Lady, when you told me to drop my trousers, you made it my business.”
“Our business concluded when I left your camp.”
He gave a harsh laugh. “Naive, aren’t you? Where were you raised, anyway? One of those fancy convents back east? When did they start teaching gunplay?”
Her jaw clenched. The need to tear the smirk from his face nearly overwhelmed her. She lunged at him. Before she could enjoy the feel of his flesh giving beneath her nails, he snagged her wrists and pulled her hard against him. Her breath left her in a startled gasp as arms of steel locked around her.
The lust in his icy green gaze intensified Jenna’s fight for freedom. She kicked and shoved and swore. His grip only tightened; one hand on her spine, the other moving up to hold the back of her head. Oblivious to her struggles, his mouth descended toward hers.
“Don’t you dare,” she hissed.
He shifted his hips, cupping her round bottom with his hand to mold her more completely to his hardness. “You’re in no position to give orders, little hellcat.”
The laughter had fled his face, replaced by a look of such unyielding determination that she trembled. To tease and elude had been her game back home and she’d always won. Until now.
“Just remember,” he growled, his lips poised above hers, “you asked for this.”
She could almost hear old Charley snicker, “Jenna girl, you’ve met your match.”