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New Mexico Territory, 1880
Skylar Daines reined her Arabian stallion beside her younger brother and surveyed the ragged, canvas-topped structures wavering in the desert heat like an ugly mirage. As long as Chance Morgan was in the area, she didn't care if the town of Black Dog was a row of outhouses.
Unfortunately, it didn't appear far off from being just that. Fear spiraled up from the pit of her stomach, sending a wave of shivers across her skin as she scanned the parallel cluster of makeshift buildings surrounded by miles of dry dirt, sand and sage. For such a small watering hole, a fair number of horses stood along the short strip of dirt, with more staked and hobbled on open ground.
"Sis, you sure that's Black Dog? It don't look like no place to find someone trustworthy."
Straining for an encouraging smile, she met Garret's gaze. "This is it," she said in a steady tone, suddenly wishing her father's maps weren't so accurate. "Let's see if anyone has heard of Chance Morgan."
Garret's hazel eyes narrowed, his features hardened, re-minding Skylar of all the violence he'd been exposed to in his tender thirteen years.
"I don't like it, Sky." He shook his head, making no move to urge his horse forward.
She didn't blame him. But they hadn't come this far to fail. Her father's last words had been to take Garret and the deed for their land in Wyoming to Black Dog and find Chance Morgan, her father's business partner. They'd just spent a month travel-ing across a land as unforgiving as life itself. There'd been no time to ponder the grief weighing on her soul. Her guilt, on the other hand, hung around her neck like an iron yoke.
She wouldn't fail Garret. She would get him safely to Wyoming. They'd reclaim their mustangs and have the home their father had promised them.
Fighting the tremble in her hands and an exhaustion she felt to the center of her bones, she reached over and tugged on the brim of Garret's tan hat. "There's no going back, little brother, and nothin' to go back to. Pa said to find Morgan and that's what we're gonna do. We can't make it clear to Wyoming without provisions. Pull out your rifle if it'll make you feel better."
Garret nodded and draped his long gun across his lap. Praying there wouldn't be any call for gunfire, she urged her black stallion forward, conscious of the sun beginning to sag in the western sky.
As she rode down the center strip of Black Dog, lively piano music carried into the street from a building occupying nearly the whole right side of town. The name Big Jack's Saloon was whitewashed across its wood front. With not a soul in sight and every other establishment appearing deserted, she imagined Big Jack wasn't low on customers.
Skylar dismounted and led her horse toward a hitching rail outside the saloon. A handsome red mare with light spots on its hindquarters was tethered a few feet away. Shifting her gaze from the large Appaloosa, she glanced at a set of double swinging doors. She'd never been inside such an establishment. "Appaloosa," said Garret. "Pretty one, too. At least we know Morgan has an eye for fine horseflesh."
Skylar glanced up at her little brother as he reined his chestnut Arabian in beside her. "Why do you say that?"
"His name's on his saddle," answered Garret, still admiring the well-groomed mare.
Her eyes darted toward the horse's tack. Bold as daylight, the letters M-O-R-G-A-N were pressed into the leather. "Well, knock me over with a feather."
"If you're as beat as I am, I probably could," Garret retorted.
"Wait here. I won't be but a few minutes." Clutching his gun in one hand, Garret jumped from his saddle and grabbed her by the arm as she turned toward the saloon. "Sky, you can't go in there.Yer wearin'a dress! I'll go in and get Morgan."
She shook his hand away from her elbow. Garret and her father had been reluctant to accept the fact, but at nineteen, there was no hiding that she was a woman, no matter what she wore. At the moment, she imagined her appearance was nothing short of obscene. The threadbare dress she'd found in her father's saddlebags was made for a woman half her size. She'd never realized her mother had been such a dainty woman. The buttons strained between Skylar's breasts were dangerously close to popping off. The blue calico skirt barely reached the top rim of her boots.
Her only shirt and pair of denims were so filthy, she hadn't had much choice but to wear the dress. Her dusty, windblown hair hung just above her shoulders like dried grass.
"You're staying here," she said to Garret. "Mount up."
"I'm going in with you."
