Saving the Mail Order Bride – Linda Broday

It was a plain, ordinary March day with nothing ahead but dusty miles and a wide expanse of sky overhead. Ordinary… If you didn’t count the manacle around Jack Bowdre’s wrist. If you didn’t count the marshal sitting next to him. And if you didn’t count the fact that he’d soon be in a hoosegow in Saint’s Roost. The stagecoach slammed into a large hole in the narrow road, almost jolting half of his teeth out. He ran his tongue over the pearly whites, checking to make sure he still had them, and shivered from the cold air coming around the leather flap on the window. Just ordinary. Same rough road. Same regrets. Same barren scenery he’d ridden across too many times to count. Maybe it’d been one time too many. He glanced down at the iron bracelet handcuffing him to the marshal. The weak afternoon sun would be going down in a matter of hours. Jack flexed his jaw. There was sure to be a dark bruise there soon enough, to go along with his split lip.

He tried to brush the dirt from his black trousers and shirt. The blood from the fight would have to stay. Damn! To his satisfaction, the marshal appeared in worse shape, still bleeding from his nose. After subduing Jack—with help—the lawman had flagged down the stagecoach about ten miles back. Jack silently cursed himself for getting caught. All the times he’d outrun the posse, why’d it have to be now, when he was set to marry? Movement on the seat across from him drew his attention to the young woman, the only other passenger, whose knee practically touched his. She kept her gaze averted, probably pondering his crimes and the wages of sin. He thought about listing them all for her just to smooth the wrinkle in her brow, but that would take quite a while, and he didn’t want to shock the delicate beauty. The stagecoach lurched across what must have been a series of large holes. The lady’s dark lashes lifted and his nerve endings stood at attention, something he’d not felt in a very long time.

He touched two fingers to his hat with his free hand, and smiled. She was most definitely not ordinary. Unlike so many reed-thin women running around, this one had curves. He preferred a little meat on a woman’s bones. Her fair hair reminded him of freshly churned butter and the dusky eyes meeting his were the hue of his favorite chestnut roan. High, sculpted cheekbones and a determined jawline spoke of strength and grit. Jack quirked one eyebrow. Her face heated and she gave him a frown, hurriedly turning her gaze back to the window. Not that she could likely see a blessed thing through the crack of the leather flap that was supposed to keep out the cloud of dust from the churning wheels. Anything must be better than looking at his sorry face.

A glance sideways at Marshal Dollard found him sleeping. Now if only Jack could find a way to get that door open. But the racing stage and the manacle put a halt to escape plans—for the moment. While he marked time, he resorted to a guessing game, studying the moss-green traveling dress that peeked from the opening of the lady’s dark wool coat. Was that fox fur around the collar and cuffs? The outfit was a little too fancy for the wilds of Texas. At least the dress was slimmer than most. He hated those large bustles and petticoats that made some dresses balloon out until a man couldn’t walk past without crushing the fabric. Her plumed hat was a bit fancy as well. Feathers and a bird’s nest? Really? He gave a soft snort. Definitely an easterner.

He’d bet the price on his wanted poster that this was her first time this side of the Mississippi. He leaned forward slightly and craned his neck. There on the floor of the stage, peeking beneath her hem, was the rest of the tale. The little he could see of her high-top shoes was worn and scuffed beyond a polish’s magic, which led him to believe either she’d borrowed the finery—or her funds had dried up before she could get to shoes. The lady’s clothing was probably nothing more than window dressing meant to fool some poor soul. Thank goodness not him. Her age? Hard to say, but he’d put it somewhere between twenty and twenty-eight. She’d done some living. Why was she here in Texas? Now that was the real question. A job? No.

Although gloves hid her hands, he knew in his gut they’d be soft. She didn’t appear to be the kind of woman to do hard work. No, she seemed a bit pampered. Family? Maybe. Married? He lowered his gaze and studied her through the fringe of his lashes. Hmmm. That one puzzled him. Something about her seemed to say she wasn’t the marrying kind, that she craved her independence a bit too much. After all, what man would let his wife travel alone through wild country? No, he couldn’t see her married. At least not yet.

But definitely looking. Though not at him. Him, she was bound and determined to ignore. Forgetting his right arm was still attached to the marshal’s left, he lifted his hand to rub his sore jaw, stubble sharp against his palm, the six-inch chain rattling. The old lawman startled awake and glared. “Quit your fidgeting and be still.” He jerked Jack’s arm down with a resounding thump. “Watch it, Marshal! You don’t have me as restrained as you think.” Jack had woken in a cold sweat from nightmares just like this too many times over the years—manacled to a lawman, heading for his doom. He always knew they’d catch him one day, seeing that the odds had been stacked against him from the start.

