Tempting Bethany – Stacy Reid

JOSHUA ELİAS KİNCAİD rode into Liberty after midnight on his stallion, a dead body dragging in the dirt behind. His guns sat low on his hips, his rifle positioned for an easy draw, and his eyes scanning the streets from below the rim of his hat. Most of the town slept, but raucous laughter spilled from a saloon near the end of the road, a lone lantern hitched outside the beacon to sin. Liberty was a prosperous town, several shops were lining the boardwalk, and the town even boasted a hotel, a restaurant, and the Clay County Savings Association bank which had been robbed earlier this year by a gang of former Confederate bushwhackers. “Is this your home?” he asked the girl who had her skinny arms around his waist in a death grip. She stirred, leaned around him, a deep sigh of relief slipping from her. “Yes, my ma lives in a shack over there,” she said, pointing toward the west, toward darkness. Her family lived on the edge of the town then. “And the Sheriff’s office?” She pointed to the building beside the boarding house. There was a sliver of light coming from the jailhouse windows. He dismounted, helped the girl down, and tied his horse on the hitching rail. He wasn’t staying for long, merely delivering this girl to her family, then he would head back to the trail that would take him home to the Triple K ranch. He cut the rope tied to his saddle, and with a grunt, hefted the weight of the man rolled in the sack across his shoulders. This bastard sure gave meaning to ‘dead weight.’ “He is sure starting to stink mister,” she mumbled, wrinkling her nose.

Joshua had no answer to that. They made their way onto the boardwalk and the jail. “You reckon my ma will know?” she asked softly. The shame in her voice made him want to kill the bastard slung over his shoulder all over again. Joshua had come upon her on the southbound trail yesterday. She had been hiding, her face bruised, her clothes torn, and this man had been hunting her. The story Joshua had gotten from her was this outlaw had ridden into the town where she lived, killed two men in a senseless noonday standoff, and then threw her over his saddle and lit out of town. While he’d slept, she had escaped him, and he’d been on her trail for a full day when Joshua found her. It had taken some convincing before she believed he meant her no harm, and she had given him a little more trust when he had put a bullet through the bastard’s heart. Her name was Ella Mae, and she was seventeen years old.

She hadn’t told him much about her ordeal. But Joshua knew. She’d been with the outlaw for a full day before she escaped, and the shadows in her eyes already spoke of the pain he’d inflicted. “She’ll know as much as you tell her,” he said gruffly. “But I think mothers can know the truth. And you have a tough mettle that can handle her knowing what happened.” He had never lied to his mother, Laura Kincaid, Joshua had too much love and respect for her in his heart. “I reckon I could,” Ella Mae said softly, “Ma loves me. She must be worried something fierce. Will you take me there?” He paused and peered down at her.

Worried eyes peeked up at him, seeking reassurance. “I will.” The door to the jailhouse opened when he tested the handle. They entered, and he took the room in one sweeping glance, noting that the cell was empty. The sheriff was in, his booted feet spread wide, and a woman in a dark blue scandalous gown in his lap, bouncing. Joshua stepped in front of the girl, shielding her gaze, even though her innocence had been stripped from her a few days past. He dropped the body, and the sheriff and the woman sprang apart as if hot water splashed on them. The man hurriedly stuffed himself into his pants, and she pushed down her gown from her waist. Hardened eyes assessed Joshua, the guns strapped to his hip, and the quality of his black trousers, red shirt, and the black bandana tied loosely around his neck. Her painted lips smiled in an invitation, then faltered at his lack of reaction.

“Who the hell are you?” the sheriff demanded belligerently, now that he had righted himself. He tipped his hat. “Joshua Kincaid.” The sheriff’s eyes widened, and he pushed the woman away. She scowled at him when she stumbled. “I’ll be taking my money now.” She held out her hand. “Not now Martha, don’t ya see he brought in a dead body? And I ain’t done with you yet.” The sheriff hitched his pants to his waist and strolled over. The girl shifted from behind Joshua and the sheriff faltered.

“Sweet Jesus, is that you, Ella Mae?” “It sure is,” she said coldly, the disgust evident in her tone. “I figured you never planned to see me again since you didn’t ride out after me.” The sheriff glanced at the roll of sack on the ground. “Is that…is that…?” “Nesbit Coombs,” Joshua said mildly. “I believe he kidnapped Ella Mae here right off these streets three days ago. It didn’t seem like the law about these parts tried to help her.” And Joshua figured there should be a reckoning for that, and he was in the mood to deliver it. The sheriff flushed. “This man is…was a dangerous outlaw. There was little me or anyone could do ’bout this situation here.

” “Mister, he ain’t worth it,” Ella Mae said with stinging contempt, somehow sensing the coldness rising inside of Joshua. “There is a poster for him on your door. The reward is three hundred dollars.” The sheriff’s shoulders relaxed. “You a bounty hunter, now?” “No.” He frowned. “A lawman?” “No.” He hesitated. “To get the reward money, we’ll have to take his body to—” “I expect it now.” He hadn’t raised his voice, but the sheriff stepped back, mumbling to himself.

