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Authors: Jane Toombs

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BOOK: The Outlaws
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Mark swung on his heel and strode away from the men near the corral. Damn it, this stunk worse than a Pecos catfish three days dead. No sheriff in his right mind would deputize Jesse Evans or Buck Morton, even if they were the last men left in the Territory.

Months ago Mark had protested to Dolan when he hired Evans and Morton, but Dolan

had insisted he needed a couple of tough gunslingers for protection. Protection was one thing. This was another.

I’m heading into town to talk to Sheriff Brady, he decided. Dolan, too, if I can locate him. Why isn’t Brady leading this posse? And why so many? Why eighteen when four or five could do the Job? Gunmen, every last one. The real trouble had started on Christmas Eve when McSween was arrested in Las Vegas. Dolan had filed suit against him, saying McSween had embezzled money from an insurance claim. Then, in January, Brady had attached McSween’s cows, and now that posse was heading out to drive in some of Tunstall’s stock, claiming that the two men were partners and so Dolan had the right.

Gunslingers instead of cowboys. Mark mounted his sorrel and urged him into a fast lope. The day was sunny and cool, the snow gone. A gray and white bird called from the bare branches of a cottonwood.

Just before noon he passed the abandoned adobe casita beside a frozen stream that was his mark for the halfway point between Dolan’s spread and Lincoln. In warmer weather he often stopped there to eat and water the horse. The sorrel slowed, remembering, and Mark kneed him on. He topped a rise and quickly reined in.

Below him, on the trail to Tunstall’s ranch, a lone rider trotted. Could be Tunstall. Since December, Mark had no desire to ever meet him again, but, damn it, if the rider was Tunstall, he was going to have to warn him. He had no real grudge against the Englishman, and he’d hate to see any man come up against that crowd Brady had deputized for his posse.

He rode down the hill to intercept the rider. As he drew closer, Mark frowned. It wasn’t Tunstall. In fact, it wasn’t a man. The woman rode astride, wearing men’s pants under her skirts, but that wasn’t as unusual as the fact she was alone. And that was dangerous as hell in this country. She turned her head and caught sight of him.

Mark drew in his breath. Tessa Nesbitt!

She slowed her gray horse, waiting for him. He pounded up to her and pulled alongside. “You shouldn’t be out here alone,” he growled at her, breaking into her greeting. “Where are you headed?”

Tessa blinked, then touched the Colt in the gun belt buckled around her waist. “I’m armed. If it’s any of your business what I do, Mr. Halloran, I’m headed for the Tunstall ranch

“You didn’t pull that pistol when you spotted me coming. A Colt’s not much use holstered.’’

“For heaven’s sake, I recognized you!”

“Another thing, you didn’t spot me soon enough. I’d have had the drop on you before you had a chance.”

Tessa put one hand on her hip and glared at Mark. “Stop lecturing me as though I were

Jules’ age.”

“You ought to get your older brother to ride with you if none of the men has time. Ezra’s a good shot.”

“As far as I’m concerned, Ezra is in disgrace at the moment.”

“One more thing. It’s not a good idea to be heading for Tunstall’s ranch today. You’d best turn around. I’m going into town and I’ll be glad to escort you back.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have no intention of returning to Lincoln.”

Her eyes were like thunderclouds when she was angry, Mark thought, almost completely gray. Even in the man’s hat she wore—one of her father’s, he suspected—and the pants, Tessa looked so pretty he found it hard to breathe.

“There may be trouble at Tunstall’s,” he said. “I’m going in to talk to the sheriff about it.

And you’re coming with me.”

“Trouble? What kind of trouble?’’

“Some deputies are on their way to attach Tunstall’s stock,” He said reluctantly, certain she’d be even angrier.

“Dolan!” She spat the word out. “He’s behind it; he’s out to destroy John like he’s tried to destroy Alex. How can you go on working for such a monstrous person?”

“You’ve got the wrong idea about Dolan. Besides, who I work for is my own business. Come on, we’re heading back. “ He reached for the bridle of her horse.

