More precious than gold
Cole "Lucky" DuMont is off to forge his future in the Alaskan hills. Standing in his way? A dark-haired beauty in need of rescue.
Maddie Stockwell's life has always been ruled by men. And now, to ensure her freedom, she strikes a deal with her gorgeous savior: she'll help Lucky in his quest, and find her own fortune along the way! Except when Maddie has to pose as Lucky's wife, she feels a thrill she could never have anticipated. And suddenly there's something even more tempting than gold on her mind
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Life had never been easy for Maddie Stockwell. Being the daughter of the outlaw Bass Mason, a man who'd changed his name more often than he'd changed his socks, had forced her to look out for herself at an early age. She was quick on her feet, too. Quicker than the man with the hands that had just seized her could possibly know.
The fingers digging into her waist sent curse wordsthings she'd never say aloud but had heard numerous timesrunning through her mind. They muffled the piano music and shouts of people filling the saloons on both sides of the alleyway. Furthermore, the hand over her mouth stank of fish, and the pressure of that hand pressed grit into her lips and cheeks, igniting her fury.
Whoever he wasthis man who'd grabbed her as she left the community wellwas big. Strong, too, given the way he hoisted her off the ground, dragging her backward.
Claws of fear dug into her throat, but it was the anger surging inside she focused on. Not again. Did every man think all they had to do was hover in the night darkness and snatch her up as if they were picking peaches or something?
They might be able to do that to other women, but not her.
With movements she'd acquired while fighting off those who had ridden with her father, Maddie kicked one heel backward into the man's knee as she shot an elbow straight back, catching his ribs. She also flung her head back, connecting with what she assumed was his nose by the way he screeched.
She didn't stop there, though. The frustration inside her hadn't played out. As the arms around her went slack, she spun and brought the now halffull water bucket around at full speed. It met the side of his head with a solid thud, and her well-aimed kick targeted right below the belt buckle sent him the rest of the way to the ground.
He was no longer a threat, rolling on the ground as he was, but the names he was shouting, the things he was calling heras if any of this was her faulthad her temper flaring.
Maddie swung the bucket again, cracking him upside the head. The last bits of water flew in all directions while the bucket splintered into pieces. She froze for a moment when the man went quiet. As swiftly as his hands had grabbed her moments ago, something she couldn't describe gripped her from the inside.
Her entire being shook as if she stood in the center of a Rocky Mountain snowstorm instead of a warm, dark California night. Mad Dog had found her again. This wasn't him, but it was one of his men.
Shouts, muffled by the throbbing in her ears, had her spinning about. Two men, as big as the one on the ground, barreled down the alley.
Instinct said run, but where?
She couldn't go back to Hester's. That would jeopardize the other girls, so Maddie leaped over the prone body and headed for the street at the end of the alley several buildings ahead. Her heart raced as fast as her feet. The ground rumbled from the weight of those chasing her, and the opening seemed to get farther away instead of closer.
A whoop or whistle had her chancing a glance over her shoulder.
Like the devil riding out of hell, a horse raced right between the two men, knocking them aside.
"Hold out your arm, darling," the rider shouted. "Lucky will save you!"
The two men were scrambling to their feet. The horse getting closer. Her choices were clear: get run over and caught or leap on the horse behind the devil himself.
Instinct, again, had her choosing the latter.
Turning, she held out an arm, and as the man's hand clamped her elbow, she jumped, flinging one leg over the back of the saddle. She'd leaped on behind her father more than once, way back when, before he'd left her with Smitty. He'd been the one man she could always count on, Smitty that was, right up until the end. God rest his soul. Unlike most men, he deserved a place behind the pearly gates.
"Hold on, darling," the man in front of her shouted.
The clop of hooves echoed against the bricks as the horse rounded the corner, entering the street. Maddie wrapped both arms around the stranger to keep from sliding off, and caught a glimpse of her pursuers shaking their fists in the air.
Laughter from the rider in front of her filled the air, and feeling a touch of elation, Maddie shouted, "Are you?"
"Am I what?" the man asked in return.
"Lucky?" She could use some of that. Hers seemed to have run out weeks ago.
"Hold on, and you'll find out."
He took another corner, and then zigged and zagged down streets and up others, turning so many times she was dizzy, and lost, but Maddie kept her knees bent, legs out of his way as the man heeled the horse, keeping it at a full run.