He went to a safe in the corner atop a desk, opened it, and withdrew several bills. Joshua took the money and walked away with the girl on his heels, ignoring the sheriff’s bluster that he wasn’t the Undertaker. When they reached outside, he handed her the money. “Take this.” She inhaled sharply, wide pale blue eyes staring up at him. “He took something from you he had no right to, and I’m sorry I never came upon you sooner, and I am sorry the coward behind us did not ride after you.” She reached for the money with trembling hands. “My ma makes thirty dollars a month working in the general store. This is almost a year’s wage.” He dipped into his pocket and withdrew a chunk of gold.

“Dear Lord,” she said wonderingly. “With this, me and Ma can open our sewing shop. Why are you doing this mister?” “Why not?” She had no reply to that, and they made their way to his horse, and then he delivered her home. He watched from a distance as the door to the small house was opened, and her mother cried out and hugged her. That was all he’d wanted to see before he wheeled his horse around to head out of town. But he hesitated, that lone lantern tugging his gaze to the saloon. He would get a drink and smoke before he headed out, for he had been in the saddle for days. And rightly so, for he was a wanderer, a wayward soul they might say. He was drawn to the trails and the open plains, only now and then he needed to stop. It was that feeling that had him pushing the door of the Honey Pot Saloon open a few minutes later.

It was smoke-filled, rowdy, and noisy, but the very first thing he saw was her. Joshua faltered into complete stillness, drawing the hardened gazes of several men. Wild red hair tumbled down her shoulder to her mid back. Though the dark green dress she wore was garish and the plunging neckline hinted at her occupation, something about her looked as delicate as a red rose, ladylike even. She was petite, the top of her head would probably brush his chin, but her curves were mouth-wateringly sensual. He was stupidly mesmerized by the graceful way she slipped between the crowd, setting bottles of whiskey and glasses on the tables before the men. She moved in his direction, and for a moment he thought she was coming to him. He finally moved, stepping out of the smoky shadows, and it was her turn to still, her eyes widening. This woman was beautiful, and though he was used to prettiness in a woman, Joshua felt a shock of arousal arrow through his body. Her skin was pale, her lips lush and sweetly curved, her figure though slender, had more than a handful in all the right places.

But it was her eyes; they were wide and apprehensive, beautiful and innocent. Had he ever seen skin look that soft? She had pure creamy flesh with the slightest scattering of freckles across the bridge of a small nose. She had the prettiest goldenbrown eyes he’d ever seen in his life, and he’d seen plenty. A man stepped across his path. “I’m Benjamin Hardin, and this here is my Saloon. And this here is one of my gals.” Joshua heard of him on the outlaw trails. He and his brother Abraham Hardin had a reputation that made most men wary. Joshua took an instant dislike to him. Benjamin Hardin was a burly man, large as a lumberjack, with a strong jawbone, and cold dark eyes.

This beauty was also a working girl. It hovered on his lips to ask what her rate was. “Who might you be?” the man demanded. “Just a stranger passing through.” “What’s yer name, stranger?” He pushed the hat up a little with a finger so the man could see his eyes. “Joshua Kincaid.” There was a slight tightening around the man’s mouth, letting Joshua know his reputation had preceded him to Liberty. Benjamin Hardin smiled. “Welcome.” Then he turned around, clamped a punishing grip on the girl’s arm and whispered low in her ear.

Joshua realized Hardin was a mite possessive of this saloon girl, the only woman who had snagged Joshua’s attention in a long time, more than three years to be precise. He wasn’t the type to poach on another man’s territory, and he would steer clear of the hint of fascination, wariness, and something wicked and elusive he’d seen in those eyes just now. Her chin lifted, she nodded and darted away to the bar without looking back at him. It was only then Joshua allowed himself to scan the room. Damn foolish of him to have been so distracted by this unknown female. He hadn’t taken stock of his surroundings. It was not in his nature to be so careless. There were three other working ladies in the saloon and several men. He moved toward the bar. The bartender was a big dark-haired man, thick and muscular with an Irish lilt to his voice.

His sleeves were rolled up, and he had on a filthy apron. With a closer look, it seemed as if it had both blood and food stains. He polished the counter seemingly as if he minded his business, but Joshua knew this man was aware of every man in the tavern. At the end of the bar, a man was sitting with a working girl in his lap, and he was nibbling on her neck. Two other men sat at a table, and one of them had his hand under the flap of his coat. At the back of the smoky room, there was a table with several men, setting up for a game of poker, and Benjamin Hardin joined them. Joshua went over to the counter and placed down a coin. “A bottle of whiskey.” A glass that had seen cleaner days was placed in front of him with a bottle. He poured himself a drink and knocked it back, the burn hitting his gut in a pleasurable rush.

