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Authors: Fletcher's Woman

Carol Finch

BOOK: Carol Finch
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“I assume this is your
way of getting even.”

Fletch squatted on his haunches to pull the cap from Savanna’s head. He raked his fingers through the curly tangles of hair that tumbled over her shoulders. Her heart thudded against her ribs when he broke into a full-fledged smile that would’ve knocked her to her knees had she been standing.

Never could a man have been more wrong for her, she reminded herself for the umpteenth time. Unfortunately she was drawn to Fletch against her fierce will. She hungered for a sampling of his lips.

The erotic thought sent desire trickling through her body. She chastised herself for being a foolish romantic. She and Fletch meant nothing to each other. She was just another job to him.

It wasn’t flattering, but it was the truth.

Fletch didn’t trust her and Savanna didn’t trust him. He was her enemy, her antagonist, who stood like an insurmountable mountain that prevented her from getting what she wanted—the opportunity to clear her name.

Praise for Carol Finch

“Carol Finch is known for her lightning-fast,
roller-coaster-ride adventure romances that are
brimming over with a large cast of characters
and dozens of perilous escapades.”

—Romantic Times BOOKreviews

The Ranger’s Woman

“Finch delivers her signature humor, along with a big dose
of colorful Texas history, in a love and laughter romp.”

—Romantic Times BOOKreviews

Lone Wolf’s Woman

“As always, Finch provides frying-pan-into-the-fire action
that keeps the pages flying, then spices up her story with
not one, but two romances, sensuality and strong emotions.”

—Romantic Times BOOKreviews

C
AROL
F
INCH
F
LETCHER’S
W
OMAN

Available from Harlequin
®
Historical and CAROL FINCH

Call of the White Wolf
#592

Bounty Hunter’s Bride
#635

Oklahoma Bride
#686

The Last Honest Outlaw
#732

The Ranger’s Woman
#748

Lone Wolf’s Woman
#778

The Ranger
#805

Fletcher’s Woman
#832

Other works include:

Silhouette Special Edition

Not Just Another Cowboy
#1242

Soul Mates
#1320

Harlequin American Romance

Cupid and the Cowboy #1055

Harlequin Duets

Fit To Be Tied
#36

A Regular Joe
#45

Mr. Predictable
#62

The Family Feud
#72

*
Lonesome Ryder?
#81

*
Restaurant Romeo
#81

*
Fit To Be Frisked
#105

*
Mr. Cool Under Fire
#105

This book is dedicated to my husband, Ed,
and our children Jill, Jon, Christie, Kurt and Shawnna.
And to our grandchildren Kennedy, Blake, Brooklynn
and Livia with much love

Acknowledgment

A very special thank-you to all the readers
who urged me to write the sequel to The Ranger.
I hope you enjoy Fletcher’s story.

Chapter One

1880s

T
he hot summer sun gleamed off the Red River that separated Texas from Indian Territory. Fletcher Hawk patted his Appaloosa gelding consolingly as the ferry teetered and bumped over the swift-moving channel. Being a half Apache who had been forcefully retained on a desolate reservation in New Mexico, for more months than he cared to count, Fletch got to feeling twitchy as the ferry headed toward the distant dock. He’d been a Texas Ranger for five years, but he’d never had cause to enter the reservations in Indian Territory.

Now
he had cause. The murdering son of a bitch that he’d been hunting for five years was reported to have robbed a stagecoach near Fort Worth several months earlier, then headed north. No matter what assignments Fletch had taken, he’d always been on the lookout for Grady Mills. Unfortunately, the slippery bastard had managed to remain one step ahead. But if Grady thought hunkering
down in Indian Territory would keep Fletch off his trail then he thought wrong. Fletch had a personal and professional vendetta to settle with that heartless bastard.

A painful memory speared through Fletch’s mind. Rage and guilt battled for supremacy, but he squelched the turbulent emotions and turned his attention to the other passengers. Three rough-looking men leaned negligently against the railing. They met his stare briefly then looked away without offering a nod of greeting. But then, neither did Fletch. He was simply surveying his companions.

