The laconic drawl came out of the darkness, a thousand times more damning than the voice of her conscience.
Esmerelda backed away from the bars as Lucifer himself emerged from the shadows wearing a butternut shirt, black vest, scuffed boots, and a pair of sinfully tight copper-riveted Levi's. There didn't appear to be so much as a scratch on him, proving that he was indeed Satan incarnate. Unless Old Nick, not content to wait for her arrival, had sent one of his most devoted emissaries to escort her to his unholy kingdom.
The wicked sparkle in his eyes made a mockery of his sympathetic frown. "Perhaps you should sit down, Miss Fine. You look like you just saw a ghost."
Esmerelda had no choice but to obey. In her attempt to put as much distance between them as possible, she'd backed all the way to the bunk. Her knees buckled and she plopped down on the lumpy mattress.
"I shot you," she blurted out, unable to come up with anything more coherent. "You're supposed to be dead."
"Am I?" He drew off his hat to reveal a devilish grin. "Ma always said I was never any good at doing what I was supposed to."
With the reddish glow of the lantern haloing his disheveled hair, he looked less like a demon than an avenging angel come to claim her soul. In that feverish half-light, she could no more determine the color of his hair than the color of his eyes.
Esmerelda rose from the bunk, drawn toward the apparition by a dangerous combination of fascination and fear. He curled his hands around the bars and cocked one knee through them, all but daring her to approach.
When she reached the bars, she stretched one trembling hand toward his chest. If he'd have grabbed her hand or whispered "Boo" at that instant, she would have crumbled into hysteria. But he simply watched her without blinking, his expression almost as wary as her own.
Her fingertips slowly came to rest against his chest. Beneath the faded fabric of his shirt lay a solid wall of muscle and bone. His heart throbbed beneath her touch, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that her visitor was no demon or phantom, but Mr. William Darling in the flesh.
She recoiled from the bars with a soft cry. She could not have said herself if it was one of relief or dismay.
Darling smoothed back his tousled hair with one hand. "Sorry I couldn't oblige you by being dead, Miss Fine. I'm afraid that little jaunt to hell you had planned for me will have to be canceled. Or at least postponed."
His quip made Esmerelda wonder just how long he'd been standing in the shadows watching her anguished pacing. He looked so earnest, it was impossible to tell if he was teasing her. "How?" she croaked.
He shrugged, his rueful smirk giving her the eerie sensation that he really could read her mind. "Luck of the devil, maybe? I really can't fault your aim. You put one hell of a hole in my chair, right where my heart would have been."
"If you had one?" she mumbled, still battling shock.
He gave her a reproachful look. "If I'd still been sitting there. But I was halfway around the table when you fired. You really should learn how to shoot a firearm without closing your eyes first. It's a dangerous habit. If I'd have been a different sort of fellow, I might have shot you dead instead of catching you when you swooned."
"You?" she whispered, horrified anew. "You caught me?"
He nodded. "I couldn't very well let you bang your pretty head now, could I?"
Esmerelda had no reason to doubt his claim. She remembered only too well how the pistol had materialized in his hand. He had the grace and reflexes of a cougar. But if Darling had been the man who caught her, he'd also been the man who had carried her to the jail. The man who'd smelled so utterly delicious--like the leather of book bindings mingled with the aroma of tobacco. The man she'd clung to as if she were a frightened child and he her only salvation.
She began to sputter, mortified beyond speech.
He held up a hand. "There's no need to thank me, ma'am. It was my pleasure."
This time there was no mistaking the mocking quirk of his lips. Esmerelda blushed to the roots of her hair. Dear Lord, what liberties had the scoundrel been allowed to take while she lay defenseless in his arms? Her reticule, gloves, and bonnet had all been missing when she awoke. She touched a hand to her disheveled topknot, then to her throat to find the modest lace collar of her basque still buttoned to her chin. She licked her lips, breathing a sigh of relief when she tasted no whiskey upon them.
Esmerelda returned her attention to Mr. Darling to find him staring at her mouth, his expression impossible to interpret. But when he raised his eyes to meet hers, they were darkened by scorn. "If I'd have compromised you, honey, I'd have made damn sure you remembered it. It may even surprise you to learn we Darling men prefer our women conscious."
Esmerelda couldn't help but notice that he hadn't mentioned willing. Refusing to be further intimidated by the ruffian, she stiffened her spine and lifted her chin. "If I didn't kill you, Mr. Darling, and more's the pity, then why am I being held here? Against my will?"
"I believe the charge would be assault with attempt to kill." All traces of good humor had vanished from his eyes, leaving them icy and flat.
She took an instinctive step backward, thankful for the sturdy iron bars that separated them. Until she saw the ring of keys dangling from his finger.
As he inserted one into the lock, their cheerful jingle seemed to toll her doom.
She backed toward the farthest corner of the cell, chilled to the marrow. She was completely at the outlaw's mercy. No one even knew that she'd come to this place to seek her brother's murderer. No one except her grandfather.
And he didn't care.
"Now, Mr. Darling," she said, her words tumbling out in a nervous rush. "I can certainly understand why you might be just a little angry--"
She swallowed, but only succeeded in wedging the lump of fear deeper in her throat. "Furious with me for--"
"Trying to shoot me down in cold blood," he provided with an agreeable smile.
"Firing my derringer in your general direction," she gently corrected. As he swung open the cell door, her gaze flicked to the gunbelt slung low on his lean hips. "But you left me little choice. Had you surrendered yourself to the sheriff as I requested--"
"Insisted," she conceded. "Then the entire unpleasant incident might have very well been averted."
"And it would be me behind those bars instead of you."
She smiled brightly. "That would be the logical conclusion. You, after all, are the criminal."
"Accused, judged, and condemned by one lone woman."
He sauntered toward her, but she was forced to stand her ground. There was nowhere left to retreat. "On that charge, I stand convicted. I had no right to take the law into my own hands." She elevated her chin another notch, which barely brought it to the level of his breastbone. "But no one else seemed willing or able to do it."
He shook his head. "I never heard of your brother, Miss Fine. And I sure as hell never killed him."
His words rang with just enough conviction to give Esmerelda the first pang of doubt she'd suffered since leaving Boston. A doubt compounded by the bewildering flutter of her pulse at his approach.
He stopped near enough for her to divine the dark gold hue of his hair, the sun-burnished strands that brushed his shoulders, the tawny stubble shading his jaw. But his eyes continued their maddening shift between gray and green. He was taller than she'd realized, lean and lanky without an ounce of wasted fat on his broad-shouldered frame.
She held her breath as he reached out his hand. But instead of throttling her as she'd feared, he caressed a fallen curl from her cheek. His calloused thumb lingered against her smooth skin.
"Holler," he said.
"Pardon?" she whispered, believing she'd misunderstood him.
"The sheriff promised to come running if you hollered. I think it might be a good idea."
She drew in a shaky breath. "I may have swooned beneath the weight of extreme duress, sir, but surely you haven't mistaken me for the hysterical sort of female who screams at the slightest provocation. . . ."
His lashes swept down to mask his eyes as he lowered his lips toward hers.
From the Paperback edition.