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Colorado Territory, 1870
I'll stand before God before I lie under Maxwell Sumner!
The silent vow echoed in Rachell Carlson's mind as she pulled the sheet tightly around her cold body, her narrowed eyes boring into the locked bedroom door. The stench of smoke and alcohol filtered up through the floorboards, along with the roar of a drunken crowd and the clanking of a poorly tuned piano.
If Maxwell's henchmen thought taking her dress would keep her from running, they were in for a surprise. She'd ride out of this old mining town stark naked if she had to. She wouldn't return to Missouri or to the man determined to make her his bride.
She turned and walked to the other side of the small room. Securing the bed linen around her chest, she shoved at the high window, and cringed with each creak of wood. The damp night air swirled inside. Chills rippled across her skin as the evening breeze tugged at her loose hair.
Outside, a full moon glowed ten times brighter than the oil lamp on the night table behind her, lighting up the deserted alley below. She pulled the sheet over her shoulders to shut out the cold as she surveyed the steep awning stretched across the back of the saloon. It was a good twenty-foot drop to the ground.
Using both bed linens, she might be able to reach the alley. Anticipation bubbling, she crept back to the door and pressed her ear to the wood. Holding her breath, she listened for signs of Maxwell's son or one of his ruffians standing guard. The past six days of being dragged from Nevada to Colorado by the three heathens had been a living hell. It had taken months to squirrel away enough money for that train ticket to California, only to be pulled off the train in Lake's Crossing.
I should have married an English lord when I had the chance. The gruesome matchmaking efforts of Miss Abigail's Academy for Young Ladies had been a paradise compared to the rambling life she'd endured over the last five years. She'd been singing in saloons for so long, using so many stage names, she hardly recognized her own. California held the promise of a new start, and a life which included her sister.
Rachell sucked in a quivering breath. "Lord, give me strength." The whispered words no sooner left her lips than a man's hand clamped over her mouth. Her startled gasp was trapped behind the warm, calloused palm. The man's other arm banded her waist and lifted her bare feet off the floor. He silently backed toward the open windowthe window he must have just come in through.
She tried to jab her elbows into his sides, but his firm hold prevented even the slightest movement.
"Don't be afraid," he whispered against her ear. "I'm here to help you."
Don't be afraid? The man had just crept up on her like a warm fog. The heat of his body easily penetrated the thin bed sheet.
His grip on her waist shifted, spinning her around while he kept one hand over her mouth.
Hard silver eyes locked with hers. Fear shivered through Rachell as she looked at the man towering over her. Dark stubble shadowed his strong jaw. "You are Rachell Carlson, aren't you?" His eyes narrowed with growing skepticism.
His hand still latched over her mouth, she did her best to nod.
"I'm going to release you, but I'm warning you, if you scream, we'll both likely end up with a bullet in our bellies."
His fingers eased away from her lips. "I'm Rachell Carlson," she wheezed, her lungs straining for a full breath.
"Uh-huh," he said, the deep rumble of his voice barely above a whisper. "Then you'll know who sent me here to fetch you."
"What's your sister's name?"
"Coleburn," she replied without hesitation.
The stranger cursed under his breath, filling her nose with an unexpected sweet scent. Apples. Before she could question his response, he took a step back and jerked the sheet away from her body with one swift tug. "Let's getholy..."
Rachell lunged forward and yanked the linen from his grasp. "They took my clothes," she choked out, quickly covering herself.
"I see that." He stared at the bed linen as though trying to penetrate the white barrier.
Rachell assured herself the dim lighting of the bedroom had concealed her brief nudity, but when he continued to stand there, stiff as a board, her skin began to sizzle with embarrassment. Spiteful women were always quick to comment on her scrawny frame. "Mr., um?"
The single spoken syllable fell from his lips with the weight of a boulder. His eyes moved slowly up to her face. Another shudder claimed her body. She didn't know if it was the lamplight reflected in the pale shade of gray or the intensity of his gaze, but his eyes held her captive, preventing her from even drawing breath. She lowered her gaze and another chill seized her spine.
The man could have been a shadow, a very large and masculine shadow. His shoulder-length hair was as black as the hat pulled low on his brow and the clothes clinging to his muscular frame. Only his piercing eyes and knee-high moccasins contrasted with his dark appearance. Every hard line of his body spoke of danger.
"Mr. Jed, what are"
"It's just Jed. Which one of the jackals downstairs put all those bruises on you?"
"Stewart Sumner," she said, cinching her sheet a bit tighter. Stewart had more on his mind than taking her dress tonight. Thank goodness she'd convinced him she wasn't worth the trouble. "He tried toh-he tried."
Jed Doulan felt an odd tug in his chest as he watched the petite woman tremble while tripping over her words. His body tensed, stifling an urge to pull the young auburn-haired beauty into a comforting embrace.
"I understand," he cut in.
he'd seen the filthy lecher carrying a pile of scarlet silks and ruffles out of this room when he entered the saloon. he'd heard Sumner's lewd comments when he'd joined his cronies at a poker table. Judging by the four bloody scratch marks on Sumner's left cheek, she'd put up quite a fight during the removal of her dress. But, hell, he hadn't expected her to be buck naked. Damn if he hadn't seen a boot-print on her slender hip.
Anger lashed through him. No woman deserved such treatment. Jed's gaze returned to her large green eyes. Relief had replaced the fear he'd first seen in them.
