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Authors: Beverly Barton

Til Death Do Us Part

BOOK: Til Death Do Us Part
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Praise for the books of
New York Times
bestselling author
BEVERLY BARTON

“Beverly Barton writes with searing emotional intensity that tugs at every heartstring.”

—
New York Times
bestselling author Linda Howard

“Smart, sexy and scary as hell. Beverly Barton just keeps getting better and better.”

—
New York Times
bestselling author Lisa Jackson on
The Fifth Victim

“With its sultry Southern setting and well-drawn characters, this richly textured tale ranks among the best the genre has to offer.”

—
Publishers Weekly
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What She Doesn't Know

“Hang on for another emotion-packed thriller.”

—
RT Book Reviews
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Worth Dying For

“A riveting page-turner!”

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The Best Reviews
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On Her Guard

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Witness

Dying for You

A Time to Die

Dangerous Deception

Worth Dying For

BEVERLY BARTON
'Til Death Do Us Part

BLACKWOOD'S WOMAN
PROLOGUE

Trinidad, New Mexico
September 1925

W
E MET IN
our special place today and made love for the last time. Tomorrow Ernest, the boys and I will leave New Mexico and return to Virginia, and I will never see Benjamin Greymountain again. No, that isn't quite true, for I will see Benjamin through my precious memories until the day I die. We cannot be together, and yet we shall never truly be apart.

I had not experienced passion and real love until I met Benjamin. I would give my life to save his, but I cannot stay with him. I have given him my heart forever, but I cannot share my life with him.

He brought two rings with him. They are beautiful, intricately carved silver bands, each embedded with three small turquoise stones to represent the two of us and the child we can never have together. When he placed my ring upon my finger, I wept. He brushed away my tears and told me that he loved me. Then I placed his ring upon his finger and we pledged ourselves to each other for all eternity.

If only there weren't so many obstacles standing in the way of our happiness. No, I must not dwell on what could have been if our lives and the world around us were dif
ferent. I must be thankful to have known such love, to have experienced such ecstasy.

For as long as I live—indeed, for as long as my soul exists—I shall love Benjamin Greymountain, and know that my love is returned in equal measure.

Joanna couldn't bear to read another word. She closed her great-grandmother's diary, tied the worn leather volume with the yellowed ribbon and laid the book inside her suitcase.

For the past six months, ever since she had returned to live in her parents' home and discovered the diary in Annabelle Beaumont's old trunk in the attic, Joanna had found solace in her ancestress's tragic love story.

In a world gone mad around her, Joanna had lost the ability to believe in love; and she could not imagine ever finding joy and passion in sex.

She had to admit that the months of therapy had helped, but nothing could ever erase the nightmarish memories of that fiendish face or the feel of those bruising hands. Even knowing that she and the three other women who'd bravely testified had put their attacker in prison for the rest of his life could never erase the past nor undo the pain. His punishment did not end their punishment. What he had done to them, and to others, had irrevocably changed their lives forever. Had changed Joanna's life forever…?.

Her fiancé had deserted her, her overprotective mother treated her as if she were dying, and she had resigned from her job at the museum, unable to cope with being around people every day. People who whispered behind her back.

But she knew she could not go on forever in this state of recovery. She was young and healthy, with the rest of her life ahead of her. And she had decided that she did not want to stay in Richmond where everyone knew what had happened to her, where her mother smothered her with
attention, where she might run into her ex-fiancé and his new girlfriend. She'd made up her mind weeks ago, but had told her mother only today.

She, Joanna Beaumont, was moving to Trinidad, New Mexico, to find a new life, to paint the land and the people her great-grandmother had found so fascinating, and to dream of finding a man who would love her the way Benjamin Greymountain had loved Annabelle. A tender, sensitive and gentle man.

Joanna lifted from her suitcase a small leather pouch that had been tied to the diary she'd found in Annabelle's trunk. She loosened the drawstring, turned the pouch upside down and dumped the contents into her hand. She stared at the exquisitely lovely silver-and-turquoise ring, then picked it up and slipped it on the third finger of her right hand. It was a perfect fit.

