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Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, August 1873
Simon Garr adjusted his hat, peered down the railroad tracks to the train chugging its way up the gulley and damn well hoped his bride-to-be wasn't on it.
They'd never be right for each other.
He was a liar and imposter.
Other folks waiting on the platform jostled to look down the tracks. Simon bristled in his itchy wool suit. He'd feel more comfortable in denim jeans. He'd always worn charity-donated jeans while growing up barefoot on the plains, having to fend for himself since the age of eight.
No matter what he wore, it was hard to conceal his gritty determination, the need to be able to control everything around him, especially in dangerous situations like these. He enjoyed the weight and feel of his concealed weapons-the revolver in his shoulder holster, derringer pressed into his back, knife strapped to his ankle. He'd taught himself how to shoot when he was a kid. The first living thing he'd ever shot was a raging bear that'd mauled a friend. The second living thing, years later, was a man who'd murdered innocent villagers for three gold coins.
The checkered suit wasn't his usual style, but it was the attire that jewelers wore.
And that was what he was supposed to be. A jeweler. He was working undercover, impersonating a man named Jarrod Ledbetter, leader of the Ledbetter gang.
Ledbetter and his pack were not only jewelers, but clandestine train robbers. The real Ledbetter was dead. He and two other scum from their filthy group had been fatally shot last week in an undercover stakeout by Simon and other lawmen of the district. Word of their deaths was being closely guarded by authorities. The railroad bigwigs didn't want to release the information until they recovered the goods stolen days before the shoot-out, worth three hundred thousand dollars.
They'd hired Simon, a detective, to find it.
Simon cared less about the missing gold and jewels, and more about his two closest friends, also detectives, who were killed in the shoot-out. Simon winced at the awful memory of being unable to save his friends, of seeing the blood on their bodies. He looked at the faces of the people strolling by, sadly reminded that he'd never see Clay Holborne or Eli Remington again. He vowed to get even.
His mission now was to gain the confidence of the remaining two Ledbetter gang members, who hadn't been at the shoot-out, and uncover the stolen property.
Two days ago, Simon had made contact. The two remaining murderers had said they would be "honored" to finally meet Ledbetter in person to get their next assignment.
But the big surprise came when Simon had discovered that Ledbetter, before his death, had mailed away for a wife!
It was during a casual poker game last night that the two men had asked Simon if he was ready for her arrival this evening.
Hell no! But he'd bluffed his way through answering. He was deep undercover with no immediate means to inform his superiors. So, there was nothing he could do but stand here and wait. He'd brought a suitcase with him to add to the illusion that he did indeed expect her and wanted to whisk her away to the nearest hotel.
But who was to say she hadn't called off the wedding? Maybe Ledbetter was supposed to send a telegram this week to confirm and, due to his untimely death, hadn't.
What kind of woman traveled blindly to involve herself with an unknown man?
Maybe she was adventurous. Desperate. Or fleeing from something. Who the hell knew? All he knew was her name. Natasha O'Sullivan.
Women baffled him. Yet he had no problem lying to them. He'd done it countless times in the name of justice. He'd gone by more false names than truthful. The hardest thing about lying wasn't the actual deception-for it was always done in the name of good- but keeping the facts straight in his head about who he was this week.
Jarrod Ledbetter, he repeated in his mind.
He also couldn't control how some women would react to his lies. Men were more predictable. In his line of duty, being in command of everyone around him always had life-and-death consequences.
Hell. Just as they had for Clay and Eli.
Guilt consumed him again.
It overpowered his senses, made his throat constrict, his mouth run dry. He hadn't been able to save them. If he'd been faster, or stronger, or, damn, more aware of the hidden gang members on the cliffs
The train, still half a mile off, blew its whistle. It caused a rush of excited voices on the platform. The early-evening breeze wafted through Simon's shoulder-length hair. It spun the leaves on the aspens and whispered through the tall pines and firs. Clay and Eli would never breathe air like this again. He tried to push the tragedy out of his mind. He needed his faculties clear and sharp.
The wheels of the locomotive screeched and the train roared past. It came to a rumbling halt and passengers disembarked. Simon peered up and down the platform, outwardly calm while trying to spot anyone who resembled a mailorder bride. He watched as folks were reunited, businessmen hired porters, cowboys slung their packs. No lone women so far.
Gratified that his bride wasn't here, Simon turned to go. But then he noticed the edge of a scuffed, brown leather trunk being pushed out of a rear car. The trunk's latch was busted. Clothing was visible through the cracked opening of the lid. A flurry of ropes held the thing together.
A female voice rang out from inside the car. "You ugly, uncooperative, good-for-nothing piece of trash..
Then with a kick of her high-heeled black leather boot, the trunk flew out the door and landed with a thump on the wooden platform.
He raised an eyebrow in amusement. He'd hate to be the leather beneath that boot.
But when she stepped out, his whole body tensed.
God, no. That wouldn't be her, would it?
The whistle blew again and the train rolled away.
He stood partially hidden by the posts around him and watched her.
