Authors: Caroline Lee
The Sweet Cheyenne Quartet
Everland, Ever After
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© 2016, Caroline Lee
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author.
First edition: 2016
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Table of Contents
An Everland Ever After Tale
Wyoming Territory, 1875
Her back hurt. Why did her back hurt? Rojita cracked her eyelids just a bit, wincing at the way the full brightness of the late-winter sun lanced straight through to the back of her brain. Never mind, better to just keep them closed.
She was lying on the frozen ground; the sharp rock or stick or something under her rear end told her that. And just as soon as the dull ache in her back faded, she’d get around to shifting off of it. In the meantime… why did her back hurt at all?
She’d been riding hard, and then—oh yes, the horse had stopped suddenly. Had she been thrown? Wiggling her toes in her boots and flexing her fingertips, Rojita gave a little sigh of relief. Nothing hurt worse than her back, which meant that nothing was broken, and at least she could walk. The mean-spirited animal—no doubt a trait inherited from its master—must’ve tossed her off in such a way that she’d landed almost-safely.
Where was the blasted animal? How long had it been since the accident? Had it wandered off, leaving her here in the Wyoming wilderness with no hope of rescue? Was
even now picking along her trail—having gotten another horse, of course—creeping ever closer to doing her unspeakable harm? Had this delay cost
Rojita groaned, and then winced at the sound. She couldn’t be
weak, could she?
and the children were counting on her getting to Everland before Lobo, even if they didn’t know it. She had to stand up, to find that darned horse, and to start riding before he caught up with her.
“It’s about time you woke up, Red. I was getting worried.”
Too late. He’d found her. He was here.
She kept her eyes closed, wondering if she could fool him into thinking that she was still unconscious. Everything that she knew about the man said that he was ruthless, but surely he’d wait until she was awake to do any harm that he had planned?
“I can see you wiggling over there. Anything broken?”
He had a deceptively nice voice. Warm and smooth; comforting like
café con leche
on a cold day. It was a shame, to waste such a voice on a gunslinger like
. He wasn’t warm or comforting or nice, but he sure sounded like it. That voice was probably his secret weapon; he could convince anyone that he was a kind-hearted, law-abiding citizen, and then he’d swoop in and defraud their widows of land that they’d purchased legally and rightfully.
But Rojita wasn’t going to be fooled. She knew him for what he really was, thanks to
warning. She knew about the men he’d goaded into drawing on him, and how he shot them down without a flicker of conscience. She knew about the lawmen he’d killed in Mexico, and about the way his name was used as a curse by law-abiding folks throughout Texas. And since he’d found her in Salt Lake City, she knew about his cruel smile and calm certainty that absolutely no one would stand in his way of getting what he wanted.
was what he wanted, and Rojita had to suppress a shiver at the thought.
going to figure out a way out of this. She’d been to school in a big city; surely she was smart enough to outthink a common
like Lobo. Just because he was at a complete advantage here didn’t mean that she couldn’t beat him to Everland after all.
“Come on, Red, wake up. I managed to run down your horse—you’re welcome, by the way. All we’re waiting on is you.”
horse? She’d stolen it from him. Lobo would know that, and would be…
, wouldn’t he? So why did he sound exasperated instead?
Unless… Her eyes snapped open, the bright Wyoming sky not bothering her nearly as much as it had a minute before. Unless this wasn’t
With a gasp, Rojita jerked herself up onto her elbows, twisting to find the source of the caramel-warm voice. She had just a glimpse of a small fire and a man hunched behind it, before the pain made everything go black again.
. She’d gone and fainted again. Hank sighed, and leaned back against the saddle resting beside the fire. He’d done his mare a favor, and removed it right after they’d come back to the mysterious unconscious woman, leading her wayward horse. Hank figured the animal deserved a little rest after that run, and it hadn’t looked like the woman was waking up any time soon.
She’d surprised him, though. He’d only had enough time to get the fire going and a pot of water boiling before she’d started stirring. It’d been a little worrying, the way she hadn’t moved for a long while after she’d woken up. He’d been concerned then, wondering if she’d managed to break her neck or something. But his goading had worked—well, mentioning her
had worked—and he was pleased to see that she was able to move all her relevant bits.
Before she fainted again, at least. As he went through his coffee-making routine, he wondered about that. She couldn’t have gotten more than a peek at him, and he didn’t think he was as scary as all that. But maybe she was the type who’d faint at the thought of being alone with a man? Any woman who’d go tearing hell-for-leather across the open hills when there was a perfectly good railroad connecting most of Wyoming Territory didn’t seem like the kind who’d faint at the sight of a scruffy bounty hunter.