“Kincaid!” He glanced toward Hardin. “Are you in for a game of poker?” No, he wasn’t, but then his eyes slid toward the girl. She looked away quickly, and he smiled for she had been staring at him. Had that been invitation in her eyes? He looked down at the empty glass, wondering what the hell he was doing. He should ride on out tonight, and head home to see his family who he hadn’t seen in weeks. Then she slipped past him, her sweet scent rushing to his head, more potent than the whiskey. He grabbed the bottle and made his way over to that darkened corner, recognizing one of the men at the table. Sam Colton—a man reputed to be as quick and brutal with his fist as he was with his gun. And one of the only men around the table Joshua felt some measure of respect for, having known him from the war as a man of honor. “Kincaid,” Colton said, reaching over to shake his hand.

“Haven’t seen you in a while.” Joshua sat, ensuring that he could have an unobstructed view of the room and the entrance. The game began, and time flew by as several rounds were played. It was a couple of hours later, and after winning the last two rounds, Joshua decided it was time for him to leave Liberty. Benjamin Hardin scowled, anger in his eyes. He slapped his palm on the table, drawing everyone’s attention to him. “Gentlemen, I direct your attention to my gal, Bethany, over there. She’s fresh from a farm in Virginia, soft and sweet, I tell ya, with a body made for riding. You’ll never find better pleasure in this territory, or hell, anywhere. I raise the stakes, by putting her on the table.

” A stillness blanketed the men at the table, and several pairs of curious, hungry eyes settled on the woman who had frozen, the tray of liquor in her hand perched precariously, an acknowledged prey in a room full of hardened predators. Joshua considered his hand, a straight flush, then glanced back up at the beautiful whore. Benjamin Hardin, the proprietor of the town’s only saloon and whorehouse, relaxed in his chair, accurately sensing he once more had bargaining power, a position he had lost a few rounds back. It had been sheer luck which had kept Benjamin seated at the table, and his desperation to earn back the gold and deed from some of the most dangerous men in Liberty. “For how long?” Nathan Brody, the town’s mayor demanded, drawing on his cigar, his gaze intent on the plum curves of the girl. Hardin chuckled. “Now gentlemen, will you agree to be with her is worth the pot on the table?” He tapped the pile of bills, and the few gold coins piled high in the center of the table. There was even a deed for a cattle farm a few miles east of the saloon. A farm that belonged to Hardin which he had been foolish to gamble with and had lost. “I’m all out of money, and I am all out of gold.

Have we agreed her value surpasses money and gold?” A few men scoffed, but none were able to remove their eyes from the pale beauty. The west was rough and lawless, and she was something sweet and different, something they all had been wanting to sample. “There is a bet goin’ for who will be the first to take her upstairs. So, whoever wins this pot wins that too, I reckon that drives up her value,” Sam said, “I believe all of us here have offered you gold and coins for her services and we were denied.” Joshua straightened in his chair, a bit fascinated by the knowledge none had taken her upstairs before, except it seems, only Hardin. The man must be desperate to win back the deed and the monies he had lost to place her as a bet. “I haven’t broken her in, and I do believe she is unspoiled. Now whichever man wins will take her upstairs, but—” He arrested the men with that upcoming stipulation. “But?” Sam growled, showing too much of his interest in the girl. “The winner will also give me back this deed and the coins I lost,” Hardin said with an oily smile.

“Unusual, yes, but if we ain’t in agreement, she is off the table, and none of you will come within an inch of her again.” A chorus of ‘done’ quickly echoed around the table. “How long, Hardin?” Brody once again demanded. Hardin grimaced, a meanness shifting in his eyes. “Half an hour and I’m being generous, gentlemen,” he said, drawing on his cheroot. The deputy sheriff gently placed a small chunk of gold on the table. “One hour,” he said with soft menace, and from the lustful leers of the other players, they all agreed. Like him, every man was acutely aware of the red-haired woman who had darted between them with such graceful ease, topping up their whiskey glasses. She seemed to be the establishment’s most coveted prize, considering all the offers made to Hardin for the past several hours to take her above stairs. From the grumbling of Sam, Joshua had gleaned that Benjamin rejected all propositions with an air of a man who had something everyone else wanted quite badly, and they had to settle with the other girls.

Another thing he’d noticed when he’d pulled the brim of his hat low and discreetly observed her, was that she didn’t belong. At least not in the town of Liberty or even in Missouri. There was something a bit pure, a bit too sweet for the savagery of the west and the depravity of the saloon, with an upstairs floor reserved for tumbling. The west was not made for innocents. Yet here she was working in a saloon; a place no respectable woman would venture. Unless he was once again deceived. There had been a woman he thought innocent once, some years ago, and she had stuck a knife in his ribs and ran with his money. He hadn’t chased her, for she’d had to be desperate. “You in, Kincaid?” George Mouton asked, licking his lips, placing a piece of gold rock on the table. There was a swift intake of breath at the display of wealth.

It seemed the rumor Mouton had struck gold in a mine in California some weeks past was the truth. Joshua lifted a shoulder in a lazy shrug. It had been a long time since he’d tumbled a woman, and his interest was stirred. He would be a hypocrite to deny it. “If the lady agrees.” “Lady?” Hardin asked with disbelief

.

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