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Northern California 1882
His shoulder ached where the bullet had gone through almost two weeks ago. Bodine cursed silently, leaning heavily against the livery wall and keeping his eyes trained on the Silver Lady Saloon. He rubbed the sore spot some, but bitter cold nights had a way of settling into the injury. After ten solid days he still felt the sting. And not just from the gunshot, but also from his brother being killed by Rusty Metcalf, the bounty he'd been dogging for the past two months. The murdering outlaw knew Bodine was after him. Rusty had come upon Bodine's twin, Josh, mistaken him for Bodine, and shot Josh in cold blood right in front of a mercantile. Now because of a bum shoulder still healing, Bodine couldn't chase Metcalf no matter how badly he wanted revenge. Plus, there was the matter of a favor owed. He was stuck chasing down the granddaughter of Mrs. Eloisa Rourke, the wealthiest woman in the Northern California territory.
It seemed that young Emma Marie Rourke had run away from home. The girl was on a mission to find her pa, an outlaw at that. Until she'd exhausted all of her options, no amount of persuading her home would do.
Eloisa Rourke's words vibrated in Bodine's ears like thundering hooves over a quiet prairie. "She's to be married in six weeks. I want her back safe. Unharmed and untouched."
She'd put the emphasis on the last part and Bodine got her message real clear. He'd yet to see the girl up close, but judging from the tintype he'd been given and the enormous oil rendering on Mrs. Rourke's parlor wall, Bodine figured she'd be no such temptation.
A refusal had lain like soured milk on his tongue, waiting to be spit out. But Mrs. Rourke's offer of one thousand dollars, plus expenses incurred, wasn't something Bodine could turn down. The money would go a long way in helping him settle down with Josh's widow and new baby. Plus his injury had put him out of commission for a time. He couldn't chase down a wicked outlaw like Metcalf until he fully healed.
He shivered as much from the thought of settling down with any one woman, much less a ready-made family. But he'd promised. Bodine had never backed out of a promise, especially not one he'd made to the brother who'd taken a bullet meant for him. He'd spoken a solemn vow to Josh the day he took his last breath. Now he was honor-bound to marry his brother's widow and raise his child. "Hell," he muttered, rubbing his shoulder again while he watched the saloon. He'd tracked Emma Rourke to River Junction, fifty miles north of Fresno, three days ago, watching her from a distance as she moved through town. She'd venture from her hotel late in the day to enter the saloon, keeping her woolen coat collar up high on her face to block the cold. That helped her conceal her identity, as well.
Miss Emma Marie Rourke had been serving drinks these past few days. Bodine had trouble figuring that, since the young heiress stood to inherit the Rourke money one day. The wisp of a girl had no damn business traipsing through strange towns on her own, much less providing whiskey to thirsty cowboys on cold winter nights.
He puffed on his cheroot and hunkered down into his slicker, perturbed by his run of bad luck lately.
November winds kicked up mightily and Bodine lifted his collar. Muttering an oath, he tossed his cheroot and within a second, the icy ground had extinguished the flame. He watched and continued to wait as the saloon emptied out.
It was after midnight. No stars lit the sky and the biting chill in the air froze whatever body parts he hadn't covered. When Emma didn't come out, Bodine crossed the street.
He didn't like it. He didn't trust Red Hurley, the owner of the Silver Lady. Bodine could tell he was as mean as they came. But he'd watched and waited for a good part of the week and, up until now, nothing seemed amiss with Emma.
Bodine stood just outside the Silver Lady, opening the door an inch, listening.
"Mr. Hurley," Emma said with strained patience, the rich, smooth sound in her voice hardly matching the young willow of a girl he'd been shadowing all week.
"We made a bargain this week. I expect you to honor it."
"You made a decent wage in tips, girlie. Now get out. I'm closing up."
"No?" Red's voice rose mightily.
"Not until you pay me what you owe me. My wages and time on your stage! You said if I worked here, by the end of the week I'd get"
"You lied?" Now Emma's voice pitched.
"Yeah, and there ain't much you can do about it."
"I could go to the sheriff!"
