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A Bandit's Stolen Heart
Blood Blade Sisters Book One
By Michelle McLean, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Michelle McLean
All rights reserved.
Cilla glared at her horse through the pouring rain, refusing to allow the old gelding the satisfaction of staring her down. He glared back with such a human expression of irritation that she nearly burst out laughing. She wasn't happy with what they were about to do either, but then she had little choice in the matter. If she could risk life and limb for her family, then so could the annoying beast in front of her.
"Ah, come on, Maynard. We're almost done for the night," she murmured as she leaned against his side. The horse shifted away, denying her the brief respite from the rain his bulk provided.
"Spoilsport." Cilla inhaled, sucking the damp rag tied around her face into her mouth. The stale sweat and horse odor of the cloth tasted as bad as it smelled. She plucked at it, longing to rip it off. But announcing her identity to the good citizens she was about to rob wouldn't be wise.
The faint sound of horse hooves carried on the wind and she grabbed Maynard's reins. The horse might be a stubborn old bag of bones when it suited him, but he also knew when it was time for business. He stood steady while she swung up into the saddle. Cilla turned as her sister, Lucy, rode into view.
Lucy was nearly invisible in the pouring rain. Like Cilla, her black duster covered dark brown pants and a brown homespun shirt left over from their father's riding days. They both wore their long auburn hair plaited and shoved under floppy hats. Even in the daylight, Lucy and Cilla looked eerily alike, except for the scar that dissected Cilla's left eyebrow, running from her forehead down to the corner of her eye. They could have been twins if they hadn't been born four years apart.
Cilla tugged the brim of her hat lower over her eyes. In the dark of the night, the sisters were nothing more than shadows, nothing showing but the faint white gleam of their eyes.
Lucy pulled her horse alongside Maynard. "The carriage is coming." Her muffled words sent Cilla's stomach dropping into her well-worn boots. She couldn't tell if Lucy's voice was full of excitement or fear, though she suspected it was the former.
Lucy had only recently been allowed to join in Cilla's nighttime runs.
Maynard pranced beneath Cilla, echoing her anxiety. Something was off. She glanced around. The silent trail showed no signs of life. Everything was hiding from the downpour that spilled onto the thirsty land. Maybe she was just worried about Lucy. It was all well and good to be enthusiastic about your work, but being overly excited could get you killed. Or worse, caught. The thought of Lucy in the hands of the sheriff, their despised half-brother Frank, was more than Cilla could stomach. He'd have to put a bullet in her brain before she let him get a hold of her sisters again.
"How many passengers?" Cilla asked, trying to rein in both her misgivings and Lucy's excitement. This was business, and business was best conducted with cold calculation.
"Three, just like you said. Mr. Langley, his fat old wife, and their daughter."
"Old Jesse driving?"
Lucy hesitated. "I'm not sure. The driver was hunched over like Jesse usually is, but ... I don't think it was him."
Cilla didn't say anything. An unexpected change in drivers wasn't good. Damn! They needed what was in that coach. Or more specifically, the fee it would bring when they turned it in. To supplement the meager income they kept from their raids, the sisters had begun doing a few jobs for hire. Though they only took the jobs that fell under their definition of "justified."
People who had something Frank wanted didn't hold on to it for long. The brooch they were supposed to retrieve from the Langleys had been coerced from the rightful owners because Frank had locked up their only son until the couple had ponied up the brooch as payment for his release. Therefore, Cilla felt no guilt in getting it back. Especially when they were being paid in hard currency.
They didn't have many clients who paid in cash. Most traded goods in return for the sisters' retrieval services. Cilla appreciated the gifts of food, clothing, and other items or services that kept the sisters' living conditions tolerable. But the promise of gold wasn't worth Lucy's life if something went wrong.
The rumble of the coach's wheels echoed up the hill to where they waited. They were out of time. Cilla opened her mouth to tell Lucy it was off, to head for home, but before she could do so, Lucy wheeled her horse around and thundered down the hill toward the unsuspecting coach.
"Damn it all to hell and back again," Cilla muttered, digging her heels into Maynard's side.
The horse jumped forward and they flew after Lucy. Cilla reached the carriage just as Lucy darted her horse in front of the coach's team, blocking their path. The driver shouted, grappling with the reins. The horses reared. Lucy and Cilla flanked either side and the driver yanked them to a halt.
Guns drawn, the girls got to work. Lucy forced a cursing driver down from his perch. Cilla trained her gun on the window of the coach, her other hand flinging the door open. She lost no time. She ignored decrepit old Mr. Langley, who was sputtering in useless outrage in the corner of the carriage. It was harder to ignore the high-pitched squealing coming from his highly coifed and beribboned daughter, but Cilla did her best.
She pointed the gun straight at Mrs. Langley's head and cocked the pistol.
