Read an Excerpt
By Suzanne Forster
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Suzanne Forster
All rights reserved.
The whining snap of a rawhide whip scorched the silence and sent a flock of turkey buzzards laboring toward the desert sky.
The sudden crackling sound brought Annie Wells to a complete stop. Dust swirled, coating her ragged tennis shoes as she turned to scan the rocky trail she'd just traveled, searching for the source of the noise. It had sounded like the unforgiving lash of a bullwhip. How many men could there be who used such a whip as a weapon? Only one whom she knew of. Sweat trickled down her forehead and into her eyes, stinging them. Her senses sharpened almost to the point of pain as she watched and listened.
All she could see for miles was bone-white Wyoming badlands, cobalt sky, and the golden powder stirred up by the buzzards' flight. All she could hear was the crack of the whip ricocheting eerily off the canyon walls.
Annie waited, hardly daring to breathe, until the landscape grew still again. She'd been walking for miles, ever since the Greyhound bus let her off in Painted Pony, the closest town to the foothills where she was headed. The punishing journey had seemed endless, but now the parched, quivering air held a promise of something about to happen. She could feel it, the way an animal senses a disturbance in the elements. And then, somewhere in the near distance, she heard a dog barking and a horse nickering softly.
Annie's heart lurched crazily as she turned toward the sounds. The horse whinnied again, its plaintive report coming from behind a nearby ridge. Barely aware of her bruised shins or the burning fatigue in her calf muscles, she hurried toward the outcropping of rocks and spindly piñon trees. As she reached the embankment, she dropped to her knees. What she saw in the shallow gulch below brought a soft gasp of recognition to her lips.
A man stood on the edge of a dry creek bed, his back to her, his shoulders wide against the blue and white horizon. He was a prodigiously tall man, with dark hair curling from the back of his sweat-ringed Stetson. His long duster coat, which nearly touched the ground, was the kind gunslingers once wore to conceal their sawed-off shotguns. But instead of a gun, this man held a huge bullwhip, coiled and ready at his side.
Annie ducked down, inhaling arid heat and dust as she peered over the rocks that hid her from view. She knew the man. She'd seen him in action before, with his bullwhip.
A rattling hiss pulled Annie's attention away from the man and riveted it on the deadly adversary he faced. Some ten feet to the man's right an enormous diamondback rattler held an excited Border collie at bay. Ready to strike, the swaying snake warned away all comers with its gleaming fangs and ominous death rattle.
The collie yelped, trembling, dancing.
The snake struck out, a flash of light and sinew.
Annie watched in mute horror as the man's bullwhip cracked the dry air like black lightning. It caught the rattler by its outstretched body, lifted it right off the ground, and hurled it into the creosote at the foot of the ridge where Annie was crouched. She muffled a cry as the huge reptile began to slither up the hill toward her. Reacting instinctively, she scrambled to her feet, stumbling through loose limestone and spurs of sagebrush in her frantic rush to get away.
She heard the man shouting at her not to move, but he might as well have told her not to breathe. She looked back, searching for the snake, and saw it flashing away from her, a river of silver in the sand. Relief poured through her like water, leaving her dizzy and off-balance. As she fought to get her footing, the rocks crumbled beneath her, giving way.
There was no chance to save herself, no chance even to scream. She pitched forward onto all fours and tumbled down the incline, end over end. Covered with dust and sage, her ginger-colored hair flying from its restraints, she came to an unceremonious landing virtually at the man's booted feet.
"Are you Charles Beaudine?" she whispered a moment later, staring up into his blue-black eyes. His face was as lean and hard and savagely beautiful as she remembered. Nothing had changed, not the burnished muscular contours, the squared-off jaw, or the taut, sensual mouth. Even his dark brows were still stormy enough to cast shadows.
"Maybe," he said. "Who the hell are you?"
Annie drew in a painful breath, trying to fill her empty lungs. "I'm your wife."
"Take the hill, Smoke," Chase Beaudine told his horse, flicking the reins as he urged the Appaloosa gelding up a steep, boulder-studded side trail. The shortcut, a rugged ride that climbed through a stand of quaking aspens, would shave at least a half hour off the trip to his cabin. Every now and then he wondered at the wisdom of having isolated himself so effectively in the foothills of the Wind River Mountains. And then he reminded himself why it had been necessary.
The woman slumped against his chest moaned softly, her head rolling into the curve of his shoulder as the Appaloosa climbed upward, expertly negotiating the steep rise. Crazy female must be sun-struck, Chase thought, feeling a stirring of sympathy as he clamped his arm tighter around her middle to better brace her against his body. She'd fainted dead away on him after mumbling that nonsense about being his wife.
