Alexandra Barratt has found the perfect man--it's a shame he thinks she's a boy...
Fleeing from the murderous Grady brothers, Alexandra disguises herself as a boy and joins a frontier party heading West, with her brother and sister in tow. The wagon train is captained by the irresistible Luke Slater, who's never met a woman he couldn't charm.
At first, Alex can't believe the way every woman in town falls at Luke's feet, including her suddenly flirtatious sister. But when she sees him naked in the bathtub, she finds herself swooning over him too. If only she could wash the muck of her face and show him who she really is. Unfortunately she has more pressing concerns...
The Gradys aren't about to let Alex, nor the small fortune she stole from them, slip through their fingers. Only by maintaining her ruse does she have a chance of protecting her family. But fate, it seems, is conspiring against her.
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Grady's Point, Mississippi, 1843
Alexandra Barratt wasn't a violent woman. Most times she couldn't even crush a house spider. But Silas Grady was no spider. Silas Grady was a blackhearted, lily-livered, weak-kneed swamp rat. If anything, death was too good for him.
She couldn't believe the nerve of him, knocking on her door like nothing had happened. He was swaying on his feet and there was still dried blood stuck to his neck.
"It's your only hope," he said thickly. "Marry me, Alex."
If Sheriff Deveraux hadn't been standing right there she might have forgotten she wasn't a violent woman and reached for the ax. But Sheriff Deveraux was standing right there.
"Marry me, Alex. I can keep you safe."
"Safe!" White fury licked at her. He was mighty lucky that ax was out of arm's reach. "And who will keep me safe from you?"
"It's Miss Barratt to you, and how dare you come here after what you did today?"
"What I did . . .?" He swayed, confused.
Alex said a silent prayer. With any luck she could carry this off and get out of here before Gideon showed up. Silas was a lecherous, scheming idiot, but his brother was something much, much worse. "You arrest him," Alex demanded, turning to the sheriff.
The fat old man looked startled. He made a gruff harrumphing noise and hiked his pants up. "Now, Miss Barratt, you know I can't do that."
"I know no such thing. Every week since Ma and Pa died I've come to you with a complaint about this man." She pointed a fierce finger at Silas's face. "He and his brothers have terrorized us. They've tried to starve us out. And you've done nothing!"
The sheriff grew red-faced, but didn't manage more than a mutter. It was all Alex expected from him, bloated excuse for a lawman that he was. "If you won't do anything I'll send for a federal marshal."
"Now, really, Miss Barratt, this isn't the frontier."
"It might as well be, for all the law there is around here." She lifted her nose in the air and tried to look imperious, which wasn't easy considering her rising panic. She had to get out of here before Gideon came. He'd probably made it home by now and found the mess she'd left . . . Oh glory, the thought was almost her undoing. Gideon was a maniac. Who knew what he'd do to her if he caught her?
"If you aren't going to arrest him, I don't see what choice you leave me." She kept brazening her way through it. Thank the Lord Silas was still concussed from that blow to the head. If he had half a brain he'd be demanding that the sheriff arrest her. He had fair cause: over the course of the afternoon she'd knocked him out cold, stolen his brother's property and assaulted his evil witch of a mother.
And it was entirely his own fault, she thought, fixing him with a black glare. He flinched and fingered the wound on the back of his head.
"I've told you at least twenty times in no uncertain terms that I won't marry you," she snapped at him. "But you won't take no for an answer, will you? Well, I didn't say yes when you starved us, and I won't say yes now. So get off my property! It is still my property, you know." She turned her black glare on the sheriff, who at least had the good grace to look shamefaced. "If you won't arrest him, you could at the very least escort him off my land! Trespassing is still illegal, isn't it?"
"Come on, Grady," Sheriff Deveraux mumbled. "You'd best try your luck another day." He took Silas by the elbow.
"I'm your last hope," Silas said miserably. "He won't hurt you if you're my wife."
"Get out!" The edge of hysteria in her voice was quite real. She slammed the door behind them and yanked up the trapdoor to the root cellar, where her foster siblings were hiding. "Up!" she ordered. "Quick!"
"Give the gold back," her foster sister moaned as she struggled up the ladder. "Now, while the sheriff is still here."