CHAPTER ONE

N
O
.
A
BSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NO
. Not now. Not today. Not on this lonely stretch of road. Not when it was ninety degrees in the shade.

Glancing at the red warning signal, Joanna Beaumont groaned. What could be wrong? Her Jeep Ranger was less than four years old and she had it serviced regularly. How dare it cause her a problem when she took such good care of it!

She wondered just how far she could drive with the warning light on before the vehicle quit. She was miles away from the ranch, even farther from Trinidad, and she'd left the reservation behind nearly two hours ago.

Clouds of white steam rose from beneath the Ranger's hood. Damn! That had to mean either the radiator was overheating or one of those stupid hoses had burst.

Admitting defeat, at least temporarily, Joanna pulled the Jeep to the side of the road, cut the engine and sat there fuming for several minutes. Well, no use just sitting. She popped the hood, opened the door, got out and marched around to the front of the Jeep. Water. She heard water dripping. No, she heard water pouring.

Billows of steam gushed from the engine. Joanna kicked the front bumper, then yelped when pain shot through her foot. If it had been a flat tire, she could have fixed it, but this was altogether different.

She gazed up at the midafternoon sun, blinding in its
intensity. Elena and Alex were in Santa Fe and wouldn't be home until late, so if she called the ranch, she'd have to ask Cliff Lansdell to help her. It wasn't that she disliked the ranch foreman, it was just that Cliff had a difficult time accepting the fact she wasn't interested in a relationship with him.

When the steam began to subside, Joanna leaned over cautiously and peeped beneath the hood. At first she couldn't see anything wrong, then she noticed a small tear in the radiator hose. Dammit! Well, she didn't have any choice. She'd just have to call Cliff and allow him to play her knight in shining armor.

Perspiration beaded on her forehead. Late springtime in northern New Mexico might be cooler than in the southern part of the state, but daytime temperatures could still rise to smoldering degrees in the month of May. When she'd first come to Trinidad, over four years ago, Joanna would have expected nothing but an arid desert region, had it not been for Annabelle Beaumont's descriptions of the mountains and trees and crystal-clear streams.

Slipping inside the Jeep, Joanna lifted her cellular phone and dialed the Blackwood ranch. The phone didn't ring. What now? Glancing at the phone's digital face, she saw that the battery was low. It was her own fault; she'd forgotten to charge the battery last night. How could she have been so stupid?

Now what was she going to do? Well, there was only one thing to do—start walking. It was a good ten miles to the ranch house, but if she was lucky, someone she knew would come along and give her a lift. Trinidad was a small town and she knew practically the whole population.

Locking the Jeep, Joanna swung her enormous leather purse, containing her 25-mm semiautomatic, over her shoulder and headed straight up the road. She hadn't gone
far when she thought she heard the sound of drums—somewhere far away, just a distant rumble. Perhaps it was thunder. Well, rain in New Mexico wasn't impossible. Maybe an electrical storm was brewing. Glancing up, she saw the sky was still clear. And blue, so incredibly blue. Sparse, virgin-white fluffs of cloud floated overhead.

Lowering her eyes to protect them from the glare of the sun, she saw a horse and a lone rider on a nearby flat-topped hill toward the north. Blinking once, twice, she felt certain the image was a mirage. But no. They were still there. A big man astride a magnificent black-and-white Appaloosa.

The sky at their backs, the afternoon sun coating them with a coppery gold glow, man and horse resembled a bronze statue. Joanna's heart pounded. Her palms grew clammy. There was nothing to fear—not in Trinidad, not from the fine people she knew and respected. Surely this man was from the ranch, a hand she would recognize as soon as he rode closer.

But he did not move, simply sat there high above her, staring down at her. She waved at him. He didn't respond.

“Hey, there, are you from the Blackwood ranch?” she called out as she walked off the road and began to climb the hill. “My radiator hose sprung a leak.”