"Brooch," she said, her voice as deep and guttural as she could make it. She still sounded like an underdeveloped boy who'd been kicked in the unmentionables, but it was the best she could do.
Thankfully, Mrs. Langley was more attached to her life than her jewelry. She began divesting her fingers of rings and yanked a strand of pearls from her throat, tossing them to the floor of the coach.
"No," Cilla growled. She pointed the gun at the marble-sized ruby surrounded by diamonds at the woman's throat. "Brooch," she said again, as forcefully as her fake voice would allow.
Mrs. Langley fumbled with the brooch, finally ripping the fabric of her dress in her haste. She tossed it to Cilla, who caught it with her spare hand.
Cilla backed away, leaving the rest of the jewelry glittering weakly in the dim light of the carriage's door lantern. Carefully releasing the hammer of the gun, she tipped her head to the carriage's occupants.
The pop of a gunshot rang through the air.
Cilla gave the spooked carriage horses a smack on the rump and they lunged forward, pulling their screaming occupants along with them. A shout from her sister sent a jolt of fear racing through Cilla's blood. She bit her lip to keep from yelling her sister's name. As soon as the carriage was clear, Cilla sprinted forward.
The driver wrestled with Lucy, cussing worse than a farmer with crickets in his corn. Even on his knees with one arm limp at his side, he was doing a good job of knocking Lucy off her feet. He yanked off her bandana. Lucy stumbled backward, trying to push him away. Her hat went tumbling as she fell.
The driver froze. "A girl?"
Cilla aimed her gun and for a split second thought about shooting him. But burying a dead man wasn't part of the plan. She strode forward, flipped her weapon around, and bashed the butt into the man's head with as much force as she could muster. He crumpled to the ground.
Lucy let out a shaky sigh. Cilla bent down, feeling for the man's pulse. He was still alive. But he was going to have one hell of a headache come morning.
"What happened?" Cilla asked, whistling for Maynard before Lucy answered. They needed to get out of there.
"I don't know. He was shoutin' at me, and I was tryin' to get him to shut up without sayin' much, and I gripped my gun too tight and it just went off."
"It wasn't supposed to be loaded. You know the rules." Cilla felt horrible coming down on her sister when she was obviously still spooked, but they couldn't afford such mistakes.
"I know, I know, I'm sorry." Lucy's voice trembled and Cilla sighed.
"We'll talk about it later. Help me," she said, grasping one of the man's arms.
Lucy grabbed the man's other arm and they dragged him the few feet to where Maynard stood. The horse eyed them then looked away. "Maynard, kneel," Cilla commanded.
The horse nickered, blowing a stream of hot air in Cilla's face. She held her breath. They'd only done this twice before. If the horse refused now, they were done for.
Cilla sighed in relief as the horse slowly dropped his front legs into a semi-kneeling position.
"How'd you get him to do that?" Lucy exclaimed.
"I've been training him to help me out around the ranch. Come on," Cilla grunted, looping the man's arm over the saddle. "We'll talk later."
Lucy swung the man's other arm over the saddle and pushed him from behind as Cilla pulled from the other side. A few tense and sweaty minutes later, they had the man draped across Maynard's back. Cilla patted the old horse, reminding herself to give him a big bucket of oats when they got home, and mounted. Lucy grabbed her horse and had just come up alongside Cilla when another gunshot rang out.
"Ride!" Cilla shouted. She couldn't see who was behind them, but she could guess.
Frank and his deputies had been roaming the borders of the ranch more and more frequently as of late. He said he was merely concerned for their well-being, with all the robberies that had been occurring over the past several months. But Cilla knew he suspected them. Not that he could prove anything.
Unless he caught them tonight — with an unconscious, battered man hanging over her saddle.
"Hell and damnation," she said, thankful her words were drowned out by the pounding of their horses' hooves. "We're in for it now."CHAPTER 2
Cilla and Lucy rode right into the wide open doors of the barn and jumped off their horses.
"Oh, Dios mio, what have you done now?" Miguel, the only ranch hand who hadn't deserted the sisters after their father's death, hurried over to the girls.
"It's not as bad as it looks," Cilla insisted.
Miguel tilted the man's face into the light of the lantern and peeled one of his eyes back before letting his head drop again. "Uh-huh. You better go get Carmen."
Cilla cringed. Miguel's wife was the housekeeper, nurse, cook, and overprotective mother hen of the ranch, and while she was dearly loved by all, she was a holy terror who even Frank tried not to cross.
"Frank's on his way, we don't have time for that right now. Just help me."
Cilla and Miguel dragged the man's body off her horse, doing their best to break his fall. He still hit the packed dirt of the barn with a thud. Cilla put her ear to his chest, thankful to hear his heart beating loud and strong. She stood and helped Miguel drag him into one of the stalls.
Miguel went to tend to the horses. Lucy stood beside Cilla with her hands on her hips, staring down at the stranger with a frown on her face.