Jed felt no such relief. The nagging tension in his back told him he had just stepped into a hornet's nest of trouble, and this was the first of many stings to come. At first glance, he would have sworn he'd tracked down the wrong red-haired woman. This little temptress certainly didn't look to be the widowed boardinghouse keeper he'd come to retrieve.
Buck's wife was a short redhead in her early forties and had said her sister was younger, but this woman didn't look a day over twenty.
"How old are you?, he demanded.
Emerald eyes widened. "Pardon?"
"Your age," he demanded in a low tone. "I'll be damned if I'm gonna haul the wrong woman clear to California."
Her posture stiffened. "I'm twenty-three."
"And what was the name of that boardinghouse you told your sister you ran in Kansas?, He and Buck had peeked inside the carpetbag they'd found on the train. Only one type of boardinghouse had a hostess who wore such scanty red dresses.
Her eyes narrowed until they were slits of green.
Lord save me, she's gonna be a feisty one. "I am Elizabeth Coleburn's sister!" she all but shouted. "Lower your voice, you fire-haired imp, unless you plan on walking out of here alone."
Her expression instantly clouded with worry. She tightened her hold on the sheet and took a step toward the window.
She was in a tangle, all right. Clear up to her pretty green eyes. He aimed to find out why. Again, his gaze inadvertently moved across the white linen.
Hell's fire. The impression of her smooth rosy skin had been burned into his mind. he'd never seen a woman blush clear to her toes. Damn if it hadn't been a beautiful sight.
"I'm gonna get you out of here," he assured her. "But you'll have to do exactly as I say. For starters, tie that blasted sheet around you so it won't be falling off."
She did as he said, tying it tightly around the gentle swell of her chest. "Mr. Jed"
She reared back, clutching the linen as he stepped forward. Jed stopped. "My name is Jed, and I won't harm you, Rachell."
"You believe me then?"
Aside from being too young and too damn attractive, she'd given him the one answer that mattered. She was Buck's sister-in-law. As such, he'd do anything necessary to protect her.
Damnation, but he had thought his days of bloodshed were over. "Yes, I believe you. The man downstairs with the cat scratches, he's the one who's after you?"
She shook her head.
Why wasn't he surprised? "Who's after you?, "His father, Maxwell Sumner. I worked for him in Missouri."
Oh, now she's from Missouri instead of Kansas. "Hold on to that sheet."
"Hush," he ordered, lifting her into his arms.
She trembled against him. Jed's muscles tightened in an unexpected lash of desire.
What the hell is wrong with me? I've seen more curves on a fence post!
The internal blaspheme did nothing to ease the heated stir of his body.
"you'll have to hold on to me." He lifted his foot to the rim of the window. Her body went rigid as his knee moved between her thighs. He wrapped her stiff arms around his neck then let go of her entirely, forcing her to cling to him. He pulled them up and through the open window. A low groan escaped his throat as she coiled her legs around his waist and pressed her face against his neck.
Buck, you're gonna owe me dearly for this one. Stepping out onto the slanted awning, he banded his arms around Rachell's shivering body and concentrated on keeping his balance. He took broad steps, trusting only the wide-spaced beams to support his weight. Wood creaked beneath his feet with each slow advance.
Delilah ain't gonna like this, he thought as he reached for the open window emitting a red glow and the heavy scent of perfume and smoke. The saloon owner had just harped on at him about men like the four downstairs and how they were ruining her business by bringing in their own girls. She'd been irate when he told her he planned to rescue the red-haired strumpet.
But he couldn't ride off with Rachell wearing nothing but a sheet. He also needed to flush out the source of Rachell's trouble. Stewart Sumner wasn't likely to greet him in a diplomatic fashion.
The moment his feet touched the floor of Delilah's room, Jed set her trembling body away from him.
"What in tarnation?, Delilah cried out.
Rachell stiffened. Her wide eyes locked on Delilah still lying on her bed, cheroot in hand.
"Keep your voice down," Jed grumbled.
"You weren't worried about me makin' noise just a bit ago." Delilah rose from the bed and flicked blond hair over her bare shoulder. Glaring at Rachell, she thrust out her bosom which swelled from her well-fitted corset.
Jed bit back a smile. It had been a long time since his wild weekends with this particular woman. he'd been damn lucky when he'd spotted her tonight in this saloon, but he didn't dispute Delilah's bluff.
"Why'd you bring her in here?, she demanded.
"She needs a dress."
"So go buy her one!"
She took a leisurely drag from her smoke, and scanned Rachell from head to toe. "It'll cost you, and I ain't givin" up none of my nice silks."
"Give her a damn shift for all I care, just so she's not stark naked."
"Begging your pardon, Miss Delilah," Rachell cut in. "If it wouldn't be too much trouble, I would prefer a dress. Any dress."
Jed was stunned by Rachell's steady tone and charming smile as she held Delilah's hostile gaze. Damn if the woman didn't manage to look dignified, standing there in nothing but a sheet, her long hair a wild mess of tangles.
"Ain't got nothin" that'll fit ya," Delilah retorted. "Can't imagine you draw much business. You got the build of a ten-year-old boy."
The color already staining Rachell's cheeks heightened. She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. "I've not been blessed with your splendid figure," she said softly, shocking Jed to his core. "I noticed your gown of lavender silk when I was brought in." She smiled prettily. "A stunning gown, and quite flattering."