Nathaniel has many names. They call him Deathrider, White Wolf, the Plague of the West. He’s the ice-eyed killer of the plains; the ghost of the trail; the restless spirit who haunts the frontier from California to Missouri, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. They say he moves silently through the night and changes form to run with the wolves. Or so the rumors go.…
Ava Archer wouldn’t know. She’s never seen him. But that doesn’t stop her from writing about him. After more than a dozen dime novels about the Plague of the West, she thinks she probably knows him better than he knows himself—even if she wouldn’t recognize him on the street.
Nathaniel is ready to put the rumors about him to bed by confronting A. A. Archer. But he never could have predicted that she wouldn’t be at all what he expected, but rather a sexy redheaded woman with sloe-dark eyes who could slay a man at fifty paces. And she’s not looking to play fair.
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Southern California, 1850
There was a naked man in the desert.
Ava Archer knew trouble when she saw it, and this was trouble with a capital T. She was alone in the desert, her horse was played out, her canteen was bone-dry, and she was out of bullets. This was no time to be running into natives. Even a solitary one. If she had any sense at all, she would turn right around and run in the other direction . . . but Kennedy Voss was in the other direction, and Kennedy Voss was a mean son of a bitch. Besides, she was desperate for water, and maybe this Indian had some.
She'd thought she'd known thirst before-but this was something else again. She felt made of grit and sand, her every pore a desert in miniature, her tongue thick and swollen in her cottony mouth; even her eyes and nose had dried out. And every thud of her horse's hooves on the ground made a drumbeat: Water. Water. Water. Water.
So Ava kept on toward the man, pulled by the hope of water. As she plodded closer, she reassured herself that at least there was only one of him, and from what she could see, he was in bad shape: he was squatting under the screamingly bright September sun, naked from the waist up, his body a patchwork of bruises, and both of his eyes swollen shut. Ava doubted he could see her. But he knew she was there, because he rose to his feet at the sound of her tired horse dragging his way.
Oh dear. He wasn't mostly naked, she saw as he stood: he was completely naked. He was also tall, wide, and terrifyingly powerful. A warrior. He was the color of rosewood, his muscles as hard as if he'd been carved from a tree. And he was covered in tattoos, including a sprawling, intricate pattern in the shape of a bird, which stretched its wings the breadth of his thickly muscled chest. His hair was long, loose, and coated in dust; it fell down his back in tangles to his shoulder blades. He was bruised all over, she realized as her gaze drifted down, wincing as she took in the black blotches on his legs. There was a particularly nasty one on his hip, right next to . . .
Ava tore her gaze away. Hell. She was alone in the desert with a naked man. A big, powerful, wounded naked man. And she was heat struck and ill with thirst, barely able to think straight.
She couldn't have stumbled onto a little old lady instead? Or a nice family, with a pack of kids? A pack of kids and an icy-cold barrel of water . . .
Ava rubbed her hand across her dry mouth. She felt skin flakes come away on her fingers and winced. She needed to get hold of herself. She was growing delirious. This here was just an injured man. Probably an Apache, considering she was somewhere near the Apacheria. Probably. Maybe. Who knew where the hell she was, to be honest. Purgatory seemed likely. Little old ladies and nice families didn't go wandering around Purgatory-this was the best she could hope for. She should have been grateful that he was just one beat-up Apache and not a whole party. And at least he wasn't Kennedy Voss. Without even realizing she was doing it, she glanced over her shoulder, as though thinking about Voss might summon him. That man gave her the willies. Voss was likely to be somewhere nearby (she hadn't had that much of a head start on him), and here she was about to die of thirst right in his path. She didn't have time to be distracted by naked strangers.
This Apache here might be big, and he might have more muscles than she'd ever seen on a man, but he didn't look too fearsome. Not as fearsome as Voss anyway. He wasn't charging at her or yelling at her or even looking angry. In fact, he stood quite calmly, head cocked, listening. And he was naked. That was just about as vulnerable as a man could get. Not to mention the fact that his eyes looked to be swollen all to hell.
