An outlaw's wife
With her home burned down, her outlaw husband believed dead and five children entrusted to her care, Melody Dawson must leave the ashes of her past behind to start afresh
And an outlaw hunter
Atoning for a youthful mistake, US marshal Reeve Prentis has made tracking down criminals his life's work. His dangerous job has always demanded a solitary existence, yet escorting Melody across the Wild West has Reeve longing for change, and a family of his own!
"One exhilarating read . Take a deep breath and enjoy!" RT Book Reviews on Rebel with a Cause
About the Author
Carol lives with her real life hero and husband, Rick, in Southern California where she was born and raised. She joined Romance Writers of America where she met generous authors who taught her the craft of writing a romance novel. With the knowledge she gained, she sold her first book and saw her life-long dream come true. She enjoys hearing from readers and invites you to contact her at email@example.com
Read an Excerpt
The Badlands, Nebraska
Hattie Travers had dreamed of her husband again last night. The fact that he had been dead for eight months didn't make her any less fearful of him.
Even in the cold light of morning, with the children safe in the buckboard with her, his ghost had the power to put her into a cold sweat.
"Go away," she whispered to the wicked-eyed vision haunting her mind.
She focused her attention on the US marshal sitting tall on his rum-colored horse, leading her, her children and the ranch orphans away from the cindered ruins of the Broken Brand Ranch.
The marshal's carriage was straight, his shoulders broad and, from what she had seen so far, his honor incorruptible.
She owed him a great deal her life, really, and more than that, her children's lives.
If only she could take a deep cleansing breath and purge the stench of the outlaw ranch from her soul. If she could just relax and trust the marshal, but she had been wrong about a man before.
The marshal turned his head, peering out from under his Stetson at the flat, dry land, scanning it from horizon to horizon. His eyes were the only bit of green that she had seen in nearly three years.
He held her gaze for a long moment then nodded and set his face toward the east toward home. The regular clop of his horse's hooves made the fringe on his buckskin shirt dance and sway.
"You reckon he's looking for stray Traverses?" Beside her, thirteen-year-old Joe Landon gripped the team's reins in his fists. He sat tall, imitating the lawman's erect posture.
Joe had to be cold but he didn't shiver. The marshal didn't, so he wouldn't, either. It was chilly, though, even with the sun coming up over the ragged land.
"You shouldn't worry, Joe." She held her baby tighter, trying to follow her own advice. "Marshal Prentis will have us well away from here before any of them show up. The ranch is gone forever. Colt Wesson saw to that when he burned it down."
Joe touched something in the pocket of his pants, tracing its shape with his thumb.
"There's only Uncle Jack and Cousin Dwayne to worry about," fifteen-year-old Libby said, clutching her little sister, Pansy, close for the warmth. She glanced toward the back of the wagon then suddenly lunged. "Come back here, you little wild man!"
Libby latched on to Flynn's collar and hauled the toddler back from the edge of the buckboard.
"Noooo!" Flynn went limp-boned then kicked his heels. "Mama!"
"I'll trade you my sweet baby Seth for my wild thing, Libby."
"Are you sure your folks are going to welcome us?" Libby asked, taking the infant from Hattie.
Flynn rushed to fill his little brother's place. Hattie hugged him close and kissed his cold, red nose.
Sometimes she wished she had never met Ram Travers. He had ruined her life. Without him, though, she would not have had her sweet babies. It was a trade she would make again in a heartbeat.
"With open arms and a big, hearty meal," she answered Libby. "My folks have a huge old house and too many empty rooms."
The one thing she knew for certain in this world was that her parents would welcome her home. They would weep for joy over their new grandsons and would take in Joe, Libby and Pansy as if they had been waiting for them all their lives.
Mama and Papa had always longed for more children, but after she was born, they hadn't been blessed again.
"You sure you remember the way back?" Joe asked. "Uncle Ram kidnapped you to the ranch a long time ago."
