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Denver, Colorado, 1888.
Megan Goodwin had not intended to die today. But as she stared at the knife inches from her throat, she feared her plans were about to change.
Yet to face her end in a brothel, the same one where her mother had died five years before, was simply unacceptable.
Frozen in terror, she watched the knife's deadly point creep closer.
Megan prayed for courage to face the next few minutes. Oh, Lord. Oh, God, please help me.
She lifted the silent appeal to the God she'd counted on her whole life.
Where was Mattie? The madam had promised to return shortly. She'd left Megan here in the safety of her private boudoir, out of sight and hidden from Cole Kincaid.
He'd found her anyway.
Gritting her teeth, Megan forced her gaze to stay on his face, if only to prove to herself she still had some control of the situation.
He was big, just over six feet. His face was hideous, all flat planes, sallow skin and dark, dirty beard. He had small, black eyes. Mean eyes. The eyes of a killer. The
He yanked her head back with a hard tug, cutting off the rest of her thoughts. Small white dots of light burst in front of her eyes.
She'd done nothing to warrant this savage attack. Nothing, except put herself in the wrong place at the wrong time for what she thought was the right reason. The act of kindness might be her last.
Cole eased his grip from her hair and lowered the knife, shoving her back against the divan. "Let's have us some fun, shall we?" His voice had a soft note to it, as though he were suggesting they share a cup of tea.
The man was a monster.
Megan pulled her gaze from him and focused instead on the room that had been intentionally decorated for sin. Beneath the expensive silk and garish furnishings hung a decadence that spoke of the ugly work performed here.
So this was it, then? This chamber of wickedness was where she would die? No matter that she'd lived a pure life, no matter that she'd been raised in a Christian orphanage across town, she'd failed to escape her mother's vile world after all.
"Look at me," Cole snarled.
When she kept her gaze averted, he muttered a curse and clutched her jaw, forcing her head around. "Mattie shouldn't keep a pretty thing like you hidden from her paying customers."
The smell of whiskey and week-old sweat trailed in the wake of his words. He swayed, just a little, but enough to tell Megan he'd consumed quite a bit.
"I I'm not one of her girls."
He laughed at her, an easy sound full of heartless pleasure. "All the better. I like 'em innocent."
Panic clawed for release, but Megan refused to give in to the emotion. She pressed her eyes tightly shut.
She would think of Logan. Only Logan, the good, solid man she'd promised to love the rest of her life. He would be home soon, any day now. Then they would be married.
The thought brought sorrow, not peace. Megan should have never set foot in Mattie's brothel today. She'd only come to read to Suzanne, a young prostitute dying of the same disease that had claimed Megan's mother.
What had she been thinking? That she'd be safe simply because her motives were pure?
Well, it was too late for regrets, too late to scold herself for coming here at all. She'd thought her midafter-noon arrival would get her in and out before customers started arriving. Normally, she would have been right. Today, she'd woefully miscalculated and Cole Kin-caid had been here, a man known for his cruelty to women.
And now Megan was snared in his trap.
He placed his lips close to her ear. "I promise you one thing, my little beauty." He wrapped velvet around his words. "This will hurt."
Something dark inside Megan snapped at the threat.
Cold, ruthless rage took hold of her.
She forgot about the knife at her throat. Forgot about the menace in her attacker's eyes. And only focused on the black emotion spiraling through her.
Fury controlled her now. She allowed the power of it to spread, allowed her hands to act without permission from her brain. Slowly, resolutely, her palms snaked up her attacker's arms and latched onto his shoulders.
Cole grinned and lowered his head toward hers. His eyes were a bit unfocused, as though the whiskey had dulled his thinking.
Megan shoved him with all her might.
Unprepared for the attack, Cole staggered back a step. The knife dropped from his hand. It hit the floor with a loud crack. Roaring a curse at her, he caught his balance and lunged for her again.
This time, murder glittered in his eyes.
Everything Megan wanted in life flashed through her mind. Logan. Children. A home of her own. "No!" Using her nails as talons she rushed at the man. "No."
Trying to cover his face, he fumbled back a step. He began to fall but he grabbed her arm for support. They lurched backward, together, heading straight for the stone fireplace.
Megan fought to free herself, pulling her weight in the opposite direction. Another yank on her arm carried her straight into him.
Tangled together, they stumbled two steps back. Three. His head slammed against the mantle.
The hand on her arm went limp and he slid to the floor like a bundle of discarded rags.
Megan fell to the ground a second later, struggling for air. Now on her hands and knees, she blinked in horror at the man beside her. As quickly as they had come, all the dangerous emotions inside her disappeared. In the next instant, tears welled. Tears of frustration, of fear, of
Why wasn't he moving?
Hands shaking, Megan reached out. Attacking an innocent woman, indeed. She poked his cowardly shoulder.
He didn't respond, didn't budge.
Heart hammering in her throat, she glanced at the clock above her head, the one sitting on the center of the stone mantle. Megan was shocked to discover that no more than five minutes had passed since the outlaw had entered the parlor.
Feeling as though she was looking at him from a very far distance, she forced herself to study his face. His mouth hung open, slack at the jaw. And with each tick of the clock, he turned deathly pale.
Thou shalt not kill.
What if he was dead?
Thou shalt not kill.
What if he wasn't?
She had to know for sure.
For several heartbeats Megan watched him closely. His chest rose and fell in an unsteady rhythm. He was alive. But injured.
Megan tried to force up some regret, but she felt no remorse. Cole had attacked her. Given a few more minutes he'd have forced himself on her. Or worse yet, killed her.
Bile rose in her throat. Covering her mouth, she rushed into the bathroom. At the same moment, the door in the outer room opened and closed with a bang. She heard a man's voice.
