To Have and To Hold
A woman without a prayer…
A widow with two children, Tempest Whitney had to mortgage everything to repay the money her husband had stolen. But even as she struggles to hold onto her Utah homestead, a scheming rancher buys up her debts, demanding she either get off his land or marry him. Then a dark-haired stranger shows up, claiming to be her dead husband…
A man without a past….
Buck Maddux spent two years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Now a death bed promise has brought him to Tempest’s dugout. A man without roots, he doesn’t plan to stay—or to feel so fiercely protective of this feisty beauty he saves from a forced marriage. Suddenly, Buck yearns for a home, a family, a lasting love. But what can he offer Tempest? The surprising answer lies in the forbidden canyons of an ancient Anasazi tribe, where fortune and danger await—along with a passion more precious than gold…
Utah – 1888
Tempest Whitney stilled as the dogs barked and raced off toward the road. The freshly washed diaper she’d been about to hang on taut cord strung between cottonwood trees slid from her fingers to the dirt. The clip-clop of horse hooves sounded on the road beyond the curve. Someone was coming. Her heart drummed fiercely at the thought of company—in hope as well as in trepidation. Life was lonely at Hearts-ease.
Overhead, branches thrashed in a gush of wind, announcing a change of seasons with a shower of golden leaves, and exchanging the smell of lye soap for that of sagebrush. In the house twenty-two month old Ethan wailed, as if he sensed his mother’s unease. Angel’s childish voice mingled with his cries as the four-year-old tried to soothe her brother.
Shading her eyes with her hand, Tempest peered into the distance, torn between the need to go to her children and the need to see who was coming. Shadows from the canyon walls hid the rider’s features when he rounded the curve in the road. Not her father; the dogs never barked at Ronan Carmichael. Besides, now that he worked at Jonas Creedy’s saloon in Harper, Ronan rarely came home anyway, except to beg for money.
Thoughts of Jonas increased her apprehension. The obnoxious man wanted her and didn’t care a fig if she were willing or not. So far she’d managed to evade his grasp, but she feared her luck would run out.
Everyone in Deception Canyon had been pushing her to remarry. Hardly a month went by without some dire prediction of her fate if she stubbornly insisted on living alone. Yet no matter how lonely or difficult it might be to run her ranch on her own, she preferred independence to marriage. The men here were hard and rough, not an ounce of warmth or gentleness in them. They didn’t want a wife as much as a housekeeper, field hand, cook, and human brood mare all rolled into one. At least they were willing to marry her to bed her. Jonas Creedy was not.
* * *
Buck Maddux halted in the middle of the road, surrounded by yapping dogs. Spook whinnied and pranced beneath him. Buck studied the huddle of buildings across the creek and patted the appaloosa’s long graceful neck. Three days of slugging whiskey in Harper hadn’t fortified him enough for this. Hell, he’d rather chew off his own foot than cross that bridge and face the Widow Whitney. Her husband, now that was a different story; Buck would love to get his hands on that louse again. But any woman a man couldn’t pay for and leave behind with a clear conscience was more trouble than she was worth.
From the looks of the place, the Whitney woman wasn’t doing well. The mere thought brought sweat to his brow. Hell, he hoped she was ugly as a mud puppy and ornery to boot. Kindness from Skeet Whitney’s widow would be his undoing, considering the part he’d played in her husband’s death. Buck was more familiar with anger and accusations.
Your life’s already hit rock bottom, Buck old boy. Can’t go anywhere but up now. He’d repeated that maxim in his head all the way from Salt Lake City. His new life’s motto.
The ranch sat on bottomland, threaded through a twisting, high-walled, narrow canyon of wind-sculpted sandstone that challenged the imagination. So far, he hadn’t spotted a single steer. No surprise; between drinks at Johansson’s Saloon in town, he had learned what to expect. The widow, it seemed, raised almost everything except cattle.