"The Arabians are all we have left. You're going to watch them while I talk to Morgan."
"I'm not about to let you"
"Garret, you'd get tossed out of that saloon before you stepped two feet past the door. Now do as I said."
Garret's frown deepened. His anger-filled gaze bore into her for a lingering moment. "I don't like it," he grumbled as he turned and mounted his horse. He tugged his hat low on his brow then rested the barrel of his gun in the crook of his arm. "Shout if you need me."
Skylar started toward the music and clamor, wishing for once that Garret could have been her big brother. You can do this, she soothed, reminding herself of how far they'd already come. No smelly herd of liquored-up cowboys was going to keep her from fulfilling her father's promise.
Stepping through the double swinging doors, she was greeted by the familiar stench of tobacco, whiskey and horse. The scent of cowpunchers. The scent of home for the past eight years. She frowned at the thought.
That's all about to change. She glanced around the crowded, smoke-filled room. Seemed half the population of New Mexico Territory was in Big Jack's. The place was packed with cowboys and fancy women in colorful silken gowns. She'd never seen so many vibrant colors.
She walked deeper into the crowd of festive men and women, scanning the faces of men seated at the many round tables, and others as they moved between them. Chance Morgan had worked her father's cattle drives for a couple years, but she hadn't seen him for over three years. She imagined he'd still look the same. Tall, blond and handsome, with chilling green eyes.
Hearing an uproar of voices and the name "Morgan" shouted amongst them, Skylar peered through a cluster of men and saw the tall, blond and handsome man responsible for the ruckus.
Morgan sat at the back table. His laughter filled the air as he leaned forward, wrapping his arms around the pile of money at the center of the table. She followed the crowd of folks gathering around him.
"You gonna use it, Tuck?" someone shouted as Skylar squeezed between two large bodies.
"Fifty dollars says he won't," said the slender man sitting opposite Morgan. He reached across the table and pulled a paper from Morgan's pile of coins.
"Hell, yes, I'll use it," Morgan answered as he snatched the paper from his hand and tossed it onto his winnings. "Just as soon as a blue-eyed angel floats down from heaven and calls my name."
Skylar stepped beside his chair as gruff laughter roared around her. "Mr. Morgan?"
The man glanced over his shoulder. His emerald-green eyes grew wide. "Merciful heaven. Hello, angel," he said in a low, velvety voice. "You are a beauty."
This was Morgan all right, and he'd obviously been drinking. Her appearance was anything but pleasant. "Mr. Morgan"tensed as he scanned her from head to toe before his gaze slowly traveled back up. Hypnotic eyes held her gaze as the corner of his mouth kicked up in a cocky grin.
Dear God, why couldn't she breathe?
His eyes were the same brilliant shade of green as Chance Morgan's, his hair the same pale blond, and damn if he didn't have Chance Morgan's handsome face. But every tingling cell One of the men had called him by another name. Perhaps Chance had a twin.
"A deal's a deal," he murmured. His lips stretched into a full smile, revealing strong white teeth and enough charm to sweet-talk the spines off a prickly cactus. His arm shot out and hauled her against his side as he shouted, "Boys, my angel just arrived!"
He's drunk, all right. "Mr. Morgan, I" "Hang on, angel," said the green-eyed stranger, his muscular arm easily suppressing her struggle to move away from his side as he turned back toward the table of men. "I believe the bet's fifty dollars. Ante up, gentlemen!"
Three men seated at the table fumbled hastily through their vest and trouser pockets. A few more men standing behind them tossed their money into the center of the round table.
"By God, he's gonna do it," one shouted.
"I don't believe it," said another.
An older man dressed all in black stood up from the table.
"You gotta sign the document, Tuck," he said, flattening out the paper. "It ain't no good unless you sign it."
Tucker reached over and signed his name. The older man beamed a smile at Skylar, then laved his tongue across the palm of his hand and swiped it across the top of his head, slicking back a few strands of dark hair. He straightened his posture, tugging on the sides of his black coat. "Now the lady," he instructed.
