Sheridan Wentworth had once been haunted by the biting chill of loneliness, adrift without friends, family, or a place to call home. Her father, viscount Eldridge had claimed her from boarding school, sponsoring a season for her, introducing her to the glitter and beauty of a coveted society position. Many in the bon ton had welcomed her, but she had never truly felt connected. She had felt like an actress in a play, performing a part she barely understood but one that required such ladylike accomplishments. Laughing, dancing, eating, dressing, everything had to be so perfect or she would be judged and found wanting. She had escaped the oppressiveness of polite society and had carved a new life in America, and now that peace and hope for a future was being threatened. Sheridan walked further from the main house and toward the waiting enemy. The morning air was fresh with a faint chill, she inhaled the cold into her lungs and expelled gently. About a dozen men circled in the distance, silhouetted atop the ridge overlooking Whispering Creek—her joy, her home. It was the only place where she’d ever experienced such happiness it was like sunshine burning from the inside. This was where she’d found the freedom to be herself, to run bare feet across the prairie, ride astride, whistled tunelessly, and managed the books for her ranch without fear of rebuke. I belong here… and this is where I’ll fight to stay. The Whispering Creek was filled with clear streams, high valleys dotted with aspens, and flowers of vibrant beauty. The rolling grasslands which spread for miles were well watered and green, the footstool to the blue-green Wyoming Mountains that rose sharp and clear against the sky, imposing, and majestic. This was where she could have a family of her own, and find true contentment.
A light breeze stirred the leaves of the massive oak tree under which she stood. Sheridan gripped the Winchester as the men descended the ridge. They rode towards the Whispering Creek; the rumble of their horse’s hooves grew thunderous as they drew closer. A storm cloud of dust hovered in their wake as they powered toward the ranch. She knew who had arrived—Jericho Sullivan, King of Blue Lagoon. She’d hardly slept last night after turning away his cowhand yesterday from her ranch with the invitation to dine at Mr. Sullivan’s hotel in town. She knew he would react, so she had planned to travel with more men when next she went into town, but this show of force was not expected. He was a powerful man in the territory, and he’d made it known he wanted her. The insuf erable ass.
Whenever she traveled into town for supplies he would watch her with a hunger that petrified her. He’d tried wooing her before and she had rebuffed his advances. He’d then tried flattery, praising her for being an English lady. Telling her she had the social graces to stand at his side while he ran for the legislature. Then he had resorted to logic saying her home was a prosperous outfit, and he figured a woman alone would have a hard time of it, that she would be easy prey. She fully understood his reasoning, for he was right. Sheridan had no misconceptions about her home, the land was wild, dangerous and unpredictable, but she would not bend to him. She would rather sleep in a pit infested with vipers than be courted by him. He was a big, broad, and handsome man, but she could see the meanness behind his eyes, a vicious man in the guise of a gentleman. He was truly a scoundrel of the worst order, and she had too much to lose.
Family, friendship, home…Everything. God, please…grant me the strength to stand unafraid. She batted down the wave of panic, and tried to slow the painful thumping of her heart. It was not comforting, waiting to face the threat alone, but she could not risk her workers’ lives. She had ordered them to stay away from a confrontation, and she could only pray they would listen. Whatever was to unfold was between her and the approaching men. To even desire her ranchmen’s aid, was to endanger their lives. It had only been a couple weeks ago; Mike Tanner had been beaten and left broken on the trail leading home from town. It was evident he had been made an example for interfering when one of Mr. Sullivan’s men had made disgusting and suggestive remarks to her.
“Is it safe to wait outside, Sheridan?” She gave Beth a sidelong glance as she approached. Sheridan noted the shadows that haunted Beth’s soft brown eyes. Sheridan also saw the resilience, the need to fight, and that was what she needed the most. “Go inside, Beth. If I cower or appear weak Mr. Sullivan will not hesitate to seize the reins from me here and now,” she said firmly, determined to ignore the fear pumping in her bloodstream. “Sheridan, I—” “Please,” she beseeched, grabbing Beth’s hand. “I need to know Grayson is safe inside. He needs you in there, not out here. The cowhands will aid me if necessary.
” Beth trembled, and then stiffened her spine. “They are afraid of him, and most of them are out on the range, which is why those bastards are coming here today. They are watching us,” she hissed, staring at the swarm of riders that grew closer. “Mrs. Murphy and cook are ready and armed. Though Miguel is abed, he will come if necessary. One shot will draw the men in from the range.” “Please go inside.” Sheridan hardened her voice, and handed Beth the .44 Henry.
