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Gatlinburg, Tennessee June 1880
Blocking the entrance to Clawson's Mercantile, Evan Harrison tried to blend in with the overhang's shadows. He'd dressed in headtotoe black, his hat pulled low to shade his eyes. Leaning against the glasspaned door, arms crossed and one ankle slung carelessly over the other, he could've been waiting for someone or simply watching the morning rush of people. What passersby couldn't see was his heart's sharp tattoo against his rib cage and the sweat sliding between his shoulder blades to trickle down his spine.
His narrowed gaze flicked to and fro, his muscles bunched and ready to spring should anyone head his way. Hurry up, Fitz. He wondered how Art was doing in the back alley.
This wasn't his first holdup, so why the unease? He scanned the crowd again, and the burning in his gut grew worse. He was worried about Fitz. The outlaw inside the mercantile was a wild card. Lenny Fitzgerald had proven time and again that he wasn't afraid to spill innocent blood. And he wasn't particular about his victims.
Evan had done his best to prevent the violence, but he could only do so much without arousing suspicion. He couldn't take a chance of blowing his cover. He'd worked too hard and waited too long to have that happen now.
He closed his eyes, wishing he could put off the inevitable. Then he remembered the reason he was there and his resolve hardened. He was on a quest for justice, and he would get it. No matter what.
He snapped his eyes open at the sound of someone approaching. Shifting his head to the right, he caught sight of a young woman striding down the boardwalk in his direction, her boots clipping the weathered planks with determination. She was on a mission, it seemed.
Please let her be headed anywhere else but here, he thought.
As she neared, he couldn't help but notice her bold beauty. Sleek red hair peeked out from beneath a navyandcream floralprint bonnet framing an ovalshaped face. He admired her ivory complexion, so rare in redheads, and the pert nose, regal cheekbones and generous mouth. Her sturdy navy dress outlined a pleasing female form, tall yet graceful.
She must've noticed him staring, for she quirked a cinnamon eyebrow, her lips firming in disapproval. Her eyes raked him before meeting his gaze headon. One jerk of her chin hinted of a stubborn streak.
"Excuse me." She speared him with her gaze. "You're blocking the entrance."
Her eyes were green, not the expected blue. Deep green, the color of spruce trees streaked with sunset gold.
Straightening, Evan plucked the hay from his mouth and tossed it to the ground.
"You can't go in there."
A line of confusion formed between her fine eyebrows. "Why not?"
"Mr. Clawson had to step out for a few minutes. He asked me to tell any customers who happened by that he'd be right back."
Annoyance flickered in those gorgeous eyes. "That's impossible. Mr. Clawson is dead. His soninlaw, Larry Moore, is the owner now."
Swallowing his frustration, he struggled to maintain an air of indifference. Could she see the vein throbbing at his temple? "My mistake. Guess I mixed up the names."
A loud shout, followed by a heavy thump, sounded through the door. Evan cringed, resisting the urge to turn and look. She craned her neck to peer beyond his shoulder, and he sidestepped to block her line of sight.
"Someone is in there," she snapped, her eyes narrowing. "What kind of game are you playing?"
"Trust me, I'm not playing"
"Is there a problem, Miss O'Malley?" a male voice interrupted from the street.
This situation was going from bad to worse. Evan turned to see a welldressed man observing them, his curious gaze shifting from the young woman to settle on him. As a stranger in town, Evan would naturally be regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. He had to fix this. Fast.
"Good morning, Lane," the young lady greeted the man with a slight smile. "This gentleman and I were just discussing"
"How rude I was for not opening the door for her," Evan finished. Grabbing the door handle, he made a slight bow. Surprise flashed across her face. "I do apologize for the oversight, ma'am." Evan pulled the door open and with a light hand on her elbow ushered her inside, calling over his shoulder, "I apologize for the misunderstanding. Good day, sir."
"Yes, goodbye, Lane."
The door closed with a final whoosh, cutting off her farewell. Through the window, Evan watched the man hesitate a moment before planting his hat back on his head and walking away. One problem taken care of. One to go.
"What was that all about?" she demanded.
Evan scanned the room. Fitzgerald was nowhere to be seen, which meant he was probably in the back, tying up the owner.
He took hold of her arm, speaking in low, urgent tones. "You're in a situation way over your head, lady. I need you to walk back out that door and as far away from this mercantile as you can. Talk to no one. I can't guarantee your safety if you alert anyone to what's happening here."