She'd been in and out of consciousness ever since, but never long enough to answer his questions, and she carried no purse or identification. He couldn't imagine where she'd come from, unless she'd walked all the way from Painted Pony, which was a couple hours away by car. But who in her right mind would try a thing like that in the midafternoon heat?
"My wife?" His husky words of disbelief lifted strands of the woman's pale red hair. The closest he'd ever come to anything resembling marriage was his adolescent fixation on a tightrope walker when he'd been stationed at El Toro Marine Base. He'd parked his skinny eighteen-year-old butt on the wooden bleachers every chance he got, entranced by her high-wire work, and then he'd visited her trailer afterward, equally entranced by her versatility at lower altitudes. But even that had only lasted until the circus left town. Not that Chase had anything against matrimony. Weddings were fine. It was living together afterward that caused the trouble.
The Appaloosa surged upward, loose rocks flying in his wake as he snorted and lunged toward the crest of the hill. Chase dug his knees into the animal's girth for balance and grasped the woman tightly as her body jolted against his. Though mercifully quick, the trip to the top was a bone-jarring, teeth-rattling ordeal, and it took all of Chase's concentration to keep both of them aboard the powerful horse.
It wasn't until they'd reached level ground a short time later, and were cantering down an overgrown deer path, that Chase realized his palm was cupping something soft and full, something suspiciously pliant.
"What the hell?" he murmured. If that fullness was what he thought it was, he was getting fresh with his passenger's upper anatomy. His first impulse was to release her immediately. His second was less gentlemanly. He worked his fingers cautiously and felt the warm, buttery flesh give way, melting beneath his palm. A bullet of pleasure shot straight for Chase's groin. He'd never felt anything so sweet and soft in his life. She was built small on top, but still sinfully curvy, as if she'd been sized perfectly for a man's hand.
Speaking of which—get your hands off her, cowboy.
The thought flashed through Chase's mind, but still he didn't act on it. Not right away. The slow rock of his horse's stride and the sighing warmth of the woman in his arms were stirring up some dangerous urges. A clutch of excitement took hold of him like warm, questing fingers, and the deep, tugging urgency of it went to work on his mind as well as his body.
He'd been a long time between women, and his imagination seemed determined to make up for lost opportunities. It was telling him what a rare pleasure it would be to lay her down in the sweet green grass alongside the trail and wake her up with the heat that was building between his legs. The scenario played out in his thoughts with the kind of detail that could give a man wildly erotic dreams.
In the fertile reaches of his imagination, he could feel her cool breath on his face and the heat rising off her slumberous body. He could hear the irresistible sounds of a woman aroused ... the throaty little moans as he stroked the silk of her inner thighs. He could even imagine watching her eyes drift open as he came up against her woman's softness with that hard, aching part of himself....
A low murmur brought Chase out of his daydream. She nuzzled into his arm like a kitten seeking a warm place to curl up. His hand was still molded to her breast, and the desire to do more than touch her burned through him like a short fuse attached to a big stick of dynamite.
The woman is out cold, Romeo. Stomp that fuse. Now.
By the time they reached the clearing where his small cabin sat up against granite bluffs, Chase had pretty well doused the last sparks kindled by his sexual daydreaming. His Border collie, Shadow, danced and barked eagerly as Chase dismounted and then lifted the woman off the horse and into his arms. She was light as a willow branch and painfully thin, he realized, cradling her gingerly as he carried her up the creaky wooden porch steps and into the house. Without knowing how he knew it, he had the disturbing awareness that she'd been through some incredible hell in her life.
Chase deposited her on a quilt-covered cot in the front room and, remembering the holster strapped to his thigh, freed the rawhide ties and laid the sawed-off shotgun on a wooden table next to the cot. Without bothering to remove his hat or his coat, he pulled up one of the log cabin's few pieces of furniture, a cane rocker, and settled himself into it.
In a situation like this a man needed some thinking time.
He rested a booted foot on his knee, sinking down in the chair until the back of the rocker caught his Stetson and tilted it forward. His dust-covered cowboy boot was about eye level, and without thinking twice, Chase used the boot's silver tip as a gunsight, zeroing in on the woman's dirt-smudged face and windblown hair. Who was she? he wondered, trying to recall if he knew her from somewhere. Or if he'd ever seen her before. She didn't ring any bells. Certainly not wedding bells.
He smiled faintly, not quite sure what it was about the woman that amused him. She was a tiny little thing. Plain, too, if what he could see of her features under the sweat and trail grime was any indication. Nope, his unexpected houseguest wasn't likely to win any beauty contests. And yet there was something undeniably appealing about her flyaway hair and her slightly off-kilter features. Her nose had a little bend at the bridge, and her full mouth was set tautly, even in repose, as though she hadn't yet completed her quest, whatever it was.
