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The Marshal’s Outlaw

West of Second Chances: Book Three





Desiree Ann Banks




Copyright 2017 Desiree Ann Banks



Cover Photo: Desiree Banks

Cover Illustration: Matthew Wolff

Cover Models: Jacob and Kristi McKeown







License Notes


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a result of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.




To my friends and family, especially mom and dad.

To my husband and my children.

I am so thankful to have you in my life.



Table of Contents

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

Chapter Forty-Three

Epilogue




Prologue



Just outside of Fargo, North Dakota, Winter, 1890


THE BAYING OF THE hounds kicked up another notch and her heart pounded fiercely at the sound. Her breaths burst from between her lips and her side screamed with her efforts. Her ears whirred with the chaos of noise—the dogs, her labored breathing, the blood rushing through her ears. Stopping now meant certain death. And today death wasn’t an option, even if it was likely.

She circled her arms around the bundle gripped against her chest, curving her body protectively around it. She couldn’t give up now. She knew all too well what would happen if she did.

The yipping of the hounds became clearer and gunfire erupted behind her. Bullets whipped and buzzed, striking the ground around her in a sickening collision of lead and earth. She pushed herself harder. At this range, a bullet could destroy her treasure as easily as it could her. She set her eyes on the copse of trees ahead. She just had to make it that far.

Just far enough.

Just far enough.

The words became a mantra with her every frenzied footstep. Pain burst in her side and her feet barely touched the ground as she flew over the winter-hardened earth. She felt like a startled pheasant, except she could not take flight.

Curses jockeyed with the hounds’ howls, and with a sickening weight in her stomach, she knew without looking that the hunting party was gaining.

She’d almost managed a clean escape with her prize, but Jasper Collins had awakened not long after she had left him asleep in his bed. She’d barely found what she’d come for when he had erupted from the house and sounded the alert.

She braced her left arm under the weight of her burden and fumbled for the gun at her side. Her hand settled on the butt of her pistol just as another round of gunfire filled the air. They couldn’t miss at this range.

The sting of pain lit up her left ear, and the hum of the bullet deafened it. Blood forged a hot, winding trail down her neck. Well, they hadn’t missed, but she was still alive to hear the report of the gun echoing, even if little else. Shouts erupted, yet they were a dull roar at her back. She refused to look behind her. Looking back wouldn’t necessarily turn her to salt as it had Lot’s wife, but she would be just as dead.

A few feet to go and she could shelter behind the old, gnarled cottonwood looming ahead and return fire. With one hand, she gripped her bundle closer, and with the other, she prepared her pistol.

She kept running.

Another shot tore the air. Cursing her inability to refuse the urge, she looked back. As she’d feared, the small reflex was her undoing; her feet tangled and the ground drew her down. She twisted in mid-air, sheltering her prize and lifting the gun she held.

Death loomed. Cries filled the air.

As she fell, the sky flashed blue and innocent above her just before the sunlight caught the gleam of a pistol. Her reaction fierce and reflexive, she straightened her arm and fired. Jasper Collins lurched backward, his gun firing as his hand flew up and away. Tree branches skittered to the ground, hitting her in the face as his body dropped. She scrambled to her feet. Her raven hair stuck to the blood on her neck before falling like a banner of her femininity and vulnerability. She flung it out of the way.

Hadn’t there been another man following her? She slipped her body sideways, sheltering the bundle she’d stolen as much as she could. Her right arm snapped up, and she scanned the wilderness around her. The pistol clutched in her palm didn’t waver despite the nerves and nausea ricocheting within her.

Harlan Collins stopped short as he came into view. Older and slower, he hadn’t followed as quickly as his son. Anger and grief swamped his features as his gaze assessed the situation. She dared a glance down at Jasper and immediately looked away. She’d used him all the ways a woman could use a man, and he’d been a fool to let her get close to him.

The dogs seemed the only living things capable of function, and with mighty snarls, they surged forward. She fired a shot at the lead animal. He whimpered and skittered back.

“Call off your dogs.” She barely pushed out the words, her throat thick as it was with her own regret.

“Go to hell.” The elder Collins’ rifle rose. His grief disappeared, and a murderous rage contorted his features into hateful lines.

He had every right to hate her. She almost gave into the temptation to let him win, to let him gun her down without a fight.

She stuffed down her softness. Mercy got a person killed. Mercy was wasted on the merciless. Mercy was a name she’d never live up to. She had none left to give.

Her finger squeezed the trigger, the bullet exploding from the end of the Colt.

No mercy. 


Chapter One



Devils Lake, North Dakota, Three Weeks Later


KEEPING TO HER OLD patterns presented a calculated risk. After all, Mercy O’Bannon was wanted for murder, and the wanted posters plastered with her image actually bore a crude likeness to her. However, her latest invaluable acquisition had already been delivered, and time was ticking on collecting the rest. To make matters worse, she had no idea where to look. Her informant had only been able to give her the six locations; it was up to her to discover the remaining three on her own.

She’d need some information to go on before heading out again, and that meant venturing into the clearing, foraging for the information she needed, and hoping another bigger, meaner beast of prey didn’t catch her out in the open. No doubt, there were a few hunting her even now. So be it. The risk would be worth the reward.

She’d traveled north to new ground, splurged on a blond wig, and done her best to hide the damage done to her ear, but she doubted anyone on the side of the law would be fooled for long.

Except the law wasn’t really what worried her.

She’d heard the elder Collins had lived, and Harlan was a cruel man who possessed the money to hire justice for his son. To make matters worse, Harlan Collins was just one of a half dozen she’d ambushed in the past few months.

Mercy needed to be faster, smarter, than anyone tracking her, and she couldn’t just go to ground. She had to get her hands on the remaining treasures. That was all that mattered.

Not her safety.

Not her life.

Not the lives of those who stood in her way.