"There's something about the road home that stays etched in your heart," she said, ruffling Flynn's hair.
"The Broken Brand won't stay etched in my heart." Joe's fingers turned white, his grip around the reins tight with tension. "I'm never looking back, not even giving it a minute of my thoughts."
"It's a lucky thing for Pansy that Colt Wesson and the marshal rescued us in time that she won't remember the place," Libby said.
"Colt gave me something. It was when he was here to bury Pappy Travers. Reckon he sensed I didn't hanker to be an outlaw like the rest of them. He asked if I wanted to leave with him. Couldn't, though; there was more than myself to consider. So he gave me this." Joe reached into his pocket and withdrew a small, sheathed knife. It was a pretty thing for a weapon, with an ornate handle bearing the initials CWT.
He held it in his hand for a moment, balancing the weight, then he put it back in his pocket.
"Thank you for staying, Joe," she said with a lump swelling in her throat. "I'm certain that the marshal is competent, but you never can tell when another man might be needed."
For all that Joe wanted to be a man, to keep everyone safe, he was still a boy. She wasn't surprised to see relief wash through his posture, believing that she trusted Marshal Prentis.
Hattie took baby Seth back from Libby, who hugged the lapels of a deputy's coat tight around her chest. Last night, before the deputies had begun the journey to take the captured Travers gang to jail, the marshal had strongly urged each of his men to donate their coats to the children.
Not one of them objected with so much as a frown. Apparently, Marshal Prentis's word was law.
She lifted her gaze from her son's soft, sand-colored curls to look, once again, at their leader. As big as he was, he ought to have been frightening, but somehow, he wasn't. She felt safe in his presence, which was disturbing because there had been a time when Ram made her feel the same way.
Whether she fully trusted Marshal Prentis, or not, their fates were in his hands for the time being.
With the outlaw ranch a heap of smoking embers, she had been offered the choice of going with Colt Travers and his lady, Holly Jane, to begin a new life in some friendly place, or going home to her parents.
There had been no choice, really. She had longed for home ever since she'd run away from it. She had wept for her mother's soothing embrace on more nights than she could count. A sun hadn't set that she hadn't watched for her father to come riding over the hill, even though he had no idea where she had goneor why.
So, with the burden of five children's safety on her shoulders, she had, once again, chosen to trust a man she didn't know, to let him lead her across land so rough that, left on her own, it would eat her aliveher and the young ones with her.
One thing was certain, they could not be worse off than they had been at the Broken Brand, where food was scarce and degenerates plentiful.
The big lawman riding ahead of the wagon peered out from under his hat, scanning the land for danger. He didn't seem like a degenerate.
Indeed, he was a United States marshal, appointed by the president himself.
Ram had been a false charmer, appointed to bring home a bride by no one but his own twisted kin.
For all of their sakes, she hoped that the president's judgment was sound.
* * *
Reeve had pushed the widow hard, leading her and the children over inhospitable ground. The sooner they were away from this snake-infested, bone-dry land, the safer they would be.
He couldn't recall ever seeing a place so barren, and he'd traveled over some of the sorriest country there was. It was no wonder the Travers gang had gotten away with their crimes for so long. The local law was more than a few days' ride from the Broken Brand. They weren't likely to leave their towns undefended for the time it would take to travel here.
Reeve had only heard of the outlaw family when one of their own turned on them.
Had it not been for Colt Travers wanting to rescue his woman, whom they had kidnapped, the gang would still be committing crimes.
Colt had demanded his conditions, though, for turning on his own. He wanted to be the one to burn the place to the ground, and he wanted to do it before the arrests were made.
That wasn't the way Reeve liked to do things. There was an order to be followed, first the arrest then the justice.
It rankled to let Travers do it his way, but Reeve wanted those criminals. There had been no choice but to play Travers's game.
