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Authors: Tatiana March

The Drifter's Bride

BOOK: The Drifter's Bride
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Arizona Territory, 1881

Rescue the girl, claim the reward, get out of town. It’s the kind of mission that Carl Ritter has completed many times before. Except that Jade Armstrong is no meek captive. She’s a strong-willed, half-Apache beauty. And instead of leaving town, Carl agrees to marry her.

Without a white husband, Jade will lose her land. The rugged bounty hunter offers a temporary marriage, just long enough to father the child she needs to secure her inheritance. But the fierce mutual desire unleashed on their wedding night kindles a fire neither expected, turning a business arrangement into a union forged in pleasure….

The Drifter’s Bride
Tatiana March

Chapter One

Arizona Territory, 1881

He spotted the white girl at once.

Ignoring the prickle of coarse grass through his clothing, Carl Ritter crawled forward on his belly over the crest of the hill and lifted the field glasses to his eyes.

Not a girl. A woman, full-grown.

Twenty, her father had said. Of an age to marry, the old man had added, as if that made the rescue attempt all the more important.

Carl compared the woman in his sights to the description he’d been given. Slender body, more than average height. Light skin, tanned to gold. Black hair tumbling in unruly curls past her shoulders. Everything matched, although her father had not talked about the wide, sultry mouth or the big eyes framed with thick, dark lashes.

No doubt he’d found Jade Armstrong.

Taking care to keep the late afternoon sun from reflecting in the lenses, Carl surveyed the small Apache village ahead of him. Half a dozen native women bustled around, cooking, curing hides, weaving baskets, their chatter drifting toward him on the spring breeze. A bunch of ragtag children chased each other around the wickiups.

The white girl was not tied down, and she seemed unharmed. She was kneeling on the ground, pounding corn on a flat stone, appearing to be competent at the task.

Carl lowered the field glasses and settled down to wait. The braves must have gone out hunting. If they didn’t return for the night, he could use the cover of darkness to sneak in and snatch the girl to safety.

If the braves returned, he’d have to come up with another plan.

After thirty minutes, the white girl rose to her feet. Unlike the others, who wore belted tunics over wide skirts, she was dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and denim pants. She called out a few guttural words to the native women, then disappeared into the wickiup behind her. A few seconds later, she came out again and set off across the clearing in his direction.

Alone. Unguarded.

Tension coiled inside Carl. Could it be that for the first time in his twenty-seven years luck was smiling on him? Field glasses in one hand, Winchester rifle in the other, Carl inched backward through the tall grass, twisting like a lizard, taking his weight on his elbows and knees. As a boy, he’d learned to hide, and three years as a bounty hunter had honed his ability to move without making a sound.

When the brow of the hill hid him from the Apache camp, Carl rose to a stealthy crouch and eased down the slope. He guessed the girl’s destination was the creek. He’d used the course of the water to find the village and had left his horse a quarter of a mile downstream.

He was right.

She followed the twisting path to where several boulders blocked the stream, trapping the current into a whirling pond. With a soft thud of her moccasins, she jumped onto a flat stone and deposited the small object she’d been carrying in one hand down by her feet.

Carl looked through the field glasses. A cake of soap.

In the next instant, the girl started to unbutton her shirt. His gut tightened. If he waited… The field glasses jerked in his hands as he imagined her standing there, her skin gilded by the sunlight, every feminine curve and contour bared for his inspection.

If he waited.

It was crazy to wait. But his body refused to move. Throat dry, heart hammering, blood thundering in his veins, Carl watched as the girl slipped the shirt down her shoulders, revealing a thin cotton chemise beneath. She tugged her arms free of the shirt and tossed it on the stone. Bending, she balanced on one foot, then the other, to pull off her moccasins. Next she unsnapped her denim pants and pushed the sturdy fabric down her legs.

She bundled up the clothing and straightened. In a quick move devoid of any vanity, she crossed her arms in front of her, gripped the edge of the flimsy chemise and lifted the garment over her head. Her breasts were small and firm, rosy-tipped. She tilted her face up to the sun. Then she undid the knot at her waist and stepped out of her frilly cotton drawers.

