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Driven by sheer desperation, Devina thrust her perfectly coiffed head out the window of the rapidly moving stagecoach and took a deep, full breath. Seconds later she pulled her head back inside, coughing and sputtering, her eyes and throat filled with residue from the perpetual cloud of red dust that rose from the dry Arizona road. She struggled to regain her breath, fanning the air wildly with a delicate hand, blinking almost comically as tears streamed from her smarting eyes, streaking the fine layer of grit covering her face and hair. Breathing normally at last, she groaned and wrinkled her aristocratic nose, creating an expressively pained grimace, her patience having expired in the wake of this last imposition on her limited forbearance. Her gaze focused pointedly on the sleeping passenger slumped beside her. Oh, damn! Was there no escaping his ghastly stench?
She had been only too conscious of the choking dust that had enveloped the stage since the beginning of its journey on the rough sunswept road that morning. Was she not covered with at least an inch of the distasteful sandy substance? Even as she poked her head out the window, she had realized she would only be exchanging one intolerable situation for another, but fool that she was, she had momentarily convinced herself anything was preferable to the foul odor emanating from the derelict cowboy beside her.
Devina gave the sleeping man another quick look out the corner of her eye. He swayed in complete relaxation as the coach's great wheels rolled from one jarring rut to another. Unkempt, unshaven, his hard thigh pressing annoyingly against hers, he was either totally oblivious or totally uncaring of the hardship that his odoriferous presence caused his fellow passengers.
Another frustrated groan escaped Devina's lips. Surely a man could not reek so strongly from just consuming alcohol. Judging from the smell of him, the unconscious degenerate must have bathed in it! It was no wonder he had been sleeping so soundly. She was surprised that she and the other two unfortunate passengers had not been anesthetized merely from breathing the fumes!
Devina shot a glance toward the silent couple seated across from her. Just past middle age, quiet and unassuming, they appeared to be weathering the ordeal far better than she. Incredible as it seemed in view of her own nausea, they appeared almost immune to the offensive odor permeating the coach!
Devina returned a narrowed gaze to the mainspring of her discomfort and surveyed the man disapprovingly. Faded clothing marked with the stain and grime of the trail, worn boots, a broad-brimmed hat pulled down over his forehead, shielding his heavily bearded face from view...Her seatmate was obviously thoroughly disreputable -- a wastrel, a drunken saddle tramp. As if that was not enough, the obnoxious individual was beginning to add to her discomfort by sprawling over the entire seat, pushing her farther and farther toward the corner with each rut they struck.
A sudden bump in the road threw the unknown cowboy even more offensively close. Crushed against the wall of the coach, Devina gave a sharp gasp, but the angry comment that jumped to her lips was stunned into silence by a fleeting glimpse of the man's startlingly keen dark eyes as they flicked open to glance into hers. Lurching back with the next bump in the road, the drunken cowboy ended their intimacy without apology.
Oh, that was the final straw! Furious, cutting words rose to Devina's lips, only to be stopped as the man gave a low snort and lapsed back into his drunken stupor, sliding onto the skirt of her stylish green traveling ensemble as he did so!
Frustration sent hot color surging to Devina's cheeks. She had taken enough! The damned inebriate would take no further advantage of her! Grasping her skirt in both hands, she gave a hard pull. It refused to budge, and her flush darkened. Shooting a look of mute appeal toward the couple across from her, she felt her last shred of control slip away. Asleep! They were asleep!
Her color high, her eyes blazing, Devina gritted her teeth with determination. She took a deep breath and gave the reeking cowboy a powerful shove, then pulled on the portion of skirt on which he was sitting.
She was free! Sweet triumph surged through her veins -- until the intoxicated man grumbled and then slumped toward her, squeezing her firmly into the corner of the seat once again. His eyelids fluttered briefly, and his dark eyes appeared to focus on a point outside the window before dropping closed.
Devina was incensed! Damn him! He was all but crushing her!
Her great silver-blue eyes narrowed into menacing slits as she turned toward her sleeping nemesis. A low, unladylike growl escaped her lips. Too infuriated to show caution, she drew back a delicate, tightly clenched fist and punched her unconscious adversary's shoulder with all her might.
Perspiration was beginning to dot Devina's forehead and upper lip. Her smart green chapeau, adorned with two white doves on the wing, sat crazily askew. The springy silver-blond curls she had arranged so carefully now adhered wetly to her temples. A heated fury was assuming control of her senses.
This man, this damned odoriferous beast, had turned the cramped coach into a torture chamber! He had nauseated her with his stench, crushed her unmercifully with his hard-muscled body, and was now pushing her out the door!
In a voice that bore not the slightest resemblance to her normal cultured tone, Devina issued a concise, cracking command: "Move!"
Pushing at the heavy arm pinning her against the wall, she continued with growing intensity, "I paid for this seat, damn it! You're sitting in it and on me! Get over on your own side!"
She stared heatedly at the cowboy's partially hidden face. A flash of pure gratification suffused her as he turned his back in obedient silence and faced the opposite window.
Devina was elated! She had her own portion of the seat to herself at last! Triumphantly adjusting her hat and attempting to ignore the rank odor of stale whiskey that still pervaded the coach, she took a deep, satisfied breath.