"You mean, the drunk that owes me two hundred dollars in whiskey?"
"You're lying," she said. "Once a liar, always"
"Go see him. In fact, I insist. Go knock on Sheriff Proctor's door and see how far you get. Now, get outta my place. I'm tired."
Bodine peered through the door just as Hurley gave Emma a shove, nearly knocking her off her feet. He gritted his teeth. This wasn't going well. And the fool girl wasn't backing down.
"You scoundrel! All I wanted was a chance up on your stage. And you promised me if I"
Hurley nudged her again, harder, scouring her slender body with mocking eyes. "You ain't got what it takes, girlie. A scrawny thing like you! You'd most likely drive the men back to the range. Now, are you getting out, or am I tossing you?"
"I'm not leaving without my pay," the girl brazened, then walked over to the cash box and grabbed a handful of bills, stuffing them into the front of her dress.
Hurley's red face heated even more. He whipped around, grabbed her shoulders and began shaking her. "No fool little hussy is going to rob me!"
"Let me go!"
Bodine had seen enough. He drew in a deep breath and stormed inside just as Emma shook Hurley loose, reached for a whiskey bottle on the bar and brought it crashing down onto his head.
Glass broke and splintered in all directions. Hurley's body went limp. Blood spurted from his forehead and, dazed, he leaned unsteadily against the bar.
Emma's face paled. She stood frozen on the spot and watched with a horrified expression as Hurley's legs caved and he slithered down against the bar, onto the floor.
"Damn it!" Bodine's loud oath startled Emma. She turned to face him with a look of complete bewilderment, her eyes round and dark and so rare. Bodine didn't waste another second admiring the girl's oddly unique face. He knew he had to move fast. Once Hurley woke up, he'd come after her, with his men if necessary.
He grabbed her coat lying on the table, reached for her hand and tugged her out of the saloon.
"What are you doing?" she asked, trying to pull free of his grasp. "Lady, you're in a world of trouble. I'm getting you out of here!"
"I don't know you!"
She tried yanking her hand from his again, but Bo-dine only tightened his grip. He kept his pace swift as he crossed over the street and headed to the livery.
"Well, that tells me a lot."
"Being that you're such a fine judge of character," he said, entering the livery and releasing her, "maybe I should just leave you here. To face Hurley."
She stopped to gaze up at him. "Or the sheriff?"
Through the dim lantern light, Bodine once again noticed her eyes, the wide almond shape of them remarkable on her young fear-filled face. Beautiful, he thought quickly, before stowing that thought away and heading toward the paddock. "Hurley's as mean as they come. If you don't get out of town, you'll pay the price.You heard what he said about the sheriff. That was no lie."
"But why are you helping me?"
Bodine found his saddle and spoke softly to his mare, then he tossed it over her back and began adjusting the straps. "Let's just say I don't take kindly to any man-handling of women." That much was true. He thought back to his youth and the abuse his mother had taken at the hands of his stepfather. Wasn't long after her death, he and his brother Josh ran off to join the army. "Now, I'm heading up San Francisco way. If that suits you, fine. If not, I'll leave you here."
Bodine had used that as an enticement. He recalled Mrs. Rourke telling him that her granddaughter would most likely head toward San Francisco.
Even through the faint light, he saw a quick spark in her eyes at the mention of the city to the north. She didn't hesitate. "I'll need my things from the hotel."
He shook his head. "There's no time for that. If you didn't hit Hurley hard enough to keep him down, he'll come looking for you straight away. If you did, then you might have killed him. Either way, you're in trouble. If you come with me, it's with the clothes on your back."
She bit her lip, glancing at the front of the livery door then back at him. "I came by stage. I don't have a horse."
Bodine tossed her the coat. "Put it on." Then he mounted his mare. "You'll ride with me."
Emma rode low, her body leaning forward, the saddle horn poking her belly through her wool coat. When she thought the stranger would put her behind him in the saddle, he'd grunted something about her staying warmer up front. She couldn't deny, with his arms wrapped around her and his big body pressed to hers, she might have been a bit warmer, if the wind wasn't so darn blistering and the night air so bitterly cold. As it was, she shook from it and the notion that she'd nearly bludgeoned a man to death with a whiskey bottle. Bodine, her savior or her captor, she hadn't yet decided which he was, seemed to believe that Mr. Hurley would survive.