Fletch’s gaze settled on the crusty, bowlegged man who looked to be in his mid-forties. He wore a ten-gallon hat with two bullet holes in the crown. The hat made him look about six and a half feet tall. His mouth thinned out beneath his handlebar mustache as he propped himself against a bay gelding. Obviously the man’s left foot was paining him something fierce because he was one boot short of a pair. His well-worn shirt and trousers indicated a hardscrabble lifestyle. Fletch could certainly identify with that. He’d been all over creation for fifteen years, never having a place to call home.

When the older man laid an arm over his horse, Fletch noticed the flash of a tarnished badge beneath the edge of his faded leather vest. Fletch had the alarming premonition that he was looking at his own image ten years down the road. The speculation made him wince inwardly.

His older brother, Logan, wouldn’t have to fret about growing old before his time, he mused. Logan had given up his Ranger badge and nomadic lifestyle. He’d settled down with his spirited wife and he was the proud father of two energetic boys.

Fletch had nothing but his Appy pony, calluses, battle
scars and dozens of unpleasant memories to keep him company.

His gloomy thoughts scattered when the older man put weight on his injured foot then groaned in pain. Leaving Appy tethered to the railing, Fletch ambled over to lend a hand.

“Problem?” Fletch asked as the man dragged in several panting breaths.

“Damn gout. Picked a fine time to flare up,” he said raggedly. “Got a saddlebag full of warrants and a favor to do for an old friend.” He looked Fletch over intently. “You’re a lawman, aren’t ya? You look familiar.”

“Texas Ranger,” Fletch murmured, inconspicuously pulling the silver star from his vest pocket. “Don’t like to bandy it about. Makes some folks nervous, especially when you add my mixed heritage.”

The older man smiled crookedly and his hazel eyes gleamed as he thrust out his hand. “Deputy U.S. Marshal Bill Solomon. I remember you now. I saw you in action near Fort Griffin, Texas, two years back. You had a Mexican bandito cornered outside town after he blasted an army convoy to steal supplies for his gang.” He nodded approvingly. “Mighty slick apprehension maneuver. Me and a few of the boys borrowed that tactic of here-one-minute-gone-the-next with satisfying success.”

Fletch smiled wryly. “Old Apache trick.”

The smile faded from Bill’s weather-beaten features. “Fought the Apache while I was in the army. Lost a few friends, too.”

“I lost most of my family during an
army
massacre,” Fletch said grimly. “Let’s not talk about old times, Deputy Marshal Solomon. I’ve spent years trying to put it behind me.”

“Fair enough.” Bill stared at him with eyes that had seen countless unforgettable sights. Fletch could identify with that, too.

When the ferry lurched abruptly in a fierce undertow, Fletch steadied Bill, who muffled a pained curse.

“I got a proposition for you,” Bill said, levering his weight off his tender foot. “Fletcher Hawk, ain’t it?”

He nodded. “Just
Fletch.

“You’ve got a brother who used to be a Ranger, as I recall. Same impressive legendary instincts and reputation, too. He goes by just
Hawk,
don’t he?”

Fletch nodded again then glanced discreetly at the three shaggy-haired cowboys who stood on the far side of the ferry. He made a point not to convey too much information about his brother and family. Ruthless outlaws had a nasty habit of preying on a man’s vulnerability for leverage or revenge. The less anyone knew about Logan and Shiloh Hawk, and their two young boys, the safer they would be.

When the ferry pulled up to the dock, Bill braced himself on the railing. “I’d be much obliged if you’d help me off this damn ferry.” He handed off the bay’s reins. “If you can take my horse ashore, I’ll hobble behind you.”

