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Dylan Wayburn recognized her before she recognized him.
She dressed differently, he thought. An odd mix of blatant beauty and hidden treasure. And after five years, instead of recognition in her eyes, there was dismissal. Dylan lowered the brim of his Stetson and hoped it would stay that way.
He studied her through half-closed eyes.
Miss Lilybeth Cromwell had always been self-conscious of a man's attention. Yet the top button of her square neckline, scooped low like many high-society dresses, was half undone. It riveted the faces of all four men in the stagecoach. They waited for the button to slip completely and grace them with more of her bosom. Even the old lady seated beside Dylan was sniffing into a handkerchief and staring. Funny thing was, Lilybeth wore a black silk shawl around her shoulders, covering up the brilliant blue dress beneath.
Dylan never could understand that about women. She put that revealing dress on this morning and now she was trying to hide it.
Lilybeth was as far from demure as her flowing red hair and full lips would allow. But then again, Miss Lilybeth Cromwell was not the shy, nameless adolescent he'd once known. She was Klondike Lily, the wealthiest woman in the Yukon.
Rumor had it, the gold nuggets on her claim were the size of grizzly claws.
Dylan tried to ignore her. He shoved a shoulder against the hard boards and peered out the window.
No sound of anything unusual. Still nothing to look at for the hundreds of miles between Dawson City and the tent town of Whitehorse except acres of spruce and aspen and the occasional cottonwood. A ridge of mountains engulfed the river valley. The turquoise waters of the Yukon River gushed on the other side of their coach.
They hit another rut. The six passengers swayed in unison and Dylan's gaze bobbed back to Lily.
Her button inched closer to release. He swallowed mighty hard, turned away again and stared at the outside shadowstwo men driving a team of twelve horses. A strongbox locked in between them. A stack of luggage.
No one else had voiced it, but Dylan was well aware they were carrying a cache of gold. He knew it the instant he'd seen the number of horses on the team this morning. He'd been following the gold but he hadn't been looking forward to meeting up with Lily again. Sooner or later, he knew they would, seeing how much gold she owned and how attractive that made her to thieves. And that, of course, was the reason he was here.
Beneath his boots, he felt the weight of the gold shift, tucked somewhere into a secret iron trap beneath the floorplanks. The stash was fairly well balanced, but on the odd turn, it slid an inch or two to the right, making the iron wheels on his side of the coach creak.
Mud wagon was a more appropriate term for the contraption they were riding in. A far cry from a civilized stagecoach in a civilized part of the world.
Twenty-eight days and nights he'd been traveling alone. Hiding behind scrub bush, eating berries when he couldn't light a fire to attract attention, letting the scratch grow on his jaw, ensuring his holster and Colt revolvers were visible to all.
He'd be damned if he'd allow one inconsequential woman to blow his cover. If necessary, he could take down the two men sitting on either side of her.
Still, Dylan bristled with caution. He hoped she wouldn't do anything reckless that might jeopardize the coming ambush and what he had to do to protect everyone inside the coach.
Lily adjusted her skirts and turned away from the bodyguard sitting on her right. His breath smelled of breakfast sausages. Heat glued their shoulders together. She usually preferred a window seat when she traveled, whether by train or wagon or ship, but her two secret bodyguards, provided by the stage depot three hours ago, insisted on flanking her.
She wiggled, panting for a pocket of air that wasn't scented with either man's breath. Envy gripped her as she stared at the formidable stranger slumped across from them. He sat beside the curtain and its rustling breeze. Why, with his dark Stetson perched low over his face, the mysterious man who seemed impressed with his own sense of danger hardly needed all the fresh air blowing his way. He was sleeping, for Lord's sake, not even able to fully appreciate the gust!
And here she was, gasping.
There were some things money still couldn't buy.
In fact, a lot of things.
Oh, here it came
a pinch of pine. Summer cedar.
She inhaled. Perhaps she'd get to the town of Whitehorse in one sane piece, after all. Then on to Skagway, Alaska, where her sister had last been sighted.