Fact was, he’d grown careless. Jack bit back a curse, wishing for his ivory-gripped Colt that the marshal had taken off him and put God knows where outside the coach. Damn! “If that’s a threat…you’re lucky I don’t strap you to the top.” The marshal smiled at their lady traveler. “Sorry that you have to endure this a bit longer, ma’am. He’s little more than a savage animal.” Marshal Dollard said it like Jack had a case of rabies or something. Dollard continued in a tone full of righteous contempt. “Why, he’s so mean the rattlesnakes won’t even come near him. I heard his own kin disowned him.

” Like Dollard knew a damn thing about his family. The puffed-up lawman would say anything to impress the lady. Jack eyed the Colt on Dollard’s right hip. If only he could reach it… * * * Lenora’s gaze traced along the outlaw’s long legs and lean form. Power radiated from him —enormous power barely held in check. She could almost feel his deep irritation, and his anger. She’d read about men like this one in dime novels that were all the rage back East, men who lived outside the law. But reading about them and coming face-to-face with one in the flesh were two totally different things. Awareness sizzled between them, and his tiniest movement captured her attention. When he turned his gaze to her, a rush of heat flooded her cheeks.

She found herself pinned like a butterfly under glass. His chiseled features appeared hewn from the hardest stone that the good Lord probably reserved for those like him. Outlaws. The marshal appeared barely able to contain him. In fact, she got the impression the prisoner merely bided his time until an opportunity for escape came. He glanced toward the window, allowing her to study him better. The outlaw had uncommon good looks, his hard, angled jaw sporting light-brown stubble. The bump on the bridge of his nose indicated it had been broken few times. Ha! She wasn’t surprised by that. Most striking were his gray eyes—gunmetal gray.

When he’d first climbed into the coach, they were stormy, and other times, like when the marshal shot warnings and threats, they became icy and hard. Yet amusement always colored his gaze when he turned his attention to her. Was it her appearance or her nervousness that brought out the twinkling glint? Lenora thought about leaning across the space and slapping his brazen face. Except that she’d never struck anyone in her life, even though she’d been sorely tempted quite a few times over the last year. The way his body tensed, swinging measured glances at the door, then back to the marshal—could he really be planning an escape? He suddenly gave her a smile that could’ve charmed the devil’s own mother. Lenora stilled and held her breath, her pulse racing. Would he use her in his escape plan somehow? Maybe take her hostage? Oh dear. She glanced at the marshal, wondering if he’d pull his gun and shoot the outlaw if he tried anything. The handsome outlaw lifted a finely arched brow. “Here in Texas, they make you pay to gawk, ma’am.

But I reckon this is the first time a gentlewoman like yourself has laid eyes on a born and bred killer. Who knows? Maybe you can come to my hanging. That’ll be a real treat.” “I don’t think I could bear such a sight.” “You don’t know what you’ll miss. It’ll be the social occasion of the year. Big, bad Jack met his end. He was as sorry as his father.” He raised his free hand to his eyes and released a long sigh. Beneath his mocking tone, she saw the layer of sorrow, felt his heavy heart, tasted his bitterness.

Whatever had happened to land him here had two sides to the story. * * * “When shall we reach Saint’s Roost?” Refinement echoed in her crisp Eastern accent, swept along by her melodious voice. Definitely not Jack’s type. He preferred them a little rough around the edges. The fun lay in smoothing those over a little. Not too much though, so they wouldn’t get the notion they were better than him. This lady probably already thought herself better than the uncouth outlaw. With his free hand, Dollard reached for his watch, hanging on its gold chain, and flipped it open. “Another hour or so, ma’am. Frankly, I can’t wait to get this stinkin’ outlaw behind bars.

Every marshal, sheriff, and bounty hunter in the state has been hunting him for years. By last count he’s killed over fifteen men. He’s one dangerous hombre.” Their fellow traveler didn’t appear one bit afraid of him. Jack rolled his eyes and bit back a curse. As far as dangerous, that all depended on which person you asked. The men he’d killed would agree most heartily, them having done what they did. But Jack never shot without a reason—and once he pulled his gun on someone, it was because he meant to send them to hell. He’d never been sorry, except for once. His breath grew ragged with the recollection.

He pushed the pain aside and inhaled. To his best friend, Clay Colby, and the people of Hope’s Crossing, Jack was a hero who stood tall against evil, seeking justice however, whenever he could. He didn’t go out of his way to end someone’s life—he tried to be sure that it only ever happened because of a wrong choice the other made. The coach jolted and shifted, jarring Jack again. The driver shouldn’t be going at such an unsafe speed. Stagecoaches were notoriously top heavy, and it took next to nothing to turn one over. But that was beyond Jack’s control. Quite a lot was at the moment. A sigh full of regret escaped him. Tomorrow was supposed to be his wedding day.