Sea aira mixture of dirty water, salt, dead fish and wet woodstung her nose when he brought the horse to an abrupt halt. They dismounted at the same time, and he grabbed her by the back of one arm, propelling her in one direction while slapping the horse on the backside, sending it in the opposite way.
"In here," he directed, hushed and hurried.
The tall building blocked the moonlight, making it impossible to see much of anything. He'd saved her from the other men, but that didn't mean he was safe. Few men were. Life had taught her that. "What about your horse?" she asked, trying to buy time to figure out an escape on her own this time.
"It wasn't mine," he answered. "I stole it."
She dug her heels into the dirt. "Stole it?"
His strength was no match as he pulled her forward. "Don't give up on me now, darling."
"Don't call me darling," she said. "And let go of me."
"Can't. Alan Ridge isn't going to be happy when he learns you knocked out his henchman. I may have gotten his other men off our tail for a bit, but eventually they'll learn where we went. At least the general direction." He threw open a door. "You can trust Lucky, darling. You're safe with me."
A chill rippled through Maddie. Mad Dog Rodriquez and Alan Ridge were the same man; she'd discovered that in the first town she'd hightailed out of in the dead of the night. Smitty had heard Mad Dog was in Mexico, and that was why he'd sent her to California: to escape the outlaw for good. That plan had backfired and she'd been doing little more than avoiding capture since stepping off the train. Mad Dog had a penchant for stealing girls and selling them at high bounties, but that wasn't the only reason he was pursing her.
"You know Alan Ridge?" she asked.
"I know of him."
She didn't like it, not one little bit, but Lucky, as he called himself, seemed her only alternative at this moment. Given her choices, Maddie followed him, vowing to escape the first chance she got.
He closed the door behind them and let go of her arm but took her hand as he spun around. It was even darker inside, completely black. "Hold on to my belt. I'll never find you in here if we get separated."
Maddie was contemplating that when he whispered again. "But Ridge's men will. Have no doubt about that, darling. When that one comes to, he's going to be looking harder than ever."
"Are you one of Ridge's men?" she asked point-blank, though not really sure what she'd do if he said yes.
"Aw, darling," he drawled. "Would I be trying to save you if I was in cahoots with him?"
Men were a fickle bunch, and not a one of them was above lying, yet her instincts, which she hoped weren't trying to fool her, said she could trust this man. However, her ire was still riding high. "Will you stop calling me that," she hissed, while wrapping her fingers beneath his belt. Men who'd ridden with her father always called her darling. She'd hated it then, and hated it now. Along with everything else about her past.
Lucky started walking forward slowly, as if feeling his way. "I will if you tell me your name."
"Maddie. Madeline Elizabeth Stockwell," she answered. It was a good name. This one she'd settled on. No one could trace it back to Bass. That wasn't likely, considering he'd been calling himself Boots Smith when he died, but she wanted to sever all ties to her former life. California was supposed to have been a fresh start, but since arriving, she'd found herself running more than when living with outlaws.
"Well, ain't that a mouthful?"
Stung, she retorted, "It's better than Lucky."
"Lucky's just my nickname, darling. Real one's Cole. Cole DuMont."
"Who gave you a nickname like that?"
"You gave yourself a nickname?" She'd given herself a full name, but that had been a necessity; giving yourself a nickname was just plain silly. Maddie was her real name, as far as she knew. Madeline as well as Elizabeth and Stockwell were ones she'd chosen. They sounded distinguished. Proper. That was what she wanted. A real, proper and distinguished life. She'd have it, too. If she ever got away from Mad Dog and his henchmen.
"Sure enough did." Lucky paused to open a door.
"Figured if I called myself that often enough, it would stick. Luck, that is."
She followed him outside. The air was cool and it had started to rain. Mist really, since it was more as though the water just hung in the air rather than falling to the ground.
"Has it worked?" she asked, curious.
"Sure enough has."
The moisture-filled air was darker, and she wondered how he'd found the next door he opened. Luck, maybe?
They did that several times, entered buildings, weaved around boxes and cratesat least she assumed that was what was on both sides of them, snagging her dress sleeves at timesand exited only to take a few steps before entering another one. Warehouses along the seashore were like that. Long lines of buildings storing the cargo shipped in and out of the bay. She'd explored them during the day in the town she'd first arrived in, but the men she'd encountered along the seashore made her not want to visit the docks again.