Naked and blind. He was bound to be more scared of her than she was of him. . . .
Ava pulled her horse up a good few feet away from him. He held a rock loosely in his hand and seemed ready to peg it in her direction if she threatened him, but other than the rock, he wasn't armed. In fact, he didn't seem to have anything, she realized in shock as she took in the area around him. No weapons, no clothes, no horse, no baggage. No water.
Ava couldn't suppress her groan. He didn't have so much as a half-empty waterskin. Nothing. Her gaze flicked from him to the landscape around him, over and over again, compulsively hunting for water, as though she could will it into existence. She might well die out here, she realized, feeling light-headed with horror. After all of her years flirting with death, this might be it. And what a stupid way to die, running out of water in the desert. She'd survived gunslingers and gamblers, robbers and raiders, cold-blooded killers and the worst the west had to offer. Not one of those things had got the best of her. How could she be defeated now by something as simple as a lack of water?
This time her groan was splintered. And there was more than a touch of rage in it.
At the sound his hand tightened on his rock, and he frowned. She'd just given away the fact that she was a woman, she realized. Oh well. It had to happen eventually. And what did it matter? She was the one on a horse. He could hardly catch her on foot. Especially in his condition.
"Do you speak English?" she called out to him. "Or Spanish?" She switched to Spanish, which she spoke badly. She hoped he spoke one of them, because she sure as hell couldn't speak Apache.
"Both," he replied. "Ambos." His voice was deep, smooth, startling.
"I don't suppose you have any water?" she asked, hoping against hope.
"Let me check my pockets," he said dryly. He seemed calm, but Ava could see his hand clenching and unclenching around the rock. Then something seemed to occur to him. "If you're asking me for water, that must mean you don't have any . . ."
She shifted irritably in the saddle. "And if you're that disappointed that I'm asking, that means you don't have any either."
"Looks like we're a matched pair."
He might be beat-up, but he seemed lively enough. His blindness and bruises looked painful, but he was standing tall and his wits were sharp. Ava didn't know yet if this was a good thing or not.
"You speak English well," she observed.
"So do you," he said, deadpan.
He was lively enough to be a regular clown, this Apache.
But lively or not, if he had no water, she had no call for him. She sighed. Poor guy. He wasn't going to last long out here, naked and alone, without water or a horse. And blind to boot.
"Well, although it's been a pleasure, albeit a brief one, I can't stay," she said, feeling a deep melancholy bloom at the thought of his fate. But what could she do? She didn't have any water to offer. All she had was some salty hardtack, and that was hardly likely to help; it would only make him more thirsty. She should know; she'd been gnawing on it all morning, and her thirst was out of control.
"I'm sorry I don't have anything to offer you," she apologized. "I wish I did. But since I don't . . . I'll have to be pressing on. Good luck out here, mister."
"You'll be pressing on?" He sounded astonished.
"Yeah," she said. "Unless you find water in your pockets." She hoped her horse could make it a bit farther. She hoped she could make it a bit farther. Oh God, think of all the water she'd wasted over the years; think of the washbowls she'd tipped out; think of the glasses gone unfinished, the streams and creeks passed by. . . . "I really need water," she said miserably, squinting at the parched desert, knowing every direction would lead her to more desert.
"You really need water?" Now there was a real edge to his voice. An edge she didn't like. She eyed him. He was a big one. Big enough that she didn't fancy a run-in with him, even if he was all beat-up.
"Mister, if I had any, I'd give you some. But I don't, so I can't." Ava gathered the reins into one fist and put her hand on the holster of her gun. Even though the weapon was without bullets, it reassured her to feel it under her palm. "There's no point in complaining. Facts are facts: my pockets are as empty as yours." Her gaze returned to his naked flanks. At least she had pockets. This poor bastard was deprived even of those.
"And you're just going to leave me here? In the desert? With no water?" His bruised and swollen face was trying to make her feel guilty, she could tell, even though it was hard for him to actually make an expression because of all the swelling.
"Oh no," she said, exasperated. "No, you don't. Don't you put the guilts on me. You are no concern of mine. I am not in any way responsible for your fate; I have enough on my plate looking after me."
