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Jefferson City, Missouri, 1886
"Care to try that again?" She bobbed to the right, bouncing on the balls of her feet, waiting for Sammy to take another drunken swing. "Come on, Sammy, give it up," she coaxed.
"Who are you, mister?" he asked, a moment before striking out with a weak right hook.
The punch grazed her shoulder. She stumbled back a step before regaining her footing and landing a solid punch to his midsection. He dropped to the ground with a heavy thump.
With the sky turning to dusk, few people were out, but her eyes darted to either end of the darkened alley, assuring herself that their conversation was still a private one. "Now, are you going to come willingly, or do I have to do a little more convincing?"
"No, no." Sammy raised his hands in surrender. "I won't give you any more trouble."
"Good." She pulled a pearl-handled Smith & Wesson revolver from the waistband of her pants. "Get up."
Sammy stumbled to his feet, his eyes blotched red from too much drink.
"Turn around." She flattened his hands against the side of the building, smoothing hers down his body from shoulders to ankles to check for weapons. "Fancy that, Sammy. You haven't been this clean since the day you were born."
"I didn't do nothin'," he protested.
"You squealed on your best friend for a bottle of whiskey and a train ticket out of town."
He whirled around. His beady eyeballs nearly popped the sockets of his long, narrow face. "H-how'd you know about th-that?"
Her free hand slipped inside the pocket of her oversized coat for a set of heavy metal handcuffs. "It's my job to know these things, Sammy," she replied easily,motioning him back toward the wall.
The hairs on the back of her neck rose as she sensed a change in her surroundings. Her head swung around a second before she heard me deep male voice.
"Hey! What are you doing?"
The stranger stepped closer, into the shadows of the alley, until all she could make out clearly was the broad expanse of his shoulders.
The barrel of her gun pressed more deeply into Sammy's back as she replaced me cuffs in her pocket, readying herself to deal with this newest threat. "This ain't none of your concern," she told him, making her voice unnaturally rough. "Mind your business and get the hell out of here."
"I don't think so," he said evenly.
"You gotta help me, mister," Sammy whined.
"Shut up, Sammy," she growled.
But Sammy didn't heed the warning. He edged forward a step. "I told him I ain't got no money on me, but he don't believe it. You gotta help me," he pleaded with the stranger. "'Fore he shoots me in the back."
The last thing she needed was some good Samaritan poking his nose where it didn't belong. With any luck, he'd back off and she wouldn't have to shoot him.
The stranger took another step forward.
So much for that, she thought.
"I'd hate to waste a bullet killing an innocent man," she said, changing the direction of her aim.
He stared down the barrel of the revolver. "I'd hate to die," he replied smoothly.
"Then just turn around and walk away."
"I can't do that."
Suddenly Sammy broke free, racing for the street.
"Sammy!" She aimed for his thigh, intending to hobble, not kill him.
But before she could get off a shot, the stranger barreled into her, knocking her to her back on the hard ground. The air rushed out of her lungs as the revolver spun across the ground, out of reach.
She kicked, but the man pinned her legs. She tried to wriggle away, but strong hands pressed into her shoulders, keeping her flat.
"Give it up," he ordered.
Her struggles ceased. She forced herself to relax, letting her muscles go slack.
"Good," the man said.
She watched him carefully, waiting for his guard to drop.
He sat up on his haunches, straddling her hips. "Christ, for such a scrawny fellow, you sure can hold your own," he said, wiping the palms of his hands on his thighs as he got to his feet. "We both know the odds are against you, mister. Get up." He extended an arm in her direction.
She watched him carefully. "You taking me to jail?" she asked.
"You did try to rob that man," was his only answer.
Letting out a breath, she lowered her eyes in defeat. With great reluctance, she put her hand in his. He gave a tug and pulled her to her feet.
"Let's go," he said, beginning to turn, as though he expected her to follow.
Lightning-quick, she struck out with the heel of her hand, catching him on the side of the face, just below the eye. He gave a yelp of pain. She knocked him off balance, propelling him into the nearest building, while in the same motion drawing a pearl-handled stiletto from inside her boot.
Her fingers curled around the collar of his shirt. "For such a big man, you sure don't have much brains," she said.
Brandt's eyes narrowed. There was something not quite right about this whole scenario. How had a man of such small stature gotten the drop on him--all six feet three inches of him? And why would this fellow be robbing a man with clothes more tattered than his own?
He looked more closely at his captor's face. Even in the muted evening light he took in long, thick lashes, high cheekbones, and smooth skin without a hint of beard stubble. And bright eyes the color of ... amethyst.
His own eyes widened. His assailant was no man. "You're a--"
"Shut up. Unless you want to explain a new medical condition to your wife."
For a minute he didn't know what she meant. Then he felt the cool steel of a knife at his groin. His gaze darted downward in surprise a second before a grin spread across his face. This woman might be the most able-bodied female he'd ever had the misfortune to run across, but there was no way she'd actually do as she threatened.
"Listen, you're not really going to do anything with that knife," he said.
"Oh, yeah?" The sharp point of the blade pressed against his inner thigh.
He winced. Maybe she did intend to use it. But even if she didn't, accidents happened. She might slip. And he might end up a eunuch.
"I'm going to be real sweet and give you two choices. You can either walk away and never look back, or you can become uncommonly intimate with the blade of my knife." She moved the stiletto a little to the left, cutting into the sensitive flesh of his manhood. "Which is it going to be?" she asked.
"I think I'd like to keep everything right where it is," he said.
She slid the knife from between his legs, slowly. "Then I suggest you start walking."
He cleared his throat, tugging at the front of his trousers to make sure everything was intact.
"It's still there," she told him. "But it won't be for long if you don't get moving."
The silver blade glittered in the pale lamplight. As she palmed the weapon, Brandt noticed a uniquely intricate design carved into the pearl handle. It looked like two forms standing beneath the bowed branches of a large tree.
He raised his head, taking in her loose trousers, baggy black jacket, and knit cap tugged down about her ears. But a heart-shaped face and sparkling eyes belied the masculine ensemble.
And no mere woman was going to get the drop on him.
His hand shot out, grabbing her wrist in a vicelike grip. With a harsh yank, he turned her away from him, twisting her arm behind her back. "Drop the knife," he hissed.
For a moment, she struggled against him, knuckles white on the hilt of the blade. Then her grip loosened. The weapon fell to the dirt with a thud.
He let go of her wrist, sliding an arm seductively about her waist. He couldn't decipher any feminine curves, but that did not dispel his belief in her gender.
"So tell me what a woman is doing out at this time of night," he whispered above her ear. "Dressed like a man."
He didn't feel her movement until the heel of her boot made contact with his shin. Shards of razor-sharp pain splintered up his leg. At the same time, she drove her elbow into his stomach. He doubled over, cursing a rainbow of colorful language.
The woman grabbed up her knife and revolver and took off down the alley without a backward glance.
Brandt limped after her for several paces, then stopped at the corner of the building to soothe his bruised and battered body. A favor to a friend had brought him to this godforsaken town, and he was none too happy about it But he would take tracking down a simple songbird looking for her missing brother over following that woman any day.
And, suddenly, going after Willow Hastings didn't seem like such a trial after all.