"What do we do with him?"
Cilla shook her head. Damned if she knew. But they couldn't let Frank find him, that was for sure. She bent over and Lucy helped her get the man's coat off. His arm wasn't bad, thank goodness. Just a scratch. Cilla tore a strip of cloth from her shirt and bound the wound. Then she covered him with his coat and threw several armfuls of straw over him, covering him as much as possible. It was all she could do with Frank hot on their heels. She turned her back and prayed the man didn't snore ... and that Frank would stay out of the barn.
Miguel tossed a rag at Cilla. "There is blood on your saddle, but not much. See if you can get it off."
She grabbed a rag and wiped it as best she could. It would pass a quick inspection, she hoped.
"The horses are dripping wet and muddy," Lucy said.
"So are you," Miguel observed, taking the small leather pouch containing the night's haul from Cilla. "You let me deal with this. And the horses. Go take care of yourselves." He turned and ran down the length of the barn, gathering all the lanterns as he went.
Lucy laughed and grabbed the two that hung near the doors.
"Can't suspect what they can't see," Cilla said, smiling as she took the lanterns from Lucy so her sister could shut the barn doors.
They had just made it to the porch when the faint whinny of a horse sounded from behind the hill leading to their property. The front door flew open and Carmen yanked them inside, grabbing the lanterns from Cilla's grasp.
"Give me those! I'll deal with them. Quick, get into the parlor and off with your clothes!" Carmen managed to juggle the lanterns and still get Lucy's coat off. Cilla batted Carmen's hands away when she moved to grab hers. She hurriedly peeled it off and ducked into the parlor with Lucy.
Carmen hustled toward the kitchen, calling to them over her shoulder. "Your nightshirts are by the fire. Move!"
Cilla heard the door to the cellar being thrown open as she and Lucy yanked and peeled sodden clothing off their chilled bodies. A sound of splashing water came from the kitchen. A moment later their older sister Brynne came in, her hair wrapped in a towel with several wet tendrils escaping down her back.
She tossed a towel to each sister and gathered their soaked clothing. She glanced around the room for a place to hide them, but the sound of several horses riding into the courtyard seemed to spur her on.
"Quick! By the fire!" Brynne motioned to the hairbrush lying on the hearth and Cilla smiled, amazed by her sister's quick thinking.
With a look of triumph, Brynne lunged at the wood box and shoved the clothes inside. Cilla looked down to make sure she was decent and noticed a smear of blood on her hand. She scrubbed at it, removing some of it, but doing so left a red stain across the palm of her other hand.
There was a heavy-handed banging at the door. Cilla quickly ran her hand through her damp hair to remove the bit of blood left on her palm.
The fist hammered again. Lucy slid to the floor, making room for Brynne as she took her place at the hearth and started attacking Cilla's damp hair with the brush.
When Frank burst into the room, he found his three half-sisters, drying and brushing their hair by the fire, looking for all the world as though they had spent the evening grooming each other. His two bottom-feeders marched in after him. Cilla's squeal sounded almost as convincing as her sisters' as they grabbed at quilts to cover their nightclothes.
Carmen immediately bustled into the room. She marched right up to Frank, wagging her finger in his face and cursing at him in Spanish. If the situation hadn't been so dire, Cilla would have laughed as Frank stumbled back a few steps under the housekeeper's fury.
"Calm yourself, woman!" he shouted, his hands raised as if to show her he came in peace.
"Don't you 'woman' me, Frank Richardson. Your poor papa would turn over in his grave if he knew you were being so disrespectful to your sisters. Bursting into their house in the middle of the night with these ... these matones," she said, gesturing to the two goons who were wisely hovering near the door.
"Now, Carmen, I have every right to check on my sisters and make sure everyone is where they are supposed to be. These are dangerous times and —"
"They're only dangerous because of you!"
Frank's anger burned off whatever residual fear he had of Carmen. He glared at her. "Enough! You've said your peace. Now get out of my way."
"It's all right, Carmen. We'll be fine," Cilla assured her. "Why don't you go find Miguel?"
Carmen pushed passed Frank, spewing Spanish profanities as she went.
"What is the meaning of this, Frank? Get these men out of here, this instant!" Brynne glared at him.
Frank took in the scene, a million different emotions flitting across his pasty face. He nodded at his men and they trudged back out the door, slamming it behind them.
Cilla focused on her half-brother, waiting to see if he suspected anything. He might have been handsome once, with his dull copper-colored hair and deep brown eyes. The dance hall girls certainly seemed to like him. But all Cilla saw were the years of drinking that had sucked the life from his features. The angles of his face were too sharp. His eyes held the remnants of a miserable life, full of bitterness and cruelty instead of warmth.
Excerpted from A Bandit's Stolen Heart by Michelle McLean, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2013 Michelle McLean. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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