She stared at him. "What"
"No questions. There isn't time"
"What's that girl doing in here?"
Evan stiffened at the sound of Fitzgerald's cold voice behind him. "Keep quiet," he murmured in her ear. Without releasing her, he faced the outlaw whose features were concealed by a red bandanna.
"She was determined to do her shopping," Evan drawled. "Looks like her impatience has earned her a stint in the storeroom with the owner. I'll tie her up."
"You will do no such thing!" she cried, attempting to pry his hand loose.
Fitzgerald shook his head. "Forget it. She'll have to come with us."
"No." Her chances of survival were slim to none if she went with them.
"She's seen your face. We can't leave her here."
"I thought we agreedno hostages. I don't like this"
"Then you should've done your job and kept her away," Fitzgerald snapped. "Let's go."
Evan hesitated in order to give Fitzgerald a few second's head start.
"A hostage will only slow you down, you know," she argued, her eyes large in her pale face. "Leave me here. I'll tell the sheriff I didn't get a good look at you. You have my word."
He didn't reply. What could he say at this point? His mind was whirling with too many scenariosall of them unpleasantto attempt rational conversation.
"You're making a huge mistake! As soon as people realize what's happened, they'll organize a posse and come looking for you."
He sensed her mounting desperation, but was helpless to do anything about it.
"Isn't the cash enough? Do you really want to add kidnapping to your list of crimes?"
Ignoring her questions, he forcibly led her past the stockroom and the floortoceiling shelves overflowing with goods, past the storekeeper's office and, finally, to the private quarters. At the rear entrance, he warned her to keep quiet.
"Where's Mr. Moore?" she demanded. "Is he okay?"
He slipped the Colt Peacemaker out of his holster, making sure she got a good look at it. He wasn't above intimidation to keep her in line. Her life depended on it. "Whatever you do, stay close to me."
For once, she didn't utter a word. Evan hoped that she wasn't too strongwilled to do as he said. He didn't know what Fitz would do if she made a scene.
He grabbed the bandanna bunched around his neck and tugged it up to cover his face. Opening the door a crack, he checked the alleyway. Fitz and Art were already saddling up. He hurried her down the wooden stairs to where his horse, Lucky, was hitched, prodding her forward with a hand on her back.
"Get on the horse."
She dug her heels in the rocky dirt. "Uhuh."
"Do it or I'll toss you up there myself," he growled from his position directly behind her, letting her feel the tip of the gun barrel near her shoulder. Her resistance irritated himdidn't she have the good sense to be scared?
With a huff, she grabbed the saddle horn, placed her foot in the stirrup and hauled herself up. He replaced his firearm and swung up behind her.
Art's eyes bulged when he spotted her. "Who's that?"
Fitz barked, "Never mind. Let's ride."
"Might as well relax," Evan told his hostage, signaling Lucky to head out. "It's gonna be a long ride."
Juliana O'Malley seethed with anger. As the miles between her and Gatlinburg stretched endlessly into the distance, she passed the time dreaming up ways to get even with the man holding her captiveeverything from pushing him off a cliff to hogtying him and leaving him at the mercy of wild animals.
It was either that or succumb to mindnumbing fear. She was familiar with firearms all right, but never in her life had she had one waved in her face.
Lord Jesus, please help me, she prayed. I'm in a bit of a situation here.
If only she'd heeded her instincts. The moment she became aware of the man in black's blatant scrutiny, she'd known that he was no gentleman. Her cheeks burned even now as she recalled how his intense gaze had taken in every inch of her. Scandalous!
She squirmed in the saddle. His muscled arms tightened in response, imprisoning her against his rockhard chest. His warm breath stirred the hair at her nape and prickles of awareness danced along her skin.
Juliana squeezed her eyes tight and tried not to dwell on his disturbing nearness. At least he smelled pleasant enough, she consoled herself. Beneath the smell of horse and sweat, she detected the clean scent of soap.
They would have to stop soon, she reasoned. They'd ridden for what seemed like an eternity, yet her kidnappers had given no sign of slowing the horses. She was hot and thirsty, her mouth gritty from the dust clouds stirred by the horses' hooves.
As desperately as she wanted to get off the horse, however, she wasn't eager to find out what they planned to do with her once they reached their destination.
