Little Red: an Everland Ever After Tale by Caroline Lee

Her back hurt. Why did her back hurt? Rojita cracked her eyelids just a bit, wincing at the way the full brightness of the late-winter sun lanced straight through to the back of her brain. Never mind, better to just keep them closed.

She was lying on the frozen ground; the sharp rock or stick or something under her rear end told her that. And just as soon as the dull ache in her back faded, she’d get around to shifting off of it. In the meantime… why did her back hurt at all?
Little Red: an Everland Ever After Tale
Little Red: an Everland Ever After Tale by Caroline Lee
She’d been riding hard, and then—oh yes, the horse had stopped suddenly. Had she been thrown? Wiggling her toes in her boots and flexing her fingertips, Rojita gave a little sigh of relief. Nothing hurt worse than her back, which meant that nothing was broken, and at least she could walk. The mean-spirited animal—no doubt a trait inherited from its master—must’ve tossed her off in such a way that she’d landed almost-safely. Where was the blasted animal? How long had it been since the accident? Had it wandered off, leaving her here in the Wyoming wilderness with no hope of rescue? Was El Lobo even now picking along her trail—having gotten another horse, of course—creeping ever closer to doing her unspeakable harm? Had this delay cost Abuela the orphanage? Rojita groaned, and then winced at the sound. She couldn’t be that weak, could she? Abuela and the children were counting on her getting to Everland before Lobo, even if they didn’t know it. She had to stand up, to find that darned horse, and to start riding before he caught up with her. “It’s about time you woke up, Red. I was getting worried.” Too late. He’d found her. He was here. She kept her eyes closed, wondering if she could fool him into thinking that she was still unconscious. Everything that she knew about the man said that he was ruthless, but surely he’d wait until she was awake to do any harm that he had planned? “I can see you wiggling over there. Anything broken?” He had a deceptively nice voice. Warm and smooth; comforting like café con leche on a cold day. It was a shame, to waste such a voice on a gunslinger like El Lobo. He wasn’t warm or comforting or nice, but he sure sounded like it. That voice was probably his secret weapon; he could convince anyone that he was a kind-hearted, law-abiding citizen, and then he’d swoop in and defraud their widows of land that they’d purchased legally and rightfully. But Rojita wasn’t going to be fooled. She knew him for what he really was, thanks to Abuelo’s warning. She knew about the men he’d goaded into drawing on him, and how he shot them down without a flicker of conscience. She knew about the lawmen he’d killed in Mexico, and about the way his name was used as a curse by law-abiding folks throughout Texas. And since he’d found her in Salt Lake City, she knew about his cruel smile and calm certainty that absolutely no one would stand in his way of getting what he wanted. Unfortunately, she was what he wanted, and Rojita had to suppress a shiver at the thought. Think! She was going to figure out a way out of this. She’d been to school in a big city; surely she was smart enough to outthink a common bandito like Lobo. Just because he was at a complete advantage here didn’t mean that she couldn’t beat him to Everland after all. “Come on, Red, wake up. I managed to run down your horse—you’re welcome, by the way. All we’re waiting on is you.” Her horse? Her horse? She’d stolen it from him. Lobo would know that, and would be… angry, wouldn’t he? So why did he sound exasperated instead? Unless… Her eyes snapped open, the bright Wyoming sky not bothering her nearly as much as it had a minute before. Unless this wasn’t El Lobo. With a gasp, Rojita jerked herself up onto her elbows, twisting to find the source of the caramel-warm voice. She had just a glimpse of a small fire and a man hunched behind it, before the pain made everything go black again. Aww, shoot. She’d gone and fainted again. Hank sighed, and leaned back against the saddle resting beside the fire. He’d done his mare a favor, and removed it right after they’d come back to the mysterious unconscious woman, leading her wayward horse. Hank figured the animal deserved a little rest after that run, and it hadn’t looked like the woman was waking up any time soon. She’d surprised him, though. He’d only had enough time to get the fire going and a pot of water boiling before she’d started stirring. It’d been a little worrying, the way she hadn’t moved for a long while after she’d woken up. He’d been concerned then, wondering if she’d managed to break her neck or something. But his goading had worked—well, mentioning her horse had worked—and he was pleased to see that she was able to move all her relevant bits. Before she fainted again, at least. As he went through his coffee-making routine, he wondered about that. She couldn’t have gotten more than a peek at him, and he didn’t think he was as scary as all that. But maybe she was the type who’d faint at the thought of being alone with a man? Any woman who’d go tearing hell-for-leather across the open hills when there was a perfectly good railroad connecting most of Wyoming Territory didn’t seem like the kind who’d faint at the sight of a scruffy bounty hunter. On the other hand—Hank leaned back against the saddle, cradling his cup of coffee and studying the woman—she sure looked like the kind who might. Petite to the point of being tiny, with pale skin and thick red hair that must’ve come out of whatever style she usually wore it in. Her clothes were wool, and good quality, but simpler than he’d seen in some of the cities out here. He didn’t know much about women’s fashions, but she sure dressed like a lady, from the tips of her pointy black boots up to the hood on that ridiculous red cloak. She definitely wasn’t clothed for a cross-the-Territory horseback adventure… even before the animal had thrown her and wandered off, leaving her lying there on the ground like she was sleeping. Her expression had been peaceful, when he and his mare had veered off their path to investigate the intriguing splash of color against the browns and grays of the Wyoming landscape, and one leg had been cocked enough to get a tantalizing glimpse of a black-stockinged calf. Was it any wonder he’d hobbled both horses and decided to wait ‘til she woke up? No one was ever going to accuse him of being gentlemanly, but he had more than his share of curiosity, and there was nothing more mysterious than an underdressed, unconscious lady out in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, she didn’t look likely to come out of her faint any time soon. Hank glanced at the sky, knowing it still got dark fast this time of year. He couldn’t say that he was completely enamored with Wyoming in the winter, but the starkness did remind him a bit of his Texas. Of course, he also hadn’t planned on spending the night out here in it, either. If he’d been alone, he would’ve just kept riding ‘til he reached Haskell, but the lady wasn’t in any condition to travel right now. With a sigh, he acknowledged that he wasn’t going to just leave her out here to freeze, either. Luckily, there wasn’t any snow on the ground, and the temperature didn’t feel too bad. Once again, he vowed to be in Arizona by summer. There was a thicket of trees by the dry streambed, enough to protect a small camp from the worst of the wind. While he waited for her to wake up, Hank collected brush and moved the horses, saddles and packs. Then he stomped out the old fire, started a new one, and set the beans to boiling. He hated beans. The sun was sinking lower in the sky, and the beans were softening. She still hadn’t stirred, and Hank was beginning to get concerned. Maybe she hadn’t fainted out of fear of him; maybe there was something seriously wrong with her? If she’d been thrown—which is what it looked like, unless she was the type to climb off her horse and take a nap a dozen miles from the nearest town—then she could be hurt or something. He gave the beans one last stir, made sure that the coffee was close enough to warm but not burn, and then headed back towards the woman. She hadn’t moved, and Hank couldn’t help but notice—again—how pretty she was, with all of that dark red hair floating around her shoulders. It was that hair, rather than the cloak, that had caught his attention at first, and Hank supposed that he should be glad that she didn’t wear it all tied up in buns and braids like most women. In fact, looking over her now, she looked almost wanton. He crouched beside her head, a little disturbed to see that she hadn’t moved since her last faint. “Hey, lady?” Too bad he didn’t know her name. “Red? Wake up, Red.” Nothing. Hank lowered himself to one knee and his haunches, ignoring the way they creaked in protest, and hesitantly reached for her. The smooth burgundy strands slipped through his fingers, and he briefly considered peeling off his gloves, so that he could feel them. Instead, though, he fisted his hand gently, trapping the silk between leather. He tugged slightly. “Red, honey, wake up.” It was either the endearment or the pull of her hair that worked. The mystery lady moaned slightly and shook her head. Hank let her hair go. “Red?” Shoot, he was going to have to touch her after all. Dark eyes flashed open when he ran his gloved finger down her jawbone, and she stared up at him like she wasn’t really seeing him. “Are you hurt, honey?” No reaction. Instead, she lifted one of her own hands, wrapped in a soft black glove not at all suited for riding and touched him. Hank clenched his jaw when her fingers scratched through the light beard he currently wore, suppressing the shivers that her touch caused. He knew that he should be glad that she was able to move her arm, but all he could think about was how long it’d been since a woman last touched him so gently. There was a look of… of wonder in her expression, in those dark eyes, that made him shudder. When was the last time that a woman had looked at him that way? Not since…well, ever. There’d been the occasional whore, or sometimes lady who liked to court excitement by flirting with a known bounty hunter… but not one of them had every looked up at him like this. Like he was the answer to prayers she hadn’t even known she was praying. He was lost. Without thinking, Hank trapped her tiny hand against his jaw, pressing it against his skin with one of his large ones. But that was the wrong thing to do, apparently. She gasped, and blinked, and in that moment, the wonder in her eyes switched to horror. Yanking her hand away from him, she scuttled sideways on her elbows, obviously determined to get away from him, and not wasting energy on screaming. She was still staring at him, terrified, and Hank felt his stomach harden. He was someone she should be afraid of, but it still hurt, somehow. Unfortunately, he was kneeling on the edge of her cloak, and that brought her up short. She took a deep breath, and in that moment, her terror subsided a bit. She glanced down at the material trapped under him, and then back up at him, and back down again. Almost against his will, Hank felt one corner of his lips curl upward, and he decided that he was going to make her beg. Instead, she glared at him. There was no other way to put it; she pinned him with a stare that made him feel like a little boy confronted by a very pretty aunt, and Hank decided that he didn’t mind at all. At least she wasn’t frightened of him any longer. Or looking at him like he was her savior. She really was a tiny little thing, wasn’t she? Not much bigger than a girl, really, but the curves under that cloak told Hank that she was all grown up, and he was glad for it. She had this cute little dimple that appeared between her eyes as her scowl deepened, and Hank lifted one brow in response. She finally gave in, and dropped her glare. “Do you mind?” She sighed in exasperation, and Hank raised the other brow in question, as if he didn’t understand what she was asking. “Get. Off. My cloak.” Pretending to only just notice that he’d been kneeling on it, Hank shifted his weight, and watched her yank the offending material closer to herself as she sat up. There was a wince or two, and then she was gingerly probing at the back of her head. She must’ve hit it on the way down. It was a miracle she could move at all, really. That’s the sort of injury that could cause problems, immediate and long term. Thinking about how nauseated he’d been the last time someone smacked him in the back of the head, Hank asked, “You going to be sick?” And dangit if she didn’t roll her eyes, and drop her hands to her lap. “No, I’m not going to be sick.” “You going to be okay?” “Ye—” But she cut herself off shortly, and her eyes darted towards his. Just as quickly, they flashed around the frozen landscape, at the setting sun, at the little camp he’d made in the distance, back to him, and back to her own lap. “I don’t know. I don’t even know where I am.” He nodded, although he figured she couldn’t see. “Well, why don’t you come on over and warm up, Red, and you can tell me where you’re trying to get to. Maybe I can help you figure out where you are.” She didn’t say anything—didn’t even look at him—but warily accepted his offered arm and let him lift her to her feet. Then, matching his pace to hers, he led her towards the camp. Funny, her back didn’t hurt nearly as much with the stranger’s big hand pressed against it. Rojita resisted the urge to lean into it, to borrow some of his strength, because she still had no idea who he was. When she’d woken the second time, and really seen him, she’d known that he wasn’t El Lobo after all. But not knowing who he was had been scary, too. That little grin of his—teasing, not cruel—had eased her fears in an equally disturbing way. His hands were gentle when he lowered her to sit on a saddle beside the fire he’d built. Until that moment, Rojita hadn’t realized how cold she was, but now she leaned gratefully towards the heat. Her clothing, while perfectly acceptable for train travel, wasn’t well-suited for riding cross-country through a Wyoming March. The sun had kept her from freezing during her little faint—Dios Mio, when was the last time she’d fainted? How embarrassing!—but now the cold was seeping into her bones. He sunk to the ground on the other side of the fire, and started fiddling with some pots. After a moment, he passed her a cup that smelled deliciously of coffee, and she was glad to warm her hands around it. He went back to stirring something, but nodded towards the cup in her hands. “Hope you don’t mind I dug through your packs for that. You’re pretty well-outfitted for camping out on the range.” She could hear the question in his voice—So how come you don’t look like the type to be camping out here?—but didn’t have any way to answer. Surely, admitting that you’ve just stolen a horse—and saddlebags—is a bad way to introduce yourself? And she didn’t know what kind of man he was. So Rojita pressed her lips together and bent over the coffee, grateful for the way the steam tickled her nostrils. After a long moment, she heard him move, and gave an involuntary little gasp when he settled himself on his haunches in front of her. Even as he reached for her, she was leaning backwards, unsure of his intentions, and irritated that he was blocking the heat from the fire. And then he touched her, and she knew what real warmth was. He’d taken off his gloves, and both of his hands snaked around her head, pulling her closer to him. It was already too dark to see his expression, with the fire throwing him into shadow, and Rojita had no idea what he was thinking. But all she knew was that his bare fingers were pressed against the base of her neck, his breath was warm against her cheek, and he was still pulling her closer. It was frightening, in that she really wasn’t frightened at all. He stopped pulling when her nose was practically in her coffee mug, and began probing. Rojita winced. Not from pain, but because she’d been expecting—something. His fingers poked all around the back of her head, and he ducked a little to be able to look into her face. The smell of coffee mixed with the wood smoke, and she wondered why his touch made her feel so light-headed. She let him continue touching her for a few heartbeats longer than she should’ve, just because she liked the way it felt. But finally, propriety and her own curiosity caused her to blurt, “What are you doing?” “I’m checking for lumps.” “On my head?” She was still talking into her cup, unable to try to meet the eyes that hovered so close. “If you fell and hit your head, that might explain why you’re not talking to me.” “Or maybe I just don’t want to answer your nosy questions.” She heard the smirk in his voice when he agreed. “Maybe. So your head doesn’t hurt?” “No, but my back is sore.” It was almost disappointing, the way he sat back at her words, and nodded thoughtfully. “You were thrown?” When he moved back over to his side of the fire, to unenthusiastically stir the bubbling pot, she didn’t know if she was relieved or disappointed. She nodded carefully. “I think so. I’m not much of a rider.” She wasn’t any kind of a rider, but there was no need to admit that, nor where she’d gotten the horse. “I wasn’t going very fast, though.” “You were lucky you didn’t land on your head.” That was the truth, wasn’t it? “You could’ve been killed.” “But I wasn’t. I’m not even too beat up.” “You should be. The hell were you thinking, to go running off across the hills without a single other person around? Who knows how long you’d been lying there before I found you, Red? You might’ve froze to death out here.” She’d felt her shoulders straighten with each of his ridiculous claims, until the twinge in her back told her that he was speaking the truth. But she wasn’t going to let him know that. Sticking her chin out, she tried to keep her tone as calm and dignified as possible when she answered, “There’s no need to be so concerned, sir. I am alive and quite healthy.” “You must have a fairy godmother looking out for you, then.” A fairy godmother? When was the last time she’d heard someone talk about one of them? What kind of man believed in tales like that? “Who are you?” She couldn’t believe that she hadn’t asked yet. It just… it hadn’t seemed necessary. “Hank Cutter.” “How do you know my name, Mr. Cutter?” It was the reason she’d assumed he was Lobo. “Your name? Honey, I’ve never met you.” “You keep calling me…” “’Honey’?” She glared at his weak attempt at humor. “Red.” “Your name is ‘Red’?” Rojita peered across the fire at him, hearing the incredulous note in his question. Oh shoot, he hadn’t guessed her name. He’d just been calling her that, probably for the exact reason that Abuela had nicknamed her “Rojita”. When she didn’t answer, he shrugged, and began to spoon what turned out to be beans onto a tin plate, which he handed across to her. She sniffed them, and managed not to wrinkle her nose at the lack of onions or pork or even salt tack to season the dish. “You know, in all my years I’ve spent hunting men down, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a horse as ornery as yours.“ Rojita snorted a little—of course the beast was ornery—and saw one corner of his mouth curl up a little. “Had to chase her near to Denver before we caught up.” It would be polite to respond, she knew. “I suppose I should thank you, then.” “Yep,” he drawled, and she had to take a bite of the beans to cover the smile that threatened in response. They weren’t nearly as good as the beans she’d learned to cook up over the years—beans were surprisingly versatile and cheap, and often it was all they’d had—but they were here, and she was hungry. “Looks like she’s settled down, though. Gonna have to make friends with my mare, if they want to stay warm tonight.” He threw another log on the fire as Rojita shivered. “You spend much time sleeping out on the range, Red?” “No. Do you?” “Only when there’s no hotel nearby. Long years of good pay means I can finally afford it.” “Doing what?” As soon as the words left her mouth, she winced, and lifted the spoon to shovel in another mouthful of the bland dinner. She didn’t want to ask him questions; didn’t want him to think that it was okay to ask her questions. But, from his little smirks to the way he’d touched her head to that creamy caramel voice, she admitted that she wanted to know more about him. He didn’t answer for a long moment, and when she glanced up, he was staring at her across the fire. Finally he shrugged and lifted his coffee mug. “I’m a bounty hunter. I chase down the desperados and the banditos who make themselves a menace to decent, law-abiding folks like you.” Like you. His words immediately conjured images of El Lobo, towering over her on that street outside her apartment, explaining clearly and succinctly what horrible things he’d do to her if she didn’t sign over her half of Abuelo’s inheritance… or marry him. By marrying her, Lobo would gain control over the orphanage—although Dios sabe por qué he’d want it—and he was apparently willing to hurt her and everyone she loved until she agreed. She shivered again, the beans sitting heavy in her stomach. She put the plate down beside her, and pulled her cloak—Abuelo’s last gift—tighter. It didn’t help; she couldn’t get warm. Mr. Hank Cutter was still watching her thoughtfully, and he pushed another log into the fire. “Everything alright, Red?” No, nothing was alright, but she still tried to smile. He wasn’t buying it, judging from his snort. “You feel like explaining why you’re out here in the middle of nowhere, laying around where any lowlife could find you? You have any idea what kind of harm a man like the kind I track could do to a pretty woman?” She did. She did, because Lobo had told her, in detail. She—wait. Pretty? He thought she was pretty? Why did that little realization matter more than El Lobo’s threats? Hank sighed then, and shook his head. “Lucky for you I was the one who found you, huh?” She looked up and met his eyes. The fire didn’t cast enough light to know what color they were, and his hat had shadowed them earlier. Still, his gaze made her shiver again, but not from cold. “Yes. I suppose it was.” The fire popped then, and they both jumped. He said something under his breath that she didn’t catch, and then poured out the rest of his coffee and stood up. As she huddled there on the saddle, he stomped around the camp, checking on the horses and laying out his bed roll. And, remarkably, he kept up a one-sided dialogue the whole time, explaining what he was doing. Like a lecture from one of her professors, who’d remembered that she didn’t know the first thing about camping on the open range. It wasn’t until he’d scraped off the dinner dishes and packed them away that she understood what he was doing; he was trying to put her at ease. And it wasn’t until he sunk down to his haunches beside her, and she turned towards his warmth unthinkingly, that she realized it had worked. “Red, honey, it’s going to get even colder.” With him this close, she was having trouble concentrating on his words. “I’m going to lay out your bedroll on my side of the fire, okay? Right beside mine, between me and the fire. That’s the best way to stay warm, once it dies down,” he said earnestly. She resisted the urge to touch his cheek again, to feel his beard under her fingertips. What was wrong with her? “Listen, Red.” He shifted his weight, and she forced herself to sit up straighter. “It’s the safest bet for both of us. I know you’re running from someone—“ he could tell? “—and I can protect you better if I know where you are. I’ll keep my hands to myself, swear to God.” His hands…? What did his hands have to do with anything? She blinked, and then realized, from his earnest expression that he meant he wouldn’t try anything inappropriate. Abuela had always told her that she trusted too easily, that she threw herself forward into new adventures without thinking. And the fact that Rojita hadn’t once considered Mr. Cutter would do anything inappropriate, hadn’t once considered that he wouldn’t keep her safe, just proved that. Still, she nodded. “If you think that’s best.” When he exhaled, she realized that he’d been holding his breath, and wondered if it mattered. “Come on, then.” She took his hand, and let him lead her to the other side of the fire, where he laid out Lobo’s bedroll—only, of course, he didn’t know it was Lobo’s—beside his. He left his coat, boots and hat on, but pulled out a wicked-looking revolver from the small of his back and placed it beside himself before laying down. She sat stiffly beside him, waiting until he was situated before she gingerly lowered herself beside him. His breathing slowed, and she felt some of the tension slowly leave her shoulders. As the stars came out above them, she realized that she really was warm. And more than that, she was at ease with him. His teasing, his concern for her, his need to assure her that she’d be safe with him… it had worked. She’d come out of her faint with him looming over her, and should’ve been terrified of being at a stranger’s mercy, but she wasn’t. Not now, at least. Now, she had the most wonderful feeling of certainty; Hank Cutter could protect her. He could protect her from El Lobo, could protect her family. Lying there beside his warmth and wood smoke scent, she felt herself relaxing. He could protect them. She just had to figure out how to convince him. CHAPTER TWO He woke up to the nicest feeling he could imagine; a woman snuggled up beside him. Well, she was more on top of him than beside him, but that wasn’t really the point. Her hair was tickling his lips, and he could smell the clean goodness of her. He was surrounded by her warmth. Almost afraid of what he’d see—the last day had been full of surprises, after all—Hank opened his eyes and canted his chin down a bit. Sure enough, Red was lying on top of him, and he was surprised by how good that confirmation felt. She was still sleeping—at least, her eyes were still closed, and she was tucked into him like a cat, all of her curves and valleys pressed against his like they belonged together. This might explain the extremely pleasant dreams he’d been having, and also why he was so warm. Hank glanced at the horses, pleased to see that they were still huddled together among the trees, and looked none the worse for having been out all night. When he looked back at the soft face pressed against his shoulder, she was gazing back at him. She had blue eyes. Really, really deep blue eyes. Not dark, but deep, like the kind of blue that a man could fall into and drown, and where the hell had that thought come from? Might’ve had something to do with the hand that was pressed between his legs. Logically, Hank knew that it was only there to keep warm, just like her other hand was tucked into his armpit, but he had no luck convincing his body of that. Staring into those eyes, he felt himself hardening under her touch, and wondered why she wasn’t pulling away. She blinked sleepily, and then smiled a bit, and it felt… right. Like coming home might feel. Like waking up to a welcoming woman should feel. Damned disconcerting, actually. “Good morning.” She even sounded sleepy. “Good morning, Red.” Another long moment, and Hank realized he was smiling stupidly back at her. Had he ever spent this much time looking into a woman’s eyes? Especially a woman he hadn’t made love to the night before? Hank didn’t think so, but then, he couldn’t remember ever spending a full night with a woman, either. He didn’t even know her name. “You hungry?” She jerked suddenly, as if remembering where she was and who she was with. Her cheeks pinked and she looked away, trying to push herself out of the tangle of blankets and her cloak. Clearing her throat, and not looking at him, she said, “I could go for some more of that coffee, if you’ve got any.” They sat up, and the moment—if there’d been one—was lost. He built up the fire and set some water to boiling, while she did whatever women did with themselves in the morning. His shoulder ached from the cold night spent outdoors, but somehow it didn’t seem as bad as usual this morning. She helped him roll up the bedrolls, and settled herself across the fire. Taking the offered plate of leftovers, she grimaced slightly. “Oh, good, more beans.” “You don’t like ‘em?” She wasn’t alone. But she just shrugged, and said around a bite, “They’re warm, Mr. Cutter, and better than nothing.” It was a surprisingly pragmatic thing for a woman dressed as fine as she was to say. Hank stared at her while he nursed his coffee. Just who was she? “You can call me Hank.” She just nodded, intent on her spoon. “So, Red. You mind telling me your real name?” She very clearly did not look at him as she chased the last of the beans around the plate. Why was she hesitating? Did it have anything to do with why she was out here on the open range, alone? Last night, Hank had taken a guess at her being chased—why else would she climb on a horse she knew nothing about and try to ride across Wyoming?