"Are you mad?" Alex raced through the small house, throwing what precious little they still had into a sheet and tying it into a bundle. She tossed it to her foster brother, who was sitting on the lip of the cellar, looking despondent. "Don't worry, Adam," she soothed, running her fingers through his tousled hair.
"You're the mad one!" Victoria snapped. "Gideon will kill you if you don't give that gold back."
"He'll kill me anyway," Alex said grimly.
They heard a shot and Victoria screamed. Alex ran for the front window.
It was too late. Gideon was here. Poor, fat Sheriff Deveraux lay on the squashed dogwood blossoms, slain by Gideon's shotgun. As Alex watched, Gideon took a swing at Silas with the still-smoking gun. Silas managed to duck, but slipped on the fleshy blossoms and fell on his behind. Gideon kicked him.
"This is your fault, Spineless," he snarled. "If you hadn't kept sniffing after that bitch, none of this would have happened." The look on his narrow, ferrety face made the hair rise on the back of Alex's neck. It wasn't the anger that was frightening, it was the glint of barely suppressed glee. Gideon wasn't just going to hurt her, he was going to enjoy hurting her.
He looked up and saw her standing in the window. "Evenin', Miss Barratt," he called. Like they were meeting down at the store, or at one of Dyson's dances. She'd be damned before she'd show him fear. Alex yanked the blind down. It was a relief not to look at him, but a little scrap of cloth wasn't going to protect her from him. She bolted the door.
"Well, that ain't a neighborly way to behave," he called. God help them, the bastard was enjoying himself already. "Ain't ya going to ask us in for tea?" He laughed and Victoria started to cry.
"What are we going to do?" Vicky whined. "We don't even have a gun."
No. And the ax was still buried in the block out on the porch. Alex grabbed a couple of kitchen knives. They looked puny in her hands. "Here." She gave one to each of her siblings. "We'll go out the bedroom window. Go!" She grabbed a fire iron for herself.
Victoria looked down at the knife in horror. "What do you expect me to do with this?"
"Be careful," Adam said. "Ma said to be careful with knives. They cut."
Alex closed her eyes. What was she thinking? What good would a knife do Adam? He couldn't hurt anyone. You were touched by God, Ma used to tell him when the town children had laughed at him and called him names. The Sparrows had taken him in when no one else would have him. You're one of His special children. He was eighteen now, the same age as Vicky, but he was still a child. He would always be a child, and she had no right asking him to wield a knife.
"Don't touch knives," he said firmly as he looked down at the blade in his hand. "Don't touch the stove, it burns; don't touch the fire, it burns."
There was a knock at the door. "Last chance to be neighborly, Miss Barratt!"
"Go to hell!"
"Alex!" Alex heard the raw terror in her sister's voice at the exact moment she smelled the smoke. Victoria had opened the bedroom door to reveal a slow rolling cloud of smoke and the lick of orange flames. The bastard had set fire to the house!
"Oh, little pigs!" Gideon called, his voice bright with laughter. "Open up or I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow your house in!"
"We're going to die!" The knife fell from Victoria's fingers and clattered to the floor.
"No, we're not." Alex shoved Victoria and Adam toward the ladder to the loft where Adam slept. "Climb," she snapped. The smoke was rising and they coughed as they scurried upward. As soon as they reached the narrow loft, Alex threw open the window. There was a big old black cherry tree growing close to the house.
"You can't expect us to climb down that!" Victoria gasped.
"Why not? We did it all the time when we were children. Out you go, Adam. Be careful. When you get to the bottom, run for cover in the woods. If we get separated, we'll meet at the old fishing spot." She turned back to Victoria as Adam disappeared down the tree. "Did you hear me?"
"The old fishing spot, I heard." Victoria coughed. "If I die climbing down that tree, I'll never forgive you."
"What if Bert and Travis are out there too? They might have circled the house."
It had occurred to Alex that there were still two Grady brothers unaccounted for. But what choice did they have? They could hardly stay here and burn, could they? And walking straight into Gideon's arms wasn't an option. "I saw them heading into town earlier. They'll be out drinking all night," she reassured Victoria, although she wasn't sure it was true. Gideon might have fetched them home after all the kerfuffle.