Sweat beaded on Carl’s skin. The tightness in his gut spread to his loins. His muscles quivered as he fought between the guilt of intruding on a woman’s private ritual—something he knew the Apache punished by death—and his yearning to witness more, to see her pick up the soap and slowly run it over her skin, down her arms, into the dip of her waist, and up again over her breasts…

Releasing a rough sigh, Carl lowered the field glasses. Only a fool built up a longing for what he couldn’t have. With a final glance, he saw Jade Armstrong crouch on the stone and dip one foot into the water. Resolutely, he turned away and retreated through the juniper thicket, taking care not to snag the branches with his rifle or his body as he forged a path.

He’d go and fetch his horse.

Then he’d come back for the girl.

By the time Carl returned, she was out of the water and almost dressed. He waited for her to finish pulling on her moccasins. The instant she jumped down from the stone, he emerged from the forest scrub and hurried up to her, a finger lifted to his lips as a sign for silence.

‘Your father sent me.’ He spoke in a rushed whisper, trying to reassure her without wasting time on explanations. ‘My horse is nearby. Stay quiet and follow me.’

Her eyes widened. Green eyes, he noted. Her mouth sprang open.

‘Talk quietly,’ he warned her.

He saw her chest rise as she filled her lungs, getting ready to cry out in alarm. The poor girl was too frightened to understand he’d come to rescue her. Before she could send a scream rippling across the landscape, Carl grabbed hold of her. He spun her around, slamming her back against his chest, and clamped one hand over her mouth.

‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said softly into her ear. ‘I’m taking you home.’

Muffled sounds of protest erupted beneath his callused palm. She thrashed about, fighting to break free from his hold. Soft curves molded against him. The smell of honeysuckle soap drifted in the air, enveloping him.

Carl steeled his senses against the distraction of feminine lure.

He had a job to do. A captive to rescue. A reward to earn.

Keeping one hand pressed across her mouth, he tugged free the red kerchief around his neck and used his teeth to rip the faded cloth in two. Then he slid his hand away from her face and stuffed one half of the fabric into her mouth. The other half he wrapped around her head and secured the gag in place with a knot.

For her wrists, he used a strip of rawhide that he pulled from his coat pocket. The girl kept fighting him, clearly scared out of her wits. He didn’t like the idea of trussing her up like an outlaw, but it was for her own protection, to keep her silent while they made their escape.

‘You’ll be safe soon,’ he promised as he tossed her wriggling body over his shoulder.

Angry growls assaulted his ears. Small fists pounded at his back. A pair of feet in moccasins plowed into his ribs. Carl ignored it all. He wrapped one arm around her legs, cupped his other hand over her buttocks and raced to his horse, his boots meeting the hard ground in light thuds that only an experienced tracker might hear.

A hundred dollars, he reminded himself.

He’d never expected it would be easy money.

But he had assumed the trouble would come from the Apache.

* * *

Jade gave up struggling and draped herself like a dead weight over the man’s shoulder as they hurtled along. Her head dangled down his back and her damp curls slapped about like a bunch of slithery snakes. She hadn’t been subjected to such undignified bouncing since her first ride on an Indian pony.

She emitted another growl of complaint as the man tossed her facedown on a horse—a blue roan with dark stockings on the forelegs, she could see from her upside-down perch. Sliding too far forward, she almost plunged to the ground. Her captor, now in the saddle behind her, hauled her away from the danger by the waistband of her denim pants. She squirmed as the fabric cut into her belly and the saddle horn poked into her side.

‘Take your hands off me, you bastard,’ she yelled.

It came out as
ay-oo-ha-o-e-u-as-ar
. Jade gritted her teeth around the dusty cloth he’d stuffed into her mouth and fell into silence. He’d learn her opinion of him soon enough. If, as she suspected, he’d been watching while she bathed in the creek, she’d make him pay for it.

They rode north two hours, Jade estimated. By the time the man reined in his roan, discomfort had escalated her anger into fury. They had descended from the mountains, to the last sheltered clearing before the trees gave way to the dusty desert plain.

‘I’m sorry I had to do this,’ the man said, his palm resting warm and heavy on her buttocks. His hand rose and fell in a comforting pat, as if to add weight to his apology.

‘Eh-e-own,’
she mouthed.
Let me down
.

‘Sure.’ He dismounted in a fluid motion, then reached up and pulled her down along the flank of the horse. When the momentum had her sliding toward him, he curled his hands around her waist and lifted her to her feet.

‘Ai-eh-oh.’
She lifted her bound hands to point at the gag.
Take this off
.

‘Sure.’