—and her reaction had confirmed it. But then she put down the plate, clasped her hands in front of her, looked him dead in the eye, and said, “Rojita Zapato”. “I beg your pardon?” “My name is Rojita Zapato.” “The hell it is.” The woman didn’t look a thing like a “Zapato”. With all that thick red hair, she must’ve been… Scottish or something. Definitely not Mexican. But she just raised a brow at his rudeness, and launched into a tirade of Spanish. He understood only about half of it, but her offended tone was hard to miss. He held up his hand to cut her off. “Honey, I’m from Texas, and I know a Mexican when I see one. And I ain’t looking at one now. How about you tell me the truth?” “I am, Mr. Cutter—” “Hank.” “Hank, my name is Rojita. When I came to the orphanage, I was named Mary, but there were already three other ‘Marys’ there, so Abuelo called me Rojita, which means—” “’Little Red’.” She shrugged. “It fit.” Yeah, it did fit, with her tiny frame and all that thick red hair. “How old were you?” “Five or six, probably.” “And you were in Mexico?” The whole thing sounded pretty far-fetched to him. “Concordia, Kansas. The orphan train from New York had dropped me off there. Abuelo was running from Mexico, so he came north. And when they came for him, he kept moving. Abuela was collecting orphans as she went, and he couldn’t say no to her. They gave us all their last name.” It was her complete nonchalance while she told the outrageous tale that made Hank want to believe her. “Who came after him? She shrugged. “He never mentioned it to any of us, as far as I know.” “Should you be telling me all of this?” She held his gaze. “My grandfather died over the summer, Mr. Hank. And I think it’s important to tell you everything, because I intend to hire you.” Well now. Hank put down his coffee cup, and shifted forward so that his elbows rested on his knees. He tried not to look too rude, but was afraid his disbelief crept into his voice when he asked, “You intend to what?” “Hire you. I need to get to Everland as quickly and safely as possible, and you’ve already proven that you’re able to protect me.” He managed to contain his snort, but just barely. Protect her? Hell, he’d been one step away from digging his fingers into that mess of hair and crushing his lips to hers. At least, that’d been the direction of his thoughts last night, sitting by the fire with her. Luckily, he’d managed to rein in his arousal before the expectant, breathless look in her eyes had done him in. “All I did was pick your fool self up off the ground.” It was the wrong thing to say, judging from the hurt in her expression, and the way she lifted her chin stubbornly in reaction. “One hundred dollars, Mr. Hank. Am I foolish to offer you that?” His low whistle made her nod, as if to assure him her offer was serious. “A hundred dollars? Just to get you to Everland?” “Safely to Everland. Avoiding the train, I think.” “Is that why you left Marston and cut east by horse? What’s on the train that you want to avoid?” “Not what, Mr. Hank, who.” Hell, he’d been afraid of that. “You got off a perfectly good train and decided to ride a horse to Everland? It’s March, Red. You got any idea how dangerous that is? That horse isn’t even yours, is she?” Yeah, she was furious all right, judging from the snap in those deep blue eyes, and Hank found himself wondering how else he might irritate her. She sure was a sight, all riled up like that. But for all the ire in her expression, there was a hint of embarrassment she was trying to cover, too. So he needled her further. “You don’t have the sense God gave an acorn.” That did it. With a huff, she stood up, and Hank found himself craning his neck and ignoring the twinge in his shoulder to keep his eye on her. She was either going to cry or explode, and he hoped it was the later. Thankfully, she did neither. “One hundred dollars, Mr. Hank. And one of the stipulations is that you stop insulting me.” “I’ll stop telling you the truth if you’ll stop running off all half-cocked.” Her lips tightened, and Hank managed not to smile. She sure was an easy one to rile. “You do what I tell you, when I tell you, and we’ll get along just fine.” Was that relief she was trying to hide with her haughty expression? What was so all-fired important in Everland? Her hands fisted around the edges of the red cloak, but he couldn’t tell if it was in anger, or frustration, or if she was just cold. Finally, though, she nodded once. “I’ll listen, I promise.” When he watched her speculatively, her chin went up. “What? I can follow directions.” “We’ll see about that,” Hank drawled. “You ain’t exactly the kind to look before you leap, are you?” Her glare told him that she didn’t appreciate his teasing, so he didn’t chuckle when he poured the rest of the coffee on the fire and stamped it out. But it was close. “You going to be all right?” Maybe he’d seen her shifting uncomfortably in the saddle, or maybe she’d finally let out one of the groans she’d been trying so hard to keep in; Rojita didn’t know. She’d done her best to hide her discomfort, especially after the way he’d made fun of her that morning. He probably already thought that she was brash and impetuous, and she didn’t want to give him any more fodder for his poor opinions. Still, maybe climbing back on a horse after being thrown the day before was a bad idea. Her back ached from sitting upright, and her legs ached from holding on, and her head ached from… well, from everything. They’d only been riding for a few hours. This was a dumb idea, and she didn’t know how much more she could take. Finally steeling herself to push back the hood of her lovely cloak to look at him, she was disconcerted by the slight frown that pulled at those hard lips. His brows were soft, and darn it if he didn’t look… concerned. It was the same look he’d given her that morning, when he’d lifted her into the saddle—she couldn’t manage to climb in herself, and had figured that would’ve been something else he could be nasty about. But when his big hands had wrapped around her waist and lifted her so easily, she’d gotten a bit light-headed. He certainly was strong, wasn’t he? And not too bad to look at, either. She found that out this morning, lying on top of him. Oh, she’d gotten an eyeful last night, especially when he’d squatted beside her and at least pretended concern, but in the daylight he sure was handsome. Not too big, but well-built. His dark hair—covered now by his hat—was going a little silver at the temples, and silver hairs dotted his short beard. But the only lines on his face were the faint ones at the corners of his eyes, and she figured that he wasn’t too old. Yeah, he was a looker—as Max DeVille would say. Unfortunately, it was obvious that Hank didn’t think much of her. She told herself that it was okay, that he didn’t need to like her; he just needed to get her to Everland. Despite her best intentions, it was becoming apparent that she just wasn’t cut out for life on the range, which was irritating. So she’d lied to him, told him that she could pay him that exorbitant fee if he helped her, and was feeling no little amount of guilt. Shoot, he was still looking at her, like he genuinely cared about her well-being or something. Rojita turned her attention stalwartly to the back of Lobo’s horse’s head, determined to ignore him. “Hey Red, I asked—” “I’m fine.” He snorted, letting her know that he wasn’t buying her assurances. Well, it didn’t matter what he believed, only that he got her—and Abuelo’s will—safely to Everland. It felt like forever before he spoke again, although that might’ve just been because Rojita was feeling absolutely every bounce in the saddle and dip in the road. “So, why’d you get off the train, Red? You feel up to explaining to me why we’re riding all this way?” The way he asked that last question managed to climb under her skin and irritate her further. He’d managed to sound concerned and like he was making fun of her. “There was a man…” And then the horse—demon-creature, really—put its foot down extra-hard, and she couldn’t contain her gasp at the pain that radiated from the center of her back. To think! She’d been so, so comfortable this morning when she’d woken up cradled by his warmth, and now felt like most of her body was on fire. It’d probably had something to do with the way he’d smiled at her when he’d found her draped all over him like a hussy. It’d just been a little grin, one he probably hadn’t even known he was making, but it had been… nice. It made her feel safe, and that was surprising and comforting all at once. But now, now she was just miserable, and he was sitting over there waiting for an answer. “I… I have to get to my grandmother’s house.” There. That was surely the most important—Rojita groaned again when the blasted animal apparently began to practice calisthenics under her. “You ain’t a real horsewoman, are you?” And then he was beside her, and Rojita didn’t have the chance to figure out how to tell her animal to move away or speed up or anything, before she felt his arm around her waist. She didn’t even have time to be angry at his high-handedness or his tone, which she would’ve, if she’d had the breath. But instead, she was flying through the air, the reins slipping from her fingers, in a way that didn’t feel at all like being thrown yesterday. And then she was seated on his lap. On a horse. He was on a horse, and she was sitting on his lap, and this wasn’t at all proper, was it? But then he shifted slightly, pulling her legs over his and supporting her back with one strong arm, and Rojita decided that she didn’t care one whit. His thighs were soft enough to cushion her rear end from all of the bounces and bumps of the road, and his chest was broad enough to protect her from some of the wind. Propriety be damned; if he was willing to have her sit on his lap all the way to wherever-they-were-going, then she absolutely was not going to argue. She pulled her cloak out from under one thigh, made sure that she was well-covered, and then curled up into his heat, pressing her cheek against his shoulder and sighing in contentment. Did he have the reins from Lobo’s horse? She decided that she didn’t care enough about the blasted animal to bother checking. “So, your grandmother?” Oh dear, she’d forgotten her story. But if she was going to talk him into escorting her to Everland, she had to make him understand why it was so important. Important that she get to Abuela’s house. But suddenly, she couldn’t seem to drum up any interest in what had yesterday been a life-threatening situation. Probably still was, honestly. But right now, snuggled up into his heat, El Lobo just didn’t seem to matter as much anymore. “Hmmmmmm,” was all she said. He tried again. “You said you had to get to your grandmother’s house?” “Mmm-hmmm. She lives in Everland. Outside of Everland, I guess.” The yawn took her by surprise, and she felt him chuckle. Peeking up at his face, she could see one corner of his mouth turned up slightly, under his short beard. Was he laughing at her? Because she couldn’t manage to think straight, surrounded by his warmth? She frowned, and tried to sit up straighter, but his arm clasped around her back and pulled her closer to him. Rojita briefly considered fighting his high-handed action, but she was honest enough with herself to admit that this was much more comfortable than sitting straight and stiff on his lap, so she just sighed… and thought that she heard him echo it. “So, you got off the train in Marston, to visit your grandmother in Everland, even though the Everland spur goes right through Haskell, which would’ve been your next stop anyhow?” “Yes.” She yawned again, and was it her imagination, or did his arm tighten around her? Goodness, she was suddenly quite tired. Maybe she hadn’t slept as well as she’d thought last night, or maybe she still hadn’t fully recovered from her fall yesterday. “There was a man on the train, and I needed to get off.” “I’ve been on trains before, honey. There’re usually plenty of men.” “Not this man. He’s… dangerous.” Rojita realized that she was fiddling with the buttons on his coat, and couldn’t seem to make herself stop. Talking about Lobo made her stomach knot up, but touching Hank—having him touch her—made her feel… safe. What was wrong with her? She’d only met him yesterday, and already she was trusting him to get her home safely? “He’s been after me since Salt Lake. I thought I was ahead of him, until I realized he was on the same train. So I got off.” She felt him snort, and didn’t know if he was laughing at her again. Didn’t know if it mattered. Another yawn, and her eyelids grew heavy. He certainly was comfy, wasn’t he? “What’s his name?” She didn’t want to answer. Didn’t want to do anything but rest here with her eyes closed, cheek pillowed against his chest. “Red, what’s this ‘dangerous’ man’s name?” “El Lobo.” She heard him mutter a curse under his breath, and then she was asleep. CHAPTER THREE What were the odds? Sure, there had to be more than one man in the west using the name “The Wolf”, but Hank could only think of one who used the Spanish version. No one else had the guts to go up against that reputation. The El Lobo down in Texas—a big, bad son-of-a-bitch who worked alone and cultivated a mustache you could lose a sheep in—was the reason that Hank’s right shoulder ached in this cold. Three years ago he’d set out to take down the desperado, and Lobo had ambushed him. He remembered lying there in the dry Texas dirt, feeling his blood seeping out of his shoulder, and wondering how in the hell someone could shoot a Colt revolver that accurately from that distance. And now this same desperado was chasing Red across half the Territory? What the hell had she done to deserve that? What was he after? He’d spent the day with her, in between her naps on his lap, and while she was fun as hell to tease, he couldn’t imagine her taking on Texas’ most notorious gunslinger. Take chances? Sure. Run head-long into danger without really thinking things through? Definitely. She’d curled up next to him easy enough, hadn’t she? The day had been pleasant, with her cuddled up on his lap like a kitten. He hadn’t even minded the slight ache in his arms from supporting her for so long. As the spare horse plodded along behind them, he asked her questions about her home—which she happily answered—and her urgent reason to get there—which she didn’t. He learned more about her family, and lost count of all the kids she named as her brothers and sisters; she’d been right about there being too many “Marys”. It was obvious that she loved them, and the couple who’d raised them—her “grandparents”—deeply. They’d shared lunch right after fording a creek, swollen with early spring run-off, and after, she stood patiently beside his horse, waiting to be lifted again. He hid his smile when he showed her how to step on his boot and climb into his lap; she’d just assumed this was where she’d be finishing the journey, and he found that he didn’t mind one bit. Her enthusiasm, her wit, her adorable little frowns when he teased her… She was growing on him. About an hour ago, she’d fallen asleep on him again. He glanced down at the little woman snuggled up all trustingly in his arms, and resisted the urge to tighten his hold on her, knowing that she only looked so at peace because he was warm and comfier than her horse. Instead, he shifted his grip on the reins and clucked to both horses, sending them into the outskirts of Haskell. He liked Haskell; he’d come through here two months ago on his way north chasing Tomtom Piper. That bounty had netted him enough to finally snag a piece of land and settle down, although only the good Lord knew what he was going to do with his time once he built a little house. Maybe he could find someplace like Haskell down in Arizona, although it wasn’t likely. The man who ran the hotel here in town—with the unlikely name of Theophilus Gunn—had filled him in on the history, and how this place had been built from the ground up by one of the local ranchers, a guy by the name of Howard Haskell. Apparently his word was pretty much law, but he actually cared about the people in the town, rather than just making money, so most of those laws were pretty easy to obey. As a man who’d managed to scrape out a living hunting down the sons-of-bitches who made a point of not following the laws, Hank knew that Haskell, Wyoming was probably a one-in-a-million place. The rest of humanity wasn’t nearly as community-minded. But that just made the town nicer to visit, and Hank had been looking forward to a good meal and maybe a real bed. In fact, Gunn had told him all about the town’s baseball league, and Hank wouldn’t mind seeing them practice. And the sleeping woman in his arms wasn’t going to change that plan. He’d never actually agreed to take her to Everland, and he didn’t have any intention of it. She was fool enough to get off the train, so he’d put her right back on it. Whoever she was scared of—this imitation calling himself El Lobo—would be long gone by now, heading east on whichever train she’d been on. So, Hank would just plop her on whatever train was heading north towards Everland, and wash his hands of the hasty, too-trusting little Red. And why in the hell did that thought make him want to wrap his arms around her and never let go? Maybe he did squeeze her, because she gave a little moan and began to stir just as he directed both horses down Haskell’s main street. “Hey, Red.” The sexy little purr she gave out when she snuggled even closer against him made him hard, and he shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. Whoa there, down boy. She might be beautiful, and she might be curled up against him like a cat, and she might have woken up draped over him that morning like sweet, warm syrup poured over—This ain’t helping, stupid. Hank swallowed, and forced himself to concentrate on where he was directing the horses. She wasn’t the kind of woman he let himself get hard for. So yeah, maybe his voice was a little harsher than necessary when he tried again. “Hey, Red, wake your fool self up. We’re here.” “Everland?” Dangit, how’d she manage to sound sexy even when she was confused? “Haskell.” His resolve faltered when he watched her yawn and—Oh God she stretched right there on his lap, and looked even more like a satisfied kitten. Hank had always been partial to cats. “We’re stopping here for the night. Got any money?” She turned towards the building with the “The Cattleman Hotel” sign out front. It might’ve just been because she was interested in the town, but Hank got the impression she was avoiding his eyes too. “Not much on me right now.” Well, that made sense. She’d probably purchased her ticket in Salt Lake, and hadn’t figured that she’d need much between there and Everland. “That’s alright. I’ll cover the rooms.” “Thank you.” Her voice sounded small. Smaller than usual. “I’ll add it to the amount I owe you once we get to Everland.” Hank didn’t quite snort. Paying for her hotel would make up for the fact that he wasn’t going to take her to Everland; wasn’t going to pick up her promised reward... but she didn’t know that. She figured she’d just pay him back, and maybe—a few months ago—it’d have been worth it to him to make it to Everland. A hundred bucks was a lot of money. But after the Piper bounty, he had what he needed, what he wanted. Enough money to build a home for himself, and he was beyond ready. He’d been waiting long enough; even a few days’ side trip to get a brave, reckless little hothead like Red to her grandmother seemed like too much. The train would get her there safe enough, and he’d be on his way. Meanwhile, they were here in Haskell for the night, and he was planning on splurging on a hotel room. Two hotel rooms. And after holding her on his lap for the last few hours, he’d decided that he very definitely did not want to spend another night tangled up with her. Separate hotel rooms would mean that he wouldn’t have to worry about waking up aching for her because she was draped trustingly over his chest again. Hank shifted again and tightened his jaw. Maybe once he got her settled, he’d go visit Miss Bonnie’s girls. They’d been real welcoming last time, and he needed something to distract himself from thoughts of thick red hair and deep blue eyes and kitten-soft lips and—Come on, Hank. Get it together. Yeah, so maybe he practically dumped her on the boardwalk in front of the hotel, but she didn’t seem to notice. He’d get the horses taken care of later; for now he just needed her on the other side of a closed door, and he’d tell her just that if he had to. She was going to Everland, and he was going to Arizona. She was just staring up at the hotel sign, so he put his gloved hand on the small of her back, and sorta pushed her through the door. Even through her thick red cloak and all those layers, even through the late March chill, Hank could feel her heat. It made him want to do something stupid… like pick her up and press her against the building and make sweet love to her with his mouth. Yep, things were getting mighty tight in the trouser region, and Hank bit back a curse. He didn’t need this. Didn’t need her. When they were inside, he dropped his hand and stalked towards the desk, pulling off his hat and gloves and running his hand through his short hair. The familiar action did little to calm him, though. “Mr. Cutter, wasn’t it?” The man behind the desk was as tall, thin, and white-haired as Hank remembered. His jacket bore The Cattleman emblem over one breast, and looked neater than anything Hank had ever worn. He was smiling right now, in that knowing way Hank had noticed during his last visit. “Good to see you again, Mr. Gunn.” The hotel manager seemed pleased to be remembered. “We’re in town for the night, and would like a couple of rooms.” And that’s when Hank made the mistake of glancing at Rojita. She’d moved towards the desk as well, and had pulled off her fancy red cloak. It had covered her from the heavy hood all the way to the ground, and without it, she seemed… even smaller. More delicate. It was draped over one arm while she peeled off the gloves she’d been wearing, and Hank was surprised to see that the gown underneath—gray and worn—looked serviceable instead of elegant. But with that dark red hair falling all across her shoulders, she looked anything but plain. Then she met his eyes, and he had to swallow past a suddenly dry throat. She was looking at him so… so darn trustingly, it was unnerving. She’d just met him, didn’t know anything about him. She’d offered him money to escort her safely, and didn’t have any idea of what kind of man he was, what kind of man could be waiting for her. And now she was trusting him again, and damned if Hank wasn’t showing her that she could trust him. “Two rooms, Mr. Cutter?” Gunn’s question cut through the haze Hank saw whenever he met her eyes, and drew him back to the hotel lobby. He should probably thank the man, but when he turned, Gunn’s expression was entirely too knowing. So Hank just raised a brow, daring the manager to say something. Gunn took the dare. Flicking his eyes between the two of them, his lips curled into the smallest of smirks, the older man asked blandly, “You’re sure you two need separate rooms?” God in Heaven, was his condition that obvious? Hank was too embarrassed to even look at Red, to see if she was blushing at the manager’s assumption. So he just growled, “I said two, didn’t I?” “Indeed you did, sir.” Gunn wasn’t smirking when he filled out the ledger and handed Hank two room keys, but he was so obviously not smirking that he might as well have been. Hank, scowling, slapped some money on the desk and pretended not to notice the way Gunn kept glancing between the two of them. Taking a deep breath, Hank turned to Red and held out one of the keys. “Here, honey.” Dangit, why’d he go and call her that? Her eyes widened at the familiarity, and he almost groaned when he saw her cheeks pink. She wasn’t some shy miss, he knew that well enough; it had to be Gunn’s assumption that made her blush, and Hank was darn close to blushing himself. He cleared his throat. “The hotel serves a pretty good dinner, or Mr. Gunn can send up some food if you’d rather just rest some more.” As she realized what he was telling her, he saw disappointment cloud her expression, and felt like a real low-down coyote. But then she straightened her shoulders, and stuck her chin out, and he almost smiled at her gumption. “You won’t be eating, Mr. Cutter?” Good, honey. Keep calling me that. Because the more times he heard his given name on her lips, the more he wanted to make her cry out for him, to call his name to the stars, while he showed her what lips were really made for. And that’s why he wasn’t eating with her tonight. He wiggled the key a bit, and she hesitantly reached for it. “Nah, I’ve got someplace else to visit.” Miss Bonnie could introduce him to one of her girls, and he’d be able to get rid of this damned ache. But that’s when her fingers brushed against his, as she took the key. It was the first time he’d felt her skin, without the gloves, and the warmth shocked him. It traveled up his arm and through his chest, and made him instinctively tighten his hand around hers. There they stood in the hotel lobby, her staring up at him in shock, and he wondered if she felt it too. It felt far more perfect than a simple touch had any right to. She was the one who snapped out of it first. Narrowing her eyes and taking a deep breath, she pulled her fingers from his, and then nodded smartly while he stood there staring like an idiot. Then, not meeting his eyes again, she swept past him towards the stairs, and he watched her backside sway under the gray wool. Behind him, Theophilus Gunn cleared his throat just slightly. “You could’ve at least asked for adjacent rooms, Mr. Cutter.” Hank cursed and stalked for the door without looking back. He needed a drink. And a woman. It was only later—after he’d sold both horses at Herb Waters’ livery, after he’d purchased one north-bound ticket and one east-bound ticket on tomorrow’s train, after he’d settled in at Bonnie’s with a whiskey and a parade of her fine-looking girls—that he’d realized he didn’t want just any woman. He wanted one with a cascade of dark red hair, and eyes that looked at him like he was her only hope, and lips that pouted when he teased. He wanted one that riled easy and forgave easy, who curled up on his lap to sleep trustingly. He wanted Red, and he barely knew the woman. He was in trouble, alright. CHAPTER FOUR That touch had been… disconcertingly wonderful. Rojita had barely slept, cradling her hand to her chest and thinking about the warmth and the sparks that had shot up her arm when Hank’s skin had brushed against hers. It was easy to curse this cold when it kept layers between them, but Rojita knew that it was for her own good. If she felt that way from an accidental touch, imagine what would happen if he actually held her hand? Her body had reacted traitorously enough—waking up on top of him that morning—despite her best intentions to not trust him. But the feeling of his skin against hers was seriously endangering the calm and patience Abuela had tried to drum into her over the years. Rojita was beginning to suspect that life would be much more fun if she embraced her wild side. It was that possibility that roiled her stomach enough so that she didn’t bother to venture down for dinner, and which kept her up half the night. Of course, it didn’t help that the bed seemed to aggravate all of her sore muscles, and no matter how she shifted, she couldn’t get comfy. Funny that; she’d slept fine draped on top of him, and curled up on his lap, but now that he wasn’t here… Maybe it wasn’t so funny after all. Abuela always said that there was one person out there for everyone. Before they’d gotten married, Mary and Maria and Marian—her older “sisters” at the orphanage—had scoffed at grandmother’s claim as being nonsense. They’d said that marriage was about partnership, not love, and that they could be happy and practical at the same time. Judging from their letters, they all were… but Rojita had always been the girl who’d sat beside Abuela as she read to them from the old book of fairy tales, and had traced the beautiful paintings with one tiny finger, and imagined what it would be like to live in one of those stories. Rojita had never asked for a prince, though; she would’ve been happy with a simple woodcutter, as long as he was handsome and brave and strong and could love her with all of his heart. Oh yes, she’d been fanciful when she’d been younger, and Abuela hadn’t helped either, with her stories about True Love and Happily Ever Afters. But she’d been married for close to forty years—and had endured so many hardships and adventures with Abuelo, just to remain together—that Rojita couldn’t help but be convinced, no matter what the other girls said. There was someone out there for everyone. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find that One? Rojita groaned and pulled the pillow over her face. She needed to stop thinking about all of this. The problem was, of course, that she couldn’t help it; meeting Hank had… She groaned again. He was different. He made her skin tingle and her heart speed up and her mind start thinking impossible thoughts. Impossible, because it was pretty obvious that he had a low opinion of her, what with the smirking and teasing and calling her foolish. He wanted nothing to do with her; the good Lord only knew what he would’ve done if she hadn’t offered him that outrageous—and false—sum to escort her to Everland! But he’d accepted, and he was here with her, and Lobo was still out there somewhere, and Rojita hadn’t eaten dinner. By morning, she was just one big confused ball of emotion—fear, anticipation, nervousness, desire, all roiling inside her stomach. Oh, and hunger too, which was the most pressing concern at this moment. Still, she paced in her room long after the sun came up, not sure if she should go down alone, or if Hank would be coming for her, or if he was expecting her to meet him someplace. By nine o’clock, however, her hunger was pressing enough to make her decision for her, and she washed and headed down the lovely staircase. The stately older man from last night—Hank had called him Mr. Gunn—escorted her to a table in the dining room. Just being here made Rojita nervous; this was a finer place than any she could’ve imagined. If Hank hadn’t paid for her room last night, there’s no way she could’ve afforded to stay here. And eating here? No, this fine restaurant, with the fancy table settings and the matching chairs and the bustling people in actual matching uniforms wasn’t for her. But she was here, and Mr. Gunn was hovering expectantly beside her. Was he waiting for something? Was she supposed to tip him or something? Swallowing, Rojita glanced up at him, and he gave her a kind grin; there were other people in uniforms waiting on the other tables, but Mr. Gunn was focused only on her. “What would you like for breakfast, miss?” She had a choice? At Spratt’s Eatery in Everland, the best you could hope for was that Mrs. Spratt had made something you enjoyed, because everyone got the same food. This elegant place gave choices, though, and that would be fine for her limited budget. “Just some toast please. And a cup of tea, maybe?” “Toast?” Tsking, the old man shook his head. “No, that won’t do. You’ve obviously had a bit of an adventure, and you’ll need something substantial to prepare yourself for your next journey.” He winked. “Especially if Mr. Cutter will be going along with you.” She could feel her cheeks heating up, and resisted the urge to fiddle with the lovely white tablecloth. Mr. Gunn’s comment wouldn’t be so embarrassing if he hadn’t seen her acting like a complete ninny yesterday, when she accidentally touched Hank. Or if he hadn’t irritated Hank when he’d asked about the number of rooms, although Rojita still wasn’t sure what that was about. Or if she didn’t have to confess the truth now. But there was no use for it; Abuelo had always taught her to meet her problems head-on, and that no good ever came from dilly-dallying. Sure, that philosophy might’ve gotten her into some trouble in the past—like heading out of Marston on a horse she’d just stolen—but it was also the best way to deal with understandings. So she forced her hands into her lap, sat up straight, looked Mr. Gunn in the eye, and tried to emulate Marian’s haughty demeanor. “I will be fine, sir. At the moment, I am low on funds, and toast will be sufficient.” There wasn’t a trace of pity in his expression when he waved away her objection. It was a little disconcerting, after she’d worked herself into the tragic heroine role. “Don’t be silly, miss. Breakfast is included with your room fee.” He bowed slightly and headed for a door. Rojita’s eyes narrowed, wondering if breakfast was included in everyone’s room fee, or just hers, and how she felt about taking charity. When the food emerged, she decided that she felt pretty good about taking charity, after all. It was a delicious spread, and there wasn’t a single bean on the plate, but there were two sugar cookies, which were her favorite. She ate absolutely everything, not caring that she was being unladylike; she was hungry. After, she felt better. Fuller, definitely, and more… confident. Ready to face the day, and to face him. With El Lobo out there, after grandfather’s will, she couldn’t afford to be distracted by a pair of café con leche eyes and that warm caramel voice. Especially since they belonged to a man who obviously didn’t think much of her to begin with… and who made her stomach clench and her breath hitch when he touched her. Oh drat, she was doing it again; getting herself all worked up, thinking about his touch and Abuela’s stories about finding The One. Rojita forced herself to breathe deeply, and after she’d settled her red cloak around her shoulders, she figured that she was prepared to see him without acting like a complete ninny again. She was wrong. The moment she saw him, leaning against the desk and speaking to Mr. Gunn and two other men, she stumbled over her foot. Why in the world would just the sight of him—he was facing away from her, and without the thick coat he’d been wearing yesterday, his backside really was worth looking at, wasn’t it?—make her throat dry. Drat, she wasn’t nearly as composed as she’d thought. Unfortunately, Mr. Gunn noticed, and nudged the well-dressed man standing beside him. When he turned and flashed a smile in her direction, Hank turned too, and she almost groaned. Whereas Mr. Gunn’s companions—the man who dressed like a dandy and the younger man in leg braces beside him—looked welcoming enough, Hank was stoic, as usual. He didn’t have a welcoming smile; he didn’t even look pleased to see her. No matter what nonsense Abuela had drummed into her about everyone finding The One for them, Hank Cutter wasn’t hers. Well, there was nothing for it; she was going to have to go over there and meet these men and face him and maybe touch him and oh look, Hank wasn’t wearing any gloves either. She managed not to roll her eyes at how ridiculous her thoughts sounded, and marched towards the desk. “Miss Zapato, it’s so nice to meet you.” The dark-haired gentleman took her hand and actually gave a little bow over it. Rojita’s eyes widened at the courtesy, but couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t feel a single frisson from his touch. “I’m Charlie Garrett, and this is my friend Franklin Haskell.” She nodded her hellos, wondering if the younger man was related to the town’s founder. “Mr. Cutter here has been telling us all about you.” She had to close her eyes briefly on the dread. All about her? About her recklessness and the way he’d saved her and then she’d curled up on top of him and gone to sleep? All of it? Her cheeks heated again, and she knew that she was blushing dark enough to match her hair. Still, she had to be polite, so she managed to choke out a “Very nice to meet you, sir.” He had a nice smile, and was obviously trying to put her at ease. It didn’t quite work, because Hank was still standing there looking impassive. He shifted slightly so that he stood over her left shoulder, and she could feel him there. Remembering how nice it had been yesterday when he’d put his hand at the base of her back, to lead her into the hotel, Rojita resisted the urge to lean back into his warmth. “Hank tells us that he’s putting you on the train today for Everland, and that you’re in a bit of a rush.” Wait, putting you on the train implied that he wasn’t going with her. “Are you sure that you’ll be okay in Everland?” “Of course,” she answered distractedly, already turning towards Hank. “I’ll be safe there. You—“ she pointed at Hank’s chest, “Agreed to take me there yourself.” He shrugged. He actually shrugged, as if she didn’t matter one bit to him. “I didn’t really agree.” She took a few steps backward, gasping. “You did. I offered you a hundred dollars—“ “And I never actually said I’d take you anywhere, Red. We both had to get to Haskell, so I figured I’d get you here and stick you on the train home.” Mr. Garret tried to interrupt. “When you say that you’ll be safe, do you mean—“ Rojita ignored him. “You’re not going to take me to Everland?” She couldn’t decide if she was angry or hurt, but something must’ve shown, because he actually winced. Oh fine, a reaction finally, just when she’d given up on him. “Look, honey, it’s best for both of us if—“ “Don’t you call me honey, Hank Cutter.” A few more steps backwards, but even being halfway across the lobby wasn’t helping her peace of mind. He hadn’t planned on taking her to Everland, after all. He wanted so little do with her that he was just going to stick her on a train and wish her good luck. He’d probably been counting down the hours ‘til he could get rid of her. “I’m not your honey!” “You most certainly are not.” The voice was deep and gravelly and coming from behind her. Judging from the dangerous look in Hank’s eyes when they flashed over her shoulder, she wasn’t going to like whoever stood there. It was El Lobo. Today just wasn’t going well, was it? She recognized him from Salt Lake City, when he’d accosted her and tried to get her to give him the will. But her grandfather’s letter with the warning had also been quite explicit; he’d described the gunslinger as “feral”, and it fit him in an odd way. He was dressed well, in a vest and short jacket despite the cold, his gray hair slicked back and his mustache waxed. A long Colt revolver—with what looked like pearl inlays gleaming on the handle—was tied to his right hip, like he was showing it off. He probably thought his smile was charming, but it revealed unnaturally pointed teeth. And his eyes—they were feral. Hard and sharp and glittering like glass shards, and they looked through Rojita like she was nothing at all. She shivered as he paced towards her, his height making her feel small in a way that Hank hadn’t. “My dear, you ran off in Salt Lake, before we could even become acquainted.” And then he was holding her, his hand tight around her upper arm, and Rojita didn’t even have time to squeak. “Get your hands off of her.” Hank’s normally-smooth voice held more than a hint of warning, of danger, but El Lobo barely glanced over her shoulder. “Do mind your own business, gentlemen. This conversation is between my betrothed and me.” Betrothed? “Betrothed?” Hank’s question echoed hers, and she wanted to scream No! but she couldn’t seem to make her throat work properly. “Soon to be, at least. Isn’t that right, mi amada?” Lobo squeezed, and Rojita winced. “No welcome kiss for me? You shouldn’t be so shy.” He leaned closer, and she shivered, to see his teeth up close. The last time he’d stood in front of her like this—thankfully in a public street in Salt Lake City—he’d told her with complete confidence that she would be his one way or another. She’d been terrified then, too. “You will marry me, Rojita. Or you will sign the will and your inheritance over to me. It’s your decision.” She finally found her voice. “I will never give you Abuelo’s orphanage. That’s all that Abuela has left! I’d sooner rot than let it fall into the hands of a low-down—“ She swallowed her words with a yelp when he squeezed harder. “Now see here, betrothed or not—“ The gunslinger ignored Mr. Garrett’s interruption. “You’ll watch your tone with me, girl, if you know what’s good for you.” Oh God he looked ready to pull out that giant revolver—the one responsible for over a hundred deaths, Abuelo claimed—right now. Rojita swallowed, trying to cover her fear with bravado. “I was just answering your question. I’m not giving you the will, and I am not marrying you.” She almost breathed a sigh of relief when she felt Hank finally step up beside her. “She said she’s not marrying you.” His voice was flat, but she heard the anger in it. Oh thank Heavens, he believed her. “So get your hands off of her.” Lobo didn’t let her go, but his eyes did narrow thoughtfully as he stared at Hank. “Do I know you, señor?” Rojita turned when she heard Hank’s snort, but Lobo’s grip kept her from going to him. Mr. Garrett had moved up behind her protector, and the angry frown he wore contrasted with Hank’s cold calm. She didn’t know what Hank intended, but she was suddenly afraid for him. “Yeah.” Hank’s drawl was slow and mocking, and for a second she thought that he was agreeing with her fear for him. “You do.” Lobo’s eyes narrowed further. “We met in Texas, did we not?” “You shot me.” Why did her heart lurch at that bland confession? She wanted to go to Hank, to pat him down, to find out if he had been shot, and if he was okay now. But from the way the older man was glaring at him, Hank wasn’t going to be okay for long. No matter what he claimed about his history bringing in bounties, there was no way he’d be able to stand against a monster like El Lobo. “I’ve shot many men. You’ll have to be more specific.” “Nope, and I ain’t going to be heart-broken that you don’t remember me, either. For now, though, I’ll give you one more chance: Get your hands off of her.” Oh my. He sounded quite… heroic, didn’t he? But Hank wasn’t wearing a gun—the only weapon she’d seen him carry had been the long-barreled Winchester rifle on the saddle of the horse he’d ridden yesterday—and Lobo was obviously skilled with his. “And if I don’t?” Mr. Garrett shifted at the bland curiosity in the gunslinger’s voice, and Mr. Gunn had apparently disappeared, but Hank just watched emotionlessly. “If I decide that she has something that I want, and that I intend to keep, no matter what you or her filthy grandfather have to say about it?” “Sir, that’s quite enough. I don’t want any violence in my hotel.” Lobo’s attention turned to Mr. Garrett, who’d stepped around Hank to move between the men, and his grip loosened. Hank wasn’t looking at Mr. Garrett, or even her. No, he hadn’t taken his eyes off of El Lobo, and she knew from his expression that he hadn’t forgiven the man. Lobo would regret shooting Hank, she knew it. The gunslinger opened his mouth to reply to Mr. Garrett—she could see his dismissive sneer already falling into place—and that was the only opening Hank needed. There was a blur, and then El Lobo was falling backwards, pulling her with him. Everything seemed to slow down… Her scream was cut off when she was suddenly yanked backwards, and pulled—thrown?—into Hank’s chest. He was solid and comforting, despite the dangerous aura that seemed to surround him, and she wanted to curl up into his wood smoke scent. Was it her imagination, or did he give her a little squeeze before pushing her away to stand alone? Rojita stumbled slightly, but managed to right herself before he noticed. Goodness, she was unsteady, wasn’t she? The roiling ball of emotions from this morning had been replaced with equal parts hurt and anger at his confession, and then immediately pushed out by the dull terror she’d felt in Lobo’s grip, only to be completely subsumed by the warmth and safety of his arms. And now, trying to stay upright after taking her emotions on such a wild ride, all she felt was emptiness without him. And didn’t that just make her sound like a ninny? Hank stepped away from her, and that’s when time sped back up again and she finally realized what had happened. El Lobo was on the floor of the fancy hotel, his hands clasped to his face and blood seeping out from between his fingers. Hank had hit him. He’d been weaponless against the gunslinger, but not defenseless; Rojita saw blood dripping from his knuckles, and knew that he was a force to be reckoned with. Lobo shouldn’t have taunted him about their past. Only a few seconds had gone by since Hank’s lightning-fast strike, and he wasted no time. Stepping forward, he grabbed a handful of El Lobo’s vest and lifted him upright. He thrust the man towards Mr. Gunn, who’d appeared out of nowhere—had he snuck around behind the gunslinger somehow? The white-haired hotel manager was stronger than he looked; he had Lobo’s arms twisted behind his back before Rojita could blink, and Hank quickly pulled the big revolver from its ornate holster. He turned and tossed the gun towards the young man in leg braces still standing at the desk, who caught it awkwardly. “You mind, Franklin? Keep him covered.” Mr. Haskell nodded, and turned the revolver on Lobo, although he didn’t look pleased about it. Only then did Hank step back to Rojita’s side. “You okay, honey?” His question was curt, but when he flicked those soft brown eyes her way, she could almost believe that he cared. She couldn’t speak, so just nodded, dazed. “Good.” “I thought I made it clear that I didn’t want any violence in my hotel, Mr. Cutter.” Mr. Garret was glaring, but Hank just shrugged. “I didn’t shoot him, did I? More’n he deserved, really.” “He’s bleeding on my carpet.” The gunslinger made an inarticulate noise of protest, and Hank’s lip actually curled up on one side. “I warned him not to touch her.” She should’ve been angry at his high-handed attitude. She should’ve been shocked that he’d resort to such a primitive display in response to a situation that really didn’t involve him. But Rojita remembered the feel of El Lobo’s hand on her, and the relief that had coursed through her when she’d landed in Hank’s arms, and decided that this shortness of breath was almost certainly appreciation for his methods. It probably didn’t have anything to do with the way he’d dismissed Mr. Garrett and was looking down at her like… like she was his. And then, without dropping her gaze, he spoke to the distinguished man currently restraining a livid gunslinger. “Do me a favor and store my saddle for me? I’ll be back for it.” “Where are you going?” Mr. Gunn asked the question Rojita hadn’t be able to, what with her dry throat and lack of air in her lungs and oh my Hank had an intense stare, didn’t he? “I’m taking Red to Everland, to her grandmother.” He was? “You are?” Why did that announcement make her feel weak and buoyant and expectant and terrified all at once? He smiled at her. He actually smiled. A real, honest-to-goodness smile, that just lit up his face and crinkled his eyes and—Dios mio!—she was lost. “You sound like you swallowed a frog, honey.” “Will she be safe with you?” Mr. Garrett’s question didn’t seem to distract Hank one bit. “I’ll protect her from this scum.” Without dropping her gaze, he jerked his chin towards El Lobo, growling in Mr. Gunn’s grip. She could hear the grin in the hotel manager’s voice when he spoke up. “I can vouch for him, sir. Mr. Cutter is a fine, upstanding gentleman.” “The hell I am.” Hank’s smile slipped away, but Rojita didn’t care; she would have the amazing memory of it to take out and examine whenever she needed. He’d smiled! “But I ain’t letting this son-of-a-bitch touch her, neither. If she says she’ll be safe in Everland, then that’s where I’ll take her.” “But will she be safe with you, Mr. Cutter?” The question from Mr. Garrett drew Hank’s attention away from her. Without his fierce, wonderful gaze, she felt safe touching one hand to her chest, trying to understand the feeling that was near to bursting from under her skin. But she watched the two men staring at one another, and had to give Mr. Garrett grudging respect for not backing down from Hank’s dangerous scowl. Finally, her hero gave one curt nod, and Mr. Garrett nodded in return, and the two other watchers sighed in relief. “Then go, Hank. We’ll keep your saddle, and we’ll have Sheriff Knighton lock up your friend here overnight. No promises, though; he hasn’t broken any laws, besides bleeding in my lobby.” “Yes, go, Hank Cutter,” growled the gunslinger. Rojita could see the blood still dribbling from his nostril, caking his mustache and the front of his fine white shirt. Had she thought him scary before? Now the look in his eyes was positively terrifying, and she wanted to step between the two men, as if she could protect Hank. “Run away.” He sneered in his now-nasally voice, and Mr. Haskell raised the gun a bit, although he didn’t look comfortable doing it. “Run to Everland, where I’ll be able to find you.” Hank took her hand and the warmth spread up her arm again. “Alright. Once Red’s settled in there, you and me can have a do-over of Texas.” “I look forward to it. But first, I will make her mine. Her, and her grandfather’s property. And you will watch, before I kill you. I will be coming for you, Hank Cutter.” “Fair enough.” He squeezed her hand, but didn’t look her way. “Thanks for the warning.” Rojita wondered if anything fazed him. Then Mr. Garrett was standing beside them, handing Hank his hat and saddlebags and—oh good, there was his rifle—and then they were headed for the door. Well, Hank was pulling her towards the door, and she stumbled in his wake. Everything had happened so quickly! They were leaving? For the train station? Together? “Hey, Franklin,” Hank called over his shoulder, “Let Señor Lobo know that his horse is over at Herb Water’s place.” Rojita glanced back once, wondering if she should bother saying goodbye to the men standing in the lobby. Mr. Garrett waved to her jauntily, as if happy to have them out of his hotel, but Mr. Gunn and Mr. Haskell looked worried. She didn’t have time to wonder about that before the gunslinger’s curses drew her attention, and the hatred she saw there—and the determination—made her shudder. Oh dear. CHAPTER FIVE He’d punched El Lobo. He’d punched the most notorious gunslinger in Texas. Punched him… when what Hank had wanted to do was pull out the Smith and Wesson in the back of his belt and shoot the son-of-a-bitch in the face, for daring to touch Red like that. There’d been a moment there, when Lobo had called her his betrothed, that Hank had stopped breathing. His righteous anger at seeing El Lobo here in Wyoming—of all places—and seeing him put his hand on Red had been replaced with dread at those words. Dread that the older man really did have a right to touch her; dread that she’d been lying to him about why she was running. But then, when she’d stuck out her chin and looked up at the gunslinger so bravely and told him that she wasn’t going to marry him, relief had swept through Hank, and snapped whatever control he might’ve had. All he could think about was making Lobo pay for hurting her. Pay for the fear he’d seen on her face, and for forcing her to be brave. Good thing Haskell had a sheriff. Hopefully their little dust-up would be enough to keep the gunslinger locked up overnight, long enough for him to get her to her family. Then Hank would be able to face Lobo alone, knowing that Red was safe. And the gunslinger would definitely be coming for him, because what Sheriff Knighton didn’t realize was that El Lobo was now a wanted man. He’d once been a gun-for-hire, but had killed a lawman two years back, down in Mexico. Last time Hank had been through Haskell, he’d thumbed through Knighton’s wanted posters, and Lobo wasn’t there. If he’d had any idea that the gunslinger would ever have come this far north, he definitely would’ve mentioned it to Sheriff Knighton… but there wasn’t time now. Maybe he could telegraph the man after he’d gotten Red off the train in Everland. It was up to him to make sure that she was safe with her family when El Lobo came after him again. He wasn’t going to let him hurt her again. Was it any wonder that his insides were just a mess, by the time he dragged her down Main Street and hustled her on the train? The anger, at seeing her pain; the fear, from wondering if he’d be able to protect her; the rightness of feeling her hand in his? Hank could barely breathe, could barely think straight. They were still standing when the porter shut the door and the train began to inch away from Haskell, and Hank took what felt like his first real breath since she’d walked in from the dining room, looking all prim and perfect and kissable. She chose that moment to look up at him, and her smile was hesitant. “That wasn’t how I expected my morning to go.” It was no use. Her gentle teasing wasn’t going to distract him from how darn kissable those lips looked right now. Maybe something showed in his expression, because her eyes widened slightly. His saddlebags dropped to the ground, and he leaned the rifle against the wall beside them. Kissable. That’s what he’d been thinking about, right before El Lobo sauntered back into their lives. Kissable. He wanted—he needed—to touch her. To remind himself that she was safe, that she wasn’t the gunslinger’s. Leaning back, he let the wall take his weight, and pulled her towards him. She was breathing heavily from their jog through town, but her slight frown let him know that she was irritated, not scared. Good. Good, he could deal with irritation. He cupped her cheek in one hand, and watched those gorgeous eyes go wide, felt the delicious shock of her skin against his. Groaned, when he realized he was lost. Kissable. She tasted like sugar cookies. And Heaven, once her lips began to move under his, and she matched his desperation stroke for stroke. It wasn’t until he felt her fingernails scraping through the hair on the back of his neck that he realized she’d wrapped her arms around him and was holding on. He groaned again, and cupped her other cheek too, and tried to pull her even closer. Any closer, though, and he’d be inside of her, and now wasn’t that thought interesting? The train swayed under them, and he braced his backside, pulled her hips against his thighs, and made love to her with his mouth. When her tongue touched his, he darn near came undone, and realized that he would, if he let this go on any longer. With a gasp, he forced his lips away from her, his resolve weakening when she came after him. But he held her cheeks in both hands, and dropped his forehead to hers, breathing heavy. Even with his eyes squeezed shut, he knew that she was gasping—panting—too, and it made him want to kiss her again. To sweep her off her feet, to climb down from the train at the very next town, to carry her to the nearest bed, and to bury himself in her the way she’d been inviting him to do since he’d met her. Oh, maybe she didn’t realize it, but those looks she’d been giving him? The way she snuggled up and surrounded him? They were all the encouragement a typical man needed. Too bad he wasn’t typical. He had to get home to Arizona… or at least, what would become home. He didn’t have time to get all involved with a woman like Red. Opening his eyes, Hank pulled away just enough to see her. Only problem was that he was already involved, whether he liked it or not. Scratch that. He liked it. He liked it very much. Her deep blue eyes were glazed with desire, and it was all he could do to not lower his lips to her again. But the sight of his bare hands on her cheeks stopped him. His right knuckles were broken and bleeding from their run-in with the gunslinger’s face, and reminded him of the fear he’d seen in her eyes when Lobo held her. “Why did you…” Red blinked, as if she was trying to regain control, and he knew that she was about to ask him something uncomfortable. How to explain why he’d kissed her? How to explain how, after the anger and fear in the hotel lobby, he’d needed to touch her, to know that she was safe and… and his? He couldn’t explain that, because she wasn’t his at all. But she surprised him. “Why did you hit him?” That wasn’t what he’d expected her to ask, and when her small fingers—she hadn’t had time to put on gloves, either—came up to caress his right hand, he had to pull back farther, just to make sure that she wasn’t teasing him. His eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, why’d I hit him? It was either that or shoot ‘im, and I knew Charlie wouldn’t appreciate that option.” She touched his split knuckles, maybe without even realizing it, but it didn’t hurt. Nah, having her like this, in his arms, looking all concerned and stroking him like he needed petting… it didn’t hurt at all. Felt good. “You were angry at him for shooting you?” Shooting him? Then Hank remembered the brief