He nudged his appaloosa toward the plank bridge. The road showed evidence of a recent rain. Dog tracks ringed the muddy puddles that glistened in ruts and potholes, nearly obliterating the prints of deer, raccoon and quail. A lizard zigged onto the road and, confronted by a mongrel pup, zagged back beneath a six-foot greasewood shrub. Between steep banks, Carcass Creek flowed sluggishly, its voice as deep and lethargic as a sleepy frog. Beyond the bridge, cottonwood trees with trunks as gray and rough as a washerwoman’s knees crowded a bend where the stream widened and seemed to slumber in the September sun.
If not for the smoke spiraling up from the roof, the house would be hell to spot. It looked like a wall of rocks stacked against the slope of an old creek bed. Poles and sod formed the flat roof, the front edge rimmed with elk and deer antlers. Two mules and a donkey hung their heads over the bars of a corral attached to a lopsided stable. Between the house and stable a patch of green marked a vegetable garden. Busted wagon parts, a rusted stove with a hole in its round belly, and broken farm implements littered the yard. Buck had seen better dugouts in Kansas and had considered them poor doings.
Riding up to the house, he called out a hello and dismounted. Surrounded by barking dogs he proceeded to water his horse at a well built over a natural spring. From beneath the wide brim of his Stetson he searched for some sign of life. Finally he headed to the house, spurs jangling in his wake. His fist was raised, ready to knock, when the rough plank door swung inward and the business end of a Henry repeating rifle met with his nose.
“Judas!” He jerked back and stumbled over his own big feet. A cat screeched, letting him know he had mangled its tail. The critter got even by climbing Buck’s leg. Yelping and dancing while he tried to extract the cat, he trampled two or three more felines. Easy to do; half a dozen littered the yard, along with pigs and a flutter of chickens.
“Whoa there, ma’am.” He held up a hand. “Don’t mean you any harm.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
The cat took off, kinked tail in the air. Buck checked for damage and decided he’d live. “That’s a mite awkward to explain.” He took off his hat, wiped his brow on his sleeve and replaced the hat back, buying time while he studied her.
She wasn’t much to look at. The braid hanging to her waist appeared as though crows had been pecking at it. Dun-colored strands fluttering about her head gave her a wild look that belied the delicacy of her face. A strong chin balanced her large eyes and a mouth as stubborn as the mules in the pole corral. A patched apron hung to her scuffed boots and hugged her legs snugly enough hint she wasn’t wearing skirts. He was wondering what might be under the apron when she spat, “Spill it, mister. I haven’t got all day.”
“Think you could put down the gun?” He eyed the rifle with amusement and chagrin. “This might take a while and your arms are like to get tired.”
“Don’t think for a second, just because I’m a woman, that I can’t shoot this rifle,” she drawled. “I hate when men jump to such conclusions. Makes me so angry I start shaking and that makes my trigger finger jittery, if you know what I mean.”
Buck knew. A jittery trigger finger meant he might get shot for no reason. He eyed her speculatively. She wasn’t much bigger than a colt; no problem for a man his size to handle. “I doubt you’d enjoy where they’d put you for shooting a man,” he said, smiling to hide his growing irritation.
“Nobody goes to jail for self-defense. Especially a woman. You going to state your business or not?”
“Are you Tempest Whitney?”
“What’s it to you?”
He sighed. “Name’s Buck Maddux. I ran onto your husband two years ago. He was gut shot and bleeding bad —”
“Maddux!” Her head snapped up and her finger tightened on the trigger. “You yellow-bellied son of a coyote. How dare you come here? Didn’t you cause enough grief robbing that stage and getting my husband killed? Get off my property before I fill you with lead the way the posse did Skeet.”
He threw up his hands as she stepped closer. “Easy, ma’am, I didn’t come here to get you all upset.”
“What did you expect? That I’d welcome you with open arms and invite you in for supper? Just because my husband let you rope him into a stupid robbery doesn’t mean I have to put up with you.”