It had been plain good luck that a man armed only with a long knife had been able to best that nest of vipers. The only reason Reeve had agreed to hold back until he saw the smoke was because the outlaws were Travers's kin.
In spite of his misgivings, things had worked out. The outlaws were on their way to prison and the innocent on their way home.
He'd pushed his charges hard because the farther east of here he got them, the safer they would be.
The woman, especially. She looked worn to the bone bone that he could nearly see through the thin cotton of her dress.
He figured she wasn't as old as she looked, but he couldn't be sure. With water out here as scarce as anything green, he doubted that she'd bathed in some time. Dirt coated her lank hair and dusted her face as it did the ground.
Even her expression seemed defeated.
Watching her sitting on the wagon bench with her wriggling son Flynn clutched in one arm while trying to soothe her infant in the other, he wished they could stop for an hour, to let the young ones stretch and play.
Six rattlers and several scorpions creeping over the ground, and all within the last mile, convinced him to press on to safer territory.
He couldn't help but admire Hattie Travers, though. As haggard as she appeared, the woman had backbone. They'd been in the wagon for nine hours and he'd yet to hear her complain or speak harshly to the children.
What had she been like, he wondered, before she had become the unwilling bride of Ram Travers?
Her eyes might have sparkled instead of looking lined and defeated, as they did now. They might have been fire-warmed amber instead of muddy brown.
What Ram Travers had done to her was a crime. Reeve was half-sorry that the man had already faced the Ultimate Judge. It would have given him a good deal of pleasure to haul that lawbreaker before an earthly judge and have his sorry ass slammed into jail.
At least that miserable family wouldn't continue their practice of kidnapping brides. By now the deputies would have the criminals halfway to their jail cells to await trial. In a few more days the men would begin rounding up the two who hadn't been at home when Colt Travers served up his justice.
He escorted the wagon east for another hour before Hattie Travers called his name.
He turned in his saddle. "Yes, ma'am?"
"The children need a break from the travel." With Flynn climbing her shoulder as if his mother was a ladder, Hattie looked small, frailer even than when they had begun the journey this morning.
"Give me a few minutes to check the area." He didn't like making the stop, but he could see that it was necessary. "We'll take ten minutes."
"Thank you, Marshal," she said, and he watched the relief roll through her in a wave.
It took twenty minutes to make sure the ground was free of snakes and other creeping dangers. When he was assured that it was clear for a hundred feet all around, he waved his arm, a signal that all was safe.
Joe leaped from the wagon with a whoop, and Hat-tie climbed down with a suppressed groan.
The ladies led Pansy and Flynn several yards away to take care of their needs. He and Joe walked in the opposite direction to do the same. Since there was no privacy to be had, he kept his eyes averted from the women and he reckoned they did the same.
A few moments later, Hattie strode toward him, her back bent with hours of holding her infant.
She could only be five feet three inches to his six foot four, so she had to look up and shade her eyes from the sun's glare in order to see his face.
He reckoned he looked as shaggy as an old bear, having been on the trail for a month or more. He'd lost count of the days.
"I haven't had time to thank you, Marshal Prentis, for bringing us home. I'm grateful as can be." She shifted the baby in her arms. "I'm sure you have more pressing things to do."
"No need for thanks, ma'am." He reached for the infant. "Do you mind?"
She hesitated, but not overlong. He snuggled tiny Seth in the crook of one arm and watched while his mother worked the aches out of her back. She twisted from side to side, then front to back. He couldn't recall seeing her without one child or another in her arms since he met her yesterday morning.
"You reckon Flynn would like to ride with me for a while when we start up?"
She smiled up at him. Under her cracked, dry lips, her teeth were straight and white. He was just noticing a spark of animation in her eyes when Libby screamed.
"Mad dog!" the girl shouted, shrill and panicked.
It wasn't a dog, but a coyote and as mad as they came. Its wild eyes settled on Flynn. Bandy-legged, it wobbled toward the boy, the foam coating its muzzle a sure sign of disease.