The smell of cigar and cigarette smoke poisoned the room, slipping from between lips that curved knowingly as she lifted her tray high, put an extra sway into her hips, and smiled her most beguiling. She leaned in close as she exchanged empty whiskey glasses for full ones. She ignored the hands that swatted, caressed, and patted, and most of all, she held onto the smile that said she enjoyed every bit of the attention she received. She put a twinkle in her eye and laughed in that throaty way men loved, the way that said she understood their secret desires.

And she did. Every sick, twisted last one of them.

The tray teetered on her fingertips, and she turned on her booted heel even as a patron’s daring hand slid down her thigh. She looked over her shoulder and winked. When she turned back, she refocused herself. She couldn’t let the chains of the past press in on her. Not now.

She kicked up her chin and headed for the darkest corner of the cellar and the man who had slipped into a chair there earlier. He sat in just the place she would have picked for herself—his back to the wall, both exits in his line of sight, slightly hidden by the dark shadows. She already respected him more than the rest of the buffoons who had dared the snowstorm to pay a visit to Devils Lake’s most recent speakeasy. This one knew what he was about.

The cellar was perfect for a drink on a cold night. It was large and open with a high ceiling. It kept the cold out, welcomed the patrons in, and muffled the raucous sounds of their card play.

Devils Lake had seemed a logical stop on her journey. The small town was starting to settle down, but it still had a dark side that even Sheriff Taylor was having a hard time suppressing. Not to mention, its citizens had a lack of respect for North Dakota’s prohibition legislation, and the man who ran this particular speakeasy hadn’t been all that hard to convince she could work the tables.

No, she’d done everything within her power to highlight her allure when she’d approached Griff Masterson about working for him. He’d practically been drooling when she’d finished. She smirked secretly. Men had so much in common with canines.

Except loyalty.

Her smile slipped.

“Care for a drink?” Shaking off her maudlin thoughts, Mercy offered her special crooked smile as she approached the man sitting in shadows. The one that implied he and she both understood some part of the world that the rest of the patrons did not. Yeah, it was bull, but it got the job done.

She waited for his response while she studied the total blackness surrounding him. He was cloaked in the stuff—black Stetson, black coat, dark shadows shading all but the line of his angular jaw and even that bore the darkest of stubble. He wore no visible gun belt, but she didn’t have to look closer to know he carried. A man like this carried, even if his bare knuckles got his point across just fine most of the time.

He moved with a quiet stealth, a pair of coins appearing on the rough tabletop, and the Stetson lifted, but still concealed his eyes. The effect sent chills slipping like raindrops down her spine.

She set down his whiskey, the glass thumping ever so softly to the tabletop, and reached for the coins. Her fingertips grazed the cold silver just as he reached out and gripped her wrist. Quick hands, this one. A gunslinger’s hands. He slid his thumb beneath the edge of her glove and stroked the tender skin at the inside of her wrist.

She shifted her weight from one leg to the other and lowered her gaze to conceal the way his touch startled and upset her.

Calm the hell down, Mercy. He can’t possibly know.

No, he couldn’t know about the scars she hid beneath her black, lace gloves. This man was a stranger. He knew none of her secrets.

Mercy studied him, noting every visible aspect. No, she didn’t recognize him, but something about him rang with familiarity. The observation set her on edge, and she resisted the urge to tug herself free and retreat, but retreat wouldn’t get her the information she needed. She lifted her eyes slowly, a knowing smile following. She met the shadow of his eyes.

“A man could use more than a good drink now and again.”

His words were quiet, direct, a rumble of virility from deep inside him. Almost familiar, like she’d heard him speak before, but he hadn’t spoken to her until now. Her wariness increased.

“A woman could say the same.” Her eyes twinkled with practiced ease, and she bent lower and sidled closer. Even in the shadows, she saw the drift of his attention toward her breasts and his jawline twitch ever so slightly, but he didn’t tug her down onto his lap, steal a few kisses, or send his hands adrift any further than her wrist.

She almost wished he had. Those type of men she knew how to handle. This man, well, he was something different. He’d dominated the room from the moment he’d entered. Not because of his height or his breadth, but because anyone with any sense knew he was dangerous. The only hint of vulnerability had been a slight adjustment to his gait as he’d stepped down into the cellar. It would be hard to say what he even looked like, but she had taken the time to catalogue the small things: the tiny scar on the side of his jaw, the pattern his veins wound on the back of his weather-tanned hand, the exact timbre of his voice. The small details noticed in the darkness could save her life.

Had saved her life.

Other dark places, other shadowed features, skipped across her memory. Tangles of fear twisted inside her.

No, you can’t go there right now. Buck up. She held her smile captive and focused on the bigger picture, on him. He fit the description she’d pieced together of the man she sought, and too much depended on finding him to just walk away.

“Maybe you ‘n me could have a quiet, private conversation when you’re done here.” His voice rumbled low, a smooth caress of sound.

She stepped closer, bent lower, and whispered at his ear, “My conversations tend to get a little heated, a bit too loud.”

He shifted slightly in his seat, a barely recognizable motion, and the thumb at her wrist skipped a beat in its rhythmic caress before he replied, “I like those kinds of conversations the best myself.”

“Why don’t I see who else needs a drink, then come back here so we can get better acquainted?” She offered a wink, promising her return.

He nodded once and drew his fingers slowly from her wrist, a caress that brought gooseflesh to her arms. She’d have to play carefully. This man was no wet-behind-the-ears Jasper Collins.

And she would play. Too much was at stake not to, but tonight she wasn’t so sure she would win.


HANK LEVI TOOK A sip of his whiskey. He could see why Jasper Collins had risked everything to take her home. Collins had been a young man in his prime, and the woman showed enthusiasm in her game of seduction. She was bold, daring, and lacking the-tired-of-life look most women bore after years of hard living. Matter of fact, if she weren’t sporting a deep neckline and a high hemline, she’d easily pass for a lovely and respectable lady.