Unimpressed by his conversational skills, she shot him a sour glance. Tall and muscular, her rescuer was dressed in wool pants and a coat so shabby they belonged in a bonfire. She tried to get a better fix on his looks, but between the tangle of brown hair, the thick coating of stubble on his chin, and the hat pulled low over his brow, all she could see was a flash of white teeth and a pair of amber eyes.

He pulled a bowie knife from his boot and slipped it between her wrists. Then, appearing to think again, he left the rawhide twine in place, spun her around, and used the tip of the knife to pry apart the knot at the back of her head. As soon as the gag fell loose, she spat out the soggy cloth and whirled to face him.

‘You son-of-a-bitch,’ she yelled, fists clenched and shoulders rigid. ‘God only knows what diseases that filthy rag carries. I’ll make sure you regret ever laying eyes on me. You’ll pay for this, you—’

Her rant came to an abrupt halt as the stranger swooped down to the ground and snapped upright again. Moving faster than a striking rattlesnake, he grabbed her hair with one hand and stuffed the rag he’d picked up from the dirt back into her mouth.

‘U-on-oh-a-ith,’
she grunted, full of rage.

He glared at her, his amber eyes no longer warm. ‘Leave my mother out of it.’

She glared back, her head tilted to one side to ease the tug of his fist in her hair.

The man inhaled a long breath and slowly let it out again. ‘Sorry,’ he said. His tone was conciliatory. ‘When you panicked by the creek, I didn’t have the time to explain that I’d come to rescue you. I had to silence you. If you’d screamed, you might have brought the braves down on us.’

She let out a derisory snort, then spat the rag out for a second time, half expecting the man to stop her, but he didn’t even try. ‘You’re a fool,’ she told him.

He released his hold on her hair. His other hand remained curled around the handle of the bowie knife. ‘I guess I am a fool,’ he said. ‘A hundred dollars isn’t much for saving a woman from a band of hostile Apaches.’

‘A hundred dollars?’ Her tone was caustic. ‘The man before you demanded two hundred, and the one before that asked for three.’ She heaved out a dramatic sigh. ‘Still, I guess it hardly matters anyway, since my father never pays.’

Her revelation brought about a startled silence. The man stiffened, the knife jutting up in his clenched fist. Jade stepped closer, positioned her wrists against the serrated blade and snapped the leather twine apart, freeing her hands. ‘It will get dark in an hour,’ she said with a glance at the pink glow on the western horizon. ‘Since you rescued me, I expect you to feed me. There’s a creek that flows down the hillside behind those trees.’ She motioned with her head. ‘I’ll go and wash. Call me when dinner is ready.’

With that parting shot, she marched away.

The stranger made no attempt to follow.

* * *

Carl unsaddled his horse, frustration seething inside him. He should have figured it out before. She’d been moving freely among the Apache women, had talked to them in their own language. What was the truth? Had Jade Anderson fallen in love with a brave who stole her back each time her father sent someone to rescue her? Or did she defy her father and run away of her own free will?

Run away…

It occurred to Carl that the girl was taking too long with her washing. He dropped the saddlebags to the ground and rushed down the narrow path, weaving his way between the twisted pines and thorny junipers. When he reached the creek, a startled blue jay flew screeching out of the scrub.

But there was no sign of Jade Anderson.

He scanned the hillside left and right. Up the slope, he caught a flash of blue plaid disappearing into the trees. Carl hurtled after her, his boots slamming against the earth, needled branches swiping at him as he plowed through the thicket. She darted ahead, but with greater strength he forged a straight line where she had to circle around obstacles.

He caught her at the top of the ridge. Lurching forward, he grabbed her by the waist. They rolled to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs. The grass softened their fall, but Carl could feel the air rushing out of the girl’s lungs as his weight landed on top of her.

He pinned her wrists against the ground and scowled into her flushed face. ‘I’m taking you back.’ His harsh tone carried a warning. ‘Your father offered me a hundred dollars to rescue you from the Apache. I’ll take you home, and he’ll pay.’

‘I don’t want to be rescued.’

‘That’s your problem, not mine.’

She glowered at him, her chest rising and falling with ragged breaths. Awareness of her body beneath his pulsed through Carl. He knew he should move, but the pleasure that gripped him was too intense. He remained sprawled over her, one thigh wedged between hers, his swelling groin butting into her belly.

She spoke through gritted teeth. ‘What else did my father offer you?’

BOOK: The Drifter's Bride
11.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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