That did it. Now he was angry. “Hold on a minute here.” His mouth was tight, his voice hard. “I had nothing to do with that robbery, or the Army patrol who shot your husband.”
“Sure. You were just an innocent bystander who happened to be with Skeet when he was caught.”
“As a matter of fact—”
“Raspberry stickers!” she spat. “You plotted that hold-up. You killed my husband as surely as if you’d pulled the trigger yourself.”
Buck’s blood boiled. He told himself it was because she’d accused him of lying, not because she’d come too close to the truth, but the excuse didn’t wash, adding to his fury. In one swift movement, he away snatched her rifle, threw it to the ground, and shoved her against the door jamb. He held her there with his body, her hands pinned above her head, while he stared into amber-sparked brown eyes.
The dogs took up barking again.
“Damn, if you were a man . . .” But she wasn’t. He closed his eyes and clenched his jaw, fighting for control.
Hell. Part of him almost wanted to hurt her, wanted to see Skeet’s widow pay for what trying to help her husband had cost Buck. He hated himself for that. Forcing his muscles to relax, he was about to release her when something latched onto his pant leg—something toothy that snarled like a wolf. Maybe a bear. He didn’t dare let go of the woman to look. Whatever it was wagged his leg back and forth like a sick rat. Buck kicked out and struck empty air.
“You’d what?” the woman prompted. “Thrash me? Sweet Mary, but I’m fed up with men who think violence is the only way to solve anything.”
“You’re the one greeting folks at the door with a loaded gun,” he pointed out.
Her voice rose a notch. “What else can a woman do, with men like you around?”
Suddenly he wanted to laugh. She was better looking than a mud puppy, but every bit as ornery a mule. “Believe what you want, but I have no fondness for violence. Now, will you settle down and listen to me?” He took her silent scowl as a no. “Look—” cloth ripped somewhere below his knee, renewing his anger “—all I did was stay with your husband so he wouldn’t have to die alone, and for that—”
“You said you had nothing to do with his death.”
“I didn’t! I found him after the robbery, after he’d been shot.” Judas. Trying to hang onto her and shake off the wolf made for more work than chopping wood with a butter knife.
“So,” she said, “you simply waited until he was dead and stashed the money somewhere for yourself, is that it? You detestable, dung-eating coyote’s whelp, I ought to . . .”
“You sure do have a thing about coyotes, ma’am.”
She kicked him in the shin. Muttering a curse that lacked the color of hers, he pinned her more securely to the house, feet spread wide so she couldn’t kick him again. Checking for weapons, he slid a hand to her waist and found denim, the waistband bunched up and held on with a rope. Trousers! The woman was wearing trousers. Hell, not only did she hate being treated as a female, she hated being female.
“What did you do with the money?” she ranted. “It’s rightfully mine now. I mortgaged my ranch to pay off what you stole, and now I’m about to lose my property.”
Caught up in the feel of her thighs squirming between his, her soft abdomen cradling his . . . he didn’t hear what she said. Christ, his blood was heating up faster than a teapot in hell, and he didn’t even like the woman.
“If you’re losing this—” he gave the wolf/bear/dog/whatever a vicious shake “—zoo, it’s because you married a fool, not because of me. More likely it was your pestering that drove him to do something desperate like a hold-up.”
“Frog turds!” Abruptly she froze, awareness widening her eyes as the bulge in his trousers nudged her soft femininity. Her lips parted and Buck feared he could see a scream working up out of her throat. It mortified him to realize how much he wanted to stop that scream with his mouth. His nostrils dilated at her feminine scent, natural and earthy like herbs and fresh-baked bread. His gaze lingered on her mouth while his body reacted to the feel and sight and smell of her.
“Let go of me,” she demanded in a voice too choked to be threatening.
“Why? I kind of like things as they are.” If he moved at all, it would be to add taste to the other sensations she’d already aroused in him.