On the other hand—Hank leaned back against the saddle, cradling his cup of coffee and studying the woman—she sure
like the kind who might. Petite to the point of being tiny, with pale skin and thick red hair that must’ve come out of whatever style she usually wore it in. Her clothes were wool, and good quality, but simpler than he’d seen in some of the cities out here. He didn’t know much about women’s fashions, but she sure dressed like a lady, from the tips of her pointy black boots up to the hood on that ridiculous red cloak. She definitely wasn’t clothed for a cross-the-Territory horseback adventure… even before the animal had thrown her and wandered off, leaving her lying there on the ground like she was sleeping. Her expression had been peaceful, when he and his mare had veered off their path to investigate the intriguing splash of color against the browns and grays of the Wyoming landscape, and one leg had been cocked enough to get a tantalizing glimpse of a black-stockinged calf.
Was it any wonder he’d hobbled both horses and decided to wait ‘til she woke up? No one was ever going to accuse him of being gentlemanly, but he had more than his share of curiosity, and there was nothing more mysterious than an underdressed, unconscious lady out in the middle of nowhere.
Unfortunately, she didn’t look likely to come out of her faint any time soon. Hank glanced at the sky, knowing it still got dark fast this time of year. He couldn’t say that he was completely enamored with Wyoming in the winter, but the starkness did remind him a bit of his Texas. Of course, he also hadn’t planned on spending the night out here in it, either. If he’d been alone, he would’ve just kept riding ‘til he reached Haskell, but the lady wasn’t in any condition to travel right now.
With a sigh, he acknowledged that he wasn’t going to just leave her out here to freeze, either. Luckily, there wasn’t any snow on the ground, and the temperature didn’t feel too bad. Once again, he vowed to be in Arizona by summer.
There was a thicket of trees by the dry streambed, enough to protect a small camp from the worst of the wind. While he waited for her to wake up, Hank collected brush and moved the horses, saddles and packs. Then he stomped out the old fire, started a new one, and set the beans to boiling.
He hated beans.
The sun was sinking lower in the sky, and the beans were softening. She still hadn’t stirred, and Hank was beginning to get concerned. Maybe she hadn’t fainted out of fear of him; maybe there was something seriously wrong with her? If she’d been thrown—which is what it looked like, unless she was the type to climb off her horse and take a nap a dozen miles from the nearest town—then she could be hurt or something.
He gave the beans one last stir, made sure that the coffee was close enough to warm but not burn, and then headed back towards the woman. She hadn’t moved, and Hank couldn’t help but notice—again—how pretty she was, with all of that dark red hair floating around her shoulders.
It was that hair, rather than the cloak, that had caught his attention at first, and Hank supposed that he should be glad that she didn’t wear it all tied up in buns and braids like most women. In fact, looking over her now, she looked almost wanton.
He crouched beside her head, a little disturbed to see that she hadn’t moved since her last faint. “Hey, lady?” Too bad he didn’t know her name. “Red? Wake up, Red.”
Nothing. Hank lowered himself to one knee and his haunches, ignoring the way they creaked in protest, and hesitantly reached for her. The smooth burgundy strands slipped through his fingers, and he briefly considered peeling off his gloves, so that he could feel them. Instead, though, he fisted his hand gently, trapping the silk between leather. He tugged slightly. “Red, honey, wake up.”
It was either the endearment or the pull of her hair that worked. The mystery lady moaned slightly and shook her head. Hank let her hair go. “Red?” Shoot, he was going to have to touch her after all.
Dark eyes flashed open when he ran his gloved finger down her jawbone, and she stared up at him like she wasn’t really seeing him. “Are you hurt, honey?”
No reaction. Instead, she lifted one of her own hands, wrapped in a soft black glove not at all suited for riding and touched
. Hank clenched his jaw when her fingers scratched through the light beard he currently wore, suppressing the shivers that her touch caused. He knew that he should be glad that she was able to move her arm, but all he could think about was how long it’d been since a woman last touched him so gently.
There was a look of… of
in her expression, in those dark eyes, that made him shudder. When was the last time that a woman had
at him that way? Not since…well,
. There’d been the occasional whore, or sometimes lady who liked to court excitement by flirting with a known bounty hunter… but not one of them had every looked up at him like this. Like he was the answer to prayers she hadn’t even known she was praying.
He was lost. Without thinking, Hank trapped her tiny hand against his jaw, pressing it against his skin with one of his large ones. But that was the wrong thing to do, apparently.
She gasped, and blinked, and in that moment, the wonder in her eyes switched to horror.
Yanking her hand away from him, she scuttled sideways on her elbows, obviously determined to get away from him, and not wasting energy on screaming. She was still staring at him, terrified, and Hank felt his stomach harden. He was someone she
be afraid of, but it still hurt, somehow.
Unfortunately, he was kneeling on the edge of her cloak, and that brought her up short. She took a deep breath, and in that moment, her terror subsided a bit. She glanced down at the material trapped under him, and then back up at him, and back down again. Almost against his will, Hank felt one corner of his lips curl upward, and he decided that he was going to make her beg.