Of course, he might not have the right woman at all. The hair color was all wrong—not a cascade of sinful black, but a twist and curl of seductive blond instead. And try as he might, he still hadn’t caught a full glimpse of that left ear, the one Jasper had supposedly shot.

Jasper had paid the ultimate price, though, her shot having caught him straight through his heart. And to hear his father, Harlan Collins, tell it, she’d returned fire without compunction. Course, Harlan had been pretty quiet about exactly why the trio had been exchanging shots in the first place. And that’s where Hank ran into trouble. Women who murdered were few and far between, and when they did, passion and revenge were usually in the equation somewhere.

What Harlan Collins had spent a lot of time accurately describing was the woman’s facial features, and despite the difference in hair color, the artist’s depiction for the wanted poster bore an amateurish, yet uncanny resemblance to the woman whose exposed lower back currently held Hank’s imagination captive. Old man Collins may not have been able to put a name with that face, but several well-placed questions over the last few weeks had dredged up a likely one: Mercy O’Bannon.

The odds were good that she was the woman who had killed Jasper and shot Harlan. He’d be wise to keep reminding himself of that, especially since his eyes were following her every move and his traitorous body was responding to every sway of hers. If he wasn’t careful, he’d end up just as dead as Jasper.

Course, it couldn’t hurt to keep an eye on Miss Probably-a-Murderess O’Bannon. She moved about the cellar-turned-speakeasy, laughing and teasing patrons with nary a care. The single female in the room, she drew every man’s eye and more than a few lingering fingers. And in contrast to the innocent smoothness of her skin and the youthful, lively sparkle of her dark eyes, she took every touch in stride, flirted and touched in return, and even allowed the big brute of a man sitting in the center of the room to haul her down onto his lap.

Hank had been watching that man and his friends since they’d slid into their seats. They were plenty loud for a group drinking in a speakeasy, and they had all the makings of trouble. And he was pretty sure from the bits and pieces of conversation he’d overheard that they were looking for O’Bannon as well—even if they didn’t have a clue that the blond tease was most likely her.

“Let ‘er up, Sloan,” one of the brute’s friends was saying, “so she can walk on over here. I wanna closer look.” The man punctuated the words with an overdone lift of his bushy brows.

“Shut up, Frank,” Sloan snarled. “Collins said the woman we’re after has dark hair.”

Frank shared an irritated look with the other man at the table before bending his head over his drink again.

Huh. So Collins had found men other than Hank to assist in avenging his son. Collins had made no secret of the fact that he would spare no expense to see his boy’s murderer face justice, but it rankled that he would hire out the job to someone else as well. Hank always got the job done.

Right about now, Collins’ men were just getting in Hank’s way. He wondered how Sloan would react if he strode over there and hauled Mercy O’Bannon off his lap. This woman was his suspect. Hank had questions for O’Bannon and no time to waste. If she wasn’t the woman who had killed Jasper Collins, he needed to be on his way. He was being paid to resolve this matter quickly, and watching some giant of a man pet his prey hadn’t been part of the bargain.

And why exactly were Sloan’s roving hands bothering him? Miss Killer Smile meant nothing to him. She was a job at the most, a wanton woman at the least. He conjured a vision of the kind of woman he wanted in his bed. She would be—

A certain pale blond flirt.

“Nice, Hank,” he muttered to himself. “Downright pitiful.”

But he couldn’t deny the way the heat she ignited within him scalded his blood. It was as unwelcome and as undeniable as boiling water melting flesh. Sure, she was barely clothed—that at least explained his visceral, male reaction—yet he had been in situations offering more seductive temptations, and they hadn’t made him respond like a randy youth.

He took another sip of whiskey, focusing on the amber liquid and how it slipped down his throat and burned in his belly. Nice whiskey. Whoever was smuggling the stuff in from Minnesota knew his liquor. He turned the small, now empty glass with his thumb and forefinger and watched the play of muted light shift through the thick glass. It was either that or look up at Miss Murdering Mercy.

The crash of glass shattering against the brick wall of the cellar drew Hank’s attention almost as quickly as the cock of a .45’s hammer.

In front of Hank, Sloan surged to his feet, nearly dumping Miss O’Bannon on her delectable rear. “I told you to shut up, Frank! You ain’t the one she wants! “

O’Bannon untangled her legs and scrambled to stay upright, her fingers catching on Sloan’s shirt for leverage. Not appreciating her grip, Sloan pushed her backward, table and chairs skittering in the commotion.

“What’d you go and do that for?” His fists balling at his sides, Frank’s gaze whipped to the faltering O’Bannon and back to Sloan. “We won’t have much of a good time if you bust her up.”

Yep, trouble, and Hank’s prime suspect just happened to be dropping right into the middle of it all, her backside landing on the floor with a surprising kind of grace.

Hank slipped to his feet. The situation had flared quickly and would need doused just as rapidly.

Ahead of him, Miss O’Bannon rose smoothly. Her hand brushed the dust from her backside as she craned her slender neck to check out the damage. Hank glanced away from the distracting action only to catch the three other men staring slack-jawed and open-mouthed at the scene playing out before them. And they weren’t the only ones looking.

Possessiveness gripped Hank in a surprising chokehold.

O’Bannon shifted back around, meeting the men’s gazes. There was no way she could miss the open displays of lust, but she took it all in stride. Maybe she’d even known what she’d been about, drawing attention to herself like that.

“Now, now, gentlemen, no need to argue. We can all have a good time.” Her smile wide, the dimples framing her smile adding to the playfulness of her tone, O’Bannon stepped right back into the middle of the situation.

A cool customer, this woman, Hank thought.