Mark heard the slither of metal against leather, an ominous click. He dropped the bridle and twisted his head to stare at Tessa.

Her Colt was cocked and pointed straight at his chest. “Turn your horse and ride for town,” she ordered. “You go your way and I go mine.”

“You’re not going to shoot,” he told her. “Put the damn gun away.”

“If I can shoot an Apache, I can shoot you,” she snapped. “Do as I say.”

Mark shrugged, started to wheel his horse away from her, then suddenly whipped the sorrel’s head back around, kicked free of this stirrups and leaped out of the saddle at Tessa. His weight and momentum flung then both off the far side of her horse. The Colt barked as they slammed to the ground. Both horses bolted.

Mark scrambled to his feet. He knelt beside Tessa, relieved when he saw she’d only had the breath knocked out of her.

“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to hurt you.”

She raised herself on one elbow. Her hat was on the ground some distance away and her golden hair glistened in the sun. “You--you ruffian!” she gasped.

Mark rose and retrieved her gun, emptied the chambers and stuck it under his belt. He reached a hand to her and pulled her to her feet. When he looked around neither horse was in sight.

“Thanks to your foolishness,” he said, “we’ve got a long hike ahead of us.”

Tess stopped brushing dirt from her skirt. “My foolishness!”

“You pulled the gun, not me.”

She put both hands on her hips, glaring up at him. “You come riding at me out of nowhere, order me to go back to town, try to force me to return when I refuse, then get upset because I tried to free myself by using my Colt. I hate you, Mark Halloran. I wish I had shot you.”

She was so damn unreasonable. And so damn pretty. He wanted to wrap her in his arms and hold her safely there for the rest of time.

A flicker of motion on the hill to his right made him look up. He caught a glimpse of the sorrel disappearing over the top.

“Maybe we won’t have to walk,” he told her. “I sometimes stop at a place just over that hill and my horse is used to it. I think he’s headed there now. Let’s go see.”

Tessa glanced at the hill, then looked at the trail heading south to Tunstall’s ranch, north to Lincoln. There was no sign of her horse. She sighed. “I suppose I have no choice.”

They walked in silence until they reached the hill. As they began to climb, Tessa said,

“Jules asks about you all the time.”

Mark smiled. “He’s a fine boy. Looks a lot like you.”

“He does?”

“Well, his eyes are lighter and his hair’s darker, but his face is like yours. There’s no doubting you’re kin. I’m sorry things worked out so I couldn’t come back to see Jules again. To see you again.”

She said nothing.

“Seems as though I’m forever telling you I’m sorry,” he said. “I wish ...” He paused.

“What do you wish?”

He waved a hand. “Oh, that things were different. You’re a friend of the McSween’s and

I work for Dolan. We’re on opposite sides and their feuding prevents us from being friends.” “Yes, I suppose it does.” Her voice was softer.

He caught her hand in his and helped her climb the last few feet to a rock shelf on the crest of the hill where they stopped to rest.

“We could try to be friends anyway,” he said.

Tessa pulled her hand from his and pointed down at the abandoned casita.

“Is that the place you meant? She asked. “I don’t see your horse.”

“That’s it. Might as well go on down and wait around a bit. Got a hunch he’ll show up there rather than travel all the way back to Dolan’s ranch.”

She glanced in the direction of Lincoln, maybe a four hour walk to the north, then toward Tunstall’s ranch, even father to the south. “We may as well, I suppose,” she said finally.

At the bottom of the hill Tessa examined the inside of the adobe. “Look, there’s wood in the fireplace. Does someone actually live here? It seems so dilapidated.”

“Never seen anyone. Could be the herders use it sometimes. I’ll start a fire if you’re cold.”

“We won’t be here very long, will we?” Mark heard a twinge of apprehension and something else he couldn’t identify.

He shrugged and knelt to the hearth, struck a match and touched it to the pine kindling underneath the logs. They caught fire and soon licked up along the logs.