“Take this and wait by the east windows. If they try to come in, and only if they try to breach the house, shoot as many as you can. If they take me—” Sheridan expelled a fierce breath. “If they take me, do nothing. Protect Grayson. Take him to the Triple K outfit, and then find Elijah. Do not bother to go into town for the sheriff, just find Elijah.” Beth’s lips flattened and she nodded grimly before stalking towards the main house. It was a huge, sprawling three-story stone and log structure with large ornate wooden doors at the entrance. If the men decided to force their way in, they would have a difficult time breaking it down.
Beth’s stride was militant and Sheridan felt confident Beth would be waiting inside with the rifle at the ready, along with their housekeeper, the cook, and the other three women who helped with the daily running of the household. Sheridan did not remove her gaze from Beth until she clambered up the wide wraparound porch and closed the massive oak doors. A breath Sheridan hadn’t known she held puffed from between her lips. Beth was safe inside. The idea of anything happing to Beth, who had become like a sister to Sheridan, was unbearable to contemplate. She spun with a false calm. She held the Winchester loosely at her side hidden in the folds of her skirt, her stance ready, with her feet braced apart. Dust swirled as more than a dozen riders swept onto the ranch, Mr. Sullivan their apparent leader. She stood her ground even as he circled her.
His ranch hands stood back, forming a loose circle, and he urged his horse forward, a massive Palomino. He wore a dark grey well-tailored suit with a grey brimmed hat. His black hessians gleamed under the sun. Mr. Sullivan was handsome with his golden hair, and broad shoulders. His face was square-jawed and strong. The ladies of Blue Lagoon claimed he was a most eligible bachelor, but he left her cold. He wore the most conciliatory expression as he stared at her with his light blue snake eyes. They glared cold, roving over her, undressing her. She did not like the surety of his regard as he peered down from his horse at her.
“Invite me in, Sheridan, so that we can talk.” The arrogant ass. She had not given him leave to be so informal. When Thomas had been alive Mr. Sullivan had referred to her as Mrs. Galloway. Even several weeks ago she had been Mrs. Galloway. How dare he act as if they were intimates? “I think not Mr. Sullivan.
I have made my answer clear to your ranchman. I fear your journey here was a waste of time. I am not interested, nor will I invite you into my home.” His lips flattened with anger at her refusal and his eyes glittered with rage. They shuttered immediately. A slight smile twisted on his lips, his eyes went frigid and expressionless. He scared her. She wondered if she had seen the flare of anger. She needed to tread carefully, but she would not present a weak front. “I do not strive to give offense, Mr.
Sullivan. I am simply not interested in your offers. I have made myself clear several times and you persist in courting me. I am newly widowed. I need time to grieve.” She met his eyes, and clenched her skirt with the hand not gripping the rifle to hide its trembling. “You have been in mourning for three months,” he drawled, clearly undaunted by the argument she had been using for the past several weeks. A breeze rolled off the mountains, more cooling than the rivulets of sweat that rolled down her nape. “I need more time, at least a year.” A hard smile slanted his lips.
“No.” He slid off his horse, and she raised the Winchester with steady grace, cocking it and sighting down the barrel. He froze. Satisfaction rushed through Sheridan that she had at least made him pause. “Name your price,” his command snapped cold. She angled her chin defiantly. “The Whispering Creek outfit is not up for sale, Mr. Sullivan.” He watched her with a reptilian intensity that made her skin crawl. Cold eyes considered her, assessing the threat she presented.
He scanned the main house, the barns and the range, noting the absence of her ranch hands. Majority of them were driving cattle to Abilene, and those who had remained to keep the ranch running smoothly, were in town or on the range. The blackguard had timed his presence at the Whispering Creek diabolically. A slow smile creased his face, and blond locks fell over his forehead as he removed his hat. Her hands twitched, and his low laugh rolled over her, nauseating in its effect. She saw the minute he dismissed her threat as a bluff. His shoulders relaxed, and the coiled awareness he’d vibrated with seconds ago vanished. “I am not talking about Whispering Creek, Sheridan.” There was a frightening look in his eyes as he stepped in closer. “What is your price?” She held back her revulsion and fear.
“I am not for sale.” His chuckle was low and mean as he stepped in close enough so the barrel of the Winchester brushed against his jacket. “There are a lot of things that can happen to a woman out here living alone, bad things. Isn’t that right, boys?” “Sure thing, boss.” A tall, dark haired, narrow-boned face man replied, and then spat chewing tobacco that landed brown and muddy only a few feet away from her. Her stomach churned, but she would not let her disgust show. “Now as I see it. A woman alone either sells, gets the hell out, or finds herself a man. What is it that you want, Sheridan? Because I am man enough for you.” With unexpected swiftness, he snatched the Winchester from her grip and coiled her hair in his hand.