She smelled whisky again, hailing from the sleeping stranger. How could a person take to drink so early in the morning?
Lily slid her hanky beneath her heavy wall of hair. She dabbed the moisture. If she hadn't been in such a hurry to leave, she would have pinned her hair into a bun. Despite the heat, it wasn't proper to go anywhere without a shawl.
Look how the stranger slid forward, silently demanding more space around him than any other passenger.
Weathered blue jeans covered his long legs. Expensive guns rested on lean hips. His crisp white shirt and suede vest made him look like an outlaw who was trying to behave. She glared at the broad shoulders and how many extra inches they occupied, inches that rightfully belonged to the older woman beside him and her elderly husband squeezed next to her, the Sawyers.
And why hadn't the selfish man bothered to shave? Was it too much to ask for a man to look decent? His shaggy brown hair could use a cut. He was traveling alone, but surely he hadn't thought the coach would be empty from Dawson City to Whitehorse. They were in the middle of a gold rush!
Klondike fever, she called it. A burning inside the bellies of some men and women. A yearning to attain something grand, something they'd never seen or touched before.
They could have all the gold they could carry out of Dawson, if they struck it rich. The newly opened dirt path along the rivers between the Yukon and Alaska was no more than a hacked rut, but it was the only land route between Canada and the United States. Most folks still traveled by the waterways.
Heavens to God, look at him. Even his cowboy boots were obnoxiously large. She had half a mind to shake the living
A dark eye peered at her from beneath his cowboy hat.
Heat rose to her cheeks.
Go ahead, tell him how much space he takes up! How his knees are just an inch away from her body-guard's. A bodyguard whose seat she had paid for. Why, she had literally paid for three seats in this coach, while he had only paid for one.
she needed air
The sound of gunshots lurched her forward, and suddenly she forgot all about the seating arrangements.
Her button finally came undone, but Dylan had no time to savor Lily. His pulse leaped at the blast of gunfire. He lunged for his Colts.
The old woman beside him shrieked, "No!"
"Hit the floor," Dylan shouted and the Sawyers slid to their knees.
One of the drivers toppled from above the stagecoach, blood trickling off his left boot. He fell to the moving dirt.
Lily turned to her bodyguards. "Do something!" she urged.
Their guns were already halfway up, but Dylan was faster at pointing his six-shooters. "Toss your weapons."
Fury etched their faces. They dropped their guns.
Lily trembled. "Blazes," she whispered at Dylan, her skin pale against her wild auburn hair.
He knelt on the seat and peered out the window. The stagecoach careened down the trail, rocking everyone back and forth. They clutched their seats to hang on.
Hooves thundered in the grass. Five masked men galloped within yards of the coach, gaining fast. With steady aim, Dylan hit one chest, then another. Gravely wounded, the men toppled over their horses.
Dylan was well aware what was happening inside the coach, too. One of the bodyguards whipped out a hidden pistol.
Dylan twisted around, shot at the man's wrist, and as the other bodyguard rushed him, Dylan shoved his boots into the man's gut and heaved as hard as he could. The man crashed through the door and out to the rolling ground. The door slapped open and closed.
More gunshots sounded outside. The coach slowed.
"Damn," said Dylan. The slowing meant his side was losing. Hidden gold shifted beneath his boots and the right wheels creaked.
Lily's blue eyes widened. "What do you want?"
Dylan kept his gun pointed at the injured man beside her, who was clutching a bloody wrist. "Your hired men are part of the gang trying to rob you."
"Go to hell!" the bodyguard hollered.
Lily recoiled, unsure of who to look at, unsure of who to trust.
Dylan nudged the old man on the floor. "You all right?"
The gent moaned and helped his wife to her seat.
Lily kept her startled sights on Dylan. Her eyes flickered with recognition. Her mouth slackened. She was about to speak.
"Don't say it," he whispered.
"Don't say it."
She blinked rapidly and clutched her beaded handbag. Her lips went white. Her chin quivered. Her posture lost its strength.