In a voice sharp enough to pare flesh, she said, “Let me go or I’ll tell the dog to start gnawing flesh—whatever he finds hanging between your legs.”
Buck’s chuckle was low and husky. “At the moment, sweetheart, you’re hanging between my legs.” He winked. Damned if she wasn’t pretty with her eyes spitting and her mouth pouting like that. He wondered how those lips would feel beneath his. He lowered his head, but before his lips could reach hers, a small voice inside the dark house said, “Mama?”
He looked up to see a frightened little girl, a naked toddler pressed to her side.
The breath hissed out of him, along with the lust. Judas, how had the situation gotten so out of control? He’d only meant to teach the woman some manners. Surely had liked how she felt against him, though, and the way she smelled. Most women were eager to give him anything he wanted, but those were whores. He wasn’t used to dealing with decent women. Women too good for the likes of him. He stepped back, dragging the dog with him.
Mrs. Whitney rushed inside, hauled the toddler onto her hip and hugged her daughter to her side. The dog let go of Buck’s pants and trotted after her.
For a long moment he stared at them, before stalking away. After a dozen paces, he halted, hands on his hips as he dragged in gulps of air to cool his blood. At his feet a wild rose bush no higher than a hand span bowed under the weight of a single, large blossom. A touch of beauty startlingly out of place in this almost desert-like terrain. Like the woman, he thought.
Damn. He had to finish his business here and get the hell out. Something about the Widow Whitney drove him to behave in ways he didn’t like. He turned back. She hadn’t moved. The toddler had his head on her shoulder and was sucking a dirty thumb. A picture of innocence and virtue that, along with the vulnerability he could see in the widow’s eyes, combined to magnify his guilt.
“Look, I apologize.” He took off his hat and held it as if showing respect for her gender. “That shouldn’t have happened. I only came here because I promised your husband . . .”
A new emotion flashed into her eyes. “Skeet talked about me before he died?”
Curiosity, he thought with some relief. Maybe they could settle this reasonably after all. “You were all he talked about, actually. You, his little girl, and the baby you were expecting.”
She rested her cheek on her son’s head in a tender gesture that wrung Buck’s heart. “What did he want you to promise?”
“To make sure you were okay. He was worried how you’d fare all alone, with no house and . . .” Buck glanced away. The idea of what she must have endured, trying to shelter her children and keep them alive in a land even Satan seemed to have forsaken, twisted his innards.
“So why did it take you so long to come?” she asked.
Buck shifted on his feet, memories of the last two years hardening his gut the way sunlight hardens adobe.
“Came as soon as I could. Might not have come at all, except . . .” Again, he looked around at the poor excuse for a ranch. “Making sure you were all right was so damned important to him he deeded me half-interest in this place to guarantee I’d keep my promise.”
Her head snapped up at that, and in an instant, the vulnerability was gone. “The devil he did! You lying billy goat, your tongue’s so slick a fly could use it as a slide.”
Before he could object to her assessment of his character, she’d replaced the boy in her arms with a .41 rim-fire, double-barreled, Remington derringer. “Now get off my property, and don’t come back.”
“Look here, ma’am—”
“I said get!”
“All right, all right, I’m going.” The derringer held so steady on his chest, he figured she couldn’t miss. He mounted his horse and headed for the road, not bothering to look back.
Judas, this wasn’t the way things were supposed to go. When Skeet Whitney had offered him the land, Buck hadn’t been interested in owning property. No change there. Buck Maddux and responsibility didn’t go together. But fifteen years ago, he’d vowed never to break another promise, and didn’t reckon to make his promise to Skeet an exception. So now he’d kept that promise. Tempest Whitney was one woman who could take care of herself. So what if she’d looked pathetic standing there all proud and stubborn and female, trying to look tough and competent. So what if she lived in nothing better than an oversized badger hole, alone except for two scared little tykes clinging to her apron. She wasn’t his responsibility. And thank the Lord for that.