As she saw it, she had only one option. Escape. She'd have to try to outrun him, because she was no match for his physical strength. Luckily, she was a fast runner. Just two weeks earlier, her cousin Caleb had challenged her to a footrace and she'd won. Not by much, but she'd won fair and square. He'd been hoppin' mad
She gasped. Her mother and sisters would be wondering why she hadn't returned with the supplies. It was her mother's birthday, and they had a full day of work to get ready for the big celebration dinner that night. They wouldn't worry too much at first, but with each passing hour their concern would grow until finally someone would go looking for her.
The horses in front slowed and their mount did the same, veering off the trail into the dense woods. She straightened, nerves taut, thoughts of home scattered.
What now? Would the brute release her? Here in the middle of nowhere to fend for herself? Or did he have something more sinister in mind?
"Where are we?" she demanded. They'd used the trail along Baskins Creek heading southeast out of Gatlinburg, but she was in unfamiliar surroundings now. "What are you going to do with me?"
The man dismounted without a word. Reaching up, his hands spanned her waist and swung her down as if she weighed no more than a sack of feathers. The imprints of his fingers against her rib cage were like branding irons.
Fear shot through her, leaving her dizzy and weak.
He stepped away long enough to take hold of the horse's bridle. He tugged his bandanna down and gestured toward the other men already entering the forest. "Now we walk."
Juliana resisted, unwilling to blindly follow him. "I'm not moving from this spot until you answer me."
He spun on his heel and brought his face close to hers, his grip on her arm firm but not bruising. She'd noticed his eyes right off. A brilliant shadedark, almost purpleblueput her in mind of the poisonous larkspur blooms that dotted the meadows each spring. Beautiful yet deadly.
"Do as I say, Miss O'Malley," he said in a near whisper, "and I just might be able to get you out of this mess."
"You need help, Harrison?" The man who'd robbed Mr. Moore had stopped and was watching them. Something about him disturbed her. "Looks like a handful to me."
Her captor, apparently named Harrison, didn't turn around. His eyes never wavering from her face, he drawled, "Good thing I like my women feisty."
Juliana stiffened. She opened her mouth to protest, but faltered at the almost imperceptible shake of his head. Strangely, his suggestive words were at odds with the grim light in his eyes.
"Not me," the other man snorted. "I like mine submissive."
Harrison's mouth flattened, his features hardening to granite. He was angry, perhaps even disgusted, by the other man.
To Juliana, he said, "There's a stream straight ahead and some shade. We'll rest long enough to eat a bite before heading back out."
Juliana felt a spark of hope. "You can leave me here. We're not so far from Gatlinburg, after all. Might take me a while, but I can make it back before nightfall. I don't mind walking"
He held up a hand. "That's not an option. Come on, I'm parched and so is my horse."
"But I want to go home! My mother and sisters will be desperate to find me!"
He glanced over his shoulder. The others had disappeared into the woods, leaving them alone. His eyes bored into hers. "Trust me. I'm going to think of a way to get you home."
Trust him? A common thief? He was the one who'd forced her from the mercantile and ordered her onto his horse. No, his words were empty, as substantial as a fistful of air.
This was her chance. It might be her only one.
Grateful that she'd chosen to wear her brandnew, hardsoled work boots, Juliana did what she'd done as a child tousling with her cousinsnailed him in the shin with the toe of her boot and with her free arm elbowed him in the ribs. He grunted in surprise and relaxed his hold.
Juliana slipped out of his grasp and sprinted away, uncertain which direction to take. She found herself following the hardpacked dirt trail on which they'd just traveled.
Her bonnet hung by its strings around her neck, and her hair, loosened by the jarring ride on horseback, uncoiled now to stream down her back.
Heavy footsteps sounded close behind and a small scream escaped her lips.
Faster! She pushed her legs to take longer strides. Her temples throbbed. Her side ached. The chase was over as suddenly as it began.
Bands of steel encircled her waist and down she went. Her captor twisted beneath her and she landed on top of him, his body a cushion against the rocky ground. The wind was knocked from her lungs. His arms locked around her.
"That," he puffed angrily, "was a stupid stunt."
Using her hands on his chest as leverage, she arched away from him, trying to break free of his hold. Her struggles were useless against his brute strength. He held fast. With a grunt, he rolled over so that he hovered above her, hands pressing her shoulders into the dirt. His face was inches from her own, his breath mingling with hers.