She heard the crackle of wood and winced. "Hurry, before the whole house goes up." The two of them scrambled into the tree. Alex heard Victoria's shallow breathing. "Don't look down," she counseled. By the time they reached the bottom the house was an orange blaze.
"Oh, little pigs!" Gideon was coming around the house, his mad voice high and clear, even over the crackling of the fire.
Alex grabbed Victoria and they went belting toward the woods. And ran smack bang into Silas. Victoria screamed.
"Shut up," he growled, covering her mouth with his hand.
"You let her go!" Alex shrieked, clawing at him.
"Shut up the both of you, or he'll find us." Silas's eyes widened suddenly and he went very still.
Her brother still had his knife, the tip of which was pricking Silas in the kidney. "Knives are sharp," he said, "knives cut."
"Spineless?" Gideon's voice was coming closer. "Have you caught a little pig?"
"Let her go," Alex hissed at Silas.
"Let me help you," he begged.
"You?" she scoffed. "I'd sooner trust an alligator than a Grady." Alex took the knife off Adam.
Silas regarded it with disdain. "That won't be any match for his shotgun."
"Run, Victoria. Take Adam and run."
"Where?" Victoria was wild-eyed with panic. "And what about you?"
"If we leave him, he'll only come after us. Get away. I'll meet you at that place I mentioned." She shooed them with her hand. "Go!"
She couldn't risk looking away from Silas. She was afraid he'd make a lunge for her. She could hear the crunch of bracken under her siblings' feet as they ran, and then they were gone and she was alone with Silas Grady.
"What are you going to do now?" He sounded smug. He had her. She couldn't run; he would throw her to the ground the minute she turned her back.
"I'll tell you where the gold is if you promise to let me go."
He shrugged. "Gideon will make you tell us where the gold is anyway."
She jumped. Gideon was so close.
"I can protect you, Alex," Silas whispered. "Your brother and sister are free. They can stay free. I can keep you safe."
Like hell. Alex's fingers tightened around both the knife and the fire iron. She would rather die than give herself to Silas Grady. But she couldn't die, she thought desperately. Victoria and Adam would never survive without her. They needed her.
"You promise you can keep me safe from Gideon?" She crept closer to him, playing for time. The longer she kept him occupied, the better the chance of Victoria and Adam getting away safe. The hilt of the knife was slippery in her sweaty palm. Did she have it in her to use it?
"I'd do anything for you," he said. It was hard to see his face in the falling darkness, and the glow from her burning home backlit him, rimming him with orange light. It was a mercy not to see his expression. She didn't want to see his stupid look of adoration, or the uncompromising lust in his eyes. She shuddered.
"Anything?" She crept closer, until they were almost touching. One thrust would send the knife sinking into his belly. Her fingers tightened around the hilt.
She broke out in a cold sweat and the knife trembled in her hand. She couldn't do it. She just didn't have it in her to murder a man. She pictured Vicky and Adam waiting for her at the fishing hole, huddling together in the darkness as the bullfrogs sang and the mosquitoes whined. If she didn't kill him now, she would have to sacrifice herself. She clenched her teeth. One thrust and it would be over . . .
No. She couldn't. The knife fell from her fingers and she tasted ash. "You win," she said softly.
"Oh, Alex." Silas's foul mouth crushed down on hers and his disgusting tongue jabbed at her lips. The minute she felt that thick, hot slug of a tongue she came to her senses. Revolted, she spun around and struck out. The fire iron whistled through the air and came down hard on the back of his head. Silas made a grunting sound and then slumped to the ground.
She heard Gideon closing in, still mocking her with a sound like a squealing pig. Panicked, she ran. Behind her, the black cherry tree had caught and blazed like a roman candle, and there was an almighty crunching noise as the house collapsed in on itself. Sparks flew skyward into the night. There went home.
Alex ran like the devil himself was after her. She had to find Adam and Victoria and get out of Grady's Point before Gideon caught up to them. She heard a gunshot echoing through the firelit woods. Never mind getting out of Grady's Point, they had to get out of the state, maybe even the South. She wouldn't rest safe until she'd put a thousand miles between herself and Gideon Grady.