Winter Fire, p.1Elizabeth Lowell
For my editor, Carrie Feron,
and for her lovely little Charlotte.
“Don’t move. Don’t even breathe.”
The next morning Case was awake well before dawn. The…
“Brung something for you,” Ute said.
Sarah sat cross-legged next to the pallet where Case slept…
Standing outside in the yard, Sarah fished bandages from a…
“Keep watching them,” Sarah said tightly.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Sarah demanded as she…
“The sweat lodge will do him good,” Ute said.
The next day Case awakened long before dawn. As always,…
Breath from the horses hung in the air like silver…
A cold, clean wind blew down the canyon. The riverbed…
“It’s a toy,” Conner said, as delighted as a child.
Case awoke before dawn. It was an odd sort of…
Disgusted, Case leaned on the shovel and stared down at…
Sarah watched Case’s head lower to hers and his black…
“Wonder what changed their minds?” Conner asked. His voice sounded…
“Could you take the chow up to him?” Lola asked.
“I’m sorry,” Sarah said. “Someone will have to stand. I…
“That hombre is a grinding fool,” Lola said, surveying the…
Talons of icy wind raked over the canyon country.
Run! The flood is coming and he’s drunk and mean…
Sarah awoke with the warmth of Case surrounding her and…
“Damnation, woman, will you listen to reason?” Case asked loudly.
With a startled cry, Sarah grabbed her brother’s shoulders to…
Emily Jane Maxwell was born in autumn, when cottonwood leaves…
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“Don’t move. Don’t even breathe.”
The man’s low, emotionless voice was enough to freeze Sarah Kennedy in place. But even if his voice hadn’t stilled her, the rest of him would have.
Moving and breathing just weren’t possible.
Sarah was stretched out full-length on her stomach, pinned to cold slickrock at the edge of a drop-off, flattened beneath a stranger’s overwhelming weight. The man covered her from head to heels.
Lord, but that’s a lot of man, she thought fearfully. Not fat. Just big.
Even if the stranger gave her an opening, she wouldn’t have a chance in a fight against him. Despite his size, he was quick and quiet as a hawk.
Sarah had never even suspected that she was no longer alone beneath the stone overhang of the shallow cave.
The stranger’s body was as hard as the cold rock that was squashing her breasts and gouging her hipbones even through her winter clothing. The man’s leather-gloved right hand was across her mouth with a grip that meant to stay there no matter how she twisted or tried to bite him.
She didn’t waste her strength in useless fighting. An unhappy marriage had taught her that even a young, healthy girl didn’t have much chance against an old man her own size and weight.
The man pinning her down right now was neither old nor her size and weight.
And that wasn’t the worst of it.
Despite the dry winter chill, the stranger’s left hand was bare. It held a six-gun that looked entirely too well used.
As though Sarah’s captor understood that she wasn’t going to fight him, his grip eased enough for her to breathe.
But not enough for her to cry out.
“I won’t hurt you,” the man said very quietly against her ear.
Like hell you won’t, she thought. That’s all most men are good for. Hurting women.
Silently she swallowed against the fear and nausea roiling in her stomach.
“Easy now, little one,” the man murmured. “I don’t mistreat women, horses, or dogs.”
She hadn’t heard that saying since her father’s death. It startled her even as it gave her a flicker of hope.
“But if those Culpeppers gathering at the bottom of the cliff get their hands on you,” the stranger continued, “they’ll make you pray for death. Your prayers will be answered, but not nearly quick enough to suit you.”
A chill washed over Sarah that had nothing to do with the winter night or the icy rock she was lying on.
“Nod if you understand me,” the man said.
Despite his educated accents and the hint of a drawl, his voice was low, soft, deadly.
“Now, nod if you believe me,” he added dryly.
An absurd desire to laugh shot through her.
Hysteria, she thought. Get hold of yourself. You’ve been through worse and come out right side up.