She sashayed close to Frank, and pressed the length of her curvaceous yet slender body against his side. “I’m not hurt, but a lady sure can appreciate a man who steps in to protect her.”

Oh, yeah, this one knows exactly what she’s doing.

Sloan almost growled from where he stood adjacent to his friend. “I didn’t mean to hurt ya none.”

“I reckon you can leave her alone, Sloan.” Frank’s arm swept around her waist. “I think she likes me best.”

“I’ll show you—” Sloan lurched forward.

“Come on you two.” The third man finally spoke, but neither Frank nor Sloan paid him any attention.

Hank slipped closer, none of the other men noticing his advance.

“Give ‘er over, Frank, and I won’t kill ya.” Sloan took menacing steps forward. “I’m the leader of this here outfit. I reckon I get first poke at her.”

Sloan evidently thought of O’Bannon as some kind of painted lady, and, well, maybe she was, but the man’s crass choice of words grated on Hank. His irritation compounded when Sloan jerked O’Bannon from Frank’s hold.

“Now, now,” O’Bannon giggled as she was pulled from one man to the next, “there’s no—”

A bruising kiss from Sloan cut off Miss O’Bannon’s words. The irritation Hank had been feeling transferred quickly to a blood boiling rage. Gunslinger or not, if things tripped too far south, he’d have to make a move. A few others, the grizzly-faced bartender in particular, appeared to agree with him. Enough was enough.

Frank wasn’t looking to let anything, especially not O’Bannon, go. He surged forward. With a vice-like grip, Frank took hold of O’Bannon’s arm and tried to yank her back. Except Sloan wasn’t letting go, Frank wasn’t giving up, and their docile friend still sat at the table sipping away at his whiskey.

Hank took a step forward.

Shotgun at his side, the bartender rounded the corner of his makeshift bar.

The scrape and skitter of chairs followed. Cold drafts of wind blew into the room as patrons bent on more discreet surroundings and, well, staying alive slunk out into the snowy night.

Hank slipped his hand under his jacket, his fingers sliding over the butt of his pistol. Frank’s hand also disappeared into his coat, but just as Hank began to pull his own gun free, Frank stilled. A second later, the man’s face suffused an angry shade of red, and he patted his coat front.

“Where the hell’s my piece?” Frank shouted, searching his person more thoroughly.

“Plannin’ on shootin’ me, Frank?” Sloan shouted, setting O’Bannon aside. The big man’s hand disappeared into his coat. “I’ll show you.”

O’Bannon took the opportunity to back away, her reversed steps bringing her closer to Hank, and her backside momentarily drew his attention away from the confrontation unfolding in front of him. Her shoulders shimmered smooth and bare. Hank followed the contour of them until his eyes drank in the equal beauty of her upper back and followed the plunging v of her dress to the inevitable dip of her lower back. Dark blue material clung to the curves of her rear, and naturally, his eyes followed the shiny fabric to the black lace that edged the hemline at her thighs. Black, sheer stockings meandered down the curves of her legs to her delicate ankles and black shoes. Blood roared from his brain to somewhere else altogether.

Recognizing he’d missed something, his gaze snapped back up to what he’d just skimmed right on over—two pistols dangled from the hands clasped behind her back.

Damn.

He’d end up getting himself shot if he wasn’t careful.

“Gentlemen, let’s just sit ourselves back down and have us a friendly drink. There’s no need for a tussle.” Even in retreat, O’Bannon kept playing peacemaker. “Maybe you can even describe this gal you’re looking for, and I can help you find her.”

Make that Miss Brazen-as-You-Please O’Bannon. He fought a smirk at her antics. This woman would kill at cards.

“My gun,” Sloan said, surprise lighting his features. “Where the hell’s my damn gun?”

“Don’t tell me you boys brought guns in here.” Her voice switched to a disappointed coo, and Hank could just imagine her lower lip protruding ever so slightly in a pretty, full-lipped pout. She put on a stellar innocent act considering she knew exactly where their pistols were. “We don’t want anyone getting hurt, now do we?”

Hank’s breath caught as that delicious backside of hers bumped into his thighs. Not a short woman, she fit perfectly against him. She was soft and warm and womanly, and her body tugged his mind into all kinds of dangerous territory. He cleared his throat.

She turned in his arms even as she apologized, “Sorry, mister.”

He held back the urge to wrap Miss Manipulating Mercy in his arms. She was playing Frank and Sloan like a pair of fiddles, and he wasn’t about to be another of her victims, even if her dark, dark eyes were twinkling up at him and her lips really were as full and inviting as he’d envisioned. If she turned out to be anything other than the murderer he suspected her of being, she just might be able to tempt him beyond his self-imposed constraints.

Despite everything he knew, Hank’s hands moved to the nip of her waist. Her eyes a study in amusement, she winked just before the weight of what he could only guess were two pistols settled into his jacket pockets. A second later, she turned away, having passed off her small burden as though it were nothing of significance.

“Griff, how about a round of drinks for these fellows?” she called to the bartender who had slipped back behind the makeshift bar. She turned back to the three men brooding at their table. “And let’s see if I can help you three find that woman you’re after.”

Man, can she lay it on thick.

The few patrons left in the speakeasy returned to their whiskey. Hank slipped back to his seat. He harbored little doubt that Miss Mercy O’Bannon, murderer or no, was one talented woman, a woman who could have easily slipped a knife between his ribs before he’d even seen it coming.

It would have been one heck of a way to go.



Chapter Two



SHE’D SENT SLOAN, FRANK, and their quiet pal on their way earlier. Flirting smiles and lots of liquor had gone a long way to settling that group down. Not to mention, it had also dampened other parts of their anatomy. Sloan’s earlier words—Take a poke at her? Really!—had made her see red, but she had masked her reaction. It hadn’t been the first time a man had made assumptions about her. And, if she were honest with herself, Sloan hadn’t been all that far off the mark.

