Excerpt

Northern Wyoming, August 1888

The stagecoach, a canvas-covered mud wagon that had seen better days, rattled over the washboard road. The final leg of the run from Casper to Lodgepole was blessedly short, but the horses were already lathered from the afternoon heat. Dust billowed from under the wheels to settle like fine brown velvet on the driver, the guard and the three passengers inside—two women and a man.

Clint Lonigan sat directly across from the veiled woman. Pretending to doze, he studied her through slitted eyes. He’d already guessed who—and what—she was. Ten days ago, when he’d left Lodgepole to sit with a dying friend, the town had been abuzz with the news that an honest-to-God countess, the widow of an English earl, was coming to live with her sister, Margaret Hanford.

Clint had paid scant attention to the gossip. Mrs. Hanford seemed like a nice enough woman, but her husband, Roderick, was the most arrogant, pretentious piece of cow manure in the whole county. Clint wouldn’t have been impressed to hear that Queen Victoria herself planned on dropping by the Hanford ranch for a damned spot of tea.

But here was the countess in the flesh. And now that he’d seen her, damned if he wasn’t intrigued. The Dowager Countess of Manderfield—Hanford had made sure folks knew her full title. No question that this woman was the real thing. Who but an upper-class foreigner would travel on a sweltering day dressed head to toe in widow’s weeds? She had to be sweating like a mule under that heavy black silk.

If the woman’s costume left any question of her status, the engraved signet ring on her left hand erased all doubt. It was heavy gold with a ruby the size of a black-eyed pea. He couldn’t help but marvel that some plug-ugly hadn’t hacked off her finger to steal it.

A widow’s bonnet, black with a dusty silk veil, concealed her hair and face. Apart from her slender frame, Clint couldn’t tell whether she was young or old, plain or pretty. Even her lace-mitted hands gave no clue. The “Dowager” in her title suggested a woman past middle age. But that didn’t make a bean’s worth of difference, because there was one thing Clint knew for sure.

If the countess was planning to move in with Roderick Hanford, she was already one of the enemy.

Eve Townsend, Dowager Countess of Manderfield, braced her boots against the floor of the coach, shifting on the seat in an attempt to ease her tortured buttocks. She’d lowered her veil against the dust, but there was nothing to be done for the constant jarring.

Or the heat. Eve felt as if her body was being baked in treacle. She’d worn her mourning clothes to prompt some deference on the journey and discourage any strange men who might otherwise accost her. To that extent the costume had worked. But she was not at all certain that the benefits outweighed the unending discomfort. Traveling in black silk bombazine had been like sitting in a Turkish bath.

But enough complaints! This was the American West, and Margaret had warned her to expect some rough conditions. The stormy, sickness-fraught ocean voyage, followed by the jostling train ride from New York to the railhead at Casper, had drained Eve in body and spirit. But this was the last leg of a journey that would soon be over. With Margaret and her children she would have a roof over her head and family around her. She could hardly wait to hold Margaret’s baby, due to be born this very month.

“Will your sister’s family be meeting the stage, Countess?” Plump, middle-aged and chatty, Mrs. Etta Simpkins had already introduced herself. She ran a bakery in Lodgepole and appeared to know the business of everyone in town.

“I certainly hope so,” Eve answered politely. “And you needn’t call me Countess. This is America, after all. Mrs. Townsend will do.”

“Very well.” The woman sounded a trifle disappointed. “But don’t count on Margaret being there when you arrive. When I saw her two weeks ago, she was as big around the waist as a fifty-pound pumpkin. I’d wager she’s had that baby by now. From the look of her, it could even be twins.”

“Twins! Goodness, wouldn’t that be wonderful? That’s why I’ve come, you know, to help Margaret with the children.”

It was enough truth for now, Eve reasoned. There was no need to spread the word that, upon her husband’s death, her grown stepson, Albert, had burned his father’s updated will—which would have left her generously provided for—and booted her off the Manderfield estate with little more than her title and her wedding ring. If not for her sister’s invitation, she could be languishing in the poorhouse.

Eve brushed a blowfly off her skirt, its movement drawing her eye to the man who sat on the opposite bench, his knees almost touching hers. At the moment, he appeared to be sleeping. But the glimmer beneath his lowered eyelids told her he was fully alert, like a dozing panther.