exchange he’d had with Lobo, and lowered his forehead to hers once more. She honestly thought that was why he’d been so angry? Why he wanted to kill the gunslinger with his bare hands? “No, I wasn’t, honey. I mean—” He shut his eyes and took a deep breath. “Yeah, I ain’t going to forgive him for that, but…” Another deep breath, while he tried to get his emotions under control. It wasn’t working. With a groan, he pressed against her, harder, and blurted out, “Good God, Red. Do you have any idea what it did to me, to see him touching you like that? To think that you might’ve wanted it?” She sucked in a breath—they were close enough that he felt it—when she understood. He opened his eyes and met hers. “You mean…” Her voice was suddenly as tiny as the rest of her. “You were angry because of… of what he did to me?” He stood up, but didn’t let her go. “I would’ve liked to kill ‘im for it, Red.” “I thought that you were holding a grudge.” The amazement in her expression, in her voice, was adorable. Did the little fool honestly have no idea what it’d done to him, to see her in that kind of danger? She looked so flabbergasted that he had to grin, and that got another reaction from her. Her eyes widened again, and she pulled away from him. He let her go, dropping his hands. “You’re smiling.” It was an accusation. “Sorry.” He didn’t stop, though. In fact, her irritation made his grin grow. “Don’t be.” She cocked that pretty little head of hers. “I like it when you smile. You look…nice.” “I’m not nice.” He wasn’t nice. He wasn’t a gentleman. He wasn’t the kind of man who courted and married… but Red had him thinking all sorts of things lately. She shrugged, and pulled out her gloves from a pocket in her cloak. “I think that you are.” And then, while she was pulling them on—Hank was disappointed to see her skin disappearing under the dark leather—she asked too casually, “Why’d you kiss me?” He snagged her hand, and forced her to look at him once more. Focused on making sure she understood. “To remind you that you don’t belong to him. I won’t let you forget.” “Who do I belong to, then?” Her question was hesitant, and tiny, and made him ache to reassure her, but he couldn’t. Couldn’t say what he wanted to say—me—because it wasn’t true. He was saved from having to lie by the porter, who glared at them as he passed, reminding Hank that they were standing in the aisle of a moving train. “Come on, honey.” Picking up his bags and rifle in one hand, he pulled her towards two open seats. Neither spoke, but he didn’t let her hand loose, either, and she didn’t seem to mind. They had long enough before they reached Everland that they’d have to worry about lunch, and a few hours after that. But they couldn’t spend the day just staring out the windows, either. He needed answers. Hank pulled off his hat and threw it on the bench across from them. Scrubbing his bare hand over his beard and through his hair, he sighed. She was still turned away from him, but he could see the curve of her jaw. “Why did El Lobo think that you were going to marry him?” “When he accosted me on the train from Salt Lake City, he told me that it was because I’m going to inherit my Abuelo’s property, and he wants it.” “He wasn’t real subtle, was he?” Actually, Hank could think of any number of reasons to marry her, and her inheritance wasn’t one of them. Unfortunately, El Lobo was the kind of man who took what he wanted, and damned the consequences. More often than not, for a man of his ability with a gun and dangerous reputation, there weren’t consequences. There would be, this time. She shrugged. “Abuelo warned me that he might come after me.” “This is the man who adopted you?” “The man who raised me. I don’t think he and Abuela ever officially adopted any of us.” She looked down at their joined hands. “She runs the town orphanage, technically, but she treats us all like her children. Grandchildren, I guess.” Her grandparents—or whatever they were—had enough money to run an orphanage and offer a stranger a hundred bucks? “And El Lobo wants the orphanage?” “I don’t know.” She shrugged. “He must, because he’s going through an awful lot of trouble to get it.” Try as he might, Hank couldn’t figure why a gunslinger like Lobo, who was wanted in two states and some territories, would want an orphanage. Remembering the conversation they’d had that first night—had it only been a few days ago?—he asked, “If your grandfather’s been dead since the summer, why does Lobo think you’re going to inherit?” Gently, she pulled her hand from his, and began to fiddle with the edge of her cloak. Hank had noticed that she did it when she was uncomfortable, and thought that it was kinda adorable. He missed her warmth, but figured that it was for the best. “I was… I wasn’t Abuelo’s favorite, but… maybe I was.” She sighed, and looked out the window again. “Abuelo made shoes for years. I don’t honestly know what their name was before they came north, but he’s been ‘Zapato’ for longer than I’ve known them. He always told us that he wasn’t going to get close to any of us, because we were his wife’s business.” She smiled. Just slightly, just enough that he figured she thought he couldn’t see it, like she was remembering something special. “But he and I… we liked each other. He told me once it was because of my curiosity. He even tried to teach me the business, but I was too impatient.” Hank nodded slightly. Ain’t that the truth? “So he taught Micah instead, and while he learned shoemaking, Abuelo just let me sit there and listen and ask questions and be myself. It was…” This time her smile was a little sad. “It was nice.” Despite being orphaned and abandoned in the middle of nowhere, it sounded like Red had ended up with a pretty good life after all. This couple had not just taken care of her; sounded like she had some real nice memories of them too. “Alright.” He stretched his legs out in front of him, tucking them under the bench across the way, and folded his arms. “So your grandfather liked you a lot. And then… what? He died? Did he have a will?” “I’ve been in school in Salt Lake City for the last three years. I don’t like being away from home—I’ve lived in Everland since I was ten—but I wanted to learn.” She turned back to him, and her voice slipped into a sort of sing-songy cadence like she was telling a story, or teaching him something. “When the other girls were all dreaming about getting married and starting families, Abuela said that I had an incurable curiosity about the world.” He snorted, agreeing with her grandmother. Her impatience and imagination was what got her into this mess to begin with, but he couldn’t be angry; otherwise, he wouldn’t have met her. She was rash and impatient, sure; any woman who curled up next to a man she’d just met, who let him kiss her, had to be. But she was also smart and sweet and damned intriguing. Unconsciously—it seemed to him, at least— she tucked one foot up on the seat, wrapping her gloved hands around her knee. He’d never seen a woman so at ease with herself—with him—that she’d sit like that in public. It was… refreshing. She was refreshing. “So, somehow, Abuelo scraped together enough money to send me off to school. He made no secret of the fact that if I was going to school, I had to come back home full of knowledge and teach the younger kids. There are still six left with Abuela right now, not counting Micah, and I want nothing more than to help her take care of them, the way she did me.” Hank was only listening with one ear now; he was still stuck on the “somehow” and “scraped”. Did this orphanage have less money than he’d assumed? Red rested her chin on her knee. “Then, last winter, Abuelo sent me a package. In it was this cape. He said that he’d gotten it as payment from one of his customers, and it was too fine for Everland. It was perfect for the city, and made me feel… elegant.” She sighed, and Hank shifted so that he could eye her fancy cloak, covering her worn dress. If her family—or whatever the orphanage could be called—didn’t have money, then her plain gray dress would make sense. So would her attachment to that ridiculous cloak. He was beginning to suspect that she’d been lying about the hundred bucks, and wasn’t sure what to think. He hadn’t even intended to take her to Everland, so he hadn’t expected to be paid. And when he’d made the decision to take her after all, to protect her from El Lobo, he sure as shootin’ hadn’t been thinking about the money. But was he going to find out that it’d been a lie? So maybe he sounded a little surlier that usual when he asked, “What does this have to do with the will?” “A week after I got the package with the cloak, I got a letter. Abuelo said that the cloak had a secret; it was made to conceal.” She tucked her foot under her leg and lowered her knee, and fiddled with the hem of the cloak. Then, taking a deep breath, she looked up into his eyes, and he felt like she’d made a decision. Like he’d passed a test. “His most recent will—one that the Mayor himself helped draft—was sewn into the hem of the cloak where no one could find it.” She paused expectantly, as if waiting for him to react, and he nodded, glad that she’d trusted him enough to tell him. She smiled, and hell. He could make her smile like that just by acknowledging her trust? He felt like a heel for not giving her more reason to trust him. To smile. “Did you read it?” “Yes. And then I put it in oilskin and sewed it back in.” Her fingers brushed against the fabric, finding one spot in the hem that looked thicker than the others. “He left the orphanage to his wife, as he’d always said he would, and the shoemaking-shop to Micah. But when Abuela is gone, the orphanage and half of the property… it’ll come to me. It was a surprise, but once I thought about it, I was at peace with their decision. He knew that I was devoted to their work, just like Micah is. But honestly, I didn’t think anything of it until Abuelo passed away this summer.” She looked down. “I didn’t get to say goodbye to him, but I wrote them every week. I know that he knew I loved him.” Hank knew that he should comfort her, but he was too dang curious about the will. “And when you decided to go home, Lobo caught you on the train, and said… what?” “No, I met him once in Salt Lake City—last month. He said he recognized the cloak, and wanted to talk to me about grandfather. It wasn’t until he started asking questions about the will that I felt uncomfortable and ran.” She looked away, and he wondered what she wasn’t telling him. “That’s when I began to save up for a train ticket home.” A sick feeling of dread settled in his stomach, and he sat up, pinning her with a stare. “Did you… did you tell him that you’d read the will?” She shrugged, and he could tell she didn’t understand. “I told him that Abuela had inherited everything, and Micah and me after her.” “Shoot, Red. Now he knows that you’ve got it, and that you’ve read it, and that’s why he’s after you.” “To marry me? But I haven’t inherited the orphanage yet.” “But you will. It’s only a matter of time. And what do you want to bet that once he forces you to marry him, your grandmother and brother meet little accidents, leaving you the sole heir?” Her face paled so quick that he thought she might faint, and reached for her. She brushed away his hand, taking deep steadying breaths. “You think he’d do that?” “You know his reputation. You’re his key to getting his hands on your grandfather’s property.” He could hurt her or kill her, and no one would call him on it, if he was her husband. “No wonder he wants you.” It probably didn’t have anything to do with how dang kissable she looked, chewing on her bottom lip all concerned-like. Hank had to swallow down the memory of her sugar-cookie taste, and focus on her fear now. But when she looked up at him like that, like he had all the answers and she needed him, Hank cursed under his breath. Pulling her roughly up against his side, he tried not to gloat at the way she cuddled into him, making him feel like her hero. “Don’t worry, honey.” His voice sounded gruff, even to his ears. “He’s not going to get you. You’ll be alright. I’ll take care of you.” “Promise?” Her question was muffled in his coat, but Hank felt it all the way through his soul. “Yeah, Red. I promise.” And as the train hurtled towards her home and safety, Hank knew that he’d keep that promise. And the best way to make sure that she was safe in Everland would be removing the threat to her—and her family’s—well-being. He’d have to kill El Lobo. CHAPTER SIX She was home! Everland looked exactly the way she remembered it. Bigger, of course, but that didn’t really matter. There might be more buildings, but they all had the same Cole and King look that she’d always loved about the town. The pair had teamed up years ago to improve all of the Everland’s main streets’ buildings, and now every storefront included Rupert Cole’s distinctive curlicues and frets and Skip King’s bright colors and cheerful trim. The whole place always put her in mind of a fairy tale village. She’d left a few years after the railroad spur had come through, and it had apparently done the town a world of good. There were new businesses, and the old ones were comfortingly familiar. There was Spratt’s Eatery, and the Gingerbread House that Micah and the other young men visited occasionally. And Pedlar’s Mercantile and—oh look! The church social was still going on! Unable to control her excitement, Rojita grabbed a hold of Hank’s hand, and was pleasantly surprised when he didn’t pull away. Standing on the station platform with him felt… right. It felt right to have him here, to be bringing him to see her home. She felt unreasonably nervous in a way that didn’t have anything to do with El Lobo or this morning’s confrontation, and had everything to do with the day she’d shared with a certain taciturn bounty hunter. The train ride had been lovely, just sharing memories and small talk and learning more about him. He’d teased her and she’d blushed, and they’d kissed again, not caring who was watching. For the first time in three years, she felt like she could really be herself, and didn’t have to worry about appearances or being careful. She really liked that about him; liked being around him. And she realized that, despite his teasing and his gruff demeanor, he liked her, too. That kiss had been a pretty good indication. If there’d been any doubt that Hank Cutter was right for her, it had fled the moment his lips—deliciously scratchy from his short beard—had touched hers. She’d felt… like she was flying. And then, after, when he’d held her, she’d still been flying, only in an even better way. And to spend the rest of the train ride sitting beside him, tucked up into his warmth and his safety, had been flying too. And standing here, about to introduce him to her home… she was still flying. “So this is Everland, huh?” Hank was holding her hand tightly, and shifted his grip on his saddlebags and rifle. Just having her beside him made this homecoming feel real. She wanted to point out everything to him, to show him around, to introduce him. That last part was going to be easy, with everyone still gathered after the afternoon service at St. Alice’s. “Look, Hank!” She felt him squeeze her hand when she said his name, and that made her smile grow. “It’s Sunday!” “Yeah?” “So everyone’s still gathered at church, and I can introduce you!” She thought she heard him mutter “Swell” under his breath, but she was distracted before she could respond. Was that—? A figure broke away from the few people mingling in the church yard, and headed towards them. It was! She began to pull Hank up Andersen Avenue, towards St. Alice’s. “Max!” Sure enough, the dark head turned towards her, and the man’s face broke into a grin as he started towards them. “Rojita! As I live and breathe!” She had to let go of Hank’s hand when Max DeVille swept her into a hug, but she laughed anyhow. Her friend had always been a charmer, and today was no different. Still, when he set her down and she moved back beside Hank, it was gratifying to feel his arm snake around her shoulders. Tucked up next to Hank’s side, she smiled at Max’s curious expression. “Welcome home, little one. Your family will be happy to see you.” “Who’re you?” Hank’s abrupt question might be rude to someone who didn’t know him, but Max didn’t care. He just stuck his hand out. “Max DeVille. My father owns a stretch of land outside of town, and I’ve known Rojita since she was…” He flicked his eyes towards her once. “Well, since she was a lot smaller.” The joke earned a reluctant thawing from Hank, and he shook the other man’s hand. “Hard to believe she was smaller.” She hid her smile, not wanting them to realize how important it was to her that they be friends. “I’m Hank Cutter.” “That’s an interesting name.” Rojita had to defend him. “He’s an interesting man.” Max took a step back, put his hands on his hips, and swept his gaze back and forth between them. “I think that I can see that. I wouldn’t mind hearing how you two met.” Hank didn’t say anything, and Rojita knew that he was sizing up the other man, wondering how much he could reveal. She wanted to tell him that she trusted Max as much as she trusted her own family, but didn’t, because now wasn’t the time or the place. A gaggle of giggling women had spilled from the church to stand in the yard, and Rojita self-consciously straightened her spine. There was Rose and Snow, and their mother Mrs. White. There were the Miller girls and Briar, and all of the young ladies who’d grown up with her and Mary and Marian. They looked fancier than she remembered. More grown up. She still looked—she glanced down at herself. Like Rojita Zapato, the little orphan who had only her grandmother in the whole world. Her shoes were scuffed, her dress was mended, and her hair absolutely never did what she wanted it to. The only thing as fancy as these girls was her pretty red cloak, and even that had been a barter from a stranger who her grandfather had never seen again. Soon, she would see her Abuela again, and Hank would meet her, and he’d know. He’d know that she wasn’t wealthy, and couldn’t afford the money that she’d promised him. He’d know that she’d been lying to him, had tricked him into protecting her. And then… What? He’d leave, right? That’s what he’d been planning on doing anyhow. That’s what she’d assumed would happen. But what if he didn’t? What if he was angry at her trick, and demanded the money, money they didn’t have? She looked up at him, still making small talk with Max, and swallowed down her fear. There had to be something she had that he wanted. Judging from the way he’d kissed her—surely that kiss wasn’t because of the money?—there was something he wanted very much. And Rojita realized, at that moment, that she was willing to give it to him. Here was a man who’d risked himself for her, a man who made her irritated and happy and nervous and bubbly, whose touch filled her with butterflies and warmth. Oh yes, he was a special man, and he’d make it special for her, too. She did have something that she could barter with, if it came to it. “Rojita?” She didn’t recognize the voice, but she should have. Micah was older now, taller and broader and oh-so-handsome. He was grinning as he strode across the churchyard towards her, and she gaped. When had her little brother gotten so big? They’d written over the years—well, she’d written, and someone had read her letters to him—so she’d kept up with him and the younger kids, but it was still a shock to see him looking so… manly. With a laugh, she threw herself into his arms and he swept her around in a circle. When he put her down, she patted his bicep once, twice, still marveling at how much he’d grown. “What are you doing back in town? Does Abuela know you’re here? Dios mio, Rojita, tell me that you wrote to her? She’ll have a conniption if you surprise her.” Micah had always been a worrier—and had picked up Abuelo’s favorite exclamation, the same way Rojita had—but she was too happy to care right now. She was home! “Come meet my friend, the man who brought me home. He’s over—” She was turning to point out Hank standing stoically beside Max when a high-pitched squeal stopped her, and suddenly her arms were filled with children. There was Tom Tucker, and Mary Contrary, and good Heavens, was that little Jack Horner all grown up? The twins and Baby Blue hung back, until Mary called out her name again, and they remembered, and came for their hugs. Rojita couldn’t remember feeling filled with more love, more contentment than at that moment, surrounded by the people she called family. As she met Hank’s eyes over Tom’s curls, the taste of his lips flashed through her memory, and she had to modify her realization. There’d been another moment, just this morning, that had been this special, too. Boy, what a day. The children were all clamoring for her attention, and she couldn’t answer them all nearly fast enough. Then she heard the voice that had meant so much to her as a child. “Rojita, mi hija! Welcome home.” Abuela stood at the edge of the churchyard, her arms outstretched, and Rojita shook off the children as fast as she could, in an effort to get to her. She looked… older. More worn, more slouched. Like the weight of the last years had pressed against her shoulders. But her smile was still the same, still welcoming. Still bright and shining and full of love for children who no one else wanted. Their embrace lasted long enough for Rojita to forget where they were, to focus only on the musty scent of flour and beans and shoe-oil she hadn’t forgotten in her years away, while Abuela whispered welcoming nonsense in her own wonderful mixture of Spanish and English she’d learned over the years After a long while, Rojita pulled back, her arms still around Abuela, and made sure that she saw her smile. “I’ve missed you, Abuela. I’ve missed you all. I’ve missed Everland.” “It is good that you have come home.” Abuela clasped her hands to Rojita’s cheeks in a pose eerily similar to the way Hank had held her only that morning. Maybe something showed in her face, because the older woman frowned. “But you no write to tell you coming home? What is wrong, mi hija? Why you…” “I’m happy to be here, Abuela, but it’s not for a good visit. I have to talk to you.” “About Ernesto, no? I can see in your face.” Rojita nodded glumly, sorry to ruin their reunion with the news about Abuelo’s will. But her grandmother just sighed, and pulled her close for another hug. “I am still glad you come home.” “Me too.” Pressed against the old woman’s shoulder, Rojita inhaled deeply and knew that she was where she needed to be. But she felt somehow… empty. Now that she was here, now that she was going to introduce Abuela to Hank, was she going to lose him? “I think you have other news, no? You did not come all this way alone?” Taking her grandmother’s frail hand in hers, Rojita pulled her towards the small group of men. Max and Micah took a few steps back to allow her to tug her grandmother closer. “Abuela, this is Hank Cutter. He saved my life, and then brought me home. He’s been protecting me.” “And you care for him, no?” She should’ve been embarrassed by the forthright question, especially with Hank standing right there looking like he wanted to know the answer too. But she wasn’t; she wanted him to know the truth. So she lifted her chin, looked him right in those creamy brown eyes, and spoke to her grandmother. “Yes.” Something like surprise flickered across his face, but then it was gone, replaced by his usual stoic expression. He didn’t fool Abuela, though. She shuffled forward—still using the cane Abuelo had fashioned for her years before—and put one hand on Hank’s shoulder. Of course, he was significantly taller than her, so she had to stretch, but it was worth it to see him raise both brows. Rojita knew it was as close to surprise as he was likely to show. “Welcome to Everland. You brought our girl home. Gracias, mi hijo.” “I’m not your son.” Hank sounded even gruffer than usual, but Abuela didn’t let that bother her. She just patted his shoulder a few times, comfortingly, and smiled that six-toothed smile of hers. “Everyone in Everland is my son and daughter, mi hijo. You will come to know this soon.” Except that he wasn’t staying. Rojita didn’t have the heart to tell her that now, not when Abuela obviously liked him, and now knew that she liked him too. Liked him a little more than she should, for a man she’d just met the other day. For a man who was leaving soon. For a man she’d lied to. Suddenly she couldn’t stand the thought of him discovering her lie today. Not after the way he’d defended her this morning. Not after that kiss they’d shared, or the other kisses on the train. Not after the way he’d held her and stroked her arm through her cloak, not just to warm her, but to comfort her too. No, today was special, and Rojita wouldn’t ruin it. Besides, it was her homecoming day, and that was a perfect excuse. Smiling a little boldly up at Hank, she took his hand. “I would like to go home with my grandmother now, to catch up with her. Do you mind if I leave you here for a while? I’m sure Max will show you around.” A muscle in his jaw clenched, and she remembered what it felt like, to rub her fingertips through his silver-speckled beard. “You going to be alright?” She made sure that her smile grew. “Of course. I’m home now.” His eyes swept over her face, and she knew that he was thinking of El Lobo, and sent him a silent thank you for not mentioning him aloud. She needed privacy to tell her grandmother everything that had happened over the last few days, and to confess that there was a gunslinger after their home. Seeming to understand, Hank nodded. But before she could slip away, he snaked his hand behind her neck and pulled her closer. She held her breath, wondering if he was going to kiss her here, in front of her family. But he only rubbed the ball of his thumb across her jawline, and her sigh of disappointment was swallowed by the shiver of delight his touch caused. “Be careful, honey.” As Abuela led her down Perrault Street with the children clamoring for her attention and the twins each trying to hold one of her hands, Rojita turned back once. Hank was staring after her, and he didn’t look pleased. “Come on, I’ll show you around.” Hank raised his brow when Max DeVille elbowed him, but at least he was no longer staring after Red like some kinda lost puppy. He rolled his shoulders, and tried to focus on the man beside him. “This town got anything to drink?” “Sure do. But the Gingerbread House is closed for another few hours. All the girls are here for the social. Plenty of food there, though.” Max jerked his head towards the open doors to the church, and Hank managed to swallow his groan as he hitched his bags up on his shoulder. He had no desire to make small talk with a bunch of society folks. Max didn’t seem that bad, but a church social? He wasn’t a kid anymore. Still, he let himself be led inside and over to one of the long tables to collect some chicken and a big glass of lemonade. Lemonade, when what he wanted was a beer! But Max must’ve seen his expression, because he winked and nodded towards one of the windows. When they were both settled there, their hips propped against the sill and his rifle standing upright between them, the other man pulled out a flask and poured a generous helping into each cup of lemonade. Hank felt the corner of his lips curl up as he toasted the darker man. It wasn’t half bad, whatever it was. “So, you’ve known Rojita long?” Should’ve guessed he was going to be interrogated, especially after that caress he’d been unable to stop himself from giving her before she left. “Nope. She got in a spot of trouble, and I’m helping her out.” He could still taste her sugar-cookie lips. “Trouble?” Old friend or not, Hank wasn’t about to go spilling Red’s secrets to just anybody, so he shrugged again and looked out over the crowd. “It’s her business to tell.” “Is she okay?” The other man was persistent, Hank’d give him that. “She says she’ll be safe, once she’s back home. Guess that means she’d okay now.” “Safe in Everland, huh?” Hank changed the subject. “You a big man in town, Mr. DeVille?” Max laughed, and Hank noticed the other man’s even white teeth against skin a few shades darker than his own. Maybe Max spent more time in the sun than he did. “Yeah, I guess so. I know everyone, and they know me. But don’t call me ‘Mister DeVille’. My father wouldn’t like it.” He was smiling when he made the joke, but Hank could practically smell the bitterness coming off him. He shrugged, not letting himself care. “Alright, big man. Tell me about Everland.” Max stared at him for a moment longer than was comfortable, but Hank had