She was the right age-twentysomething. And she was alone.
Dressed in a faded skirt and a formfitting bodice that was patched at her elbows, she brushed the shimmering brunette hair from her dark eyes and realigned her stuffy bonnet. It had fake fruit attached to the brim- cherries and grapes-and would appeal to a woman forty years her senior. Donated clothing, he thought. She glanced timidly down the tracks, head slightly bowed, and then adjusted her fussy white gloves in a prim fashion. Who was she kidding? She was no timid woman. She was a tiger in skirts.
The burly conductor in uniform called to her from the moving train. "Take care of yourself, Miss O'Sullivan!"
Simon cursed. So it was her.
He watched her wave. Her bright eyes flashed deep coffee-brown, and her expression rippled with warmth. Her skin was clear, her neckline plunged to a hint of cleavage and the cut to her suit bodice revealed tempting curves.
His jaw clenched.
She was innocent in all of this. That was what one of Ledbetter's men, the more brutal one, Kale McKern, had implied in the poker game last night-that Ledbetter had fooled her. As he'd fooled lawmen for years, men much more experienced with criminals than she was.
All Simon had to do was walk up to her, tell her he'd had a change of heart and put her on the next train home.
But it looked to him as if all her dreams were packed up in that battered old trunk. And now he was about to tell her he didn't want her. He swore. He wasn't here to cause trouble to any woman. He was here to find justice for his friends. No doubt Simon would cause her heartache and embarrassment by turning her away, but he couldn't disclose he wasn't the real Ledbetter, for there was no telling who she might talk to on the return journey home. Then his life would be in danger. Maybe even hers.
This way, they'd both be spared. Only her feelings would be hurt. Feelings healed a lot faster and better than gun wounds.
But damn he was about to give her one big invisible bruise.
On the bright side, in a few weeks when this was over, she'd likely read in the papers that the lying and murdering Jarrod Ledbetter had died in a shoot-out, and she'd be relieved she never got involved with him. She'd be free to marry in a more normal sense.
Mailorder brides were common in parts of the West where there was a high ratio of men to women, but why would any female feel the need to marry by mail? Especially one as good-looking as Natasha O'Sullivan.
She turned around to deal with her trunk. The glossy ring of curls she'd pinned up at the back of her head bobbed. Her bosom moved up and down, accentuating her slender waist. With a swallow, he glanced away and took a step closer to the ticket counter, annoyed that the train she'd pulled in on had just left. He glanced at the chalkboard and the schedule for the next one.
Today was Wednesday, almost seven in the evening. He scanned the departure times. The next one was Friday, then Sunday. There was no train leaving for two days?
He rubbed his bristly jaw. How was he supposed to get her out of here?
Stagecoach, he thought, or wagon train.
He turned around, steeled himself, adjusted his hat and strode toward her. There was no chance Ledbetter would've sent a photograph of himself-or even a description-for fear that his criminal face would be plastered across the country. So there was no way she'd know Simon was a liar.
A crazy thought hit him.
Nah. Couldn't be.
Or could it? Could she have been more involved with Ledbetter than even McKern had suspected? Could she have been in cahoots with Ledbetter? Did she know anything at all about the stolen gold and jewels? She was a tiger in skirts. She had a temper she was trying to conceal. What else was in her character?
His cowboy boots thudded on the platform. She looked up in his direction, seemed to sense who he was and smiled. Loose strands of brown hair twirled across her face and over her freckles. Lips the color of sweet raspberries parted.
Hell, he nearly melted.
She might be a criminal, he repeated in his mind. Before he could respond to her, other footsteps shuffled to his right and she turned to look that way.
Simon frowned and turned his head to see who it was.
His muscles tightened in warning as he spotted the two men from Ledbetter's gang-Kale McKern and Woody Fowler. Simon had told them to stay put, that he would pick up his bride alone and see to them in a couple of days. What were they doing here?
Then he recalled all the lewd remarks they'd made during the poker game-about what the mailorder bride might look like and how fast Simon could get her to bed.
They'd likely had a few drinks and came to see for themselves.
These weren't stupid men; Ledbetter himself had gone to Harvard. In a time when few people were educated, Ledbetter's wealthy grandparents had sent him to the best college in the country. He'd learned everything from books; Simon had learned everything he knew from the streets. Ledbetter had demanded that the men who worked for him be college educated, too, not only because he preferred the company of intelligent men, but as a cover. What sheriff would suspect a group of well-educated men to be cutthroats and train robbers? McKern and Fowler had gone to school in Upstate New York, violent thieves and scoundrels from an early age.
Simon kept walking toward the woman, firm and steady. He was reassured by the weight of his concealed guns and knife. But McKern and Fowler also carried hidden weapons. Simon tried to think fast. He couldn't turn Natasha O'Sullivan away in the presence of Led-better's men, for that would raise suspicion that Simon wasn't who he said he was. Then both he and she might get a bullet to the skull.
So now he had to pretend to be the ever-lovin' groom.
Damn. This mission just got a lot more complicated.