Besides, the wig had done its job after all; Sloan had ruled her out as the dark-haired woman Collins had hired him and his men to find. She’d nearly panicked when they had shown her the sketch they were carrying around. It was crude, yes, but accurate enough that it would have given a practiced tracker pause. And, really, all they had needed to do was check her left ear. Thank the good Lord they hadn’t.

Even better, the fools had actually given her some information she could use. Local gossip, really, but anything at this point bore investigating. However, she had one other lead to follow up on first.

Over the past few hours of the early morning, the last of the patrons had finally sought their rest. Everyone was gone, except for him.

A glance to the shadowed table at the back of the room confirmed what she already knew. He wouldn’t be leaving without her. She pushed down the nerves tumbling in her stomach, and as smooth as butter across hot toast, she spread her easygoing, welcoming smile across her face. She wore the façade like an old friend. She’d risk tangling with him, dangerous as he was, because out of everyone she’d spoken with tonight, he looked most like the type of man her friend had described—well dressed, dangerous, the right height and coloring. Chances were good that he was a part of the Shadow Gang.

Putting that extra sway in her hips, she closed the distance between them. At the table, she set his last glass of whiskey down. Only his second, and wasn’t that something? He stood like he was used to standing in the presence of a lady. Dressed as she was tonight no one would mistake her for one, and his polite reflex had her questioning just exactly who this man was.

Dark? Definitely. Dangerous? Probably. Lethal? Most likely.

Yet something hovered in the air around him. Something not in tune with the usual vibes she got around men of his ilk. He lacked the sweat of greed, the leer of lust, and the stink of drink. Control put him in a class all his own. He was just the kind of man who could shift between the shadows of two worlds. Dark because no one would see him coming. Dangerous because he could compartmentalize what he had to do. Lethal because his kill would be quick and silent.

Goose bumps skittered along her skin as he pulled her close. The whisper of his words at her ear teased her neck.

“I’ve been waiting a while.” Teeth nipped at her earlobe, a gentle, possessive tug. Too close for comfort.

She waited for the usual internal recoil at a man’s touch. It came as natural to her as breathing. Instead, her breath quickened and her pulse raced. For the first time, the splay of a man’s hands at her waist didn’t sear like a violation. Her trepidation grew. Something was definitely off.

Tonight she just might lose this game of seduction. She’d lost before. She still bore the scars. She absently rubbed a wrist, then caught herself. Stopped. Usually, those memories were so much easier to keep locked away, but tonight they were all too near the surface. They kept dancing at the back of her mind, taunting her, begging her to pay them some attention.

She looked up at him, trying to see the features he’d kept so well hidden beneath the brim of his black-as-sin Stetson, but she couldn’t quite make out his features, even if she could feel his gaze caress her. It wasn’t too late. She could still back out, turn around and walk away never to return.

“I need to change and bundle up.” She broadened her smile. “Enjoy your drink.”

A hand reached up, its broad, thick fingers cupping her cheek. “I’ll wait.”

She leaned in close, her body brushing his, and spoke the words she knew he’d want to hear, “You better wait. I swear it will be worth it.”

His pulse picked up beneath the hand she’d rested against his chest. For all of his dark control, he was as human as any man. And just as vulnerable.

With a genuine smile this time, she wound a finger down his chest before turning on her heel. They all made it so easy. Too easy.

His eyes burned into her back as she walked behind the makeshift bar and into the small curtained section of the cellar behind it. Sweeping the curtain closed, she set about changing quickly, donning her warm, familiar clothing.

A throat cleared outside the curtain.

“Mercy?” Griff’s supposed-to-be-a-whisper voice floated easily through the curtain.

Holding the curtain to her chest, she peeked around it. “What do you need?”

The bartender looked disappointed, maybe a touch angry. “I reckoned you’d be headed out of here with me.”

“I promised you I’d rake in the money.” She drew several coins from her bodice and slipped her hand down his side and into his jacket pocket. “And that’s all I promised you.”

She tugged the curtain shut and slipped the softened wool of her warmest dress above her head and let it settle over the cotton chemise. She welcomed the layers of warmth even as she kept her senses alert for any movement from the other side of the curtain. Men seldom liked to be denied.

Griff’s head breached the shelter of the curtain, but surprisingly he didn’t step inside. “But you’re headed out of here with him? He looks like trouble.”

A crooked grin in place, Mercy sauntered across the distance separating them. Maybe this Griff wasn’t so bad, but she wasn’t looking for a man old enough to be her father and then some. Then again, she wasn’t looking for a man period. She’d learned that lesson. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t throw him a bone. He had helped her out, after all.

Mercy gestured to the buttons at her back and turned for him to help her button the few that remained. She closed her eyes to settle the churning in her stomach as his fingers worked their way from button to button slowly. She knew how to evade him if he tried anything. She wasn’t a young girl, alone and broken, anymore. Besides, she might need a favor from him on down the road. Allowing him close was an investment. Her rationalizations didn’t stop her from turning just a bit too quickly once he’d slid the last button through.

“Thanks, Griff.” She stepped around him and headed for the shadows.

Griff caught her by the shoulder. “You’re leavin’ just like that?”

“I am.” Mercy reached out a hand and patted his whiskered and drooping jowl. “One thing before I go, I’d close down. I hear Sheriff Taylor’s a straight arrow and plenty smart.”

“You know that’s not what I want from you.” The words were laced with disappointment, but the look on his face told her he’d accepted her refusal, even if he hadn’t given up hope altogether. “Anytime you need some work, find me. Never seen a bit of calico work the room like you done.”

Relieved at his acquiescence if not his turn of phrase, she leaned up to place a chaste kiss on his brow. “Goodnight, Griff.” She stepped out of the shelter of the curtains.

He slipped from the shadows. Unlike Griff, this man would not be easily dissuaded.