The man didn't answer her, but he did direct his horse into movement. She continued toward her potential rescuer; he rode slowly in her direction. Joanna swung her purse across her chest, unzipped the top pouch and felt inside for her gun. She sighed when she felt the cool metal. If this man turned out to be a stranger, he was a possible threat. Joanna never took chances when it came to her safety. Since surviving the brutal rape nearly five years ago, she had purchased a small handgun and taken several self-defense classes.

When the horse stopped a good twenty feet away, Joanna stared at the rider. She didn't recognize the man, had never seen him before in her life, and yet she had the oddest sensation that she somehow knew him. Her whole body trembled, but the quivering riot was contained within, showing only a slight tremor in her hands. She could not stop staring at the man even though the very sight of him created a sense of foreboding.

He was big, wide-shouldered, long-legged and narrow-hipped, and probably well over six feet tall. But it was not the perfection of his body that held Joanna spellbound; it was his gloriously rugged masculine face. Straight, jet-black hair that touched his collar at the back of his neck had blown down across his forehead, escaping his tan Stetson. Over his left eye he wore a black patch. He glared at her with his uncovered eye, the look unnerving her. Joanna swallowed, and tried to look away. She couldn't.

In one glance she took in his long, straight nose, his cleft chin, and the hard set of his full lips. Whoever he was, he was Native American, or at least part Native American. If he was Navajo, perhaps he would respond to their standard greeting.

“Yá' át' ééh,”
she said.

He merely glared at her even harder, and she instinctively knew he had understood her words.

In the four years she had lived in New Mexico, she had accomplished her goals of building a new life and establishing herself as an artist, but her romantic fantasy of finding a man like Annabelle's Benjamin Greymountain had remained an elusive dream. Until now.

Don't be ridiculous, she told herself. Stop acting like an idiot. She forced herself to look directly at the horse. Breathing in deeply, she took several tentative steps in the stranger's direction.

“Can you help me?” she asked. “My Jeep ran hot and I need to get to the Blackwood ranch.”

He dismounted slowly, placing one booted foot and then the other on the ground. Joanna swallowed hard. He was a lot taller than six feet. Closer to six-four. And his eye wasn't brown as she'd thought; it was some light shade of amber and almost translucent in its paleness.

He stared at her, unsmiling, his brow wrinkled. He crossed his arms over his chest and inspected Joanna from head to toe. She slipped her hand inside her open purse, clutching her gun. Her instincts warned her that this man was dangerous, but somehow she didn't think he intended to do her any bodily harm.

“Look, I need to get to the Blackwood ranch. The main house is about ten miles from here,” Joanna said.

He took a step toward her. Without thinking, she stepped backward. Realizing what she'd done, she stopped, tilted her chin and looked directly at him.

“Can you help me or not?” What was the matter with him? Was he deaf?

“I won't be heading back toward the Blackwood ranch for a while.” His deep baritone voice had a gritty quality, a gravelly tone.

“Are you a new ranch hand?”

“No.”

She wished he would quit inspecting her. She was beginning to feel like a bug under a microscope. “You realize you're on Blackwood property out here, don't you?”

Just a hint of a smile twitched his lips and then vanished completely, returning his mouth to its former frown. “If you're not in a hurry to get back to the house, you're welcome to come with me. Otherwise—” he glanced at the long, lonely stretch of road “—you'll have to walk.”

Was he out of his mind? Did he think she'd go riding
off only God knew where, with a total stranger? “Can't you take me to the ranch and then come back and do whatever it is you were going to do?”

“Why should I change my plans?” Uncrossing his arms, he stroked the big Appaloosa stallion's neck.

“I suppose saying it would be the gentlemanly thing to do would have no meaning for you, would it?”

“None whatsoever,” he said, turning his back to her. “Well, what's it going to be? Are you riding with me or are you walking?”

She had every intention of telling him she would walk. Removing her hand from her purse, she turned around and faced the road. She glanced over her shoulder and saw him mounting his horse. The sun reflected off the silver ring on the third finger of his right hand. Since living in New Mexico she'd seen countless silver-and-turquoise rings, but none that was identical to the one she wore—Annabelle Beaumont's keepsake of love. The ring the stranger wore was an exact match. Was it possible that it was Benjamin Greymountain's ring? But how would this man have come into possession of the ring?