Fletch took quick inventory of the three men who had been watching them cautiously the past fifteen minutes. One wore fringed buckskin and had long, stringy blond hair. The tallest one was scarecrow-thin and walked with a decisive limp. The third man was built like a bull. His shoulders were excessively wide and his neck was short and thick. Heavy beards and mustaches concealed all three leathery faces. Double holsters—like the ones Fletch wore—hung low on their hips.

If Fletch were guessing, he’d say these
hombres
had
something to hide and he wouldn’t be surprised to learn there were outstanding warrants for their arrest.

The moment the ferry docked, the three men mounted their horses and thundered off.

“Guilty consciences,” Fletch speculated as he watched their hasty departure over the tree-choked hill.

“You’ve got good instincts.” Bill limped toward a tree stump that would allow him to take a load off. He stretched out his bootless foot and expelled a long-suffering sigh. “I’m doomed to spend the next week convalescing at Porter’s Trading Post, which is about ten miles north of the Red River. I’m swearing you in as a deputy U.S. marshal so you can—”

Fletch thrust up a hand to cut in before Bill railroaded him into another job that might waylay him from his primary purpose. “I’m already a Ranger and I’m on a manhunt.”

“Being a deputy marshal will give you rightful authority in Indian Territory.” Bill gestured toward his saddlebag. “Hand me one of them extra badges. And grab a fistful of them ‘John Doe’ warrants, too. You never know when you might need ’em. The Territory is a hideout for more outlaws than you can shake a stick at. Each tribal police force handles conflicts between Indians, but you need
federal
jurisdiction to corral vicious whites, Mexicans and blacks that raise hell in the Territory.”

Fletch blew out a resigned breath as he fished into the pouch. He found four badges and retrieved one for himself, along with several warrants. There was also a pint of whiskey tucked in the saddlebag.

Bill waved his thick arms in expansive gestures. “By the powers vested in me, I hereby appoint you a deputy U.S. marshal. The Federal Court in Paris, Texas, pays the re
wards for outlaws apprehended in the Territory.” He elevated his throbbing foot and reached into his shirt pocket for the paper with four names written on it. “If you happen across any of these
hombres
who are wanted for robbery and murder in Texas, then take ’em into custody. Haul their sorry asses to the Chickasaw Nation’s capital at Tishomingo. When I’m back on my feet, I’ll take ’em to Paris so you can get on with your manhunt.”

Fletch memorized the names and the brief descriptions on the list. Some he’d heard of; some he hadn’t. But it didn’t matter. Grady Mills was the top priority on Fletch’s personal list. “I’ve got the first productive lead on this fugitive—”

“But more importantly, I’ve gotta do a favor for my old friend and I need your help,” Bill interrupted. “Robert Cantrell, the Chickasaw Indian agent, has a serious problem.”

“I don’t have time for favors,” Fletch rumbled.

Bill clutched Fletch’s arm, demanding his full attention. “You’ve got time for this one.
Make
time. Rob’s daughter, Savanna Cantrell, is wanted for murder. There’s a $20,000 bounty, compliments of Oliver Draper, the rancher whose son she supposedly shot.”

Fletch arched a dubious brow.
“Supposedly?”

“I don’t have all the details, just a warrant the judge issued and a brief note from Cantrell, asking for my help. You find the girl and bring her to Rob’s cabin near Tishomingo. Don’t let nobody know you got her in custody, hear me? Draper hired mercenary vigilantes to track her down. None of your caliber, mind you, but still tough as nails. With that kind of price on her head she’ll never make it to the courtroom to tell her side of the story.”

“Folks don’t usually take off running if they aren’t guilty,” Fletch remarked.

Bill shrugged his thick shoulders. “I ain’t sayin’ it might be self-defense or something else entirely. But you don’t put that kind of bounty on someone’s head and hire a private army of vigilantes unless you want to take the law into your own hands…or you don’t want the real facts to go public. Sounds fishy to me.”

“Sounds like an old friend defending someone’s daughter out of loyalty,” Fletch said candidly. “I can name at least three dozen convicts locked in Texas penitentiaries who swore to me they were innocent. The judge didn’t see it that way and neither did I. You can’t trust criminals to tell the truth.”