"I have no horse. No food. No water." He was all but counting off on his fingers. "No clothing. How long do you think I'll last out here? You'd leave a man to die alone in the desert?"
Her ire was pricked. Wasn't she coping with enough? She didn't see why she should have to take responsibility for him on top of everything else. She had her own problems. Lots of them. Big ones, armed to the teeth. Not to mention that she was dying of thirst.
"I didn't put you here," she reminded him. "It's none of my business why you don't have so much as a stitch of clothing on. I didn't take your horse and your tack and your canteen. I didn't beat you black-and-blue. Besides, for all I know, you deserved it."
"I didn't." He was looking downright surly now.
Ava's head hurt. She was burning hot and cold with thirst fever, and she kept thinking senselessly about the posse of men riding north, away from her. Now she'd never catch up to them. Because she'd be dead. In the desert. She yanked at the brim of her hat. Goddamn it all to hell. She couldn't seem to catch a break.
"You can't leave me here. I can't even see," the Indian growled at her.
"Well, if you could see, you'd see that I ain't impressed, not by any of this nonsense." She used her sternest voice. Men. They were just so difficult. It didn't matter if they were white or Indian or blue in the face; they were more trouble than they were worth. Demanding, self-focused, bossy, needy. It was all me me me. No one looked after her; so she didn't see why she should look after him.
"I can't help you," she told him stiffly. "I'm in dire circumstances myself. I wish you all the best, but I'm no help to you. I'm sure someone else will come along directly who does have water and can offer you some assistance." She'd come over all formal. She was keenly aware of the ridiculousness of the whole thing, getting uppity with a battered Indian in the middle of nowhere. While they both died of thirst.
Her life was absurd.
But then it always had been.
He snorted. "Someone else will come along? It's some kind of miracle that you came along."
"Miracle? Curse is more accurate." She hadn't meant to say that aloud. She'd meant to bid him good day and ride off, but here she was, still having this insane conversation. It was only encouraging him.
"If you ride away, you'll have my death on your conscience," he warned her. "You'll be complicit. It's manslaughter."
Complicit. Manslaughter. Jesus wept, the man spoke like a lawyer. And he was out-uppitying her.
"Well, I won't feel bad about it for long," she retorted, "as I'm liable to die out here myself in the next couple of days." She paused as a thought struck her. "Maybe I'm already dead." This seemed a likely possibility now that she thought of it. She'd expired of thirst in the desert and was doomed to roam it for all eternity, looking for water. And to get stuck arguing with dead Indians. Because if she was dead, so was he. They were just a couple of cranky ghosts.
"If you go, I'm doomed," he said darkly, talking right over the top of her.
If he was a ghost, he was a yappy one-that was for sure. Where did he get the energy? It made her throbbing head hurt.
"It's tantamount to murder."
Tantamount. There he went, being all lawyerly again.
Did Indians have lawyers? Probably. They had laws and rules just like everyone else-someone had to be in charge of all that.
Trust her to find a lawyer in the middle of nowhere.
"If you leave me, I'll die slowly, in enormous pain," he continued. "And then I'll haunt you."
"You're already haunting me," she muttered. Just ride away. She didn't know this Apache ghost from Adam. She didn't owe him anything.
But tantamount to murder . . . Jesus wept. Now she had an image in her head. If she rode off, he'd return to squatting on the griddle-plate-hot ground, crisping in the hot sun. He'd die alone, with no one to talk lawyer talk to. The carrion birds would come, and eventually his bones would bleach and be blown by the winds. And no one would ever know what had happened to him.
Goddamn. This was all LeFoy's fault. If it wasn't for him and his Great Hunt, she wouldn't even be here. She'd be safe and sound in San Francisco, taking some rest and enjoying the cool sea breezes. She wouldn't be doing anything that was tantamount to murder.
"Fine," she said through clenched teeth, "but I'm only taking you as far as the next humans. I don't care if it's your tribe, or white people, or some old coot out hunting jackrabbits."
"It's unlikely to be my people."