The stranger motioned the Appaloosa forward, coming straight toward Joanna. Slowing the horse to a standstill, he leaned his body to one side.

“Last chance.” He held out his hand.

Joanna stared at his big hand, her vision focusing on the silver ring. Her heart hammered in her chest; the beating thundered in her ears. She looked up into his dark face—into that pale amber eye—and swayed toward him. She felt as if he was beckoning her.

“Who are you?” she asked, her heartbeat roaring in her ears like a hurricane wind.

“Who wants to know?” He stared at her, his gaze hard and intense.

“I'm Joanna Beaumont. I live on the Blackwood ranch.”

Withdrawing his outstretched hand, he inspected her from head to toe, as if she were a prize piece of horseflesh he was considering buying. Joanna stiffened her back, clenched her teeth and glared at him. Just who did he think he was? He's an arrogant, macho bastard, Joanna answered her own question.

“So, you're the Southern belle from Virginia who converted one of the old bunkhouses into a home.”

He focused his attention on her face, then ran his gaze down her throat and to the V of her partially unbuttoned blouse. A wide trickle of sweat cascaded down her throat and between her breasts. She didn't like the way he was looking at her, and yet her body responded to his blatantly sexual appraisal. Her nipples tightened, jutting outward, and she knew he saw their hardened outlines pressing against her damp blouse.

“How do you know who I am?” If he didn't stop staring at her, she was going to scream.

“My sister has sung your praises to me on numerous occasions, Ms. Beaumont.”

“Your sister? Elena?”

He nodded. The corners of his lips twitched as if he were going to smile. But he didn't. He just kept staring at her, the heat of his gaze unnerving her. “Then you're—”

“J. T. Blackwood.”

They stared at each other for endless moments, the hot sun beating down on them, an eerie quiet all around.

“If you're not in a big hurry to get back to the ranch, I'll give you a lift.” J.T. broke the silence, damning himself for allowing this fiery redhead to arouse him. He had learned long ago that “ladies” fascinated by the “noble savage” were to be avoided at all costs. “When we get
back to the ranch, I'll send someone to take care of your Jeep.”

Joanna hesitated. She knew all about Elena's older half brother, the owner of the Blackwood ranch. And what Joanna knew about the man, she didn't like. He represented everything she disapproved of in a man. He was a big, rugged, untamed macho guy, a former Secret Service agent who was now a partner in a private security firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. And according to Elena, he had never had a truly serious and meaningful relationship in his life.

“Look, lady, are you riding with me or are you walking back to the ranch?”

He held out his hand to her again. She stared at the silver-and-turquoise ring on his finger. Benjamin Greymountain's ring.

She would be stupid if she walked ten miles when she could ride, wouldn't she? And it wasn't as if J. T. Blackwood was a stranger. She'd be perfectly safe with him. Besides, if he pulled any type of macho stunt, he just might not be safe with her.

She reached out to him; he grasped her arm, lifting her off her feet. He swept her up onto the horse, placing her in front of him and draping his arm around her waist. Joanna closed her eyes, willing her heart to quiet, questioning her own sanity. From what she'd heard, she didn't even like J. T. Blackwood. So why was she aroused by his very nearness?

J.T. guided the horse from a slow trot down the flat-topped hill and into a steady gallop across the road, then up into the wooded area at the very edge of the Blackwood property. Joanna glanced down at his muscular arm that held her close to him. She felt the hardness of his chest,
felt the heat from his body and could not mistake the ridge in his jeans that pressed against her hip.

A sudden sense of panic swept through her. Had she lost her mind? Had the past taught her nothing?

“Where—where are you going?” she asked.

“To a small stream a little higher up the mountain here. It's a place I've thought about for years,” he said. “I've been gone a long time. I just wanted to see if things were the way I remembered them.”

She tried not to lean back against him, but the upward climb made sitting straight impossible. His arm tightened around her. She sucked in a loud breath. “You don't visit the ranch often, do you? I've been living in Trinidad for over four years, and we've never met.”

BOOK: Til Death Do Us Part
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