“Better not plan on lettin’ me down easy like that,” the words whispered hot at her ear as a possessive hand slipped around her waist, tugging her toward the door.

She glanced over her shoulder. The whiskey glass still sat at his table, its contents only partly finished. Her heart sank, but her voice flirted as she turned back to him, saying, “Oh, you won’t be going down easy.”

“I never do.” His words rang with promise. Promise of her coming destruction.

He opened the cellar door and motioned her ahead of him. Cold air burst around them, feeling like so many frigid fingers of premonition. He followed close behind her, making retreat impossible. The doors closed behind them. Snow swirled and beat against her face. She fought the two-fold instinct to shiver.

The man’s hand slipped over hers, bringing gloved hand against gloved hand in the darkness. The sensation struck her full force as he led her away and into the night. She debated tugging her hand free, but in the mayhem of cold and snow, it would be best to know his every movement through touch. She bent her head and braced herself against the wind only to be surprised when he guided her behind himself. His broad body broke the full force of the storm around her, and his feet stamped down the snow for her steps.

Her mind scrambled. Everything about him pointed to gun for hire, a man on the wrong side of the law, but his recent actions contradicted her deductions.

Something was off.

Maybe she should have skipped this altogether and checked out that ranch she’d overheard Sloan, Frank, and their pal talking about. She tugged at his hand, but it was too late. They were already at the inn, and he was opening the back entrance. She followed him inside, unable to resist the enveloping warmth within. He shut the door behind them. Ironically, she, too, had a room here. Number 5 to be exact.

He turned left down the hall. Passed 1, 2, 3, and 4. Stopped at 5.

“Let us in before someone sees you bringing a man back to your room.”

She fumbled for her key. How had he known her room number? The trepidation she had felt earlier cascaded like a powerful flashflood across her senses. He knew too much. Who was hunting whom exactly?

Her fingers froze on their way to the door. His big, black-gloved hand covered her own and guided her fingers to the lock, easily inserted the key, and turned the knob. His body pressed along her back, and his hands at her waist made breaking away unlikely. He urged her into the small room.

The door closed softly behind them, the lock clicked, and Mercy swallowed hard. Her experience of men suggested that some acted as they should only where they could be seen, but in the solitary darkness, many were not who they claimed to be. She was taking a big risk. This man had better be the one she needed.

Ready to play the game, she turned in his arms. Her fake smile vanished at her first glimpse of his eyes. Blue. Breathtakingly blue and as oddly familiar as his voice. This was surely the first time they had met, and yet she felt as though she had seen him somewhere before.

More to gather her thoughts than anything else, Mercy looked down at her hands and tugged at the gloves covering them. Her mind was still scrambling and she’d barely freed her second hand when he reached out and tugged her flush with his length, scattering her thoughts like startled deer. She barely had time to register his hold on her before his lips found hers.

Mercy waited for the crushing, the dominance, the demand for submission, but it never came. Instead, lips teased, teeth nipped, and tongue delved. Intrigued she let him kiss her. Everything about him had her off kilter. She forgot about her flirtatious giggle, about the practiced sighs. She forgot everything she knew to do in order to distract him and pull him further into her seduction. The weight of his pistol pressed against her side, but her hands made no move to snatch it from him.

No, she wasn’t naïve enough to think this kiss between strangers meant more than a slacking of his lust. But she was curious in a way she’d never been.

Her back met the wall, but the hand behind her head cradled her protectively. His hips pinned her in place, and rough, bare fingers tangled with her own. He lifted their joined hands above her head while his gentle lips grazed along the exposed column of her neck and raised gooseflesh as they went.

Still, she made little sense of his actions. This man was among the most fearsome she’d ever met—even more worrisome if he really was the man she sought—and every action thus far inspired only curiosity and perhaps anticipation within her.

Over the years, she’d heard other women speak of a lover’s gentle touch. She’d thought them fools. Men didn’t touch gently. Yet now she wondered. Her mind might be elsewhere, but her body responded in its depths.

Freeing a hand, he slipped it low on her waist. She should really be pulling away, reaching for his gun, and putting a stop to this nonsense. This way lay hurt and shame. A tear escaped her lashes.

Now truly shaken, she tugged at his hold on her hand. She’d barely resisted, but he unwound their fingers and withdrew his body from hers. His easy retreat emboldened her. She slipped her hands to his face, soft palms against rough whiskers, and tugged him close again. After a second’s indecision, she took his lips with her own. This was her seduction, after all. Practiced. Planned. Purposeful. She was in control.

His arms circled her waist, and his fingers worked at the buttons at her back. Forgetting her purpose, she suckled at his lips and mated her tongue with his. Mercy sought to summon her usual caution, her fear, but neither would be conjured.

Another tear slipped from beneath her lashes. This was ridiculous, really. She knew better.

He froze. Her eyes sought his. His thumb swiped at the tear trekking a solitary journey down her cheek.

“What’s this?”

Hell if she knew. “Snow must have melted.”

He raised a brow.

“Who are you?” She stepped aside. Better to put distance between them. This was ridiculous. Utterly.

“I might ask the same of you, Mercy O’Bannon.”

He knew her name, and his knowing couldn’t be good. At all.


HE WATCHED THE REACTION to her name—a wash of guilt first and the concealment of the same a moment later. He pushed his want of her away, except it wasn’t about to go willingly.

“It’s too bad, really, that you’re her,” he said and it was true.

“I haven’t said I’m this O’Bannon woman.” She backed further from him.

“That’s true. You haven’t.” He much preferred the kisses of earlier to what he would have to do now. He’d hardly recognized himself through the course of the night. When he tracked someone down, he didn’t mess around. Then again, this O’Bannon woman was a sight prettier than anyone he’d ever hunted.

“And so what if I am.”