“So young to be so cynical,” Bill said, and snorted.

“I have thirty-three years of hard lessons to my credit,” Fletch said. “If you believe everything people tell you, then you’ll wind up dead… With a surprised look on your face. I hate surprises.” He frowned pensively then added, “Take these back. I’m otherwise occupied.”

When Fletch tried to return the badge and the bench warrants, Bill shook his head and thrust out his stubbled chin. “You keep ’em. If you bring in that gal, the bounty is all yours. Just make sure you deliver her to me at Tishomingo, not to Draper and his vigilantes.”

“I don’t give a damn about the money,” Fletch insisted. “I want Grady Mills and this is the first promising lead I’ve had in over a year. I’ve got my own fish to fry.”

“But the question is, can you go off to fry your fish and live with a woman’s senseless death on your conscience?” Bill asked somberly. “You took a vow as a Ranger and you’re honor-bound to uphold it. Now you’re a U.S. deputy marshal, too.”

Can you live with a woman’s senseless death on your
conscience?
Nothing else Bill Solomon could’ve said would give Fletch pause…except that. The crusty old lawman was unaware of the impact of his comment. But it struck hard and deep and reopened the unhealed memory that had haunted Fletch for five years.

Fletch muttered begrudgingly as he stuffed the warrants into his saddlebag then tucked the badge in the concealed pocket of his vest. “Can you make it to Porter’s Trading Post to rent a room on your own or do I need to make a travois to drag you there?”

Bill chuckled at Fletch’s sour scowl. “I can make the ten-mile ride if I have that pint of whiskey to numb the pain.”

“I thought it was against the law to have whiskey here.”

“It’s against the law to sell it, but this is for medicinal purposes,” Bill insisted.

Fletch hoisted Bill onto the bay gelding, then handed him the pint. They rode off, following the trail through the thicket of trees. Fletch swore he wasn’t going so much as a mile out of his way to track a female who probably deserved to have vigilantes chasing her.

Savanna Cantrell probably thought she could get away with murder, just because her father was the Chickasaw agent. If Fletch crossed paths with the woman, he’d do what he could to appease the older deputy marshal. However, he was
not
going to waste precious time when he had a solid lead on Grady Mills. Fletch had a long-standing debt to repay. He also had a score to settle and he’d been trying to do it for five long years…

His thoughts scattered when an eerie sensation trickled down his spine, putting his seasoned reflexes on instant alert.

“What the—?” Bill croaked when Fletch abruptly shoved him flat against his horse’s neck.

Three bullets simultaneously whistled over Fletch’s head. He bounded to the ground to pull Bill from the saddle. Bill growled in pain and grabbed at his tender leg. Fletch paid no mind to the agonized deputy marshal. He pulled both Colt pistols and blasted away at the puffs of smoke drifting from the underbrush.

“I bet it’s those scraggly buzzards from the ferry.” Bill grabbed his rifle and joined in the shootout.

“Let’s find out for sure. Cover me.” Fletch bounded on to Appy’s back and raced off.

Refusing to become an easy target, Fletch sprawled atop his horse then made a beeline toward the bushes where gunfire erupted. With both barrels blazing, he guided his steed with the pressure from his knees and heels, plunging headlong into the underbrush. Surprised yelps competed with the sounds of discharging bullets. Fletch swooped down like the angel of doom and the bushwhackers beat a hasty retreat.

Although they took off hell-for-leather, Fletch winged two in the arm. He was about to take a shot at the third when Bill bellowed, “Never mind about them sidewinders! We got more important business to attend. I’ll add their descriptions to these bench warrants. If you see ’em again, then arrest ’em. But first things first!”

It wasn’t Fletch’s nature to abandon a pursuit in progress. He’d earned the reputation with his Ranger unit as being relentless. Reluctantly he reined in his horse and retraced his steps to find Bill swearing and struggling to his feet.

BOOK: Carol Finch
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