The sound brought with it a terrible thought. Men like Cole Kincaid ran in packs. Had one of his gang come to check on him?
No. No one could know he was here. He'd slipped out of one of the upstairs rooms when he'd seen the owner of the brothel rushing Megan down the back stairwell. He'd told her that himself, right before he'd pulled the knife.
Then who could be sneaking into the madam's private parlor?
Megan took a tentative step toward the door and listened. She heard a muffled, "Get on your feet, Kincaid. Now."
A nasty oath came in response to the demand.
"I said get up. I want you standing when you face the devil."
Megan couldn't identify the newcomer's next words, precisely, yet the husky baritone sparked a feeling of relief. She knew that voice, knew it well.
What was he doing here tonight, in Mattie's brothel, at this hour?
Bewildered, she edged forward and peered into the parlor. The man's back was to her so she couldn't see his face. But she recognized that powerful build. Except.
The way he held his shoulders wasn't quite right.
Her thoughts knotted together in her mind, blurring like a distant dream just out of reach.
The man suddenly turned to face her. Their gazes met for only a brief moment before Megan's vision grayed, darkened. And then her world went black.
Winter clung to the damp March air, refusing to relinquish its frigid grip on Denver. In an attempt to calm his raging emotions, U.S. Marshal Logan Mitchell filled his lungs with the biting cold. Eyes narrowed, temper hot, his thoughts pinpointed to one impossible reality.
Megan had been arrested. His Megan.
The churning in his gut formed into a tight, angry spasm. He could easily allow the dark emotion to take hold, but that would unleash a part of him he'd held tightly controlled since childhood.
Rubbing at the tension at the back of his neck, Logan studied the unassuming brick building directly across the street. He didn't need perfect vision to read the words embossed on the plaque nailed to the door. Sheriff's Office and Jailhouse.
This had to be a mistake. His future wife should not be locked up. She should be back at Charity House, the orphanage where she lived and worked, helping settle the younger children into bed for the night.
Logan lifted his eyes to the dark heavens, tried to formulate a prayer, but words escaped him. How did he turn to God for guidance when he had yet to discover what Megan had done, or why Trey Scott had locked her up like a common criminal?
No one at Charity House had given him a direct answer as to Megan's whereabouts this evening. Instead, they'd given him some cryptic explanation about her reading to a sick woman living in Mattie Silks's brothel. Mattie Silks's brothel!
When Logan had questioned the ornery madam, she'd been the difficult, condescending woman he remembered all too well. She'd circled him like a rat sizing up a meaty piece of garbage, all the while talking to him in half sentences and irrelevant facts.
But Logan had been on to her game of distraction. He hadn't missed her covert glances toward the back of the house, where her private suite of rooms was located. The woman had been hiding something. Or someone. Only when he'd started toward her boudoir did she direct him to the county jail. The county jail!
He sucked in another hard breath. The dark, damp air magnified the stench of stale liquor, cloying perfume and the polluted smells of Denver's underbelly.
Nothing had changed on Market Street in the last five years. One glance at the bustling sidewalks told him that gambling, prostitution and saloons still flourished. Men of various sizes and economic situations spilled out of buildings only to stumble into others. Some moved in packs, others sought their pleasure alone. Raucous music mingled with shouts, cursing and laughter.
Bringing order and redemption to these streets would not come easy or fast. Logan would attempt to do so anyway.
But first, he had to free Megan.
Jamming his hat onto his head, he trekked across the planked sidewalk and wove through the labyrinth of activity on the street.
The moment he entered the jailhouse his heart beat a single, heavy kick against his ribs. The room held little light and the air shimmered with a cold, gray foreboding. Closing the door with a firm click, Logan forced his vision to adjust. He dropped a cursory glance at the desk cluttered with piles of forgotten reports before focusing his attention on the lone occupant in the middle cell.
With a fierce mental shake, he slammed shut the part of him that wanted to beat down the bars between them. He willed her to look at him but she didn't acknowledge his presence.
She appeared lost in thought, so small, so fragile. So alone. Guilt pushed at him, mocking his attempt to think rationally. He'd waited five years to ask this woman to become his wife. He'd remained loyal to her in the face of every temptation San Francisco had to offer, and he'd done it without an ounce of regret.
Until now. Now, as he stared at Megan's bent head, he knew nothing but regret. Regret that he'd put off coming home for too long.
For one brief moment, he savored the soft lines of her shoulders, the elegant tilt of her head and the wheat-colored curls spilling down her back. She held her shoulders stiff as she twisted her hands in her lap, rubbing them over one another again and again and again.
He'd seen her like this only one time before. The day Pastor Beau had told her of her mother's death. Logan had fought the urge to steal her away back then, to rescue her from her grief.
She'd been too young at the time. That's what they'd said. Pastor Beau and her guardian, Marc Dupree, had insisted Logan step back and assess the situation like a man and not a "boy in love." When he hadn't backed off, Marc had threatened him, resorting to brute force to make his point. In the end, Logan had relented. For Megan's sake, he'd allowed the others to sway his better judgment.
Now a row of impenetrable iron bars stood between him and the woman he loved.
Logan balled his shooting hand into a tight fist. The urge to hit something, or someone, came fast, but he reminded himself he'd taken a different path than his brother. Still, a low growl of frustration rumbled deep in his throat.
At the sound, Megan looked up and slowly turned her head.
Their gazes melded.
Logan's heart pummeled his rib cage. The brutal assault made each intake of air a struggle.
Lost in her eyes, a compelling tapestry of silver over blue, he experienced a deep sensation of completion. The emotion was so simple, so pure he wondered how he'd been able to walk away before.
Well, he was home now.