Hank slipped his hand into his vest and withdrew a rough sketch, no doubt a copy of the same sketch those boys at the speakeasy had shown her earlier in the night. He unfolded it slowly, watching her eyes follow his every movement. “See Sloan and those other fellas don’t have much of an imagination, but I do. And while this handbill says I’m looking for a woman with black hair, I figure a smart woman could do something about that.”

He moved forward swiftly, tugging at a pin here and a pin there, before lifting the wig from her head. Now free, her hair escaped in a cascade of raven black. She reached up and removed the remaining pins, smoothing her hair as she did so. He stepped back and held up the handbill, looking from it to her.

“I’m not the first woman who’s ever worn a wig, mind you.” She smiled coyly at him. “I hear men prefer the novelty of a blonde, and I like gratuities.”

“I’ve shown this picture around here and there, and the name Mercy O’Bannon has come up now and again. The way I figure it, that’s you. Wig or no wig.”

“And now I’m wondering just exactly who you are.” She met his gaze without flinching. This one had nerve. “What’s your name?”

“Hank Levi.” The name came easily as he stalked another step forward. “Can you prove you’re not Miss O’Bannon?”

“Rather difficult to prove, I’d think.”

“An engraved hairbrush? A lover’s letter?” He watched her shake her head to each question. “An unblemished left ear perhaps?”

Silence. No consternation at such a strange question. No production of said ear. Just damning silence. Hell.

He stepped forward. She stepped back, the back of her knees hitting the bed. Her eyes widened. He snagged her wrists in one hand and lifted her hair away from her left ear while the play of the silky black strands shifting through his fingers taunted him. Sure enough, the cartilage was healing from an earlier wound. The scar would be small, but the evidence was damning. Damning enough to consume her life.

“Who sent you?” Her voice caught.

“Collins. He’s none too happy about his son’s murder.”

“That what he’s calling it?” She shrugged away from his touch and tugged at his grip.

“Jasper’s dead. The old man wounded. The way he tells it, you did the shooting.”

“Why exactly?” she asked, her eyes sparking with defiance. “Did he tell you why?”

“No.” Once again, she hadn’t offered him a denial.

“I don’t suppose he would. And what are you supposed to do with me now that you’ve found me?”

“Collins wants you dead. He made no secret of that.”

“I don’t plan to make it easy for you.”

He shrugged. She fought against his hold on her.

“I’ve seen how fast those hands are. I won’t be lettin’ you go.” His free hand slid up into her hair, his fingers sifting through the length of it. It felt as cool as the earth and just as rich as the most fertile soil. And there he went touching her again. He needed to get a handle on his response to her. Maybe he’d gone a bit far with that whiskey, after all.

“I’d much rather you lived, but that’s not what Collins wants.”

Up close like this he could watch her closely, see her ticking through possibilities of escape, of ways to bargain with him. That damned image of her in his bed surged to the surface again, but this time her dark hair cascaded around her, around them. Forget the blond, he much preferred the night-black curtain of her hair and its sinful shimmer.

Her eyes lit up as she hit on an idea, and he gave himself a mental shake. There would be no bargains made.

“We could prove my death without actually killing me. You could collect your money. Jasper would be avenged. All of us would be satisfied.”

He nearly laughed. Now this was a new tactic he hadn’t explored with a captive before and comically different from where his thoughts had veered. A helluva lot more innocent than you expected of her too. “Rather hard to prove a death without a body.”

“I could easily do without a finger if it meant keeping my life.” She offered up the appendage with the aplomb of someone discussing the weather over tea, just held up her pinky like it was insignificant. Not feminine. Not vulnerable. Not delicate.

“You’re offering to let me chop off your finger in exchange for your life?” He’d heard a lot of pleading over the years, but this was a first.

“That’s the short of it.”

However, Hank was having a hard time focusing on all the details of her bizarre plan. The edges of his vision had narrowed, blackened. He lifted a free hand to rub his eyes. Lord, he wasn’t going to pass out at the thought of removing one of her delicate fingers, was he? He wasn’t even really planning on doing it.

“I’m not cutting off your finger.”

She pulled her hand from his weakening grip. What the hell? Well, damn, she had been serving him whiskey. That second glass. Quite possibly she had added a little something to it. Laudanum perhaps? Hopefully not a lethal dose.

“I wasn’t goin’ to kill you either.” The words slipped sluggishly from his thickening tongue.

“Collins wants me dead.”

He could barely see her through the haze as her arms came around him and guided him down to the bed. Laudanum. Had to be.

“Goin’ to kill me?” Wouldn’t that just be poetic? He’d faced down blazing guns with ruthless men at their triggers. He’d fought half a dozen bloodthirsty men singlehandedly, and now a distracting woman with a come-hither smile had managed to take him down. The edges of his vision were going as dark as her hair, hair he was evidently running his fingers through again. She batted his hand away.

“No.” A single word and a white smile caught his focus through the haze.

He heard a bark of laughter. His own? “Take advantage of me?” Oh, good heavens, was he wiggling his brows, flirting on what would likely be his deathbed?

She laughed, and even though blackness darkened his vision, he could hear the difference. This sound wasn’t practiced. This was genuine amusement, not a thing like the practiced sound she’d used as she’d served whiskey.

“I like your laugh. The real one anyway.” Evidently, his mouth was still working. He should pass out or die or something already. This was embarrassing.

“Jasper Collins wasn’t supposed to die, even if he deserved it.” A cool hand brushed across his brow. “You’ll feel awful when you wake up, but you’re not going to die.”

“My virtue? My fingers?” He groaned. He was still talking. She laughed again, her hand sliding beneath his jacket, pulling his pistol free.

“Both are perfectly safe. I just need one thing from you.”