Going back out the sagging open door, Mark cut some branches from one of the pinon pines behind the casita. Returning, he laid them near the fire. Tessa picked up one, using it as a broom to sweep away the accumulated dirt debris from the ground in front of the fire. She arranged the rest of the boughs over the cleaned space, sat on them and held her hands out to the fire.

Mark smiled as he watched her busying herself like a wife at her own hearth. He sat beside her, saying, “The heat feels good.”

“Yes.”

He glanced at her, wondering if he imagined the quiver in her voice. She was gazing at him. She turned her face away quickly and color rose to her cheeks. Her hat was off and her hair lay over her shoulders in glorious disarray. Desire stirred in him.

He leaned toward her, raised a hand to her face and, with gentle fingers on her chin, turned it back toward him. “I can’t stop looking at you,” he said softly. “You’re so beautiful. I’ve never seen a woman so beautiful.”

“Not even Susie?” The words came out breathlessly.

He blinked. “Susie McQueen?”

Tessa nodded.

“She doesn’t compare to you!”

She lowered her gaze. “You seemed to like her.”

He had to admit Susie’s flirting had aroused him--she was a handsome woman. But Tessa stirred more than his body. What he felt for her was more complicated than simple desire.

“I like Susie,” he said. “But you’re different. I don’t know how to tell you.” He stroked her cheek, traced the curve of her lips with his forefinger, his heart beating faster and faster, Her lips parted.

The blood roared in Mark’s ears. He tried to warn himself he must stop this now, before he was out of control. Tessa wasn’t the kind of woman a man took for his pleasure and then forgot.

He gazed into her eyes. In their gray-blue depths he could see a glow that warmed him more than the flames of the fire. He bent his head and kissed her.

At first her mouth was soft under his, the innocent lips of a girl not used to a man’s kisses. But as he wrapped his arms about her, drawing her close, he felt the answering pressure of her mouth, felt her arms on his shoulders, holding him to her.

His need for her drove every other thought from his mind. He unbuttoned her coat, slid his hands along her breasts, soft under the cloth of her dress, Tessa drew in her breath and started to pull away.

He dropped his hands to her waist, holding her as he kissed her throat, feeling her relax against him. He undid one button of her high-necked gown, then another and another, his lips traveling along her skin as he bared it.

“Mark,” she murmured. “Please…”

He couldn’t tell if the plea was to go on or to stop, but since she didn’t try to pull away, he was driven on and soon the dress was down about her waist. He removed her camisole and her pink-peaked breasts sprang free, the nipples taut with desire. As his fingers caressed first one breast, then the other, she made little moaning sounds.

His world narrowed to the woman in his arms. “Tessa,” he whispered against her ear. “So lovely.”

He bent his head to her breasts, his tongue circling the nipples. Tess held him to her. Her fresh, sweet scent mingling with the fragrance of the pine excited him so much that his hands trembled as he laid her back among the boughs and pushed her gown lower, then unbuckled the belt of the pants she wore, He drew off her pants and gown and then her undergarments.

He threw off his clothes as fast as he could, then lay on his side next to her. She gazed at him with passion-darkened eyes. Gently he drew her to him and kissed her.

The feel of her bare flesh against his made him groan, but he forced himself to wait, stroking the velvet-soft skin of her hip, her thigh, until his fingers trailed between her thighs exploring and caressing.

“Mark,” she breathed. “Oh, Mark, I don’t know what’s happening to me. I feel so--”

He stopped her words with his mouth, pressed her over onto her back and raised himself above her. Easing her legs apart, he lowered himself until his sex touched the welcoming warmth of her womanhood. He thrust into her as gently as he could, but she gave a little cry of pain and tried to pull away.

Mark couldn’t halt. He was beyond reason, she was his, he’d never wanted any woman so much, he had to have her. He thrust hard once, twice, felt her tightness give and then he was deep inside her.

“I’m afraid,” she cried. “Please…”

BOOK: The Outlaws
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