And he'd come after her.
A bone-chilling shiver ran down the length of her. She'd let her temper get in the way tonight. And now she was paying dearly. But she'd gotten her just rewards, the money she'd taken from the cash box for honest wages earned.
The horse Bodine called Lola galloped along rapidly, unmindful of the inclement weather. Droplets of rain drizzled in a light mist and she heard Bodine curse.
She'd lived through winters in the central part of California for all of her life, but since she'd ventured north she noted the air was cooler, the nights colder and she imagined that as they got closer to San Francisco the weather would become more dismal.
Soon the drizzle became real rain, soaking her hair and clothes. Thoughts of her warm bed, thick quilts and a fire burning in the hearth filtered in, but Emma refused them any credence. She'd planned her escape, not so much from her Gram Eloisawhom she loved dearlybut from everything else in her life. Stifled, caged, but trained to be a proper lady, Emma couldn't live another day on the Rourke estate, and she certainly couldn't marry Grant Harper. He was her friend and had been since childhood. Her feelings for him were of the brotherly kind.
"Where are we going?" she asked, turning her head slightly to look up at the chiseled jaw of the stranger.
"Far away from River Junction," he said, before shoving her head back down and leaning forward, shielding her from the weather. Or maybe it was his way of keeping her from asking too many questions.
For one instant, Emma knew a moment of panic, wondering if this was all a ruse and this dark-haired, whiskered giant of a man was really kidnapping her. The Rourke name was associated with wealth, and Emma was heiress to a fortune. But none of that mattered much to her. She knew, in her heart, she wasn't cut out for a life filled with social gatherings and charity events. She hadn't set her hopes on finding herself a man to tie her down and raise children, like some of her friends.
Emma had never wanted that for herself.
Like her mother before her, Emma had a gift. The Lord Almighty had given her a voice that could soothe the weary, lift a saddened spirit and tempt the devil himself. Emma wanted to perform and share her talent with the world. Captain Miles Rourke, her grandfather, had prohibited her mother from ever leaving home to pursue her dreams and, as a result, Miss Elena Rourke had taken up with an outlaw. That outlaw, Emma recently found out, had been her father.
Three years after her mother's death, Emma had accidentally found the letters written to her mother from Jake Trundy. He was alive and had penned letters to her for years afterwardfrom prison. In them, he spoke of heading up north when he was released, perhaps to San Francisco, where he planned on making a new life for himself.
Emma had always been told her father had died in a tragic milling accident before she was born. Her mother and grandparents had kept the secret and had lied to her for years.
Now, at nineteen, Emma needed to find the man who had given her life, if even just to look him in the eyes and hear his voice. Just once.
But her grandmother had warned her that her father was probably still a hardened criminal, that people don't often change their nature. Emma had to know, to find out for herself. Except for her grandmother, Jake Trundy was her only other living relation. And he was her father, after all. Emma always figured her Gram would understand her need to find him. She figured her Gram would have done the same, the two of them being so very much alike.
"I had a wild streak in me, Emma," she'd say. "And only your grandpa succeeded in taming me." Emma closed her eyes for a moment, missing her Gram and glad that she'd decided to write her the note explaining why she had to leave. Emma had promised to return one day, once she'd done what she'd set out to do.
She had dreams of her own.
The second the rain had simmered some, she lifted her head again and asked the question that had been plaguing her as they trekked north of River Junction. "Why are you helping me, Mr. Bodine?"
"Name's Bodine. There's no mister involved."
This time he didn't shove her head back down, but stared into her eyes for a long moment as if trying to puzzle something out. She stared back, the best she could from her position on the saddle. They were almost nose-to-nose, her head angled up and she felt him, his commanding presence and his impatience, all of it in their locked gazes. "Are you going to tell me?"
He grunted something about her talking too much and turned away to glance out at the land before them.