“Now this is a mighty fine rifle.” He admired the well-oiled barrel before throwing it to one of his men. He trailed a finger down her cheeks and over her lips. A chuckle of anticipation echoed from someone, and her gaze slashed to the man on the horse, noting the lust glittering from his eyes. Her skin felt clammy, and a cold knot of fear bloomed inside her stomach. But she refused to show it, determined to appear unaffected. “Unhand me, sir.” Mr. Sullivan’s hand tightened viciously in her hair. “Now the way I see it Sheridan….
you need a man between your legs or you wouldn’t be so ornery. And I aim to be that man.” She’d only lived in the west for three years but she understood his kind. He was a bully, vicious as a weasel, uncaring of those he trampled on to get what he wanted. Very much like the powerful lords and ladies of London’s society who could ruin someone with words alone. Mr. Sullivan though was a harsher breed than the men of theton, his reputation preceded him, and she knew she dealt with a calculating, and ruthless man. “I will never be yours,” she responded with clarity. His hand tightened further in her hair bringing water to her eyes. A shot cracked in the air and the dirt flew up at their feet.
With a curse he recoiled, hands slapping at his holster. She gasped, the speed at which his gun cleared rattling her. Some of his men’s horses shied, a few leapt from their horses and rolled for cover behind a bale of hay. While others remained cool and unaffected. Her gaze flitted to the unaffected ones briefly and she counted seven men who had not moved. These were the ones she needed to be most wary off. They were more than wranglers. They were the hired guns. Mr. Sullivan holstered his pistol, his eyes going dead.
“You have a choice. I drag you into that house and spread your legs with mine. Or better, the hellion that just fired at me? I will give her to my men.” Sheridan breathed deep, hiding her panic. Fear crawled through her veins hot and potent as his lustful gaze stripped her. Her calm composure threatened to crumble. She didn’t doubt his words. He would rape her, or give Beth to his men to suffer a similar fate. Sheridan couldn’t trust herself to speak, but she forced the words past her throat. “Or?” “Or I come back with the preacher, and you act as if you are happy to marry me.
Then you will pack your things and move into my hotel.” Hardly a choice. Either way she would be in his bed, entwined in his life, trapped where he wanted her. She forced her voice not to tremble, clenching her fist at her side to prevent her body from shivering. “There is no need to drag me into the house.” A low pleased laugh spilled from him. He stepped in too close for comfort flushing her breast to his chest, and lifted his hands to caress her cheek. “Did you just accept my proposal, sweet cakes?” She glared at him mute, willing him to believe whatever he wanted. “Did you hear that, boys,” he drawled silkily. “We will be having us a wedding tomorrow.
” He bent his head and slammed his lips down on hers. So crushing was his strength, her struggle did nothing to loosen the tight band of his arms. He forced his tongue passed her squeezed lips, bruising her mouth with his teeth. Bile rose in her throat and Sheridan felt as if she would pass out. He lifted his head. “A few of my boys will stay behind to ensure everything runs smoothly. If your cowhands think to interfere I will send their bodies to their family for burial, so keep them in line. I will return with the preacher.” Her chest burned with impotent rage when his hand cupped the underside of her breast throughher shirt. “I will wait until our wedding night to take what you have denied me for months, sweet cake.
” His low growl in her ears and his hardness against her hips curdled her stomach. “Soon I’ll be between these lily-white thighs of yours. Never had an English lady before. They say they are cold…but when I am done with you…you will only burn, and not in a sweet way.” After another rough kiss, he vaulted on his horse, wheeled and thundered away. She swiped the back of her palm across her lips, trying to still her shaking frame. Relief filled her at his departure. If she still had her Winchester she probably would have shot him and be through with it all. Four men remained and they raked her frame with looks of lust. They cantered off, spreading out across the ranch.
She spun on her heels and hurried inside the house. No matter what she could have done or said, Mr. Sullivan had already plotted for his men to stay, to watch her. She’d only made it easier on herself. For he would have stormed the house, and brutalized her if she had opposed himtoo strongly. Mr. Sullivan’s thin veneer of pretending to be a gentleman had saved her many times from a more serious attack. But in his blind need to possess her, his intensity had changed over the past few weeks, causing her to develop a plan that petrified her—a plan that involved Elijah Kincaid. It was that or travel beyond Sullivan’s grasp, abandoning her home and her family. She walked with determined steps, heart thumping, and hands trembling.
Sheridan could not identify whether she felt fear or excitement at the thought of facing Elijah again. She cursed her fluttering stomach, the weakness only he could fill her with. She was in love with a man who held no affection for her. But she needed his protection. No, she needed him. Oh heavens, she did not want to leave her home. Not after fighting for so long to find a place where she belonged. She did not want to uproot Beth who had finally found a place where her nightmares did not haunt her. Sheridan would fight for her home, even if it meant turning to the only man who had the power to rip her heart and hopesto pieces.