"Mr. Morgan," Skylar said again, looking away from the odd man dressed in black. "I really need to speak with you. I believe we're traveling with you to Wyoming and"
"That's the plan, angel girl," he said, giving her a wink as he placed the pen in her hand and wrapped her fingers around it. "It's all arranged. Just sign your angelic name onto that paper and we'll be set. Angels do have names, don't they?"
He beamed another smile, and Skylar felt a tad dizzy. His arm clamped around her shoulders was all that kept her from swaying. "Sign the paper?" she asked in confusion. She glanced down at the table. "W-why do I"
"No time for questions, angel. Are we goin' to Wyoming or not?"
"Then sign the document, sweetheart."
"The contract?" she asked as he guided her hand toward the bottom of the paper. She and her father had discussed the contract for driving the horses in exchange for provisions. She no longer had her mustangs, but she had to get to Wyoming if she intended to reclaim them. She blinked and tried to focus her tired eyes on the words. Morgan's breath rustled her hair as his hand slipped from her shoulder and slid across the flat of her stomach.A burst of tingling shivers raced across her skin. "Uh-huh." His voice vibrated against her ear. The hard
Damnation. Her bones were turning to jelly! Desperate to escape the situation, Skylar quickly scribed her name beside the name Tucker Morgan then took a step away from him.
"Hang on, angel. Don't fly away just yet." His hand slid back around her waist. Sparkling green eyes locked with hers as he pulled her into his arms. His slow smile did the most horrifying things to her insides. The noise and clatter of the room turned to a steady hum as she stared up at Tucker Morgan's sharp features; his warm gaze and charming smile paralyzed her mind.
"I do," he said, although Skylar didn't know what he meant by the odd comment. Before she could contrive a rational thought, he leaned toward her. "Say yes," he said, his lips mere inches from hers.
"Yes? But I"
He tipped his head forward and kissed her, the touch of his soft lips cutting off the rest of her words. Skylar gasped as he stroked her lips, teasing them apart, filling her mouth with the sensation.
A voice deep in her mind told her to pull away, yet every gentle, intoxicating touch of Tucker Morgan's mouth offered her something she'd craved for so long.
His kiss was unlike anything she'd ever experienced. His mouth moved over hers in the most alluring, undemanding way, subtly seducing her mouth into submission until she was returning his kiss.
Hoots and hollers filtered through the electrifying hum of rushed to her face. She was shocked to find her arms banded around his neck, her fingers twisted into the blond tufts of hair could feel his heartbeat hammering as erratically as her own. "Dear God," he breathed, his eyes looking deep into hers.
"Guess I don't have to tell you to kiss your bride," said the jubilant voice of the man standing beside them.
Bride? Skylar jerked away from Tucker's embrace. She stumbled backward, but was instantly shoved back into his arms by whoever stood behind her.
"Drinks are on me," Tucker Morgan shouted, clamping her back against his broad chest, then in one swift motion, he lifted Skylar into his arms. "It's you and me, angel girl," he said as he carried her through a crowd of well-wishers.
"Wait!" she screamed, while silently assuring herself she had not just married this man.
He pushed through the swinging doors. Skylar twisted in his grip, managing to kick her legs free when they reached the road. She shoved away from him and saw her horse from the corner of her eye.
"Oh, no, you don't," he said with a rueful laugh, his arm coiling around her waist.
A shriek escaped her throat as one of his hands closed over her backside. Seeing his soft, intoxicating lips aiming for hers, she turned away, struggling to free herself from his grasp.
"Get your damn, would you, " No matter which way she twisted, she couldn't evade his hands and lips. His strong arms clamped her against his firm chest.
"Come on now, angel. I know you" He stiffened as a loud donk echoed from behind him. His brilliant eyes popped wide, before he crumpled to the ground, falling at her feet as though his bones had turned to dust.
Garret sat before her, backward in his saddle, with a skillet in his hands. "Did I kill 'im?" he called over the ringing of the cast iron.
Dear God! She wasn't sure.
Skylar dropped to her knees beside Tucker. She lifted one of his eyelids, but the green eyes that had held her captive moments ago were rolled up in his possibly fractured skull. She pressed her cheek to his chest.