"What do you suppose she wants with us, Shadow?" Chase murmured as the collie wandered over, presenting his neck to be scratched. As Chase obliged the dog, he had a sudden, disturbing thought. She could be another reporter looking for the inside story on "Chase Beaudine, reluctant hero." It wouldn't be the first time one of those tabloid sharks had tried to flush him out. But none of them had gone to this much trouble, he reminded himself, smiling at the irony of a rag reporter risking sunstroke and rattlesnakes for the sake of a story.
Chase was contemplating the woman's ragged jeans and her torn cardigan sweater when she stirred and croaked out a word he could barely hear.
"What is it?" he asked, sitting forward.
"Yeah, sure thing." Peeling his long, rangy frame out of the low chair. Chase headed across the room to the kitchen sink and pulled a glass from an unfinished pine cabinet. He hadn't bought the three-room cabin with gracious living in mind. He'd just wanted a place to escape to at the time, and he hadn't seen the need for anything beyond the basics—a bedroom, a bathroom and a living room and kitchen. Not a place a woman could get excited about, he imagined.
He filled the glass to the brim with crystal-clear mountain-spring water, returned to the cot, and sat alongside her.
"Say when," he said, holding the glass to her lips as she attempted to lift her head. Chase saw immediately that she needed help, and he slipped his hand into the silky hair at her nape, propping her up so she could drink. For reasons he couldn't begin to fathom, he found it incredibly sexy to have a vulnerable woman sipping from one of his glasses, taking the cool, sweet spring water he offered.
Good God, he thought, he was going to need a cold shower if he kept this up. Next he'd be having erotic fantasies about soothing her fevered brow and taking her temperature.
She nodded when she'd had her fill. "Thank you," she said, gazing up at him with eyes so unflinchingly blue, they made him want to grab an extra breath. As she rested her head on the pillow, a rivulet of water made a tiny trail through the dirt on her chin.
Chase nodded, wondering why in the hell he couldn't think of what to ask her first. Who was this perplexing woman? Where had she come from? He had a couple other very pertinent questions he needed to ask her. But instead he heard himself saying, "Want me to clean some of that dirt off your face?"
Yes, please, Chase thought. She had a sweet way of putting that. He pulled the red handkerchief from around his neck, dipped the end of it into the glass of water, and began carefully to wipe the grime from her face. After a moment of his gentle strokes she closed her eyes, and even that innocent response sent a strange laser of desire through him.
Please, God, he thought, as he worked his way down toward the shell-pink fullness of her lips, don't let her open her mouth until I'm done. Not even to talk. It didn't seem right for a plain little thing like her to have such a sensual mouth.
His wrist brushed against her faded pink cardigan sweater as he worked, drawing his attention to its severe lines and old-fashioned collar. The sweater was buttoned fastidiously all the way to the top, and it looked tight enough at the neckline to cut off her oxygen. No wonder she'd fainted.
"Can you breathe okay?" he asked, feeling foolish as he lifted the edge of her collar. "Would you like me to loosen this up?"
"Yes ..." She said the word softly, and without opening her eyes. "I would like that."
Chase set the water glass down on the table and drew in a protracted breath as he began to work free the buttons of her sweater. He had three of them undone and was wondering how much farther he ought to go when she opened her eyes and looked up at him. She seemed to be taking him in, noticing things for the first time.
"Do you always wear your hat and coat in the house?" she asked.
Somehow it wasn't the question he'd expected. And neither was the inquisitive expression that animated her features. The corner of his mouth twitched, more a bemused grimace than a smile as he started to shoulder out of the duster coat, then stopped himself. He was uncomfortably aware that he wasn't behaving like himself, and that she had him at a disadvantage in some inexplicable way. "Depends," he said, drawing the coat back on.
"Depends on what?"
"The weather indoors." He intended his brusque tone to discourage conversation on such a topic. But some women didn't know when to quit, Chase reminded himself as she blinked up at him, all blue eyes and curiosity. She looked as fragile as an abandoned child, and taking care of her forced a gentleness out of him that was alien—especially since his work demanded the gut instincts and lightning-quick reflexes of a hired gun. Even now the same ruthlessly competitive male drive that had always impelled him to take risks other men shrank from was telling him to quit playing wet nurse—and take control of the situation.
"Weather in here seems fine," she murmured.
"Am I imagining things, Missy, or are you pretty anxious to get my clothes off?"
She blushed slightly, but it was the graceful way her dark eyelashes swept up and her eyes turned to liquid that mystified and enchanted Chase. He could feel the pit of his stomach going soft and the area south of it going drum-taut.
Excerpted from Child Bride by Suzanne Forster. Copyright © 1992 Suzanne Forster. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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