experience facing off against bandits, gunslingers and rustlers, so this cowboy didn’t bother him. Finally, the other man shrugged, and turned back to the people crowded inside the church to escape the March chill. Hank heard all about how the town had been founded years ago by his father and another rancher, and how it seemed to attract decent, hard-working people who just couldn’t fit in other towns. There was a hint of something different in the air here, but Max was obviously proud of it. Seemed just a little bit strange to Hank, but it was hard to pin down. The people were odder than usual; Yacob and Martha Spratt—she looked three times his size and was scowling as hard as he was smiling—were chatting with the Pedlars, owners of the town’s largest mercantile. Mr. Grimm, the mortician, looked as jolly as an elf, and the three Gruff brothers—Merrell, Jerrell and Terrell--kept nodding in unison like they were pigeons or something. The longer Max talked, the harder it was to keep everything straight. Finally, he interrupted. “Let me get this straight. That—“ Hank pointed to a well-dressed rotund man, “Is your mayor, Mr. Smith.” He remembered what Red had said about him being the guy who’d helped her grandfather write his will. “But your blacksmith—“ The man with the thick mustache and the passel of kids running around him and his plump wife—“Is Herr Doktor. Your doctor is named Doc Carpenter—“ This was a dark-haired man standing protectively near his good-looking blonde daughter, “And your carpenter is named Mr. Booker?” “He’s the one over there talking to Arabella Mayor, the bookseller.” Hank didn’t bother to find the couple Max was gesturing to; instead, he turned his incredulous stare on his companion. “That don’t seem… odd to you?” He could tell from the other man’s slight frown as he glanced over the gathered townspeople that he really didn’t see Hank’s point. But then his expression cleared back to the good-natured grin Hank was coming to see was typical for him, and shrugged. “You’ll get used to it, once you’ve lived here a while.” Hank snorted, and took another swig of the lemonade concoction. “Don’t think so. I ain’t planning on staying here.” “Really?” The other man’s brows shot up. “This is Rojita’s home. You think she’d be happy someplace else?” “No.” Hank’s knuckles—the ones he’d torn that morning on El Lobo’s face—ached when he tightened his grip on the cup. “I know she wouldn’t. I just met the girl a few days ago, and she hired me to bring her home.” No use explaining that he hadn’t planned on taking her money, or even the job, ‘til that morning. No use explaining that a hired killer was fixing to follow them into Everland soon. No use explaining why he’d caressed her there in front of God and her family. “She’s not exactly a girl, Cutter. Or have you not noticed?” Another gulp of the drink didn’t help cool the heat that’d been pounding in his temples since he’d tasted her that morning. “Yeah. I noticed.” The people around him were laughing and calling to each other, gossiping and chatting with one another while the children ran between adult legs and in and out of the open doors. It seemed idyllic, somehow. Like how he’d imagined Haskell, when Gunn had originally described it. Like he’d imagined home would be like, once he got around to picking a town in Arizona. But this wasn’t Arizona, and he wasn’t happy this far north. He missed his desert. Didn’t he? Scowling, Hank realized he’d finished the drink. He didn’t need to be here anyhow. He needed to be out there, scouting the way Everland lay, to figure out how El Lobo would be coming after them. “This town got a sheriff?” “Nope.” Max sounded too cheerful. “The position’s been open for almost a year. You want it?” “I told you that I ain’t staying.” “Yeah, but Rojita is, so I figure you don’t have too long to change your mind.” Problem was, Hank knew he was protesting too much. He’d already vowed to keep Red safe, or die trying. He was already thinking about giving up the dream of a lonely little cabin in Arizona, if it meant being around her longer. Maybe forever. And when he started thinking about ‘forever’, he knew he was in serious trouble. There was a slight disturbance by the door, and the people shifting out of the way kicked Hank’s senses back into high alert. But it was just that kid, the young man who’d hugged Red in the church yard and triggered that uncomfortably intense feeling of jealousy. He was heading straight for them. “Hey, Micah.” Max’s smile was welcoming, as always. Hank didn’t know how the man could stand to be so friendly all the time. “How’s your sister settling in?” “Fine.” He was the one she’d said inherited her grandfather’s business, and didn’t look a thing like Red or like a Mexican; Micah was pretty much light brown all over, and he was glaring at Hank like he’d personally offended the kid. “She sent a note for Mr. Cutter, here.” Hank took the offered note without thanks, and angled the paper towards the window to catch the light. While the other two men made small-talk, he read. Hank—Thank you for getting me home again. It’s so wonderful to be with my family again, but I am tired. Tomorrow’s train arrives after 4. Can I meet you at the Inn at noon, and invite you to lunch with my family? Yours, R Lunch? Hank resisted the urge to crush the paper. The gunslinger could be here as early as tomorrow at four in the afternoon, and she wanted to invite him to lunch? He stared down at the loopy handwriting, remembering what she’d said about wanting to be a teacher. Yours, R. Was she really his? For how long? Until he left? She probably expected him to dump her and run once he got his money, but he couldn’t. There was something inside of him, some visceral need, that insisted he couldn’t leave until he knew she was safe. He snorted and folded the message to shove into his pocket. Red was always getting into trouble with her recklessness; she might not ever be really safe. Did that mean he was going to have to stay with her always? “She said I should help get you a room at the Inn, if you want.” Micah was back to looking surly, and Hank wasn’t known for his patience. “What’d I do to you, kid? What crawled up your pants and bit you?” “Don’t call me kid.” He was probably in his early twenties, just about Red’s age. “Fair enough. But you going to tell me why you’re so tetchy with me?” “Rojita’s… not herself.” “How would you know that?” Hank meant since she hadn’t been home in so long, but Micah misunderstood, and bristled. “Because she’s my sister.” “No, she ain’t.” At this point, Hank was just riling the younger man because it was so easy. Like he’d done with Red. “She might as well be. I met her when I was five, and she watched out for me. She’s nervous for some reason, and I figure you’ve got something to do with that.” Hank shrugged, and flicked a glance at Max. “You’re right.” He knew both of them were sizing him up, trying to protect Red from danger and heartache. Same as him, only he wasn’t doing so hot so far. “But I ain’t the cause.” He reached down to pick up his saddlebags and rifle. “Fact is, I’ve been trying to keep her safe.” The other two shared a glance, and then Max shrugged. “Well, I trust him. He’s considering taking the Sheriff position, you know.” Hank scowled when Micah’s brows rose in admiration, but he didn’t want to waste time explaining that he wasn’t planning on being in this crazy town too long. “How about one of you point me towards this Inn?” “I’ll do better than that.” Max was grinning—of course—when he slapped Hank on the back. “I’ll escort you there myself, friend.” And as Hank followed Max out of the church, he figured the trouble was that the other man actually meant it. He was almost sure that he didn’t want to be friends with this cheerful, sociable fellow… right? He wasn’t planning on staying in Everland; wasn’t planning on making friends. Wasn’t planning on listening to anymore of Max’s bragging about the town, or his stories about Rojita and the other kids at the orphanage. But he still found himself sitting beside Max at the bar of the Gingerbread House—what a dumb name for a whorehouse!—thinking about the town. He had to admit that there was an odd kind of… charm to the place. He could see how, if someone was the kind of man who could be swayed by pretty women and clean living and friendliness, he might be willing to put up with Wyoming winters. But that wasn’t him. He wasn’t the kind to live in Everland. He wasn’t the kind to make a home here, no matter how hard he was falling for Red. No matter how hard he was falling for Red. Cursing, Hank threw back another whiskey. Falling for her? Hell, he’d fallen hard already, and there was nothing he could do about it except enjoy the ride. CHAPTER SEVEN Eleven fifty-five. Rojita skid to a stop in front of the Van Winkle Inn, glanced at the clock on the big bell tower of the church, and smoothed her hands down the front of her dress. Despite her best efforts that morning, she was afraid she looked exactly the same way she had over the last few days. Same dull dress, same lovely cloak. Abuela had spent some time this morning brushing and braiding her hair in a lovely coronet around her head, but strands were already loosening and falling into their usual lack-of-style. No, Hank wouldn’t see anything special today, and she desperately wanted this to be special. After all, today was the day he’d find out how badly she’d lied. Knowing that she was early, she began to pace the boards of the sidewalk, wondering how to break the news to him. Straightforward—I can’t pay you a hundred dollars—seemed like the best bet, really. Of course, as soon as he saw the dilapidated house, he’d know. It had been good to be home, though. Despite the cramped quarters, she’d stayed up late helping with the younger kids, and then curled up beside Abuela in the bed she used to share with Abuelo, and told her everything. Told her all about the cloak and the will and El Lobo and Hank. Especially about Hank; about how she’d lied to him, and how he thought that she was wild and impulsive, and how he’d kissed her so wonderfully. And after, Abuela had stroked her hair—just like she had when Rojita was a child—and told her that everything would be okay. There was more to the story, Rojita was sure of it… Abuela wasn’t telling her something. And as soon as she cleared her conscious with Hank, she’d figure out what it was. Eleven fifty-nine. Her breath caught in her throat when he stepped through the grand door of the Inn, and out onto the porch. The silver threads at his temple sparkled in the bright sunlight before he shoved his hat on. It was a lovely, early spring day, and most of the snow had melted, so he’d forgone a coat, instead wearing a thick blue flannel over his undershirt. Watching him absent-mindedly roll down the flannel sleeves over those powerful forearms, remembering how it felt to have them pressed against her back, drawing her against him… Rojita swallowed, a little lightheaded. Heat pooled in her stomach, and lower, and she whimpered quietly. Not so quietly that Hank didn’t hear, turn, and start towards her. She forced herself to suck in a gulp of air, but couldn’t stop her body from betraying her. As he approached, she leaned towards his warmth, her lips already parted to taste him. Hank had this way of lifting one corner of his lips; not a smile, not a smirk, but definitely teasing. He was looking at her like he knew what she wanted, what she needed. And there, in front of the whole town—again—he gave it to her. And she wrapped her arms around his neck and gave it back to him, and when the clock finished striking twelve, they were both more than a little dazed. Dropping his forehead to her, Hank exhaled. He still managed to smell of wood smoke, and Rojita wanted to burrow into his comforting presence. “Damn, woman. You make me…” He pulled back and swallowed, and she grinned up at him, pleased to know that she’d managed to affect him the same way he was affecting her. It was a long moment of him staring down at her, before he shook his head slightly. “You said something about lunch?” And just like that, her good feeling faded. It was time to confess her sins, but how? Just come out and say it: Hank, I can’t afford to pay you? Or hint? Or offer an exchange? She was still wracking her brain when he stepped off the porch onto the wooden sidewalk, and pulled her up against him. A gentleman would’ve offered her his arm, but then he wouldn’t’ve kissed her on the Van Winkle Inn’s porch, either. Besides, Rojita loved his strength and his presumption and his rightness. Why pretend that she didn’t? As it was, his nearness had completely driven away her nervousness, and she decided to just be up front about her lie. “Hank, I—” “This was waiting for me at the desk just now.” He spoke at the same time, and pulled a telegram from his pocket. Taking it, she read: Hank Cutter, Van Winkle Inn, Everland Prisoner released this morning. STOP Did not REPEAT did not get on 11am train to Everland but horse is gone from livery. STOP Good luck. Signed Trey Knighton, Sheriff “What does this mean?” “Means El Lobo won’t be here by this evening.” Rojita smiled, and snaked her arm around his back so that they walked, entwined. “That’s good news. You’ll have plenty of time to get to know my family, then.” He snorted slightly. “Maybe. But it’s bad news ‘cause if he ain’t on the train, we don’t know when or where he’ll show up. I’d figured on settling you in at home, and then confronting him at the train station this afternoon. But if he’s coming in by horse, he could be here tomorrow—or any other time—and we’ll have to guess.” He cursed under his breath, and she pretended not to hear it. Turning down Perrault Street, she finally said, “You were going to meet him yourself?” “Well, I sure ain’t taking you with me.” “Why not? This is my fight. He’s after me. I…I hired you to get me to Everland, and you did. Now that I’m here, you don’t need to protect me.” He pulled her to a stop, and rested both hands on her hips, pinning her in place. “Honey, you honestly think I’d leave you? Just kiss you like that and leave you to fight off a gunslinger?” She swallowed, and looked away. Would he do that, once he knew how she’d tricked him? He dropped a kiss to her forehead, and sighed. “Red, I ain’t leaving you. Understand?” There was something in his voice that drew her gaze back to his. A sincerity. A surety. “I’m set in my ways, and I’m ornery, and I sure don’t know what my plan for the future is anymore, but I’d be a fool to walk out on something as good as you.” Something as good as you. Her eyes widened as realization dawned. He was saying… he was saying that he liked her? She had to blink a few times. Obviously he liked her, he’d kissed her enough times, but he liked her enough to stay in Everland? Why? To protect her? That wasn’t exactly a declaration of his feelings, but it made her breathless to consider. And it was likely to change, as soon as he saw her home. So she twisted her fingers through his—how’d they manage to be so warm, even without gloves?—and brought the back of his hand to her lips. His café con leche eyes softened at the gesture, and he stroked their hands down her cheek. She had to close her eyes to the tenderness in his gaze, and sighed and pulled him towards the orphanage. But by the time they reached the end of Perrault Street and turned out onto the path that led home, Rojita had worked herself into a panic again. And it hadn’t lessened when they crested the little rise, skirted the copse of fruit trees Abuelo had planted decades ago, and saw the house. Hank pulled her to a stop, and she couldn’t blame him. The structure was… well, “dilapidated” wasn’t the right word, because Abuelo had done a good job of keeping everything upright, and Micah had taken up where he’d left off. But the roof leaked every spring, and enough of the porch boards were rotted through that the children we forbidden from playing on it. At least the “Zapato Orphanage” sign out front was cheery and freshly painted; Tom had been put in charge of keeping it that way years ago. When she stopped in front of the building, Hank pulled his arm from around her waist, and she shivered from more than just the absence of his heat. Not bearing to look at his expression, she stared down at her clasped hands. “You live in a shoe?” It hadn’t been what she’d expected to hear from him, and her attention snapped back up to her home, trying to understand what he meant. “Did your grandfather build a house that was shaped like that because he made shoes or because ‘Zapato’ means ‘shoe’?” Cocking her head, Rojita tried to see what he was talking about. She supposed that, if she squinted, the way the three-story structure with the flimsy roof and the line of cross-paned windows abutted the one-story, slopped shoe-making shop might look a little like a boot. One without a heel, maybe? Still, it hadn’t been what she’d expected to hear, and she turned an incredulous look his way. Should’ve known he’d be smiling. Not his real smile—she still had the memory of that one, though. No, this was his faint, lips-curled-up-at-the-corner smirk that told her he was chuckling at her expense. So she pressed her lips together and narrowed her eyes, and tried her hardest to glare. How dare he tease her like this! Especially after she’d worked up the gumption to bring him here, to confess! He must not have been impressed with her pique, though, because he put his hands on her hips and turned her towards him, just like he’d done in the street earlier. She stared at the blue flannel of his chest, not willing to risk a peek at his expression, for fear of what she’d see. Was he still teasing her? Was he angry that she’d lied? “Well, Red?” She could hear the smirk in his voice, and she finally lifted her eyes to his. He looked like he was enjoying her discomfort, but knew that was just his way of teasing. “Looks like you haven’t been completely honest with me, have you?” Well, here it was. So much for agonizing over how she was going to confess her lie to him; he just outright asked her. All she had to do was acknowledge it. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, unable to look away from those lovely eyes. And she was, too. Sorry that she’d lied and ruined his trust in her. Sorry that she’d put him in danger with her lie. But not at all sorry that he was standing here with her at this moment. She couldn’t read anything in his expression any more, and was suddenly terrified that she’d lost him. Terrified that he was going to turn around and leave, disgusted with her for lying to him. She panicked. Didn’t want him to go, not yet, not after he’d said those wonderful things to her, not after he’d kissed her in front of everyone. She put both of her hands on his chest, not to push him away, but to keep him with her. “I’m sorry!” She said it again, hoping that he’d see her desperation to make him understand. His brows lowered and he glanced down at her hands, and she was sure that he was about to scowl at her presumption. “I can’t pay you one hundred dollars, Hank.” She could hear her own breath coming in short gasps, but pushed through. “I’m sorry that I lied, I really am.” Gulping, she bit the inside of her cheek, praying for some kind of sign from him. Nothing; his expression was impassive when he met her eyes again. “But I… I can pay you. I don’t want you to think that I don’t pay my debts, and you did get me home, like I asked. I can pay you.” She repeated it, more to reassure herself than him. “How?” Was it her imagination, or was his voice colder, harder than usual? She swallowed. “I can…” She had to take a deep breath, and stare at her fingers, where they were wrapping around the fabric of his shirt, kneading and pulling. “You kissed me. I… Surely there’s something I could… I could do for you.” She swallowed again and had to close her eyes and continue at a whisper. “Something I could do to you. Or you could do to me, I guess, or—“ He cursed, and crushed her to his chest, trapping her hands between them and pressing her head to his shoulder with one hand. She felt him take a shuddering breath, but didn’t know if that meant he planned to take her up on her offer. Something hard pressed against her belly, and her eyes widened as she realized what it was. The knowledge sent heat pooling between her legs, and that made her breath catch. She suddenly was quite hopeful that he’d take her up on her offer. And then she wasn’t thinking at all, because he’d wrapped his fingers in her hair and pulled her head back to bare her lips to his. He was kissing her, and Dios mio was it hot! She clutched at his shirt and held on for dear life, desperately trying to show him her willingness to… to repay her debts. “Why you standing out in the cold? Come in, come in!” He broke away with a curse—one that she echoed silently—and stared down at her with unreadable eyes for a long moment. Then, Abuela called to them again, and he grabbed her hand and stalked towards the house, pulling her after him. Hank stopped inside the front door, and Rojita—still trying to draw a full breath—tried to see everything from his point of view. Jack and Tom were struggling to carry in the jug of well water from the back, Mary and the twins were helping Abuela bring the meal to the table, and Micah was sitting at the head of the table, trying to comfort the youngest orphan on his lap. Little Blue—Rojita used to call him ‘Baby’—had been so tiny when she’d left, but judging from his scrapes and antics, he was growing into a little boy as wild as his brothers. Jack and Tom tried to set good examples, bless their hearts, but at ten and eight, there was only so much maturity they could manage. Mary Contrary was thirteen, and well on her way to running the household for Abuela, whereas the twins—at six—made up for with enthusiasm what they lacked in any real skill. The front door opened into the main room, with the dining table set right in the front, the big fireplace—with the pot of beans still simmering—on the opposite wall, the tables and basins Abuela had always used as the kitchen on the far left, and Abuelo’s big chairs on the right. Rojita had always thought this room was cozy, with all of the children clamoring for attention or playing on the threadbare rug in front of the fire, but now that she stood beside Hank, she saw the sagging timbers and the scarred tabletop and the mismatched dining chairs and the patched aprons the girls wore. She glanced up at him, wondering if he saw the poorness of the family, like he’d seen in the house itself, or if he saw the love that had built it and kept it up? He was frowning as his eyes flicked over the chaos, and that was a bad sign. She was about to apologize—again—when he darted away from her side, striding across the room to snatch the heavy jug of water from Tom just before he dropped it, trying to pour water into the cup Jack held. She couldn’t hear what he said, not over Blue’s wailing, but she watched him point to the cups. Both boys hurried to pick them up, and then Hank poured water into each of them. Rojita felt her jaw hanging open, and snapped it shut before anyone noticed. He was helping? He’d stepped into chaos, and begun to help, and maybe it was just the onions Abuela was sautéing that were making her eyes water like this? Sniffing, she stepped over to the table to help the girls lay out the simple luncheon that they were used to; brown bread and beans, with roasted pumpkin from the root cellar. Another few minutes of yelling and disorder, and then Abuela sat down and the children immediately followed. Hank took the chair across from Rojita, which had been John’s before he’d left last year to find work in Denver. Micah put Blue in his tall chair, and the boy immediately quieted when Hank handed him a piece of bread. As they all bowed their heads to pray over the food, Rojita reflected on how well her protector fit in here, with her family. Too bad she’d ruined his opinion of her with that lie. The meal was… fun. Abuela didn’t let anyone pester Hank, but the children all accepted him as if he’d been part of their family for ages. For his part, he’d offered a few teasing comments with a straight face that had even Micah chuckling. She’d seen Hank’s grimace when he’d been handed the bowl of beans, but then his brows had gone up when he’d tasted them, and she met his gaze across the table a little triumphantly. Yes, she was used to eating beans, but Abuela could cook them well enough that she didn’t mind one bit. Judging from the second helping Hank took, he didn’t mind either. By the end of the meal, he’d charmed Abuela, broken up two fights between the children with just a stare, and had even carried on a begrudging conversation with Micah, whom she knew didn’t like Hank very much. Yes, her protector was fitting in quite well. After lunch, Abuela directed the children on cleaning up, while the adults sat at the table. When Tom and Jack took their hats down from the pegs and headed out to their afternoon jobs—at the livery and blacksmith’s, respectively—Micah shooed the littlest ones out of the way and helped Mary with the dishes while he brewed the coffee. Hank didn’t say anything, but watched it all, and occasionally her, with an unreadable expression. The air thickened in the silence, like they were all waiting on something. Finally, Mary took the three youngest back to school, and the coffee was poured, and the adults breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Abuela took her mug with a smile, and turned to Hank. “You are a good man, Señor Cutter. Stay. You will hear what I say.” Micah passed Rojita a cup of the thick black drink, and she sipped it, wishing that they could afford the milk that would turn it the same color as Hank’s eyes. She wondered what Abuela had to tell them. “You think we are poor. Maybe. But not here.” She thumped her chest. “Not here.” She tapped her temple. “But your grandfather, he is not poor, not always.” Rojita exchanged a glance with Micah. She’d talked to him about the will yesterday, and found out that he knew the details of the inheritance, from Abuelo himself. But as far as they both knew, that “inheritance” was just this crumbling building, and the desire to do right by the children. “Many years ago, we leave Mexico, no? My Ernesto, he is chased, you know this? But why, you ask. Ernesto’s father, he is a wealthy man. El Rey, almost, very powerful. He has two sons. Ernesto is oldest, and inherits the money when El Rey dies; he wants to use su padre’s money to do something good. Something worthwhile. But his brother, he says no. He says ‘you give me your money, or I will kill you and take it.’ He is a bad man.” Hank’s forearms were resting on the table, his hands wrapped around the mug. He was staring at Abuela like she was revealing the answer to a mystery, but Rojita didn’t understand. From Micah’s expression, he didn’t either. “So Ernesto gives him half of the money. And then Ernesto and I, we come to Texas. But his hermano, he wants more, and he follows us, no? He tries to kill us both there. So we go to Oklahoma, to Kansas. We find children who need us, and Ernesto, he knows what to do with his father’s money, finally. But his brother, he still finds us. Ernesto is scared for us, for me, for you.” The old woman reached out a hand, blindly groping along the table, and Rojita grasped it, squeezing. She remembered, although vaguely, the first home she’d lived in with Abuela and Abuelo, before they’d left Kansas, and never wondered why they’d abandoned it. There’d been six of them at that time—the other three Marys, and John and Sam who were working on a ranch outside of Cheyenne now. Micah joined them in Denver on their way to Wyoming, and Mary Contrary was soon after. The other children found their way to Everland once they’d settled. “So we run. We run north, to Wyoming Territory, where no one knows us, no one to tell his brother where we are. Ernesto know that we cannot be wealthy here. We must be poor, so that his brother will not find us. So he learns a trade, he is good at it, no?” Rojita nodded through her tears, squeezing the old woman’s hand. She’d always known that they’d loved her, this couple who raised so many children as their own… but to hear what they’d gone through, for her and the others, was just amazing. “Ernesto, he uses the money, sometimes, when we have no other choice. He uses it for the Marys’ weddings, a bit, and for the boys to travel to find work. And he uses it to send his favorite little girl to school,” she squeezed Rojita’s hand again, “So that she will return and keep my dream of the orphanage alive.” “Yes.” It was all Rojita could to do to choke out the agreement, past her tears. “Oh, Abuela, of course. I’d do anything…” Abuela’s six teeth gleamed when she smiled. “I know this, and so did Ernesto. And he knows this about you too, Micah.” She nodded to the young man. “He knows that you will work hard to support your sister’s efforts with the children.” Rojita watched as Micah just nodded once, quickly, as if unable to speak. “But there is still money.” This time, she pinned Hank with a stare, and Rojita wondered what she was trying to say. “Much money. Last year, Ernesto discovered that his brother was dead, many years, but his brother’s son was a bad man too. He wants his grandfather’s money.” Hank twisted the coffee mug between his hands, but didn’t drop the old woman’s gaze. “El Lobo.” Abuela nodded. “Ernesto is afraid, then. He is afraid that, since we are old, and since this man is his blood, the money will go to him. He knows this is a bad man, who will not support the children. So he changed his will. When I am gone, the orphanage and the shop will go to Rojita and Micah.” Hank looked down into his mug, as if the coffee would give him answers. “So Lobo figures all he has to do is wait ‘til you’re dead—or help you along—and then he’s only got to deal with y’all.” He lifted his eyes to Rojita’s, and she couldn’t look away. “He’ll kill Micah, marry you, and have control of the whole damn place.” “I wondered why he’d want an orphanage…” Rojita didn’t have to speak above a whisper. Hank nodded. “He’s not after the orphanage. He’s after the other inheritance.” “We didn’t know.” She glanced at Micah, who was looking as shocked as she felt. “We didn’t know that there was more than just the building.” Squeezing Abuela’s hand, she turned a teary gaze to the old woman. “We didn’t know.” “Ernesto, he did not want you to know. Money will tear a family apart, he saw this. You, the other children, you were already from torn families, trying to build another. He knew it would not help, to know about the money. So he keeps it a secret, and it worked, no?” “Yeah, Abuela.” Micah’s voice was thick with an emotion Rojita didn’t have to name to know, because her chest was full of it too. “It worked. You gave us a family when we didn’t have one. You showed us love, and gave us a future. Abuelo knew that I’d work hard to repay him for that, and same for Rojita.” She glanced at this man who’d once been her little brother, and he met her gaze fiercely. “That hasn’t changed. We don’t need the money. We’ll still work hard.” “Don’t be stupid, Micah.” Her brother scowled at Hank. “Whether you want it or not, it’s still yours, and Lobo is still coming after it, and you. Not today—“ he pulled out the telegram, and passed it to Micah, “But soon. And when he does, I’m going to make sure that he doesn’t have a chance to get it.” Abuela seemed unimpressed by his impassioned speech, but Rojita couldn’t look away. “And why will you do this, Señor bounty-hunter? Because he is worth money, to you, dead?” “Because I’ll keep Red safe.” It was a growled promise, and Rojita was glad that she was sitting down, when he turned that fierce gaze on her. She swallowed, wondering what he was thinking when he stood up and planted both fists on the table. Leaning towards her, he narrowed his eyes. “All of this doesn’t change what was said earlier, honey.” Oh Heavens, her lie, her promise, that kiss! “You understand?” She might have nodded, but wasn’t sure. “I’m gonna go think on this, and we’ll figure out a way to end that bastard. And then you and me, Red, we’re gonna have another talk.” He stalked for the door, grabbing his hat from the peg beside it, the same as the boys, and slammed it behind him on the way out. Micah looked from her to the door and back again, one brown raised questioningly, and Rojita knew that she couldn’t answer. Instead, she burst into tears. Abuela clucked sympathetically and patted their entwined hands. “Shush, mi hija. He will help us fix this. He is a good man.” That just made her cry harder. Hank Cutter was a good man, and she didn’t come close to deserving a protector like him. CHAPTER EIGHT He was out of ideas. Hank had spent all afternoon prowling around Everland, trying to come up with a way to make sure Lobo didn’t get what he was coming for, and he couldn’t figure out a single way that kept Red and her family out of trouble. Sure would be easier if this place had a sheriff; having the law—especially law that recognized El Lobo was a wanted man—on his side would mean back-up. As it was, he didn’t want to get any of these people involved. So now he was sitting at a table in the back of the Gingerbread House, nursing his whiskey and wracking his brain. He’d had a mediocre dinner at the Inn, and couldn’t stop thinking about the chaos and… and fun of the Zapato orphanage at mealtime. The way the youngest kid had shut up and listened to him, round-eyed, and the way those older kids had looked at him and Micah like they wanted to be just like them. It’d been disconcerting… and nice. Real nice, to be fussed over and contribute and enjoy a meal like that. More than ever, Hank was willing to do whatever it took to keep Red and those kids and that old lady safe. He’d make sure that Lobo didn’t bother them. And then, when this was over, he’d go back to that orphanage, and have a talk with her. He clutched his glass tighter when he thought of the way she’d looked up at him in the street this afternoon, offering… what? Offering herself? She’d offered to exchange her body for the debt she owed? Hank cursed and threw back the whiskey, pouring himself another glass. She’d been willing to sleep with him—let him sleep with her—to repay him for getting her home, just because she couldn’t afford the hundred bucks? It was damned galling, that’s what it was. Oh, he wanted her. He wanted her bad, but he wasn’t going to take her because it was her duty, because she felt like she had to. He wanted her to want him, as a man. Not as some way to ease her conscience. Of course—Hank snorted as he stared at the amber liquid in the glass—turns out that she had that hundred bucks after all. But he didn’t want her money, had never wanted her money. He hadn’t done it for her money—or her body. He’d gotten her home, and he’d keep her safe, because he cared about her, and wanted to know that she was okay. He threw back another gulp of the burning liquor. So yeah, after Lobo was out of their lives, he was going to have a talk with Red. Only problem was, his body was telling him that he didn’t want to do much talking. But his heart told him that they had to get her silly notions all straightened out before they did anything besides talking. He’d tell her that she didn’t owe him squat, and… Hank sighed. Then they’d see. When the woman slid into the seat beside him, she startled Hank enough to make him whisper a curse. When was the last time someone had snuck up on him? Probably El Lobo, when Hank had been ambushed and shot. He glanced around the saloon, to see if anyone else saw her approach, but no one seemed to notice. “Oh, they can’t see me right now, Hank.” He really looked at her then, startled at her strange declaration. She was an odd-looking whore, for sure; young and not unattractive, with the red hair he’d been fantasizing about lately. But whereas he was looking for burgundy silk, this woman’s hair was… unnaturally red, and cropped short. She was dressed in bloomers a couple decades past fashionable. Yeah, she wasn’t the sort he’d expect to find at a whorehouse. “Who the hell are you?” She frowned, her dark eyes narrowing. “Glenda, but it’s a dumb name. The others call me ‘Grumpy’, which is even dumber.” He could see why someone would call her Grumpy. “Others?” His fingers tightened around the empty glass. “Do you believe in fairy godmothers, Hank?” He snorted, thinking about the way he’d teased Red—had it only been a few days ago they’d met?—about needing one. “Nope.” Maybe the whiskey had been stronger than he’d thought? The bottle suddenly looked kinda blurry, that was certain. “Well then.” She shrugged moodily and, placing her forearms on the table between them, leaned forward. “I think it best that you absolutely, in no way, think of me as a fairy godmother. I’m just here to offer you some advice, if you’re smart enough to take it. Which I have my doubts about.” He had to glance around once more, his brows drawn down. Who was this grumpy woman? How come no one seemed to be paying them any attention? “Oh yeah? What kinda advice?” “Trust the cloak.” Well, that hadn’t been what he was expecting. Hank carefully placed the glass on the table and sat forward. “What?” He’d tried to sound menacing, but her dejected frown told him it hadn’t worked. “Really?” She sighed, like he’d disappointed her. “Rojita’s cloak can do more than just keep her warm, Hank. It kept her safe until you found her. It was made to… conceal.” That pause had sounded ominous. “If you mean Ernesto Zapato’s will, we’re way ahead of you, lady.” “I know. But who do you think gave Ernesto the cloak in the first place?” This conversation was getting away from him. “Red told me he got it in barter from a customer.” “Yeah.” The mystery lady sat back and looked fondly—more fondly than she’d look at him, at least—down at her high boots. “He did alright work, didn’t he?” Hank sighed, and pushed the whiskey to one side. He was getting a headache. “Glenda, what are you trying to tell me?” She stood up, and shrugged, as if she didn’t really care if he took her advice or no. “Trust the cloak, Hank.” And then she was gone. He blinked, and looked around, seeing the back door swinging shut. The hell was that about? Trust the cloak? Concealing what? Deciding that he’d had enough—enough liquor, enough wakefulness, enough being on edge—Hank swiped his hat from the seat beside him. He’d head back to his room at the Inn, and sleep. Tomorrow, things would make more sense. He’d been right. Hank woke up before dawn—sat right up in bed, actually—and knew what he could do with the stranger’s advice. The cloak was made to conceal, huh? Well then, he could use it to set a trap. Impressed that he didn’t have any sort of headache this morning, he pulled his jeans and flannel on over his long johns, and shoved his feet into his boots, stamping a little to warm up. No time for breakfast; he had to see Red immediately. But it wasn’t until he was standing in front of the orphanage that he realized how early it was. What if none of them were up? Or worse, what if the old woman was the only one up, and he had to explain why he was here so early? But there was a single, flickering light coming from the side of the house that had been designated the “kitchen”, and Hank forced himself to knock on the door. But when it was opened by Red—still in her nightgown and bare feet, a colorful shawl around her shoulders and hair spilling down her back like she’d just tumbled out of bed—he couldn’t silence his surge of protectiveness. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” He knew from her confusion that she didn’t understand the danger, and he pushed her back into the house and slammed the door before he answered. “You look like you just came from someone’s bed, and you’re gonna open the door? It’s still dark out! I could’ve been anybody!” During his tirade he’d backed her into the table, and now she clutched at her shawl with one hand and used the other to support herself on the table top. He knew that he should feel guilty about the alarm he saw in her eyes, but he couldn’t contain his anger at her vulnerability. “You can’t just open the door without finding out who it is. You could get… hurt.” He realized that he’d shown his hand right about the time her eyes softened, and he cursed. He hadn’t come here to tell her he cared, but that’s just what he was doing. One of her small hands came up to rest on his chest, and even through his thick coat he felt her warmth. Dammit. What was the use of trying to fight it? He pulled her to him, and lowered his lips to hers. He could probably keep his head, if she didn’t make those sexy little kitten noises in the back of her throat; if she didn’t press up against him so that he could feel everything through that thin nightgown she wore. He wanted nothing more than to pick her up and sit her on that table and bury himself in her warmth… and judging from her enthusiastic response, she wasn’t disagreeing either. But was it because of what she’d said yesterday? Did she think she was paying a debt, somehow? With a growl, he wrapped his fingers through her hair, and pulled away from her sweet lips. She was breathing heavily, and her eyes were glazed, and he wondered why the hell he was being so noble. “Listen, honey.” He was breathing as hard as she was. “When I make you mine, it’s not going to be because of some debt. You’re going to want it, you understand? You don’t owe me squat, and you’re going to remember that.” Her eyes had widened during his promise. “You got that, Red? You don’t owe me anything. And I ain’t gonna take what’s offered if it’s only offered as payment.” Her lips made a little “oh” of surprise—or maybe understanding—and he had to step away before he started something he couldn’t finish. Not right now, at least. He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep from touching her, and took another step back. “Did you come to lecture me, then?” She’d turned away from him, but he could see her hands clutching her elbows, and worried that she was cold. Why wasn’t there a fire going? She put one small, bare foot on top of the other to keep it warm, and he cursed again. Moving towards the large hearth along the back wall, he began to lay out a fire, muttering under his breath about fools. “I came here to tell you about a plan, but I found you being rash and foolish again. Opening the door to danger, running around barefoot in winter. What happens if you get sick, huh? You’re going to add to your grandmother’s burden, that’s what. Don’t you think?” He knew he was being cruel, but figured it was better than the alternative: kissing her senseless again. “I’m not reckless, you know.” He snorted, setting a match to the kindling. “Could’ve fooled me.” So quietly, he almost didn’t hear it, she said, “Only around you.” And he had to close his eyes on a groan. She’d offered herself to him; didn’t get any more reckless than that. There was a long moment of silence that was broken only by the crackling of the kindling catching, and then the kettle began to boil and she moved towards the stove. “I just came down to start the coffee for Abuela and Micah. They work hard, and deserve a few extra minutes of rest. I wasn’t going to be down here long enough for my feet to get cold.” He glanced her way, but her back was to him, and her shoulders seemed stiff. “And you were the one who knocked on my door at this God-awful hour. I got worried. I’m not used to… to being hunted.” He should apologize. He should tell her that he was only snapping because he was worried about her… but couldn’t. Wasn’t used to having to apologize. Wasn’t used to caring. “So what’s your plan?” She’d poured coffee into two mugs, and put one at the chair he’d sat in during yesterday’s meal. When he joined her at the table, he was struck by how right it felt. Like this was his place. He sipped the coffee; dark and strong, the way he liked it. “I wanna borrow your cloak.” Maybe he should’ve eased her into the idea; springing it on her all sudden-like caused her to choke on her drink, and put the mug down carefully. But all she asked was “Why?” “Because…” He had to look away from the way her eyes were picking up the light from the fire and the rising sun through the back window. “Because that thing’s good at concealing. Lobo knows you wear it, and he knows that he wants the woman who wears it. But… what if you weren’t the one wearing it?” “I don’t understand.” “I’m going to set a trap for him, and that cloak is the bait.” “It is a good idea, mi hijo.” Hank scowled at the way the old woman snuck up on him, coming down the back stairs quieter than she had any right to, considering she carried the same cane as yesterday. “Anyone in that cloak will look like my Rojita, no?” “That’s what I’m hoping, yeah.” Red got up and poured coffee for her grandmother, and brought it to her place. Moments later, Micah came stomping down the stairs and out the back door, throwing Hank a surprised look as he passed. Hank knew that there was reason to be surprised, and toasted Red’s brother with his coffee. “But not you, I think.” He bristled. “Why not me?” “You are too big to pass as my Rojita. Same with Micah.” Hank frowned. He had to admit that the old woman was right—both of them were too big to fool anyone who wasn’t half-blind. Eying Red’s slim shoulders under that pretty shawl—eying everything under that shawl, honestly—he knew that he couldn’t pass as her. Which was a dang shame, because that’d been pretty much his entire plan; to put on that cloak, wait for Lobo to get close enough, and then nail the bastard. If he’d had the law with him, they could’ve conned a confession out of the gunslinger, and arrested him. As it was, Hank was counting on the other man going for his gun when he realized he’d been duped; he’d end El Lobo then, for daring to threaten Red. She was staring at him now, from across the table, her coffee untouched. “You mean that you were going to… to put on my cloak and pretend to be me? Why? So that El Lobo would come after you? That’s dangerous!” “I’d rather me be the one in danger than you.” “He’s after me, though.” Her palms were flat against the table, and she was leaning forward, and Hank had a hard time not smiling at the flash of emotion in her eyes. She sure was pretty when she was riled. “There’s no need to put yourself in danger.” He snorted. “Honey, I’m doing this, alright? You and me can argue about needs and debts after Lobo’s dead.” She sucked in a breath, but he didn’t know if it was in response to his jab about debts or the fact that he fully intended to kill the gunslinger. “What’s going on?” Micah came in through the back, carrying a basket of eggs that he put on the counter beside the stove, and poured himself a cup of coffee. Red answered him without dropping Hank’s gaze. “Mr. Cutter here thinks that he’s going to put himself in danger, to solve our little problem.” “Good.” When everyone turned incredulous eyes on him, Micah shrugged. “He’s obviously better-equipped than we are to handle this guy, Rojita. If he’s willing to help, why argue?” “Why argue? Because… Because…” She spluttered to a stop, and looked helpless at Hank, who shrugged too. “Your brother’s right, Red. I’m handling this because I can, and because I’m not going to see you get hurt. Only problem is, your grandmother’s right. I’m too big for the cloak.” “I am not.” Everyone turned towards the old woman, who made the announcement with a nonchalance Hank wouldn’t’ve expected. She calmly sipped at her coffee, while he considered her suggestion from every angle. “Absolutely not, Abuela. I won’t have you put in harm’s way—” “She’s small enough to pass as you.” Red rounded on him when Hank made that observation, her mouth already open in anger. “I won’t have it, Hank. Do you understand? This isn’t her fight, either.” “Why not? I figure it’s her fight as much as yours.” “I’m not allowing it. I’ll happily be the decoy—wear my own darn cloak—before I let my grandmother—“ “Se decide.” The old woman put her mug down sharply, and pushed herself to her feet. “There is no more arguing. I will be the one in the cloak.” Her fierce gaze softened, and she patted Red’s hand. “Do no worry so, mi hija. I will be safe. The cloak will keep me so. And your protector—” she shuffled behind Hank, and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Will make sure of it. You three make the plan, and then you tell me.” Then she hobbled out the back door, and Hank couldn’t help but feeling that he’d received some sort of strange benediction. Red was still glaring at him, and Micah shrugged as he sipped his coffee, but Hank knew they’d respect the old woman’s wishes. “Well.” He twisted the mug between his hands. “Looks like we’ve got some planning to do.” CHAPTER NINE This wasn’t right. Abuela shouldn’t be out there, in danger, while she huddled here beside Hank. Rojita knew that she could be bold, knew that she sometimes rushed headlong into things without thinking everything through… but it was taking every bit of control she possessed to sit quietly on the bench outside of the Gingerbread House, wearing her grandfather’s old coat, while the two figures shuffled up and down Andersen Avenue. Glancing up at Hank, she was a little comforted to see that he wasn’t watching Abuela and Micah, instead scanning the rest of the street from under the brim of his hat. He was leaning against one of the posts, his rifle cradled nonchalantly in his arms, but she could see the coiled tension in his shoulders, his jaw. He would protect her family. He would protect her family. If she told herself that, over and over, she’d be able to believe it. The trouble was that this was the third day of waiting. Three days of worry, of watching Micah escort Abuela in her red cloak around town. Three days of knowing that the woman out there holding Micah’s arm while they paced was almost eighty years old and walked with a hunch…but seeing a woman who looked like Rojita herself did in that cloak. Three days of frustration, of feeling Hank’s increasing tension as he waited for Lobo to show himself. And three days of Hank escorting her home each night, of joining them for meals, of leaving her with her family, of not kissing her. She missed his touch. Even now, she wanted to reach across the space dividing them and brush her gloved hand against his. She wanted the closeness, the companionship they’d had only a few days ago. Before… before she screwed up everything by throwing herself at him. Things hadn’t been the same since then, and she cursed her impulsive nature. The only thing that kept her from despair was the memory of the look in his eyes the morning after, when he’d come to her house and confronted her. He’d been… worried about her. For her. That, and the way that he was protecting her by refusing to allow her to be the bait, told Rojita that despite his cold attitude, he still cared on some level. She was looking at him instead of her grandmother and brother, so that’s why her first indication something was happening was the way he slowly straightened. Trying not to be obvious, she flicked her eyes around Everland’s main street, trying to see what had put Hank on high alert. There. A man, his hat pulled down low and his form concealed by a long, fancy coat, was striding from the livery. She held her breath—wanted to hold Hank’s hand, but knew it wasn’t wise—as the man moved towards the red-cloaked figure. There was something about the way he walked… But then Rojita exhaled. The man had passed by her grandmother and Micah, without even a glance. He wasn’t the one they were waiting for. She must’ve made a noise—not quite a sigh of disappointment, because she didn’t want Lobo to show up, but this tension was killing her—because Hank shot her a glance from under the brim of his hat. Was it her imagination, or did his lips curl up just slightly? Was he making fun of her again, or agreeing? She sighed again, louder, remembering what he’d looked like when he’d really smiled, all those days ago in Haskell. Hank shifted, moving his hip to a more comfortable position against the rail. It was a lovely day at least; clear blue sky and air well above freezing. Despite the tension, she was glad that she could admire his backside, since he wasn’t wearing a coat. She also saw the handle of the small revolver he carried in the back of his belt. It was a sobering reminder of what they were hoping to do, and once again she wished that she was the one acting as bait, rather than her grandmother. Abuela had convinced Micah to turn back around, and they were passing by the porch of the Gingerbread House again. Rojita briefly wondered what the rest of the town must think, to see “her” and her brother wandering so aimlessly. Amazing, how the simple act of putting on that cloak could make her grandmother look so much like Rojita. It was like the cloak was magic or something. When Hank sucked in a breath, she whipped her attention back to the street. The man who’d come from the livery stable had doubled back, and stopped the strolling couple right there in front of the saloon. Right in front of Rojita. She slouched down as far as she could, and held her breath. “Rojita, mi amada, you’ve been a naughty girl. I told you that you wouldn’t get away from me so easily.” Oh, Dios mio! She’d recognize that raspy voice anywhere. Barely daring to breathe, Rojita flicked her gaze from Hank to Micah, begging one of them to do something. “And I told you, El Lobo, that I would not marry you.” Her grandmother affected a squeaky, high-pitched voice nothing at all like Rojita’s, and it was only a matter of time before Lobo saw through the disguise. Why wasn’t Hank doing something? Micah stood stiffly beside Abuela, his hand on her arm, so very clearly not looking at her on the porch of the saloon that he might as well be pointing. This was never going to work. But to her surprise, the gunslinger chuckled. “You can pretend to be brave, mi amada, but your protector is not here.” He made a show of looking left and right, then shrugging carelessly, as if Hank’s absence was of no matter. When he smiled wickedly, his pointed teeth made him look like a feral beast. “You will marry me, Rojita, whether you like it or not.” The old woman—her face carefully shadowed by the cloak’s deep hood—spit out a “Ha!” that didn’t impress El Lobo. “You are only a bully and a coward.” She cocked her head slightly, as if really looking at him for the first time. “And my… what big ears you have.” Rojita saw the skin of Lobo’s neck redden, but didn’t know if it was from embarrassment or anger. She glanced at Hank again; he was holding his rifle ready, the knuckles of his left hand white against the barrel, and he looked poised to jump. They’d been over the plan many times, and she knew that he was waiting for El Lobo to threaten “Rojita”, in front of witnesses. Until he did that, Hank couldn’t be sure that he’d have the law on his side when he called out the gunslinger. The trouble with that plan, though, was that they had to wait for Lobo to threaten. Rojita gripped the inside of the jacket’s sleeves, and prayed that her grandmother wouldn’t anger the gunslinger any more than was necessary. “My appearance doesn’t matter, girl. You will marry me, and I will gain control of Tío Ernesto’s inheritance.” “No!” Abuela launched into a tirade of Spanish, insulting the gunslinger and his father, telling him that there was no way she’d turn Ernesto’s money over to him. She did it all in the high-pitched voice, waving her arms around. Lobo was unimpressed, but against all odds, was still calling the red-cloaked figure by Rojita’s name. And they’d gathered an audience… all of whom were whispering and pointing. She heard the name “Rojita” several times, and that’s when she began to wonder about the cloak. Maybe it was made to conceal; to fool onlookers’ eyes and minds? Maybe it was magic. “Enough!” El Lobo’s roar stopped her grandmother mid-sentence, and Rojita’s heart along with it. “No one here will stop me, Rojita! None of these people can. You think your brother will? Ha!” In one, fluid motion, he pushed aside his long dark coat, whipped out the huge pearl-inlaid revolver, and shot Micah. There was a moment of stillness as her brother slowly crumpled, and then the world came rushing back in. Rojita screamed. And then she screamed again, launching herself off the bench towards Micah. Hank stopped her, slipping in front of her to block her from Lobo. But it didn’t matter anymore if the gunslinger saw her. All that mattered was getting to her brother, who was bleeding in Abuela’s arms. “Put down the gun, Lobo.” Hank’s voice was hard, and from where she stood behind him, trying desperately to see over his shoulder, he sounded cold. He had his rifle trained on El Lobo, his legs braced, and looked every inch the protector. But Hank hadn’t been able to protect Micah, and Rojita needed to touch him, to hold her brother before he was gone. They’d known that Lobo would try to kill Micah after he’d married Rojita, but none of them had guessed he’d do it in public like this. Lobo’s attention turned from the wailing woman in the red cloak to the couple on the porch of the Gingerbread House, and Rojita sucked in a sharp breath when their eyes met. One of his thick, evil brows rose imperiously, and his gaze darted between her and the woman at his feet. She saw the exact moment that he understood what had happened, and swallowed