Mad Dog's men.
"Was that Ridge's horse you stole?" she asked.
"Don't know," he answered. "I'd just stepped out the back door when I saw you knock down Bubba."
"Bubba?" This building had a sharp, almost sickeningly sweet scent filling it, like molasses, and she glanced around, but might as well have had a burlap bag over her head. She couldn't make out anything in the darkness.
"Don't rightly know if that was his name or not," Lucky said, "but he was one of Ridge's men. I saw the other two going after you, so I ran around front and jumped on the first horse I came to."
They were still whispering, and it was making her voice burn. At least that had to be why her throat felt so thick. "Why?"
"Why'd you steal the horse?"
"To rescue you." He stopped suddenly and she bumped into his back before stilling her steps. "You do know what Alan Ridge does with the girls his men snatch off the streets, don't you?"
"I've heard." She refrained from admitting all she knew about the alias Mad Dog had taken on. It seemed the outlaw was now the leader of his own gang and had henchmen in every town lining the coast.
Luckyshe still thought that was a silly nameopened another door and scanned the area like he'd done at each one before.
"Don't worry," he whispered. "Ridge won't catch us. Not tonight."
Stepping into the wet night air once again, Maddie squinted, hoping to see something this time. Nothing but blackness, yet she could hear water sloshing. "You sound funny," she said when he opened another door.
"That's because I was born and raised down by New Orleans. A bayou boy. That's what my granny always called me."
"What are you doing here?"
"Shh," he said. "Listen."
She did, until her ears stung from the thundering of her own blood.
"Must've been a rat," he said, moving forward.
Maddie quivered. Rats came in all shapes and sizes, and she knew firsthand how some walked on two legs, pretending to be human.
"Don't worry, darling, rats don't like us any more than we like them. It's not much farther, either."
"Maddie, the name's Maddie."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, as cocky as every other statement he'd made.
After the last building, he led her along a series of docks. Thick fog had settled in, and so had her nerves. An escape route hadn't presented itself. Lucky may have rescued her from that alley, but that was not to say he wasn't as bad as Mad Dog. He could be taking her to a place no better than Mad Dog did the girls he captured. Long ago she'd figured out what happened to those girls before they were sold. She hadn't let that happen back in Colorado, and wasn't going to let it happen here, either. Not with Mad Dog or a man who called himself Lucky.
He stopped and started unlooping a thick rope from one of the posts lining the dock. "Climb down."
She peered over the edge. A rowboat bounced in the water. "Into that?"
"So I can row you out to my uncle's ship. The Mary Jane. It's sailing for Seattle posthaste."
Her heart skipped several beats. "Seattle?"
That could be far enough away, but traveling cost moneysomething she didn't have. The small chunk of gold sewn in the waistband of her petticoat was her seed gold. Smitty had given it to her when she'd left Colorado, along with all the cash he'd had. He'd said he wouldn't need it where he was going, and Maddie had promised to make him proud. To become a woman he could smile down upon while he was busy filling the world with sunshine even on cloudy days. A smile tugged at her lips, remembering how Smitty had insisted if she ever needed him, all she had to do was look up. He'd brighten the sky for her.
"Come on," Lucky said, as he turned around and started climbing down the wooden ladder. "Unless you want to stay here, become one of Ridge's girls."
Something changed, and Maddie glanced up. Strangely there was a momentary part in the clouds. The moon, as big, round and right as she'd ever seen, peeked through and shone down on her. Her heart skipped several more beats as she glanced back toward the rowboat. Still cautious, she asked, "How much will it cost me?"
It was the first time she got a good look at Lucky's face. Kind of long, with a square, clean-shaven jaw. It was his eyes that caught her attention. Even in the fog they twinkled as if that was where the stars were, instead of high above the clouds where nobody could see them. She glanced up again. The moon was gone. No stars, either.
"Come on, Maddie," Lucky coaxed. "I promise you're safe with me. You'll be safe all the way to Seattle."
There were no others mingling around, no one to hear if she shouted, unless perhaps Mad Dog or his menif they had followed. She wanted to believe Lucky, climb down and escape this town and all the dangers it held, yet caution had been her constant companion for years. "How do you know I don't have family here?" she asked. "Someone looking for me. Right now, even. Who'll hunt you down, along with Ridge."