He’d muttered an introduction before taking his seat. Lonigan—that was the surname, she remembered. Irish, of course, having the name and the look of that wretched race, though his speech sounded American. She’d acknowledged him with an icy nod. He’d seemed not to care or even to notice her disdain. Perversely, his utter indifference piqued her interest.

She studied him through her veil—a lanky frame, long denim-covered legs, dusty Mexican-style riding boots, a faded shirt and a well-worn leather vest. His sun-burnished hands were callused—a workingman’s hands. His proud bearing suggested he might be a landholder. But he didn’t appear to be wealthy like Margaret’s husband, Roderick, who, according to her letters, owned more than twenty thousand head of cattle and a house as big as an English manor.

Eve’s eyes lingered on the man’s face. He had features like chiseled granite, framed by unruly chestnut hair that curled over the tops of his ears. The scar that slashed across his cleft chin lent him a subtle aura of danger. He struck her as the sort of man no proper lady should have anything to do with.

Still, she caught herself trying to imagine the color of his mostly closed eyes.

A sudden pistol shot whanged from behind the coach. The bullet pierced the canvas cover, splintering the wooden framework overhead. Eve jerked upright, paralyzed by disbelief. Why would anybody be shooting at them?

“Damn it, get down!” Lonigan was out of his seat in an instant, shoving both women onto the floor and flattening himself on top of them. Eve struggled under his weight, eating dust as the coach lurched and picked up speed. He refused to move, his solid chest pressing down on her back. Beneath his leather vest, she could feel the distinct outline of a small holstered pistol.

The coach swayed crazily as it thundered along the rutted road. Bullets sang overhead like angry wasps. Mrs. Simpkins was shrieking in terror.

A hump in the road launched the coach into an instant’s flight, then dropped it with a sickening crunch. The vehicle careened to one side, shuddered and came to rest on one broken wheel. Eve bit back a whimper. Clearly, they’d been run down by highwaymen and their lives were in grave danger. But her late father, who’d served his country during the great Indian mutiny, had schooled her to hide her fear.

“Everybody outside!” The male voice sounded young and nervous. “Do as you’re told and nobody gets hurt.”

Lonigan muttered a string of curses. Eve gulped dusty air as his rock-hard weight eased off her. “Give me your ring!” he growled in her ear.

“And why, pray tell, should I do that?”

“They’ll take it if they see it. Might even cut your finger off to get at it if you don’t cooperate. Give me the damned ring!” Without waiting for a reply, he seized Eve’s hand and yanked the ring off her finger. It vanished into a vest pocket as he rose to his knees and unlatched the door of the coach.

“We’re coming out,” he shouted. “But mind your manners. There are ladies in here.”

Eve scrambled onto the seat as he opened the door and stepped out. Mrs. Simpkins appeared to have fainted. Eve found her smelling salts in her reticule and waved the vial under the woman’s nose. She flinched, snorted and opened her eyes. “What’s happened?” she gasped.

“We’re being robbed. They want us to get out.”

“Oh, dear!” She looked as if she were going to faint again.

“Come on—and keep still. The less we say the better.” Eve helped the woman rise. Passing her ahead to Lonigan, Eve took a breath to collect herself and then climbed out of the coach and into the sunbaked air. Her legs felt as unsteady as a newborn lamb’s, but she straightened her spine to hide her nerves and anxiety.

Through the haze of settling dust she surveyed the chaos—the lathered horses and the coach sagging onto its shattered wheel. The grizzled driver’s hands were in the air. The guard clutched his bleeding arm but didn’t appear badly hurt. Eve saw no sign of the double-barreled shotgun he’d carried.

There were just two robbers, their hats pulled low and their faces masked with bandannas. Slim and erect on their mounts, they could’ve been schoolboys. But there was nothing childish about their weapons—heavy pistols, cocked and aimed.

“Is everybody out?” Eve recognized the nervous voice of the robber who’d ordered them from the coach.

“We are.” Lonigan faced him boldly. Eve remembered the gun under his vest. Did he plan to use it? “As you see, boys, it’s just me and these two good widow ladies. None of us has anything worth stealing. So pack your pistols and go home before somebody else gets hurt.” His eyes flickered toward the wounded guard. “Damned lucky you didn’t kill that man. You could end up swinging by your fool necks.”

Eve glanced at him from beneath her veil. Something didn’t seem right, and suddenly she knew what it was. Lonigan didn’t seem the least bit afraid. He was lecturing the robbers like a stern uncle.

He knew them!

Copyright © 2015 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Cover copy text used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited

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