thickly. “Put it down. Put down your gun.” Hank’s patience was gone, but Lobo wasn’t impressed. “Or what?” His revolver still dangled nonchalantly from his right hand, as if it was just waiting to spring up and belch fire once more. And suddenly, Rojita could see it happen; could see the gunslinger carelessly lift his weapon and point it at Hank and shoot him down, just like Micah. As frantic with worry as she was over her brother, the thought of something like that happening to Hank made her blood freeze in her chest. She pressed her body full-length against his back, as if to remind herself of his warmth, his vitality. As if to remind him that she was here, loving him. Loving him. Dear God, she loved him, and no matter what had passed between them in the last days, she wasn’t going to stand by and watch El Lobo do to him what he’d done to Micah. Hank’s backside pressed against her belly, which meant that the small revolver he carried tucked into his waistband was digging under her ribs. Thank goodness it was a sunny day, and he’d left off his coat. With two fingers, careful to keep the rest of her pressed against him, Rojita slowly pulled the gun free and shoved it into her coat’s pocket. Maybe he felt her, or maybe he was just expecting something rash from her. Whatever the reason, Hank spoke to her over his shoulder, without looking away from Lobo. “Don’t you move, Red. Promise me.” When she didn’t respond fast enough, he growled and nudged her with his hip, still keeping his gaze locked on the threat. “Promise me, honey. You stay here.” Her whispered “I promise” was drowned out by El Lobo’s call. “I’m waiting, Señor Cutter, for you to finish what you have started. We are both armed. Will you be killing me now?” He sounded bored. He sounded like he didn’t care one way or another. Hank took a step off the porch, keeping the rifle trained on the gunslinger. “I ain’t a killer, Lobo. Not like you.” Rojita felt her knees go weak as he stepped onto the street in front of El Lobo. Part of it was because she felt like her support had been ripped away, and part of it was the intense fear that swept over her, to see the two men staring each other down. But without Hank in front of her, she was able to see Abuela on the ground, clutching… clutching Micah. Maybe she would’ve kept her promise to Hank, maybe she would’ve stayed there on the porch in relative safety, had her grandmother not chosen, at that moment, to lift teary eyes towards Rojita. That’s how she was sure that her brother was dying, bleeding to death because of some dumb scheme. Abuelo wanted them to have that money, but it wasn’t worth dying over. It wasn’t worth Micah’s death. With a muffled sob, Rojita began to edge sideways, hoping that El Lobo’s would continue to talk to Hank, and ignore her. After the longest few seconds of her life, she reached the end of the porch, and stepped down. The men still hadn’t noticed, so she turned her attention to her family, and threw herself forward. The little minx had broken her promise! Hank shouldn’t have been surprised; he knew her rash nature. But shoot. His heart had stopped when, from the corner of his eye, he saw her throw herself over Micah, frantically patting him. He wanted the younger man to be okay, but he also wanted Red as far away as possible. This had been his stupid plan, and it was all going wrong. “You are still upset that I shot you, aren’t you?” Lobo sneered, the revolver still pointing at the ground. “I’m done talking, is what I am. Drop your gun.” It took everything in him not to look at her, not to draw the gunslinger’s attention to the vulnerable women behind him. Dammit, where the hell was everyone? The townspeople who’d been watching the confrontation had scattered as soon as Lobo had drawn his gun, screaming and scuttling for safety. Why didn’t this town have a sheriff? Hank needed some kind of backup; he couldn’t gun a man down in cold blood, but until Lobo dropped his revolver, he couldn’t do anything either. “Drop it.” The two men stared at each other for what felt like several lifetimes. Hank knew better than to watch the man’s hands; the first sign he was planning on shooting would be in the way the muscles of his jaw moved, the look in his eyes. Lobo’s thick mustache twitched, and Hank almost shot him then and there. The only thing that stayed his finger was the knowledge that Red was back there, trying to keep her brother alive. It was almost torture, to keep his attention on Lobo, when all he wanted was to go to her, to gather her up in his arms, to help her with Micah. But he saw her take off that thick coat that’d hidden her curves from him over the last three days, and was using it to wipe at her brother’s face. That was a good sign, at least; she wouldn’t bother if he was dead already. Maybe the gunslinger guessed his worry, or maybe he was just good at messing with opponents. Either way, El Lobo smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile; it was the sort Hank could imagine on a wild animal right before it struck. He pulled the stock of his Winchester tighter against his shoulder, and gritted his teeth. “Running out of patience, here.” “Fine, fine.” Lobo’s smile turned placating. “I’ll put away the gun, Señor.” The other man pushed back his coat, but turned and stooped in the same moment. By the time Hank realized Lobo wasn’t just holstering his revolver, the gunslinger had Abuela by the arm and was dragging her upright. Hank didn’t have time to curse, didn’t have time to even fire, before Lobo’s gun was pressed firmly under the old woman’s jaw. A moment of stillness, and Hank met Abuela’s eyes. He saw courage, and forgiveness, and a trust so humbling his knees went weak. I’m sorry, he wanted to shout. To apologize for suggesting this scheme. For thinking that the cloak she still wore would protect her. For not planning for Lobo’s ruthlessness. Hank had known the gunslinger needed Ernesto’s widow and heir dead, so that Red would inherit everything by the terms of the new will… He’d known, and he’d underestimated the man’s heartlessness. Abuela was ready to die; Hank could see it in her face. But he knew that Red was watching, and no matter what danger it put the rest of them in, he just couldn’t condemn her grandmother to death without trying. “I think now, Señor Cutter, you will drop your gun.” El Lobo was sneering again, but it wasn’t as bad as that wolfish grin he’d worn earlier. “You and your puta have played a big trick on me, yes? So use this—“ he jabbed the barrel of his revolver deeper into the flesh at the base of Abuela’s jaw, and Hank saw the old woman flinch, “as bait. You fooled me, but I will win. I always do.” Hank’s arm began to ache from holding the Winchester steady for so long. It must be because of the tension, the anguish he was feeling. He knew that as soon as his arm sagged, as soon as his finger twitched, Abuela would be dead. The only consolation was that she wouldn’t feel a thing, and that was crummy, as consolations went. “Again, bounty hunter. Drop your gun, or I will kill the old woman.” He had no choice. Slowly, Hank lowered the rifle, almost relieved to be rid of the weight, but knowing he could very well be signing his own death sentence. “Good.” It seemed to Hank that everyone there—maybe even the hidden Everland people watching—was holding their breaths. Lobo looked speculative, his head slowly cocking to one side. “But not good enough, I think. I told you that Rojita would be mine. I will kill the old woman the same as the brother, yes.” Was it Hank’s imagination, or did a muffled sob sound from behind the gunslinger at that announcement? Please, Red. Keep your mouth shut. Don’t draw his attention. Lobo’s wolfish grin was back. “I told you that you would watch as I made her mine, but I think that was a lie.” With one smooth twist, El Lobo pulled the gun from Abuela’s jaw, keeping her locked by his side with his grip on her arm, and pointed the revolver at Hank. It wasn’t the first time he’d stared down the barrel of a gun. Not even the first time he’d stared down one this close to him. But it was the first time he’d been so absolutely sure of what would happen. He’d seen how Lobo had shot Micah, without a second’s hesitation, and he knew that the same was about to happen to him. And all he could think about was her. In that moment, absently wondering if he’d be able to see the .45 slug as it exited the barrel towards him, Hank knew that he loved her. Knew that he’d been willing—nope, anxious, even—to give up whatever vague future he had planned in Arizona, if it meant getting to be with her. Getting to taste her, hold her, save her from danger, love her for the rest of her life. But now he was going to die, and there’d be no one to stand between Lobo and Red. He had to do something. The seconds stretched into hours, as he stared at that barrel, and tried to think of a way out of this. A way to save her. If he could somehow distract Lobo, maybe Hank could go for the Smith and Wesson breaktop tucked into the waistband of his jeans. If he dropped at just the right time, maybe he could get a round off before Lobo was able to adjust his aim. It was a long shot, counting on being able to get the gun out in time, but it was Hank’s only chance. Red’s only chance. As focused as he was on that revolver, he still saw the shape rising behind El Lobo, and he tried not to react. Get down, he wanted to shout. Stay hidden! Lobo hadn’t seen her yet, had to have assumed she’d hidden with the others. But if she drew his attention, there was nothing keeping the gunslinger from turning and shooting her. Hank needed a distraction, but not this one. Here he was, about to die, and his blood was running cold at the thought of Red in danger. Yeah, he loved her alright, and was going to go to his grave without telling her, and that was a dang shame. “I still do not remember where I shot you, Señor Cutter. But obviously, you recovered. This time, you will not.” El Lobo took a breath, steadied his hand to fire the revolver, and tightened his finger around the trigger. There was an explosion, and the world stopped. In the stillness, Hank waited for the bullet to come lazily spiraling out of the barrel of the Colt, to spend the eons between heartbeats saying goodbye to Red and the life they might have made together. But instead, a fountain of red erupted from El Lobo’s forehead, and Hank knew with a sudden, intense bolt of clarity that he’d somehow been saved. Hank had a moment to wonder at how silent it all was, until the sound roared back and Lobo’s body slowly crumbled. Abuela jerked herself out of the lifeless grip, but Hank wasn’t watching her. No, he had eyes only for the absolutely stunning, incredibly brave, stupidly reckless little fool standing behind Lobo. Red was holding his Smith & Wesson in both hands, still pointing at the spot where Lobo’s head had been a moment ago. Only now, with the gunslinger dead between them, the barrel was pointed right at Hank, and he could see the smoke curling from it. But this time, instead of the paralyzing fear that had gripped him a minute ago, he felt… Relief. Confusion—how’d she gotten that gun? Intense anger that she’d put herself in danger like that, even after he’d gotten her promise to stay on the porch, safe. Cold and hot all at once, now that the danger was past and she was safe. She’d saved him. She’d saved him. He’d been about to die, and she’d stood up and killed El Lobo. At that moment, he wanted to shake her, and kiss her, and promise to love her forever, as long as she never did anything so dumb again. He’d just opened his mouth to tell her that—all of that—when he heard a shout from across the street. He was still on edge, so his rifle was back in his hand and he was aiming at the man running towards them before he had the chance to think. His brain dredged up a name from that church picnic all those days ago. Doc Carpenter was carrying a black medical bag under his arm, and Hank’s shoulders relaxed when he realized who it was. The doctor joined Abuela kneeling beside Micah, who Hank swore he heard groan—a good sign. Hopefully Red’s brother would be alright. Still gripping the rifle, he stepped over Lobo’s body towards her shaking hands. One twitch now, and he’d be dead. Quick as a snake, he grabbed the break top revolver before she could fire it, wrenching it from her hands. She gasped at the move, but didn’t react otherwise. Red just watched him, still shaking. Good! She should be shaking! She’d almost gotten killed. Every time he thought about her breaking her promise, and putting herself in danger, Hank’s stomach clenched. He figured she’d taken ten years off his life when he’d seen her stand up behind Lobo. It was that anger—anger at how close he’d come to losing her—that drove him now. He shoved the revolver back into his waistband and, still clenching the Winchester, clutched both of her shoulders. She gasped, but he couldn’t make himself loosen his grip. “Don’t you ever, ever—“ He punctuated each word with a little shake, “do something so dadgum stupid again, y’hear?” He could tell from the way her eyes rounded that she didn’t understand. “I told you to stay on that porch, and you deliberately ignored your promise.” “Micah—” “What were you gonna do for him?” He squeezed her shoulders, not even caring when she winced. How could she do that to him? How could she put herself in danger like that? Didn’t she know…? Something had lodged in his throat, and it was suddenly hard to talk. “Don’t you know what could’ve happened?” His voice sounded hoarse, even to his ears. “Happen…?“ She had that dang confused look on her face again, like she hadn’t thought things through. Like she’d been bold and daring and completely without common sense, and didn’t understand why he’d been terrified. Didn’t she know how much he loved her? Dear God, he loved her, and she was safe. She was safe, and he was still alive—thanks to her—and that meant that they had a future. And if he had anything to say about it, that future would be together. “Doc’s got your brother now.” His voice was rough, and he didn’t care. “I’ve gotta go…” He’d already turned away when her pitiful question stopped him. “You’re leaving me?” They were standing in a puddle of blood—less of it looked like Micah’s than Lobo’s, thank the Lord—and she was shaking, and he was shaking, and all he wanted to do was crush her to him, and she had to go and ask him that? Hell no, he wasn’t leaving her. He was staying. He was going to stay and make sure that she had a future, by God. With him. “Gotta send a telegram. To Sheriff Knighton in Haskell…” He pulled off his hat and swiped his forearm across his brow, almost afraid to look at her. Afraid of what he might see if he looked into those deep blue eyes. Afraid that she wouldn’t accept his protection, his future. A pause, to see if she’d respond. When she didn’t, he took another step, and another, until he was far enough away from her that he could suck in a breath. Far enough away that he could convince himself that she was safe. Far enough away to close his eyes on the memory of her standing up to a ruthless killer, for him. Not far enough away, however, that he didn’t hear her when she started to cry. CHAPTER TEN He’d left her. Oh God, he’d left her. Rojita was shaking so hard that she thought she might collapse. The sobs caught her by surprise, and she couldn’t tell if she was crying because her brother was hurt, or because she’d just killed a man, or because when all she needed—desperately needed—was Hank’s arms around her, he’d gone to collect his reward. She was a fool, just like he’d called her. She was reckless and brash and would do it all over again, if she had to. He might’ve lost all respect for her when she’d broken her promise, but if she hadn’t he’d be dead now. No matter what happened now, at least she knew that he was alive and safe. That didn’t stop the tears, though, and when she felt the light touch on her shoulder, Rojita threw herself into her grandmother’s arms. Abuela held her while she sobbed, lightly patting her back and whispering soft words of comfort. Rojita let herself cry, still not sure why. After what seemed like ages, she noticed that Abuela wasn’t wearing her red cloak anymore. Wiping her eyes and looking around, Rojita spotted it covering Micah. Doc Carpenter was organizing some of the returning townspeople to carry her brother towards his office at the end of the street, and she gasped when she realized what that meant. “Micah’s cabeza is hard, the doctor says. And the bullet, it just grazed him.” Rojita had seen the blood pouring out of her brother’s forehead when she’d gone to him, but had been relieved to see that it was mostly across his brow and temple. He must’ve been turning already when the bullet found him. She groped for her grandmother’s hands, willing her to report good news. “He will have a scar over his eye, maybe more. But he will live, gracias a Dios.” Saying a prayer of thanksgiving herself, Rojita squeezed Abuela’s hands, and felt the old woman’s strength when she squeezed back. They watched Micah being carried down Andersen Avenue—where had all of these bystanders been when they needed help, just a few minutes ago?—and Rojita saw the ends of her red cloak flutter in the breeze. “I’m glad you used the cloak. The blood will show less.” Abuela clucked her tongue. “Let the cloak be ruined, mi hija. It has served its purpose, no? To conceal, but also to reveal, I think.” The events of the last half hour were catching up with her. Rojita turned confused eyes to her grandmother. “I don’t understand.” “That cloak, it brings you back to me, no? Ernesto, he hides his will in it, you come home. But it also brings Hank to you. And Hank, he saves us from El Lobo.” Rojita shuddered, remembering the way her shoulders had slammed back from the recoil when she’d pulled the trigger, and the way the blood had blossomed in front of her. “I—” “Yes, you kill El Lobo. You saved us. But why you did this? Because of Hank. If he no come here, if you no fall in love with him, you…” The old woman trailed off, looking at something she could see in Rojita’s expression. “You love him, no?” Rojita looked down at their joined hands; her grandmother’s wrinkled ones still had so much strength left in them, to be able to comfort her like this. She nodded. “Good.” She heard the satisfaction in Abuela’s praise. “Have you told him this?” “No.” Her whisper was so faint that she didn’t know if Abuela heard it. She should’ve known better. “Why not? He is a good man.” “Because…” She swallowed. “Because he doesn’t like me very much. He thinks I’m… I’m impetuous and foolish.” It hurt to admit, a dull ache in the pit of her stomach. But it had to be said. It was the truth. Abuela tsked slightly, and then lifted Rojita’s chin so that they were staring at one another. She’d always been tiny, but her grandmother had shrunk over the years, until they were almost of a size. And now, as she stared into Abuela’s dark eyes, all she saw was love. “This is the truth.” Hearing her own thoughts, repeated aloud, was jarring. But her grandmother continued. “You are bold and reckless and you act before you think.” Rojita wanted to close her ears to Abuela’s words, to not hear them. “But…” The old woman lifted her chin higher, stroking a withered hand across her cheek. “But you are also brave and kind and sweet. And you throw all of yourself into your work and your love, just like you throw yourself into danger. You are passionate. You used to give me fits, mi hija. But I loved you through it all, and so will your Hank.” No. She couldn’t believe her grandmother’s words. Abuela loved her because she was the closest person Rojita had to a mother; there was nothing to say that Hank would… Nothing except the look in his eyes when he’d yelled at her for walking barefoot in the house. Nothing except the terror she’d seen when he’d gripped her shoulders just a few moments ago. Was Abuela right, after all? The old woman smiled, her six teeth showing. “Go. I will go with Micah to hold him while Doctor Carpenter stitches him. You will go after Hank, to tell him the truth. To find out the truth.” Impulsively, she hugged her grandmother. They stood beside a dead man—one that she’d killed—and her brother was still bleeding, but at that moment, all that mattered was finding out why Hank had been so angry with her. Was it because she’d been reckless… or because he’d been worried about her? Did he care for her? Her grandmother whispered a blessing into her hair, and then pushed her towards the telegraph office. Rojita straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and marched down Everland’s main street. Right before she’d have to decide if it was worth going in after him, Hank stepped out of the building. He paused, one hand on the railing and one booted foot in the air, when he saw her coming towards him. Was it her imagination, or did he look nervous at her approach? “Are you feeling better?” She stopped, crossed her arms, and tried desperately to pretend that she was angry, and not terrified of what his response might be. Slowly, he stepped down the stairs, until he was standing in front of her. He propped his rifle up on the porch railing, and pulled off his hat, squinting in the bright sunlight. “Am I feeling better?” “Yep. You couldn’t wait to get away from me, to come see about your bounty, so now that it’s done, I’m wondering if you’re feeling better.” He glanced down at his hat. “Ain’t my bounty. You’re the one who shot ‘im.” “That’s right.” His sharp gaze met hers again, and she had to swallow and remind herself that she was the one who was piqued. “That’s right. I’m the one who shot him. I killed a man, Hank.” She hated the way her voice caught. “And just when I could’ve used some loving words, you—” she uncrossed her arms and gestured helplessly to the building behind him, “You run off and collect your reward.” “First of all, honey…” He slapped his hat against his hip in what seemed like anger, and took a step towards her. Rojita backed up a step. “I telegraphed Haskell about your reward and another matter. Second of all, if I’d stuck around at that moment, it wouldn’t be loving words you’d’ve heard from me.” “Because you think I’m foolish. And brash.” She lifted her chin. “And you don’t think before you do anything.” His words stung, even if they were only confirming what she’d guessed. “It’s going to be damned difficult to keep you safe, if you keep throwing yourself into stupid situations.” “I don’t regret it, Hank. I’d do it again.” “Why?” He exploded, throwing his hands up. “Why in the hell would you do something so foolish, Red? You promised! You promised to stay on that porch. You promised to stay out of trouble.” “If I had kept my promise, you’d be dead.” He was taking deep, steady breaths, like he was trying to calm himself down. “You’d be safe, though.” Did he know what it did to her, to think of him being the one lying in the dirt, bleeding? “You got any idea how terrified I was, seeing you standing behind him?” She knew that her mouth had made a little “oh” of surprise, to hear him repeat her thoughts aloud, but backed up another step when he reached for her. She had to make sure. “You were scared… for me?” “Terrified, honey. He could’ve… What if he’d turned around and seen you?” “What if he’d shot you? He would’ve had me then, too.” From his suddenly sheepish expression, she knew that he’d considered that point too. The realization emboldened her, and she put her hands on her hips and took one step back towards him. “I know I don’t always think things through, Hank.” She shrugged, and noticed the way his eye flicked across her chest at the movement. “It’s just who I am. Abuela called me ‘passionate’. I can’t change that about myself.” She watched him close his eyes on a shudder, and swallowed herself. She had to ask. If she didn’t, she might never know. Her voice had dropped to a whisper. “Do you want me to change?” “No.” His answer was equally rough, and he cleared his throat. “No.” When he opened his eyes, his fierce stare pinned her in place, even when he took those last two steps towards her. “I don’t want you to change, Red. I just… I don’t want to lose you.” She couldn’t make herself reach out and touch him, like she wanted; what if she still misunderstood? “You…” she swallowed. “You didn’t seem that way over the last three days. You’ve been avoiding me.” The way his lips turned up this time seemed almost rueful. He ran his free hand through his short hair. “Yeah, well…” He was staring pretty hard into the distance, like he didn’t want to look at her. “I had to, after what you said.” “What I said, when?” Did he mean when he’d come to the orphanage that morning after their lunch? “When I realized that you weren’t rich—” “Abuelo’s money—“ “No, I mean…” He swallowed, and looked back at her. “You promised me money to get you home, Red, and I wasn’t gonna take it. I wasn’t even planning on taking you home myself; was just gonna stick you on the train for Everland. But even after I realized I had to get you home safe, I still wasn’t doing it for the money.” Rojita held her breath, not sure what he was trying to tell her, but sure that it was important. “And then, that day before I met your family, when I saw your home…” He looked away again. “You knew I’d lied.” The words sat heavy on her tongue, in her throat. “You knew I couldn’t pay you.” “Didn’t matter.” He ran his hand through his hair again, and sighed in exasperation. “But what you said… about paying your debt…” She remembered. She remembered what he’d said, too, after that kiss. It’d been just another example of her rushing headlong into something, not stopping to think about the consequences. He took a deep breath, and she watched his shirt stretch across his chest. “You offered yourself to me, Red. As payment. That’s why I’ve been avoiding you—avoiding being alone with you.” “Why? I meant what I said.” “Me too. I… I don’t want your obligation, Red. I want you.” Her breath caught. “I’ve been thinking about doing a lot more than kissing you, and then you go and throw out that kinda offer? Hell yes, I wanted to take you up on it, but I didn’t want you to let me because you figured you owed me.” She’d been right; he did want her, and the realization made her want to crow with joy. “I wanted… I wanted you to want it too.” She tilted her head to one side, her hands still on her hips. She had the power here, and after all of the teasing she’d endured from him, figured he deserved some in return. “I can pay you the hundred dollars now. I’ll ask Abuela if she’d mind.” It hadn’t been what he’d expected to hear; hadn’t been what he’d wanted to hear, judging from the way his hopeful expression crumbled with a curse and he jammed his hat back on his head. He turned towards the porch—probably to pick up his rifle—but she stopped him when she stepped closer and gently touched his forearm. “I figure if I pay you the money, you don’t have to worry about me being ‘obligated’ to you.” She peered up into his café con leche eyes, watched them slowly blink. She’d have to remember to confuse him more often; it was kind of fun. “So now, whatever offer I make…” He gripped her upper arms with a fierceness that surprised a gasp out of her, but didn’t diminish her smile. “Think about that offer before you make it, Red. No going back on it.” The intensity in his eyes told her that her answer meant the world to him. “Never.” Her smile grew, and she snaked her arms around his waist, pulling his hard body against her. “I’m offering myself to you now, Hank. Forever.” And he smiled. The real smile she’d been struck by in Haskell. The smile that he rarely let people see. The smile that told her everything would be okay. “I guess it’s a good thing I telegraphed Knighton in Haskell to tell him I was taking that Sheriff job.” He was staying in Everland? He’d made that decision before she even offered herself to him? “You mean it, Hank? You’re willing to stay?” “For an offer like that, I figure I’m willing to put up with Wyoming winters.” She squeezed him, and he dropped his lips to hers. The kiss was full of promise, and Rojita couldn’t have been more thrilled. He tasted of wood smoke and protection and a future. Yes, she loved this man, and knew from the way that he held her that it was mutual. Abuela had been right all those years ago; Rojita had found her One. Hank’s hands snaked around the back of her head, digging his fingers into her curls there and massaging her neck, just like he’d done in front of the campfire the night she’d met him. It felt heavenly, and she sighed against his lips. He kissed her once more, and then rested his forehead against hers, still cradling her gently. “Well, honey. Looks like I’m going to have to get used to