That’s right, Buck, old boy. Life’s taking you up now, remember—not down. And Buck intended to keep it that way.
* * *
Tempest let her hand fall to her side. Now that the man was gone, the derringer she held weighed as heavily as her heart.
Her first assumption on seeing the stranger was that a homesteader had heard of the mule colt she needed to sell. Or had come for a cat. Horses were in short supply these days and cats downright precious, while there were enough mice to pick up the canyon and haul it to California.
What worried her was that Buck Maddux was a good deal more dangerous than a farmer. He had the spurs and lazy, long-legged stance typical of a cowhand, though the weapon strapped to his hip and his hard intractable face said gunman. Even angry, though, his blue eyes were far warmer than those of an emotionless killer. As he’d held her against his body, his gaze had warmed like a hot summer afternoon when the sky presses a body down almost to the point of suffocation. Mesmerizing eyes. The sympathy and concern she’d glimpsed in them as he’d studied her and the children had nearly unraveled her. His big body moving against hers turned her insides shivery, hot and butter soft.
Despite the silver streaking the ebony hair above his forehead, and the oldness in his eyes, she doubted he exceeded thirty-five years of age. His body moved with a sensual, masculine grace that made her tinglingly aware of her own femininity. A mustache nearly hid the grooves time had etched around his mouth. Dark, close-cropped whiskers obscured his chin and hard, square jaw. His was a face as craggy as the sandstone walls of her beloved canyon, and—in the same harsh, imposing manner—beautiful.
His effect on her senses and the strong, inexplicable sense of safety she’d felt in his arms frightened her more than anything. He was pure trouble.
Or an answer to a prayer?
No, he was trouble, and Tempest already had all of that she could handle.
“Mama?” Angel slipped her hand inside her mother’s. “Wath he a bad man?”
“I don’t think so, honey.” Tempest squeezed the small trusting fingers wiggling against her palm, unsure if she were trying to reassure her daughter or herself.
“Will he come back?”
“I hope not.” But deep down inside, Tempest knew she was lying.
* * *
In front of Johansson’s saloon Buck dismounted and looped the reins over the hitch rail. Spook stuck his long white muzzle under Buck’s dusty hat, gave a wet snort in Buck’s ear, and flipped the hat in the air.
“Will you cut that out, Spook?” Buck caught the hat, slapped it back on his head, and ran a finger inside his ear to scoop out the moisture. “Day’s gone bad enough without you adding your two cents.”
Spook nodded his head, but when Buck stepped up onto the walkway without saying anything more, the horse whinnied.
“I hear you,” Buck muttered as he vanished inside. “Confounded beer-guzzling nag thinks he owns me instead of the other way around.”
The frame building of Johansson’s Emporium of Liquid Refreshment had only one floor, in spite of the false front that made it appear two-storied. Unlike his competitor across the street, the Swede offered only drinks and honest games—no food or women. At the moment Buck doubted the last restriction was in his favor. He could use some female company. His lack of restraint with the Widow Whitney proved that.
Three cowhands played poker at a corner table, the only gambling allowed. A tinware drummer waiting for the five-thirty stage made up for the dry dusty road ahead by drowning his thirst now. Buck’s stomach rumbled at the sight of a pickle crock on the bar. He had a fondness for dills. The drummer beat him to them, pulling out a fat pickle with a hand that hadn’t seen soap in days. Buck’s craving vanished.
Johansson stood behind a bar made of two slightly warped planks set on barrels. No brass foot rail, only tarnished, well-splattered spittoons on the floor. Nails held towels for wiping beer foam from patrons’ mustaches. The color and smell hinted they’d seen steady use for at least six months. The saloon owner himself looked little more than average-sized until he emerged from the trench he’d dug behind his makeshift counter. Then he towered over everyone at the unnatural height of six-foot-six. A wall plaque proclaimed him to be Yngve Twigmuntus Johansson, a good reason why folks simply called him Swede.