Again, Sarah nodded.
“Girl, I hope you’re not lying to me.”
She shook her head vigorously.
“Good,” he murmured. “Because sure as God made little green apples, as soon as you scream we’re going to be up to our butts in hot lead.”
Once again she felt a crazy desire to laugh. She controlled it.
Slowly the stranger’s hand came away from her mouth.
Sarah took a long, deep, silent breath. The air she drew into her body tasted of leather and was spiced with an intriguing scent.
Apple, she realized. He’s just eaten an apple.
A bit more of the aching tension left her body.
Her husband had demanded sex only when he was drinking, not when he was eating.
Even more reassuring to her, there wasn’t the faintest trace of liquor on the stranger’s breath. Nor was there any hint of liquor on his skin or clothes. All she could smell was a trace of soap, leather, heat, and…apple.
That’s why I’m not as scared as I should be, she realized. He may be an outlaw, but he’s sober, smells clean, and likes apples.
Maybe he’s no meaner than he has to be.
The slow easing of her painful tension communicated itself to the man whose body was covering hers like a heavy, living blanket.
“That’s better,” the man murmured. “I’m going to take some of my weight off you. But don’t you move at all. Not a bit. Hear me?”
With a silence and speed that left her feeling a bit dizzy, the man shifted to one side.
Rock no longer dug into her breasts and belly. Now the weight and strength of the man lay lightly along her right side.
He was still there, still poised. If he wanted to, he could cover her again as swiftly and silently as he had before.
“You all right?” the man asked softly.
Then she wondered if the man would understand her silent communication now that he wasn’t close enough to feel her every heartbeat. It was as dark as the inside of a boot beneath the overhang of rock.
“Good girl,” he murmured.
He must have eyes like an ea
The thought sent a shudder of pure longing through her.
“Now don’t go all contrary on me,” the stranger said softly. “We’re not out of this mess by a long sight.”
We? she asked silently. Last time I looked, I was alone and there wasn’t any mess at all!
Men’s voices, the creaking of saddle leather, and a horse’s impatient snort drifted up from the blackness at the base of the cliff.
In the night stillness of the red rock desert, sound carried a long, long way.
All right, she amended silently. I was alone and a mess was gathering around me.
Now I’m not alone. Danger is right within reach.
And it smells of apples.
Sarah struggled against a smile.
Case Maxwell saw the flash of her smile. He wondered what the girl found worth smiling about in this unholy mess.
And despite the darkness, despite the heavy men’s clothes she wore, Case had no doubt that it was a female he was lying halfway across. She was soft, slender, and smelled of summer roses.
Must be Sarah Kennedy, he decided. Either that or Big Lola. They’re the only white women for several days’ ride.
Somehow he doubted that the girl he had discovered in the shallow cave was Big Lola. Word had it that Lola was man-sized, man-hard, and tough as any sporting gal who had ever ventured west of the Mississippi.
The slender waif who was trying not to smile didn’t have the attitude—or the smell—of a sporting gal.
Sarah Kennedy, he said to himself. Has to be.
As it had during the Civil War, his mind worked quickly, assembling the information he had on the subject of a girl called Sarah Kennedy.
Widow. Young. Avoids men, quiet as a shadow, and even harder to lasso.
A kid brother called Conner, an old outlaw known as Ute, and Big Lola live with her on Lost River Canyon ranch.
Wonder why nobody mentioned that Sarah smells of summer roses and has a smile quick as lightning?
Just what the hell is she smiling about, anyway?
He was opening his lips to ask when the sound of approaching horses came up to him from the black and silver land below. The horsemen were headed toward the foot of the cliff, which was barely thirty feet below the cave-like overhang Case was hiding in while he spied on Ab Culpepper and his savage kin.
Then Case had discovered that he wasn’t the only one who wanted to listen in on the uneasy negotiations between the Culpepper boys and the outfit known as Moody’s Breeds.