She was staring at the curve of the cowboy's back when she began to feel the first glimmer of disquiet. Although the drunken cowboy still lay in his own corner, she sensed an almost imperceptible tensing of his limbs. The broad shoulders, which had been slumped forward to afford more comfort on the hard seat, were gradually straightening. His bearded chin no longer rested on his chest, but had been elevated just enough to allow him an unrestricted view of the passing countryside. She could not see the man's face, but she was convinced his eyes were no longer closed, that he was staring alertly, expectantly out the window.
An inexplicable awareness sharpened Devina's senses, and apprehension overwhelmed her. With a startling flash of clarity she was certain her whiskey-soaked seatmate was alert and completely sober!
Devina shot a quick glance toward the elderly couple seated across from her. They were still sleeping. She glanced back to the man beside her. He stiffened, as if something or someone in the landscape had caught his attention. Devina's heart began racing. Unexpectedly, in a single fluid movement the cowboy straightened up and swung around to face her fully for the first time. Dark, alert eyes held her mesmerized in the split second it took him to reach down into his boot and withdraw a gun!
A shaft of sunlight glinted menacingly on the barrel pointed in her direction. Devina gasped. He had fooled them all completely! He wasn't a senseless drunk!
In a rapid movement, the cowboy's ann snaked out to encircle Devina's waist. Pulling her roughly onto his lap, he held her breathless, her back pinned against the wall of his chest. He pressed the hard muzzle of his gun into her ribs.
"Don't move! Do exactly as I say or you won't live to get that breath of fresh air you've been looking for. My gun doesn't have any conscience where women are concerned, and neither do I."
Not waiting for a response, he pulled her even tighter against him. Simultaneously, he raised his gun and fired two shots through the roof of the coach, then shouted a brief, harsh command to the driver to bring the vehicle to a halt. He darted a quick, silencing glance toward the elderly couple who had been startled awake to face his drawn gun.
The stage began braking, and the cowboy jammed his gun back into Devina's side. His eyes on the roof of the coach, the gunman shouted into the sudden unnatural silence as the stage shuddered to a halt: "All right, you two on top, throw your guns on the ground. Don't try anything or this fine lady sitting here on my lap will breathe her last breath."
A brief silence was followed by the low rumble of voices. A few more seconds passed before the glint of sunlight on steel flashing past the window revealed the driver and guard had complied with the gunman's orders. The arm around Devina's waist tightened.
The gun pressed more sharply into her side as her captor addressed the men on top once more: "Well, I guess the lady is going to have to persuade you fellows to throw down all your guns." His tone increasing in menace, he growled in a voice meant for her alone, "It's up to you."
A deep rage tempered Devina's fear. Not only had this odious person made a complete fool of her with his drunken cowboy act, he was now about to make her a party to his crime by forcing her to speak in his behalf!
The gun barrel was cutting painfully into her side, and Devina fought to suppress her quaking. The swine...She had not a doubt in the world this beast would shoot her if she did not comply with his instructions. Men of his type had no conscience. She would have to swallow her pride, she decided, so as to live long enough to see him pay for this crime and for his treatment of her.
The hammer on the gun at her side clicked warningly. The gunman's voice was heavy with menace. "Well?"
Hating herself for submitting to the gunman's threats, Devina raised her voice in a surprisingly steady shout: "You men on top, throw down all your weapons. He has a gun at my side, and he means what he says!"
There was a short pause. Then a grudging acknowledgment sounded from atop and a rifle fell past the window, followed by a handgun.
Apparently satisfied, the gunman spoke again. "That's better. Now, get down carefully and stand with your hands up. You're being watched, so don't think you can get away with anything."
As if awaiting his signal, three masked men rode out from behind cover a short distance from the road. Their guns were drawn, and one of the outlaws was leading a riderless horse. Waiting until the men on top had reached the ground and were being covered by his accomplices' guns, Devina's captor looked to the terrified couple across from them. His voice softened when he addressed them, even as he secured Devina more cruelly against him.
"I want you both to step down and go stand beside the driver and guard. You don't have to worry. Nothing will happen to you if you do as you're told."
Devina's eyes followed the older couple as they moved to her captor's orders. She realized her captor's attention was now focused on her.
His voice grated low and threateningly into her ear. "And now there's only you and me left in here."
Sliding her off his lap, the gunman turned her to face him. Startled at the strength of the features barely discernible beneath his heavy beard, Devina felt the full impact of his steady dark-eyed gaze. She swallowed tightly.
"What's the matter?" the gunman asked. "Nothing to say? You were a lot braver when you thought I was a helpless drunk. You didn't mind letting me know how offensive you found me then, did you?"
His taunt ignited a spark inside Devina that forced all caution from her mind. She reacted with cutting anger. "I was disgusted with you when I thought you to be a slovenly drunk. Now that I know what you truly are, I find you even more repulsive."
The gunman's harsh features tightened, and Devina fought to control her quaking. She raised her chin in stubborn defiance. She would not allow this criminal to force her to cower.
The gunman's response was a short, sinister statement. "Repulsive, perhaps, but in control...of you."