“Hullo again, stranger,” the blond giant greeted Buck in faltering English. “You have trouble to find Whitney place?”
“No.” Buck glanced around. The smoky room reeked of tobacco juice, sweat, urine, whiskey-soaked sawdust and vomit. “Tell me, is that widow woman always so sweet and compliant?”
Swede spat tobacco juice in the general direction of a spittoon, missing by four inches. “Ya, sweet as honey. A snack for eyes, as you Americans say.”
Buck decided either he was crazy or Swede was. She wasn’t bad to look at, but . . . sweet? He scanned the sign tacked onto the wall: Valley Tan whiskey . . . 25 cents; German beer . . . 15 cents; Mormon beer . . . 5 cents; Ditch water . . . free. “Give me a whiskey,” he said.
Grime dulled the glass placed in front of him, but he needed the drink too badly to complain. He sighed contentedly as the amber liquid burned a trail to his stomach. Not bad, considering it was made locally. Mormons preached against the use of spirits, but with empty stomachs and emptier pockets, they didn’t hesitate to produce and sell the stuff to the non-Mormons they called gentiles.
“Tell me what you know about Skeet Whitney,” Buck said.
Swede shrugged. “Not be much. Harper only stage stop when Whitney killed. I come after. He was prospector, I know.” Frowning, he shook his head. “To labor so hard, seeking something only few men find seems a waste of time. Ya?”
“You’ve the right of that.” Buck decided he liked the big barman. He signaled for a refill.
Swede’s grin rivaled a six-year-old’s for lack of teeth. “You needed that, ya? Widow give man crotch itch, I hear Jonas Creedy say, and he not mean lice.”
Buck sipped his whiskey, uncertain why the barman’s mention of crotch itch in the same breath as the Widow Whitney tightened his innards. “Creedy’s the one who owns the fancy joint across the way?”
“Ya. He try to buy widow’s land for to drive cows to pasture on top of plateau and not pay toll, but—” Swede tapped his head with a cigar-sized finger “—I think he want widow more.”
Buck peered through the grimy front window at a green and white sign across the street that read The Sagebrush Princess — Jonas Creedy, Proprietor. Fine Cigars and Liquors Our Specialty.
“Any women over there worth looking at?”
“Ya, Lacey and Big Red. You go calling maybe?”
“Maybe. Any recommendations?”
“Depends. Me, I could marry that Lacey.” Swede gave an exaggerated sigh while color mounted his long neck. “Soft and pretty as spring daisies. Make a man feel . . . good.”
Buck resisted the urge to laugh. The blond giant was obviously sweet on the girl. “What about Big Red? She doesn’t come by her name because of her height, I’d bet.”
A deep rumble of laughter erupted from Swede’s chest. “No, not height.”
Ten minutes later, Buck left, carrying a bowl full of beer. Spook gave a soft satisfied snort, slurped up his favorite drink and belched.
“You’re the damnedest thing on four legs,” Buck muttered.
Spook tried to nuzzle him with a beer-soaked nose. Shoving the horse aside, Buck crossed the street and stepped inside the Sagebrush Princess. Thirty feet of polished walnut, with burl veneers, beveled edges and brass fittings made up the bar. A painting of a nude woman draped in gauzy fabric that enhanced her attributes, rather than hiding them, decorated the elaborate floor-to-ceiling back bar. Leering cherubs peeked over her shoulders and tugged playfully at the cloth. A table laden with sliced ham, fresh bread and deviled eggs tantalized Buck with its delicious aroma. A sign read Free Lunch for Patrons Only. He was hungry, all right, but right now all he wanted was another drink.