His bullets thudded from his gun to the floorboards. “I need to know about the Shadow Gang. Do you work for…”

Her words drifted away. Her question sounded important, but he couldn’t pull himself back out of the darkness. He should have taken care of Miss Soft Lips O’Bannon when he’d had the chance. Instead, he’d given in to the temptation to taste her lips, to touch her skin, to run his fingers through her hair. Ah, but he’d liked touching her, enjoyed tasting her even more. And that dark fall of hair… Hell, he’d been as beguiled as Jasper Collins, and the bumbling trio of Sloan, Frank, and friend.

Failure had never been sweeter.

Hank wondered if he was smiling like a fool just before he thought no more.


WAS THAT A SMILE? Mercy leaned closer. It was small but it was there. Hank Levi looked completely different in his sleep. The formerly hard contours of his face relaxed, a stray curl of hair teased his forehead, and that smile—she’d never had someone go under quite like that.

Evidently, Jasper Collins had never gone under completely. She should have been able to escape the Collins’ ranch before he’d been the wiser, but everything had gone wrong that day. She had been careful with his dosage—laudanum had been new to her and she hadn’t wanted to accidently kill him—but her timidity had actually ended up costing the man his life.

And now the elder Collins had a small army trailing her across North Dakota. It had been too much to hope that the location change and the wig would keep her hidden for long. She shouldn’t have bothered, and oh, how that wig had itched. She reached up and ran her fingernails across her scalp. Heavenly.

Even worse than the wig, Hank Levi hadn’t been able to give her any of the information she’d risked so much to gain. Disappointment pooled a leaden weight in her stomach. Time was running out. She had a vague description of a man, but no name. If this man wasn’t the leader of the Shadow Gang…

She sifted through the contents of his pants pockets. A few bills and some change. The thick wool coat held a pair of handcuffs.

Handcuffs?

She brought one of his hands up and clasped the cuffs around his wrist before looping them through the iron bedframe and securing the cuff to his other wrist. She slipped the accompanying key into her pocket.

Mercy slid her hands along torso and arms and legs. He had to have something on him somewhere that might hint at exactly who he was. She went back to the coat. Ah-ha, an inside pocket. She pulled out a cool piece of metal, U.S. Marshal stamped boldly across it. A badge!

Not a gunslinger. A U.S. marshal. Dear God.

That pool of dread thickened and churned.

She slipped the badge back into his pocket with shaking hands and stepped away. She gathered the few items she could call hers into a small saddlebag, including that infuriating blond wig.

At the door, she turned back, her gaze taking in the marshal’s powerful form even as she attempted to discount the strange attraction she felt for one Hank Levi. Really, she should have known he wasn’t a gunslinger. It had been in the way he’d stood ready to interfere with Sloan, the way he’d sheltered her through the snow, and the way he’d kissed her. Not an ounce of evil in him. Dangerous, yes. Evil, no.

And then there had been the familiar tones of his voice and the startling hue of his blue eyes. A whisper of memory teased her subconscious, but she pushed it back. She opened the door and shut it quietly behind her.

Sometimes it was best to forget.



Chapter Three



HIS WRISTS ACHED, BUT they weren’t the only things smarting. His pride was rubbed downright raw. Henry Owens, a.k.a. Hank Levi, had been a U.S. marshal for almost twenty years and in that span, he could count on three of his numb fingers the times a criminal had gotten the drop on him.

The first he had been wet behind the ears, and a certain thirteen-year-old kid had helped him shoot his way out of that one. Of course, Henry never talked about the day a gang of bank robbers had nearly cut him down, but the man-version of the thirteen-year-old kid mentioned it every time their paths crossed. Damn, Butcher Boden’s sorry hide.

The second he’d fought the Boss and his gang. He’d taken his friend Nathan Taylor’s side against more than a dozen money-thirsty killers. And, of course, Butcher Boden had been there that day, too, but it had taken all three of them to battle the Boss and his savage group. In the end, the ranch had burned to the ground, and Nathan had buried his wife.

The third. Hmm. The third. Embarrassing really. He should have seen that two-faced bastard coming from a mile away. Except he hadn’t, and now the sting of betrayal and a lingering limp from a bullet to the thigh begged Henry to contemplate his vitality. If things kept going as they had in Devils Lake, he’d no doubt be rolling home in the back of a wagon, his body hammered down beneath the lid of a pine box. Except there wouldn’t be anyone home when he got there. No fifteen-year-old boy, heart pounding and palms sweating, to run through the snow and leap into the wagon bed.

He shook off the old memories and forced his focus to the present. He needed to figure a way out of his current predicament. He tested his cuffs, the yanking cutting the iron further into his wrists. He was supposed to be back at the ranch, easing into another life, leaving marshaling behind, but Judge Winters had called in a favor, and Winters was one of the few who had any sort of leverage on him. Good, ol’ Frostbite knew how to use it too.

The bad thing about being assigned to one of Winters’ cases was that more often than not they were intriguing. Henry had been given the order to follow up on a killing just outside of Fargo. A rancher’s son had been murdered, and it hadn’t been any ordinary crime. A woman had killed him, and so far, the younger man’s father had been more than tight-lipped about the situation. Oh, he’d said plenty of things, but nothing worth a hoot. No possible motive. No explanation of what had been taken. No name for the woman except—

Whore shot my boy!” Jasper Collins had spat out the words, followed by a fit of coughing as his body fought to heal from his wound and stave off infection and fever.

Any idea why?” Why would a woman shoot a man in seemingly cold blood? Granted Henry had run into his fair share of violent women over the years, but ladies made up a minute percentage of fugitives, even in his line of work.

The old man had looked meaningfully up at his wife and without a word the woman had nodded and left the room, closing the door quietly behind her.

My boy was lookin’ for a good time, and she seemed more than willin’.”

Jealousy scored Henry at that memory. The thought of Mercy O’Bannon in the hands of anyone in the Collins family shouldn’t infuriate him, but it did.


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