Hell of a place to find a girl who dresses like a man and smells like summer rain and roses, he thought.
Hell of a place for a girl, period.
Only a few inches beyond his head was the outer edge of a shallow cave that water had eaten from a solid stone cliff. The far end of the cave was barely ten feet behind his boots.
A tiny stream of water from the seep at the back of the overhang wound along the downward slanting rock just a few inches from his gun. From there the water spun over the lip of stone and out of sight into the night.
That little trickle wouldn’t cover the sound of a bird fart, Case thought grimly. Hope Sarah has as much sense and grit as she seems to.
Any rash move by either of them would give away their presence to the outlaws below.
At least she had sense enough not to scream, he consoled himself. We might get out of this yet with our hides intact.
On the other hand, he wasn’t counting on a happy outcome. War and its brutal aftermath had taught him not to expect any kind of luck but the kind that killed you and destroyed whatever you held dear.
Very slowly he lifted his right hand. He touched his index finger against Sarah’s lips in a command for silence. Though the touch was light, he felt her flinch away.
Sarah nodded to show she understood that she must be very quiet.
As she nodded, the brushing of her mouth against his supple glove disturbed Case. He would have sworn that he could feel the warmth of her living breath even through the leather.
It was like touching fire.
An elemental masculine heat shot through him, shocking him.
Bloody hell, as Elyssa would say, he thought. Of all the damned inconvenient times to get randy.
Never knew I liked the smell of roses so much.
“—dammit, doesn’t have a damned thing to do with it and you damned well know it, dammit.”
The voice from below floated up, taking his mind off his unexpected response to the female who lay lightly against him.
“That’s Joe Moody,” Case breathed against Sarah’s ear. “His men call him Dammit, but not to his face.”
Again, her smile gleamed swiftly.
“Too ugly to look at?” she suggested in a voice as low as his.
To Case the faint huskiness of her voice was like sipping whiskey. He took a slow, careful, very thorough breath. He told himself that he wasn’t doing it to savor the scent of roses and womanly warmth in the midst of desert winter.
The urgent quickening of his body told him that he lied.
“Dammit, that old buzzard found silver, dammit!” Moody said.
“Then why is his widow living no better than an Injun?” came the cold retort.
The tension that went through Case at the sound of the voice lasted only an instant, but Sarah felt it.
Just as she had felt the other change in his body.
“Ab Culpepper,” Case said against Sarah’s ear.
The quality of his voice sent a queasy chill through her. It was the same unemotional voice he had used when he first overwhelmed her. It was the voice of a man to whom nothing mattered—not heat, not chill, not pain, not pleasure.
Not even death.
“Dammit, how should I know why she ain’t living high on the hog on all that silver?” Moody asked in a high voice. “She’s a female, dammit!”
“Even the devil don’t know a female’s mind,” Ab agreed calmly. “Worthless sluts, all of them.”
Without realizing it Sarah made a low sound of protest and tensed even more. Her husband had sounded a lot like Moody. Half-drunk. All irritable. Unreasonable. Woman hater, except when lust was riding him.
Case felt the subtle return of tension to her body.
“Quiet,” he breathed.
She didn’t so much as nod her head, but he knew that she understood. She made no more sounds.
“Like I say, dammit!” Moody said triumphantly. “She could be a settin’ on all that silver like a broody hen.”
“Not with Ute and Big Lola around,” Ab said. “Parnell tells me the two of them used to rob banks. Ute won’t let no slip of a girl stand between him and a heap of Spanish silver.”
“Dammit, maybe he don’t know, dammit!”
A horse stamped impatiently. Or a mule.
Sarah couldn’t be certain. She only knew that the Culpeppers rode big sorrel mules that were faster than lightning and lean as mustangs.
“Moody,” Ab said impatiently, “a man can’t eat no silver.”
“Dammit, we ain’t gone hungry. My boys—”
“—rustle too close to home,” