Authors: Elle James
Tags: #AmerFrntr/Western/Cowboy, #Romance Suspense
“I want Pierce to know how it feels to lose the one he loves,” Ethan said.
With the little air she could squeeze past his hold, she said, “Pierce doesn’t love me.” Her heart broke at her own words.
“Yes, I do, Roxanne.” A silhouette filled the cave entrance. “Ethan Mitchell, let go of her, or I swear on the Great Spirit, I’ll rip you apart.”
“Pierce?” Roxanne cried out, the sound cut off as the arm around her neck tightened, lifting her until her feet no longer touched the ground.
She dug her fingers into the arm, scratching and clawing for oxygen to refill her starving lungs. Her chest hurt, her vision started to blur as her arms weakened. It was over—she didn’t have the strength to fight anymore. But Pierce had said he loved her. Pierce Thunder Horse had said he loved her. She had everything to live for. Dying was not an option.
A surge of hope filled her body and sent a flash of adrenaline through her system. She let herself go limp, playing dead, letting the full weight of her body land on Ethan’s arm—the arm still injured from the shot he’d taken to the shoulder.
Ethan staggered back, his grip loosening.
Roxanne jabbed her elbow into his gut as hard as she could.
He released his hold and Roxanne dropped to the ground.
Pierce charged across the floor in a linebacker stance, plowed into Ethan, and sent him flying into the stack of wooden crates.
The impact knocked the wind out of the injured man and he crumpled to the floor, his hands clutched around his ribs. “Damn you, Thunder Horse. Damn you to hell.” He rolled to his side, reaching for his rifle.
Pierce kicked it away from his hands. “Enough. You’ve caused enough problems. Give it up.” He jerked Ethan to his feet and twisted his arm up behind him. Leaning close to the other man’s ear, Pierce spoke in a clear, intense tone. “I’d have killed you for what you did to Roxanne, but that would have made me no better than you.”
“You killed Leah,” Ethan cried.
“No.” Roxanne pushed to her feet. “
did by leaking the information to the FBI. You knew the warehouse was wired to blow. It was your call that killed Leah and my brother, Mason.”
Pierce shoved Ethan forward. “I’m sure there’s a prison cell with your name on it.”
“Don’t be so sure he’ll make it that far.”
Roxanne spun to face Shorty Duncan.
The man held a metal box in his hand. He blinked the blood out of his eyes and staggered backward toward the entrance, his hand reaching for a toggle jutting out of the top of the box.
“He’s got the detonator!” Roxanne yelled, diving for the man, knowing she’d never reach him in time.
Another form appeared behind Duncan, yanking the box from his grip before the deputy could flip the switch.
Shorty rounded on the man behind him, reaching for the detonator. “Give me that.”
Tuck Thunder Horse pistol-whipped Shorty against the side of his head, sending the deputy flying backward. The older man tripped over a boulder and landed flat on his back. When he tried to get to his feet, Tuck pointed his gun at the man. “Stay where you are. I’ve lost all patience for the local law enforcement, so don’t try me.”
Roxanne found the duct tape and bound Ethan’s wrists behind his back while Pierce held him steady. Then, with a great sense of justice, she bound the deputy’s wrists behind his back, as well. She wanted to slap a piece across his mouth, but resisted the payback urge and tossed the roll to the ground.
She led the way out of the cave, letting the sunlight warm her face and her insides. So much had happened, everything spun inside her head.
Maddox and Dante had just crested the ridge overlooking the crevasse where the caves were hidden. As they dropped down to the canyon floor smiles spread across their faces.
Mattox chuckled. “I see you didn’t need our assistance after all.”
Tuck emerged from the cave dragging Shorty Duncan behind him.
Dante’s eyes rounded. “Well, well. What have you got there?”
“One of the leaders of the NorDak Militia and an entire cave full of weaponry.” Tuck tossed the detonator to Dante.
Roxanne ducked, her body tensing, anticipating the explosion.
Tuck chuckled. “Don’t worry, Roxanne. I pulled the wires loose from the explosives.
Roxanne let go of the breath caught in her throat and laughed shakily. “Don’t scare me like that.”
Maddox dropped down out of his saddle. “Need a hand there, brother?”
Pierce pushed Ethan Mitchell into Maddox’s grip. “Take him, will you? I need to get Roxanne home. She’s been through a lot.”
“Take my horse. I’ll catch a ride in the helicopter.”
Roxanne’s heart skipped a couple beats as Pierce hooked her arm. Suddenly shy, she pulled back, avoiding the showdown with Pierce Thunder Horse, afraid it would be their last. More afraid that what he’d said wasn’t true. He really didn’t love her.
Tears welled in her eyes, her head pounded where the deputy had hit her and she didn’t have the strength left to keep from telling this man just how much she loved him. “Leave me alone, Pierce,” she said, then turned to walk away.
“Damn you, woman.” Pierce caught up with her and scooped her legs out from under her, crushing her to his chest. “You will stop running from me and listen to what I have to say. After that, if you still want to leave, I’ll let you go.”
Tears slipped from the corners of her eyes. “I don’t want to hear it.”
“You damn well better.” Pierce shook his head, his own eyes glazing. “Why are you crying? You know I can’t stand it when you cry.”
“Because…because…oh, hell, because I love you and I was stupid and…well…now you know. And you’re not in any way obligated to love me back. Even though you said you did in the cave when you thought I was going to die. I love you, Pierce Thunder Horse, and I’d just as soon die if you don’t love me back—”
Pierce’s lips closed over hers, stemming the gush of words spewing from her mouth.
A round of applause erupted behind Pierce as his tongue slid past Roxanne’s lips, between her teeth to connect with her tongue.
Her arms circled his neck, drawing him closer.
had to be smiling down on him. Roxanne was alive and in his arms. He’d found all the happiness he needed in this kiss. If he could freeze a moment in time, it would be this one.
As his head lifted, reason returned with the air filling his lungs.
“Why did you kiss me?” she asked, her tears glistening on her cheeks.
“To shut you up.” Tuck chuckled as he led Shorty Duncan past the pair. “Never heard a woman say so little with so many words.”
Roxanne swung a hand at Tuck. “I can still whip your butt, Tuck Thunder Horse.”
“You’ll have to get in line behind Julia. She has full rights as my fiancée.”
Pierce glared at Tuck.
“What?” Tuck looked all innocent.
“Stop flirting. You’re practically a married man.”
“Then do something about her.” Tuck pointed at Roxanne. “She’s trouble.”
Pierce’s gaze captured Roxanne’s. “I know. More than you can imagine.”
Roxanne looked down first. “You can put me down, you know.”
“What if I don’t want to?” He held her tighter.
She inhaled and let the air out in a short burst. “Why, Pierce? Why won’t you let me go?”
“Because I almost lost you. I’m afraid if I put you down, I might lose you all over again.”
Roxanne waved at the men climbing up over the ridge, leaving them alone in the canyon. “No one’s shooting at us. You and Tuck took care of the bad guys.”
“They aren’t the ones I’m afraid of.” Pierce let her feet fall to the ground.
Roxanne didn’t move out of his arms. She stood close, her hands resting against his chest. “You’re afraid? Of what?”
He gripped her arms, staring down at her, his body tense, his heart pounding. “That I should let go of you…but that I won’t be able to.”
Her hand cupped his cheek and she shook her head. “You don’t make sense.”
Pierce let go of one of her arms and captured her fingers with his. “I’m not the right man for you, Roxanne.”
Her lush, full lips thinned into a straight line. “Then who is? And don’t give me that crap about someone who will be around for me. I can take care of myself.”
He started to shake his head, but she jumped in before he could say anything.
“Okay, so I needed a little help when I had someone gunning for me. But that’s not something that happens every day. I’ve been running the Carmichael Ranch for four years, and up to this point, I’ve had no problems. I can do it again.”
“But what? You don’t trust me since I was the one who called off the wedding?”
“No, I understand why you did that. Believe me, I blame myself for Mason’s death as much as you do.”
“Stop.” Roxanne held up a hand. “You said it yourself—the one to blame for the explosion is Ethan. He’s the one who set the explosives and sent your team in. You need to stop blaming yourself.”
“I got the tip. I should have seen it as a setup.”
“None of the agents did—why should you? I don’t blame you for Mason’s death.”
Pierce smoothed a strand of hair out of her face. “Mason asked me to protect you. How can I do that when I know that an FBI agent’s wife is never safe from waiting and worrying if her husband is going to come home?”
Roxanne frowned at him. “Is it that you’ve had time to think about us and realized you couldn’t live with a sometimes long-distance relationship?” She pulled out of his arms. “I can understand and accept that.” She turned and started to walk away. “Don’t worry about hurting my feelings—I’m a tough girl. Besides, I have to get back to work. I have a ranch to save from the bank.”
“Roxanne Carmichael, sometimes you talk too much.” Pierce caught her before she got two steps and spun her to face him. “My problem is that I love you
“You sure have a way of showing a girl.” She reached up to wipe the tears from her face.
He captured her hand before she could brush away a single tear and thumbed the moisture from her cheek. “It’s not fair to ask you to wait for me, to be alone so often. Like you said…you have a ranch to run. I go where and when the bureau sends me. We’ll always be going in different directions.”
“So, you’re letting me go. Fine. Let go.” She glanced pointedly at his hands.
Pierce shook his head. “I can’t.” He pulled her into his arms and rested his cheek on her head. “You’re so much a part of me, I can’t function without you. I’ll give up the FBI, if that’s what it takes to be with you.”
She pushed against his chest. “You’d give up the FBI for me?” Her lip trembled and she sucked it between her teeth. “No way.”
“Yeah, I would. I’ll turn in my resignation as soon as I get back to the office.”
She shook her head. “You can’t.”
“Because I love you.” Roxanne stood on her toes and pressed a kiss to his lips.
Pierce held her at arm’s length. “Now you’re not making sense.”
“I couldn’t live with myself knowing you gave up a job you love for me.” She smiled up at him. “I’ll sell the ranch. I could follow you wherever the FBI sends you, or be waiting when you get back.” Her brows furrowed. “If you want me to.”
Pierce hugged her to him, his heart full of his love for this woman. “We’ll figure it out, sweetheart. Somehow, we will.”
“Does that mean we’ll be together at least some of the time?” she said into his chest, her fingers curling into his shirt. “Please say it does,” she whispered.
“It does.” His arms tightened around her.
Roxanne’s hands circled the back of his neck and she tipped her head up to stare into his eyes. “Will you marry me, Pierce Thunder Horse, even though I canceled on you before? I promise I won’t this time.”
A chuckle rose up his throat. “Yes, I’ll marry you. But shouldn’t I be the one asking?”
“Does it matter?” She leaned into him, pressing her lips to his.
No, Pierce thought. It didn’t matter as long as they were together.
* * *
with that.” Mrs. T. took the veil from Roxanne’s hands and slipped it over her head, anchoring the comb in her hair. “There.”
Roxanne stared at herself in the mirror, amazed at her own transformation. She smiled, her eyes filling with tears. “My mother would have loved being here. She always wanted to see me in a dress.”
“What?” Julia slid up beside her and stared into the mirror, patting her own veil. “Didn’t think you had it in yourself to get all dolled up in a wedding dress?”
Her cheeks burned. That’s exactly what she’d been thinking. “I’m just surprised I can still fit into it.”
“Like you were going to gain any weight rounding up a couple hundred head of cattle and loading them onto trucks. That’s about as likely as you finding time to eat while dealing with the bank, making a couple trips back and forth to Bismarck and giving statements to the FBI and ATF, and—in your spare time—planning a wedding over just a couple of days.” Julia dragged in a deep breath. “Whew! I’m tired just listing it.”
Roxanne laughed. “You make it sound…chaotic?”
“It was.” Julia hugged her, grinning.
“I’m just glad the bank decided to renew my mortgage. When I get the check from the cattle sale, I’ll be okay.”
“What a relief after all you’ve gone through.” Julia hugged her again. “I’m so glad you agreed on this double wedding.”
“Me, too.” Roxanne liked Tuck’s fiancée and was glad she’d be around at family gatherings.
“And to think I didn’t want to marry Tuck because he was an FBI agent.” Julia shook her head. “And here I am, about to do just that.”
Roxanne tucked a strand of her red hair into the bunch of curls secured to the top of her head. “What changed your mind?”
Julia smiled. “I thought I couldn’t live with him, knowing he could die at any minute. But I realized I couldn’t live without him, and would rather have as much time with him as I could get. And Lily deserves to know what a wonderful father she has.” Julia stared across at Roxanne. “What changed your mind?”
“Pretty much the same reasons.” Roxanne chuckled. “Even when I was being pigheaded, I never stopped loving the man.”
Amelia laughed. “My boys can be pretty pigheaded, too.”
Katya entered the room, a smile lighting her eyes. “You two look so lovely.” She pressed her hands together. “I cannot wait for my own wedding to Maddox.”
“It’s too bad you couldn’t join us.” Julia crossed the room to hug Katya.
Roxanne smiled. “Julia, you’re going to run out of hugs at this rate.”
She laughed. “I’m delighted to be a part of such a big family. If not for Tuck and the Thunder Horse clan, it would be just me and Lily.” Her smile faded. “I miss my sister so much.”
Roxanne fought the ready tears that had been bubbling to the surface since she’d woken up that morning. “I miss my brother, too.”