Her remaining bodyguard lunged at Dylan with a knife. Dylan knocked the blade out of the ravaged hands and kicked the son of a bitch straight through the flapping door and onto the grass.
The old couple gasped.
Color rushed back to Lily's cheeks. She took in everything around her as the coach came to a shuddering stop.
"Pretend you're with me," Dylan said.
"You either trust me or you don't." He locked on to her frantic expression.
With the Sawyers back beside him, Dylan took a chance and jumped to Lily's side. She didn't fuss when he peered out the open door. Ready for hell.
Silence swelled around them. The elderly couple clung together. With his guns lowered, Dylan sat frozen next to Lily. He listened to her rapid breathing.
Gulls cawed above the rushing river to his right. Sunshine bore down on the coach, casting a looming shadow to his left. Slowly, footsteps sounded on the crush of pebbles and two shadows trudged toward the open coach door. Dylan motioned everyone inside to remain calm and quiet.
"Whaddya got up there, old man?" They couldn't see him, but they could hear the stranger booming at the driver, known only as Yul.
"Whatever you want, you can have," Yul replied.
Good. Don't fight.
Two rough-looking men shoved their Enfield revolvers into the coach window. In their forties. Muscled. Greased-back hair. When Dylan recognized them, a bold chill raced up the back of his neck. Beneath the grime and bristles, they both had the thick nose of the Maddock brothers, the cowlick on the right side of their foreheads. The nasty gleam in the small dark eyes Dylan would never forget. Kirk and Sloan Maddock. The ones who'd captured him three years ago in Alberta District. The ones who'd stoked the goddamn fire
. Did they recognize him? His hair was overgrown and he was in dire need of a shave himself.
He'd shot and maybe killed two of their men. How would they retaliate?
Old-lady Sawyer sobbed.
"Well, well, well." The heavier man, with a half-grown beard, cocked his gun at Dylan.
Dylan tossed his Colts to the floor and put his arm protectively around Lily.
The other brother, slimmer with a red welt on his forehead, stared at Lily's undone button. Dylan lowered her shawl over her chest to protect her.
"What do you want?" Dylan gritted his teeth.
"Come on out. Where we can see ya."
The desire for revenge pounded through Dylan, but he restrained himself. He got out first, then helped Lily and the Sawyers, sticking closest to her.
The man with the beard, Kirk, motioned them to get away from the coach. "Where you keepin' it?" he asked Lily.
"II don't know what you mean."
"Klondike Lily." He whistled. "Not only as rich as sunshine. You're a looker."
The other slime, who appeared to be scaring the wits out of Yul by pointing his trigger at him, leered in her direction, too. "Ow, darlin'."
"Tell them," Dylan commanded her.
"Pardon me?" she asked.
The coach sat perched at an angle, leaning over toward the men who stood at the edge of the river. Were the Maddocks blind? All they had to do was look at the coach to see the gold had shifted to the back wheel.
Dylan slid an arm around Lily and squeezed. "Tell them."
She pressed her lips together, and glared from one man to the other.
When she didn't offer it, Dylan did.
"It's hidden in the bottom of the coach," he said to her look of dismay. "Trapdoor."
Come on Lily give them the key.
As if reading his mind, Lily whipped it out from her corset and flung it at their feet.
Sloan picked it up and chuckled. "Still warm."
Dylan backed away slightly, guiding Lily to where the older couple was standing. He had to time this precisely, expertly, or they'd all be gunned down in cold blood.
"Hey, hey." The man with the welt came over.
Dylan's heart raced. Was he suspicious?
The slime took out a pair of handcuffs.
"That's not necessary." Dylan tried to stop him, but short of getting a gun in the belly for his troubles, there wasn't anything he could do. Yet.
Sloan handcuffed Dylan and Lily together. The cuffs felt cool and tight on his thick wrist. They were preparing to take Dylan and Lily with them.
"How dare you," she said. "Take the gold and leave us alone."
"Shut up. We'll take what we want." He reached low, beneath her skirts. The other man handed him a long chain he'd retrieved from their saddlebags.
Sloan motioned to Dylan. "Give me your foot."