His mail order bride would arrive in Hope’s Crossing about sundown today, and he wouldn’t be there to greet her. Just his luck that she had decided to go through with it. Hell! A lot of good that did him. Unless he got to the marshal’s Colt, he’d be sitting in a cell instead, sleeping on a thin mattress stretched on a cement slab. Dammit! How had the marshal known where he was? Dollard must’ve tracked him. Another thought struck and froze his blood. Hope’s Crossing could have a traitor in their midst. But who? He couldn’t imagine any of his friends turning on him. His thoughts spun like a roulette wheel and ice slid down his spine. Three new men had come to the town a few weeks ago.

Maybe one of them was working with the law. Or it could be a longtime friend. The thought of betrayal made his stomach clench. Or maybe he just had rotten luck. The lady on the opposite seat fiddled with her light-blond hair. The curve of her jaw and elegant neck drew him. Near perfect, very kissable. His lazy gaze slid over her body— what little he could see, that is. No harm in looking. It appeared he’d be getting his neck stretched instead of marrying now anyway, and what he saw definitely intrigued him.

He nudged his knee over ever so slightly until it touched hers. The light connection sent unexpected pleasure coursing through him. She swung her eyes to him, anger flashing from the brown depths. She shifted in her seat, breaking the contact. In an effort to stifle the boredom and to ruffle the lady’s cool gaze, Jack caught her looking again and winked. She gasped and tilted her chin several degrees. If her stare were a sharp knife, it would’ve impaled him. The stagecoach careened around a corner and slid sideways. Jack waited for the slide to stop and the coach to straighten up, only it kept going. The tilt threw him against the marshal.

He grabbed for something to hold on to, which ended up being the lady. She screamed. The team of horses screeched in terror, and the driver yelled curses, the noise outside turning to holy hell as the driver tried to right the stage. The wooden coach cracked and groaned as it fell, tumbling, cartwheeling down an embankment. The sides caved in, the whole wall breaking apart. All Jack could do was hold on and pray to reach the bottom in one piece. Pain pierced his leg, the one that still carried a posse’s bullet from a few years back. He let out a yell. His head cracked against something solid, and for a minute, stars twinkled in his vision. When what was left of the stagecoach finally settled, he slowly moved his legs, then his arms.

Nothing felt broken, but the lady passenger lay on one side of him, and he was trapped on the other by the marshal’s weight. He yanked on the manacles, which didn’t give. Pain shot up his arm. Dollard’s sightless eyes were open and his mouth hung slack, his thick body half-on and half-off the seat. A piece of wood protruding from his chest said there was no need trying to save him. Jack lowered the man’s eyelids with his free hand and turned his attention to the woman’s low moans. “You all right, ma’am?” “What happened?” She pulled herself to a sitting position, holding her forehead. Blood trickled from under her hand. Her hat sat askew, the pretty green ribbon under her chin still holding it on, the bird’s nest hanging over one eye. She shoved it back in order to see.

“An accident. We rolled down an embankment, would be my guess. The marshal is dead.” He tugged at Dollard’s large girth again but couldn’t free himself. The chain was twisted around the man’s arm and pinned beneath his body. “I need your help. Do you think you can?” “Can what?” She appeared dazed. Maybe the blow to her head had been harder than he’d thought. “Get the key to these manacles from the marshal’s vest so I can free myself.” When she didn’t budge, he tried again.

“Please get the key from his vest pocket. I’d do it, but I can’t reach it with my arm trapped.” Finally she appeared to slowly comprehend the situation and crawled to the marshal. Though she seemed calmer than he’d expected a fancy lady to be, her hands trembled as she searched. The first pocket had nothing. She tried the other side and pulled out a small brass key. “Good. Now give it to me.” He would be loose in a moment. By the time help arrived— which shouldn’t be long, since this was a well-traveled road—he’d be gone.

But she shook her head. “No, I’ll unlock it. I can do that much.” She stuck the key into the lock of the marshal’s manacle and it swung open. “Good. Now hand me the key.” She stared at him a second through wide eyes. In a swift move, she yanked the chain free from Dollard’s body and, before Jack could utter a word, snapped the cuff on her own wrist. Hell and be damned! “What are you doing?” He tried to grab the key from her. “You’re crazy if you think I’m going to let you get away.

I’m safer with you next to me than those rattlesnakes the marshal mentioned.” Then she did the unthinkable. She drew back her arm and pitched the key out the smashed side of the coach before he could blink. So much for this being a plain, ordinary day.

.

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