The barman had a mustache waxed into four-inch spikes sharp enough to drill holes in oranges. His crisp, clean white shirt—the sleeves held up by green garters—ankle-length apron and string tie downright dazzled compared to Swede’s stained garb. Buck decided to test the man’s skill by ordering the fanciest drink he could think of—Sazerac, a special cognac flavored with sugar and aromatic bitters. It would be expensive but he felt like splurging. Lord knew he hadn’t been living high the last two years, unless one counted the rock pile he’d swung a pickaxe at day after day. He deserved a treat. While he waited he glanced around.
The place was twice as large as Swede’s, three times showier, and a whole world cleaner. A nubile girl with slumberous eyes sat at a round table accompanied by a burly one-armed man with bushy grey brows and mustache. A red plaid Tam o’ Shanter cap covered his head. He tossed down a drink, refilled his glass from a bottle on the table, and tossed that one down too. Buck caught the girl’s eye and flashed a grin that never failed to bring females to their knees. She smiled back. Hair like gold-streaked champagne curled about her face. If this was Lacey, which Buck assumed from the smallness of her breasts, the Swede had good taste.
Ranchers, cowhands and other businessmen lounged at the bar or at tables. Toward the back a guard with cauliflower ears and the face of a ferret sat on a high stool wearing enough artillery to outfit every man in town. His gaze centered mostly on the noisy faro game going on nearby, but Buck didn’t figure the gunman missed much that went on elsewhere in the room.
The one-armed drunk rose unsteadily and started toward a roulette table where a dealer with arms like fence posts shouted out an invite to drum up business. The girl grabbed the old timer’s good arm and said something in a low, urgent voice. He shook her off and kept going. She’d started after him again when a sharp-edged voice cut across the room. “Is there a problem, Lacey?”
She whirled. “No. No, Mr. Creedy, sir. No problem.” Her fear was evident.
Descending the stairs from the upper floor, Creedy made up for a lack in height and good looks with an overdose of arrogance. Match stick legs so bowed a cannonball could pass between his thighs without touching flesh supported his thick compact body. Behind him, a woman slightly older than Lacey, in a dress so daring Buck marveled at her ability to keep her ample bosom from falling out, hovered on the top step. Tension radiated from her like cheap perfume. A bruise on her cheek was beginning to purple.
Buck’s chest tightened. Any man who hit a woman was the worst kind of coward. Buck had met dozens of them the past two years. Men who liked to brag of the cruelties they inflicted on those weaker than themselves.
The fancy fabric and expensive cut of Creedy’s clothes failed to disguise his mixed blood or the cold, dispassionate meanness in his narrow, raisin-dark eyes. The man was a killer. Buck had lived with too many not to recognize one on sight. He didn’t know how the man earned all the money he apparently owned, but Buck would bet it had been neither legal, nor bloodless.
“If Carmichael ain’t needing your company anymore, maybe you ought to find someone else to entertain, Lacey,” Creedy told the blond girl.
“Yes sir.” Her gaze shifted to Buck. He put extra warmth in his smile to let her know she was welcome. When she reached him, he circled her shoulders with his arm and flashed Creedy a message too obvious to be misunderstood. The saloon owner glowered back.
The warm, soft girl leaning into Buck’s strength smelled of lilacs. She was pretty, with green, slanted eyes that made a man think instantly of beds and carnal pleasures. He’d known women who affected that drowsy look just to lure men to their rooms, it came natural to this girl. He doubted she even knew what had likely targeted her at a very young age as a victim to mens’ lust.
Across the room Creedy whispered into a cauliflower ear. Buck kept the two men in sight out of the corner of his eye. Their type had been more common where he’d come from than steel bars. He had often been obliged to outwit or outfight them in order to keep breathing, a fact his body bore witness to. When they looked his way, he stared them in the eye and stroked the handle of his .44 Army Colt. If trouble came, Buck would be ready. If not— he smiled down at the girl whose small breasts were pressed against his side—tonight might turn out as pleasurably as he’d hoped.
Tomorrow could take care of itself.