you leaping before you look, and being rash and bold and brave and foolish at times. I mean, since I’m going to be looking after you for the rest of our lives.” “Why, Mr. Cutter!” She smiled and stared into the creamy brown eyes that she loved so much. “Is that a proposal?” “Yeah, Red,” he drawled, “I guess it is.” “In that case, I accept.” Keep reading for a sneak peek at the next two Everland Ever After tales! If you’ve enjoyed Rojita and Hank’s fairy tale, I urge you to friend me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter; I frequently post fun bits of social history that I find while researching my latest book. Do you like reading historical westerns, and like hanging out with others who do too? Join us on the Pioneer Hearts Facebook page, where we have the most wonderful discussions, contests, and updates about new books! The Everland, Ever After series is going to be so much fun! If you’d like to keep up with my stories, or read deleted scenes, or receive exclusive free books, sign up for my newsletter. Review help other readers find books they’ll love. All feedback is read and appreciated. Other works by Caroline Lee Would you like to receive a FREE copy of Rose Red: an Everland Ever After Christmas Tale? You can, just by signing up for Caroline’s Newsletter! You’ll also receive exclusive content and freebies, as well as first dibs on her books! Interested in finding out more about Everland? Here are some sneak peeks from the next two Everland Ever After tales. From Ella: At least no one was kicking her awake. Ella woke quickly, as was her habit, but took the time to relish that quiet moment before the sun lightened the kitchen enough to justify her getting up. There had been mornings—none recently, thank the Lord—that she’d overslept, and had been woken by angry screeches about breakfast and gowns and hairstyles. But not today. After not nearly enough moments enjoying the comfort of her blankets, the sun crested the Wyoming hills and hit the small mirror she’d positioned in the window for just this purpose. The beam of reflected light hit the pillow by her head, and she sighed. Time to get up. The kitchen had been her home for eight years, since her mother had died and Mabel convinced Papa that she needed her own room. So Eunice moved in with Sibyl, and Ella… well, there weren’t enough beds for Ella, so she made do with the warmth of the fireplace in the kitchen. At least here, she was safe from their cruelty. Mostly. Folding away her pallet and blankets, Ella slipped on the light slippers Papa insisted that she wear in the house, and listened to the sounds of the birds. They would often come and perch on the windowsill and trill at her early in the morning, no matter how often she tried to shoo them away. In the summer heat, the window was wide open, and it was only a matter of time before that particularly annoying lark or sparrow or wren—Ella had never cared enough to learn which was which—showed back up to pester her. She set a pot of water to boil on the stove, knowing that Papa and her stepsisters liked their coffee first thing, and then tied an apron around her dress—she only had the two—and got to work washing and peeling potatoes for breakfast. The outside door opened and closed, and Ella heard Maisie’s happy humming. The older woman lived with her husband in a little cabin on the far side of the barns, and joined her each morning to cook the food for the ranch hands’ morning meal. The two of them were friends… or as close of friends as Papa would let her be with a former slave. “You get the eggs from this morning already?” The other woman held up her basket, her eyes twinkling. “Those chickens listen to me better’n your birds listen to you.” She carefully balanced the basket on the shelf above the counter, and began to roll up her own sleeves. “Listen to me? Those birds don’t even know I’m here.” She moved the potatoes to the board and got out the good knife, careful to keep her fingertips out of the way. “Hmmmm. You think they coming here to visit me? Nah, them animals just like you.” “I don’t see why,” Ella grumbled. “I don’t like them.” From the corner of her eye, she watched a brown shape scurry out from behind one of the stones in the hearth. She’d long ago stopped screaming when the mice scampered across her pillow, but now she glared down at this one’s big beady eyes. It somehow managed to look pleading, and Ella didn’t have the time to chase it away. With an exasperated eye-roll, she flicked a chunk of potato off the counter, and pretended not to hear Maisie’s chuckle when the bothersome little pest took her pity-offering and scampered off. “I can’t imagine why they’d like you.” Maisie laid on the sarcasm thick enough to chew, and Ella tossed a potato piece at her. It bounced off the center of the dark woman’s forehead, and landed on the floor, where the mouse scooped it up too. Neither woman could stifle their giggles when the creature ran back to its den with double the bounty. Ella cut the bacon while Maisie fried the first batch for the cowboys, and they chatted. “Have you been out to see the puppies?” “Only one left, now.” “Oh, no. The mama still hasn’t come back?” “Nope, but Leonard says this girl’s strong, and she’ll make it fine. He says a few of the other men been acting interested in her too, so maybe he’ll have some help keepin’ her strong.” Ella smiled at the good news. “Of course, she likes you best of all. Just like them birds and mice and—” Maisie screeched when Ella pretended to threaten her with the big knife, and they both dissolved into giggles again. They fell into companionable silence, each used to the other’s presence during the rush of breakfast preparation. Ella had the coffee done, the potatoes fried, and the eggs cooking in the bacon drippings when the first creaks came from overhead. Both women turned to look at the ceiling, and then at each other. “Miss Mabel’s up early.” Ella hummed noncommittedly, hurrying in her tasks. Years ago, it had been her duty—Mabel had made it her duty—to get her stepsisters dressed in the morning. Then, when she’d taken over the cooking for the family, Mabel had bullied Sibyl into helping her and Eunice. But they were fast dressers, and if they were up, then Papa was probably already in the dining room. Settling everything on the tray, she pulled off the apron, and emerged to find Maisie giving her a sympathetic look. “You want me to help you carry all of that?” Ella smiled thankfully. “And let you take some of the credit for this fine meal?” Her teasing made the other woman smile, as she’d known it would. “No ma’am. I’ve got to butter them all up.” “Today’s the day you going into town?” “Mabel wants a new dress for the July Fourth parade and picnic, so of course the other girls demanded one too. I’ve got to go find some more white ribbon and lace, if there’s any left. Papa’s got to let me go.” Maisie smiled sadly and patted her arm. “They work you too hard, child.” That caused a slight laugh. “Of course they do. But if these dresses are pretty enough, maybe they’ll all find beaus—finally!—and get married and go away and leave me alone.” “Your sisters are ugly inside, and the men ‘round these parts know it.” Ella noticed that Maisie’s voice had dropped to a whisper, lest Edmund Miller heard her insult his precious daughters. “They ain’t getting’ married ‘til they change their ways.” “Hush that nonsense, Maisie. They’ve got to get married; I’m not going to escape them otherwise!” “You could always find yourself a man. You’re a pretty girl, inside and out. Find a handsome prince and ride away from here.” Ella burst into laughter, not quite sure if her friend was teasing. “And where would I find a man around here?” She shook her head, still smiling, while she rolled down her sleeves and made sure that her dark curls were contained in a neat bun. Mabel and Eunice gave her enough trouble for not having straight blonde hair like they did; Ella tried her hardest to keep from looking ‘slovenly,’ which always set them off. “And even if I did, why would I want to leave all of this?” She swept one hand around the room in mock seriousness, gesturing at the kitchen’s tight space and inadequate light and vermin-infested hearth. Maisie relented, and smiled at her teasing. “All right, go on then. Go serve them bullies you call your sisters, and then go have fun in town.” “I will!” she called as she backed through the door to corridor. Find out how Ella charms her prince in Ella: An Everland Ever After Tale. From Beauty: Vincenzo sat in darkness. He always sat in darkness. Or stood in darkness, or walked in darkness. Or occasionally—he grimaced and rubbed his shin—stumbled in darkness. He and Gordy had only been in the house for a few days, though, so he had to give himself a little credit; he was still getting used to the layout. True, he had designed the place, down to the placement of the furniture, and his agent had done a decent job of arranging it all. After they’d arrived, Gordy only had to do a little rearranging to make the place match the diagram Vincenzo had been memorizing for weeks now. Sighing, he leaned back in the comfortable leather chair, and let his left hand feel around the table for the glass of brandy he’d had Gordy pour after dinner. Even if he didn’t attend services, there was no reason not to celebrate the traditional big Sunday dinner, and Gordy had outdone himself. Vincenzo was pleasantly full, sipping a brandy, in his new retirement home. If not for the vague ache in his shin from that damn ottoman, things would be pleasant. Of course it wasn’t going to last. Knowing the voices were coming from the front hall, he felt safe grimacing into his glass. This was the third time Gordy had had to turn away curious townsfolk. Honestly, he’d expected to be bothered more, but hopefully the stories he’d told the younger man to tell on his behalf would help. Rumor and mystery and fear, those were the tickets to being left alone. And always, always be as different as possible from the gawkers. He’d spent nine years cultivating those differences, playing to an audience that came half to listen to his music, and half to stare at him in front of the harsh gas lights. He knew how to play to a crowd, to appear suave or beastly by turns, depending on what they needed or wanted to see. And here in Everland, he was fine letting his new neighbors—the ones with whom he wanted nothing to do—see him as a rude, reclusive monster. At least that way he could be alone. Alone with Gordy and Rajah and his music and his memories. But to his surprise, the muted conversation didn’t end with the click of the front door. Instead, the voices—Gordy and another man—grew closer, until the door to the parlor opened and they both stepped through. Vincenzo scowled, knowing his manservant wouldn’t care, but hoping to intimidate the newcomer. His efforts were in vain. “Sorry about this, Doctor.” Gordy’s brogue was cheerful as he crossed to the side table. Vincenzo heard the sound of the gas lamps flaring. “If we’da known you were stopping by, we’d’ve spruced things up a bit.” “If we had known you’d be stopping by,” Vincenzo growled, “I would have had Gordy tie the window shades down so you could sit here in darkness.” The younger man clicked his tongue in that annoying manner. “Don’ pay him any mind, Doctor. He’s tetchy after a big meal.” “I’m always tetchy. What did I tell you about visitors?” “That they were a breath o’ fresh spring air, coming to share Christian charity and kindness?” “I think my exact words were ‘I don’t want visitors, Gordy’.” “Oh aye, that’s right.” Vincenzo could hear the grin in the rascal’s voice, damn him. “And do you recall what I said about having you whipped if you disobeyed me again?” “No, that must’ve slipped my mind. Also the bit about whoever’d be doing the whipping, I suppose, seein’ as how yer sitting way over there and more’n a decade older’n me.” “Hmmm,” was all Vincenzo said, because really hmmmmm was all that he could say in the face of Gordy’s grating cheerfulness. The young man had been with him for years—since he’d tried to pick Vincenzo’s pocket in Edinburgh and yelped in surprise when the “easy mark” lifted him by his own collar—and they’d settled into an easy routine. Gordy’s perpetual good spirits were mostly cultivate to irritate his master, Vincenzo knew. He also knew that he’d long since ceased to be anything resembling a master to Gordy, and now thought of him as a sort of begrudging friend who knew all of his peculiarities and went along with them, because he was paid handsomely. “Go on ahead, Doctor, an’ sit down. I promise m’lord won’t bite much.” Vincenzo heard the third man cross to the leather chair on the other side of the damned ottoman, and hesitate before he lowered his weight. From the creaking, he sounded of an average size. Gordy took up position beside the table, shifting his feet a few times, and Vincenzo hid his smile in his beard at the younger man’s bored tone when he began to speak. “Signore Bellini, this is Dr. Jack Carpenter. He’s probably a few years older’n you, judging from the gray hairs at his temples.” Vincenzo heard his guest suck in a surprised breath, and knew it was in response to their deliberate rudeness. “Otherwise, his hair is dark, an’ he’s got one of those mustaches that were popular in France, ye remember? No distinguishing features, although I’m guessin’ the ladies think he’s handsome, am I right?” This last bit was directed toward their guest, who spluttered as he tried to come up with an answer. Gordy ignored him, continuing to play the game the two of them had played for years. “He’s about your size, an’ dressed nicely. Good boots, but worn.” “What in the hell—“ Gordy continued, as if their guest hadn’t interrupted. “An’ he’s just put down one of those little black bags the doctors carry. Maybe he thought you were sick. Well,” he paused thoughtfully, “Sicker’n you already are, I mean, for doing this to the puir man. He’s glaring at me quite harshly right now, ye should know. Oops, no, now he’s glarin’ at yer lordship. …An’ now back to me.” Vincenzo turned his chuckle into a cough at the last minute, and took another sip of the brandy. Licking the taste of the spirt off of his lips, he said noncommittedly “Then pour the ‘puir man’ a drink to apologize for your bad manners.” “My bad manners?” Gordy’s outrage was false, but well-founded. This ridiculous tradition had started five years before, in Berlin, when Vincenzo had young Gordy start describing everyone who sought an audience with him. It helped him get an idea of who he was speaking to, and it helped alienate the gawkers. He was about to say something dismissive when the doctor spoke up. “No thank you. I avoid spirits.” “Do they avoid you too?” “What?” Dr. Carpenter had a deep voice with an eastern accent; New York, if Vincenzo wasn’t mistaken. He didn’t sound like most of the doctors he’d met on his travels—and il buon Dio knew that he’d met plenty of doctors over the last decade—but he did sound irritated. “My apologies, Doctor.” He waved his glass lazily in Gordy’s direction. “That will be all, boy.” Gordy, who had to be twenty-four and at least a half-foot taller than Vincenzo, stamped his feet heavily on the wooden floor as if coming to attention and said, in every imitation of a sergeant humoring an officer, “Yes, milord. Very good, milord.” “Oh, go away, Gordy.” After the stamping had died away and the door to the hall had swung closed, Vincenzo heard the leather of the other chair squeak as Dr. Carpenter shifted. He took pity on his guest. “I did tell him to turn away visitors, you know.” “I think he liked me.” “I think you bribed him.” There was a little exhalation from the other chair, something that might have been a laugh. “He told me that I reminded him of you, and that you’d like me.” “I don’t like anyone.” “Does anyone like you?” “No.” “I can’t imagine why.” That earned a chuckle from Vincenzo, and he toasted the other man. The brandy was warm and rich and reminded him of Paris. “So you’ve charmed Gordy. Congratulations.” “I know that you’ve turned away Mr. Smith and a few others who’ve come to meet you. I thought that you might want to meet the town doctor. Gordon agreed.” “Oh, he did, did he? Did he say why he thought I needed a doctor?” “Well… ah…” The other man cleared his throat, and Vincenzo could imagine him awkwardly looking anywhere else besides the ruined remains of his host’s face. “I assume…” “Do not assume, Doctor. Despite my appearance, I am quite healthy.” “Do your eyes pain you?” “My eyes are gone. Removed by doctors like yourself a decade ago.” And yes, they still managed to pain him, only not as much as they used to. And he could overcome a little pain; he’d overcome so much more. “I… see.” “I don’t.” He couldn’t help the quip, and a snort from the other chair told him he’d judged the other man’s sense of humor well. “So you have no eyes to pain you, and you sit here in the darkness, alone, with a silk scarf tied around your face, sipping brandy?” “You say it like these are negative things.” “Are you lonely?” “Indeed not, Doctor. How could I be lonely, with all of the unexpected, uninvited visitors I have stopping by?” This time there was a definite laugh, and Vincenzo smiled deep in the thickness of his beard. “I’d hoped that you wouldn’t mind visitors. The town is remarkably curious about you, Signore. The little information I’ll be able to pass on to them now will only whet their appetites further.” He managed to make that sound like a threat. Vincenzo placed the brandy glass on the side table and leaned forward, bracing his hands on his knees. “And what exactly will you tell them?” “That the rumors are correct about your ghastly manners and lonely existence.” Good, that’s what he wanted people to know about it. “And that your accent is definitely not Italian.” Damn. Oh well, it’s not like he really thought that he’d pass. He’d taken the name Bellini almost a decade ago, as part of his campaign to always appear just a bit exotic. He could mimic the accent quite well, thanks to his ear for music. And he’d kept up the charade as he toured—except when he visited Rome and Milan, because he knew he couldn’t fool them. But coming here for rest, seclusion… he’d known he couldn’t keep up the accent, and rather hoped that no one would ask about it. Ten minutes into meeting his first Everland denizen, and he’d been foiled. “And you know a lot about Italian accents, do you, Doctor?” “There were plenty of Italian immigrants where I grew up.” “New York City, if I’m not mistaken.” There was silence from the other chair. Over the years, he’d learned to feel, to taste the atmosphere of a room, and this one was suddenly quite chilly. Finally, his guest spoke, low and deep and not just a bit menacing. “I prefer to keep my past my private business, Signore.” Vincenzo’s fingers kneaded the fabric of his trousers, and he smiled wickedly, only imagining what it must make him look like. “I’m glad that we understand one another.” The other man must have understood the implied threat, because he was silent for a long minute. Vincenzo sat back, hoping he’d made his point; his past was his own business, the same as Dr. Carpenter’s. When the other man spoke, it was in his normal tone again, with a hint of thoughtfulness. “I think, perhaps, that Gordon was right about you and me.” “That we’re alike?” A faint brush of skin against fabric from the other chair, which might’ve been a nod. “And because we’re alike, I’ll tell you the same thing I’ve told my other patients, whether or not you have need of me right now.” Vincenzo heard the doctor take a breath, and shift his weight. “My wife Laura and I represent the sum of Everland’s medical professionals. The townspeople call me ‘doctor’, but I have never attended—or graduated from—a medical school. Laura has, but I’ve gotten all of my medical knowledge from books.” “An interesting confession, ‘doctor’.” And one that he appreciated. It was worth knowing, if he ever had need of medical services. “Why would you tell me all of this?” “Most of Everland knows, Signore. I don’t think it’s fair to pretend to be something I’m not, when lives are at stake. It hasn’t stopped them from coming to me for treatment, or calling me ‘Doc’. I’ve patched up everyone at some point or another.” “They must consider you competent.” Another creak of the leather. “I like to think I am. I’ve saved more people than I’ve killed, definitely.” Can I say the same? Vincenzo felt for the glass of brandy, and took another burning sip. His unexpected visitor was becoming unexpectedly interesting. ”I think, Doctor—“ he would join the rest of his new neighbors in giving the other man the title until proven otherwise, “That you must have some fascinating stories. I know that we’ve just agreed to leave each other’s past alone, but if you ever feel the need to unburden yourself, I’d be very much interested in hearing how you ended up here.” There was a snort from the other chair, and Vincenzo heard the smile in the man’s voice when he spoke. “Likewise, I hope you’ll consider me a friend one day, and unburden your own past. My wife and daughter have been clamoring non-stop to know more about you, and to hear your play.” He’d kept his past a secret for a decade, but was there any real need for it? Now that he’d given up touring, now that he had more money than Midas, now that he just wanted some peace and solitude? He shrugged and toasted the other man. “It’s unlikely Doctor, but I’ll keep your offer in mind.” “You can call me Jack, you know.” Can I? Vincenzo thought about it. Calling the man by his given name would imply they had a bond, a connection. Would mean he was a friend. He was saved from trying to answer by the door from the hall opening again. This time he didn’t hear Gordy’s heavy tread, but the fleet four-footed patter he knew so well. He whistled between his teeth, hoping that for once Rajah would come when he was called. The big cat’s steps skirted the doctor’s chair, and Vincenzo braced himself as he heard his pet leap. Rajah’s weight landing in his lap at the same time he heard his guest suck in a startled breath. Grinning slightly, Vincenzo stroked the large cat as if being sat on by a giant feline was an everyday occurrence in his life. Which it was. Rajah made a noise deep in his throat which sounded a bit like a clicking growl, but which Vincenzo knew to be a purr. He moved his right hand—he was still holding his brandy in the other, after all—up to the sensitive spot behind the cat’s pronounced ears, and the purr became a rumble. “Good God, man.” The doctor’s voice sounded strained, barely above a whisper. “Is that a leopard? You’ve got a leopard sitting on your lap?” Rajah seemed to know when he was being mentioned, because his head whipped around towards their guest. Vincenzo scratched under the long chin, and the cat made a pleased noise. “This is Rajah, Doctor. Rajah, meet Doc Carpenter. He’s not a real doctor, but I think we can forgive him that, can’t we?” The cat, bless his soul, chose that moment to let out a meow that didn’t sound anything like a house cat. “Rajah is a Serval, Doctor, from Africa. He was given to me by the Tomasi family, the princes of Lampedusa in Italy. The Serval is on their crest, and rather important to them. Rajah was hardly a kitten when I received him, and would only answer to the ridiculous name they’d pinned on him.” “He’s not a leopard?” The other man’s voice was still strained. “No. A leopard wouldn’t be able to sit on my lap, nor would I want him to.” There was a slow, controlled exhale from the other chair, as if the doctor was relaxing again. “Why do you have a… a Serval?” “I told you; he was a gift. He’s been my only companion, haven’t you, boy?” He scratched harder, and was rewarded with a meow that made him grin. “Except Gordon?” “Well, Gordy hardly counts, does he?” It was an ongoing joke between the two of them, but the doctor didn’t need to know that. “Dr. Carpenter, Rajah is my pet, and is quite used to me. I assure you that however fierce he may look, whatever stories you may have heard about wild beasts, Rajah is quite gentle. He knows he’s a bit of an oddity, and I think he likes it.” It wasn’t until the silence stretched for a little too long that Vincenzo reviewed what he’d just said, and realized the implications. Oh, damn. The other man wasn’t going to ignore them, either. “Rather like yourself, I think, Signore.” Vincenzo didn’t reply, focused only on the short fur under his callused fingertips and the steady rumble from the animal on his lap. “You know, there are some people in this town who are here for the same reason you and I are. People who want to leave their pasts behind them. Everland is a good place for that.” “I’m glad I picked it, then.” He hadn’t; his agent had, but there was no need to tell the doctor that. “And with a few notable exceptions, the people of Everland are good as well. We’re a community, Signore. There are people here who will gladly welcome you, who look forward to the chance to become your friend.” “I’m not looking for friends, Doctor.” “Everyone needs someone, Vincenzo.” He hadn’t given the other man permission to use his name, but he couldn’t bring himself to fight it. The creaking of the leather told him that the doctor had shifted forward in his seat. “There’s got to be something—someone—in this town, among your neighbors, who you’d like have in your life.” Vincenzo resisted the urge to deny it outright, and instead thought. Was there something that was missing in his life? There was plenty missing; but was there something that this town could provide that none of the Eurasian capitols of the arts could? After a long, silent minute, he knew. “Does this town have a bookstore? A library?” “Mrs. Mayor’s store serves both purposes.” He could hear the confusion in the other man’s voice. “Does Mrs. Mayor have a nice voice?” “I hadn’t thought of it, but I suppose it’s unobjectionable.” “Good.” He nodded, and put down the glass of brandy. “I used to read, before I lost my eyes. Gordy has been a poor substitute, not least of which because I had to teach him to read after he joined me. The damn brogue of his is annoying, and a man can’t enjoy the paper or the book with him dropping his ‘Gs’ and rolling his ‘Rs’ all the time.” “You want Mrs. Mayor to read to you?” “Perhaps. You asked if there was anything that this town could offer me, besides the solitude I’m obviously not getting. Well, I suppose that I wouldn’t be adverse to meeting Mrs. Mayor, and working out some sort of arrangement.” “Laura did tell me that she thought Mrs. Mayor could use another income…” The doctor sounded as if he didn’t like gossiping. Excellent; Vincenzo didn’t want to hear any more about Everland’s denizens than he had to. “Then I’m sure we’ll work something out. Shall I have Gordy arrange a meeting?” “Has he met her?” “How should I know what he does while I’m practicing? I assume he’s wandering the streets of his new home, wailing and gnashing his teeth because I’m not available to be waited upon.” A chuckle from the other chair. “I’ll arrange for Mrs. Mayor to meet with you, Vincenzo. And I’ll take Gordy around to meet your other neighbors.” “You’re bound and determined to involve me in this blasted town, aren’t you?” “I’m a doctor. I heal people. And I think that becoming part of our community would heal you.” “You’re wrong.” Vincenzo’s voice had gone flat, and Rajah hissed in response. “I’m beyond healing, and I’ve made my peace with that. I’d appreciate it if you’d respect my wishes.” The other man stood, and Vincenzo heard the sounds of him picking up his bag and moving towards the door. “I can’t say that it’s been a pleasure, Signore Bellini, but it certainly has been an experience. I look forward to my next visit.” “Assuming I allow it.” “I think you’ll find Wyoming to be a bit… wilder than London or Paris or wherever you’ve been touring. Here, people are nosier, and there’s not a hell of a lot you can do about it. Good afternoon.” Long after the door shut behind the other man—the man who Vincenzo was flatly refusing to consider a friend—he sat and petted Rajah, and thought about what he the doctor had said. Why was he here? Why had he decided to stop touring, to leave it all behind him? To settle down? Did he really want solitude, or was settling here a subconscious way of desiring a place in a community? Did he know what he really wanted, now that he was putting that other life behind him? Had he thought about it before, thought about his future? He thought about it now, sitting with only the large cat’s company. In the darkness. Find out how beastly Vincenzo tames beautiful Mrs. Mayor in Beauty: An Everland Ever After Tale

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