Katya sighed. “I would have loved a simple wedding, here on the Thunder Horse Ranch. But that is not to be. My brother insists we marry in my country.”
Roxanne grimaced, imagining the crowds and required decorum. “Sounds like a lot of pomp and circumstance.”
“Of which you will all partake.” Katya stood tall and commanding in a way only royalty can pull off without looking arrogant. “I insist that the entire family come to Trejikistan for the wedding.”
Roxanne hugged Katya. “I’d love to. I’ll have to clear it with my husband, though.” She grinned, almost pinching herself over the use of the word
“I’m sure he’ll agree.” Amelia and Julia took turns hugging Katya.
“Hmm, someone’s missing.” Roxanne glanced around the room. “If all the women are in here, who has Lily?”
Julia’s lips turned up on the corners. “Tuck volunteered to take over diaper duty while we got ready. I wonder how he’s holding up?”
* * *
tie to look right.” Tuck yanked it loose yet again.
“What’s wrong, brother, getting cold feet?” Dante lounged in a chair across the room.
“Shut up, Dante. You’ll be next at the altar, after Maddox.” Pierce held Lily carefully so that she didn’t spit up on his tuxedo.
Dante shook his head. “Not if I can help it. I like being a bachelor. Kinda like the last man standing. Footloose and fancy free.”
“You just haven’t met the right woman,” Tuck said. “I give up.” His hands dropped to his sides.
“Here, let me.” Maddox took over, and in a few quick movements had Tuck’s tie perfect.
“How is it that the cowboy knows how to tie a bow tie and the fed doesn’t?” Dante teased. “You’d think with the undercover activities you guys participate in, it would be a requirement to know how to tie a bow tie.”
“Guess I missed that training session at Quantico.” Tuck smiled. “Thanks, Maddox. You doing okay over there with the little one, Pierce?”
Pierce nodded. “She’s an angel.” He liked the way Lily snuggled against him and how warm and soft she was. His heart squeezed in his chest as he wondered what his and Roxanne’s babies would look like. Would they have red hair like Roxanne or the dark straight hair of their Lakota ancestors?
“It’s about time. You two ready?” Maddox crossed to the door and held it open.
“You bet.” Pierce’s pulse quickened. He handed Lily over to Tuck. “I believe this sweetheart belongs to you.”
“Hey, Lily. Let’s say you and me go to a wedding.” Tuck straightened his little girl’s pretty white dress, dropped a kiss on her cheek and stepped through the door. No hesitation.
Maddox clapped a hand onto Pierce’s back. “Any second thoughts, little brother?”
Pierce shook his head. “Not one.” He’d loved Roxanne for so long, marrying her would only make his world complete. Still, he couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen.
Maddox’s brows dipped. “You look a little nervous.”
Pierce’s lips twisted. “Until I get a ring on her finger, I won’t believe she’s really going to marry me.”
“Kinda the way I feel about Katya.” Maddox sighed.
“And you have to go all the way to Trejikistan to tie the knot.” Pierce clapped a hand on his brother’s back. “I’m glad the ladies decided on home for this shindig.”
“Shall we?” Maddox held the door.
“I’m ready.” Pierce led the way, emerging into the great room of the Thunder Horse Ranch house. The space had been transformed into a garden with flowers and greenery strategically draped over the mantel, wooden beams and walls. The huge leather couch had been moved to one of the bedrooms, replaced by a couple rows of white wooden chairs, decorated with cheerful white daisies, ribbons and yellow roses.
All of Roxanne’s ranch hands were present, except Ethan, who had spent the past couple days in jail in Bismarck with Shorty Duncan. A contrite Toby stood with his cowboy hat in his hand, still mentally kicking himself for being played the fool by Ethan.
Pierce chuckled at how uncomfortable the cowboys looked all duded up in freshly pressed jeans, crisp white shirts and neckties. Every one of them tugged at the constriction, probably counting the minutes until the ceremony was over and they could lose the ties while digging into the catered barbecue brisket and cases of beer.
Pierce’s stomach rumbled as the rich aroma of smoked brisket and roasted corn drifted to him from the kitchen, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten breakfast.
He took his place beside Tuck and Lily in front of the fireplace, tugging his jacket and checking the placement of the single white rose on his lapel. At least he had on his black cowboy boots, instead of the patent leather dress shoes the tuxedo shop had tried to rent to him. Thank goodness Tuck had been in agreement with him and chosen to wear the same.
Music filled the room from the piano their mother had tried unsuccessfully to get all the boys to play at one time or other. She’d arranged for one of the young men from the Medora Musical to play for the ceremony.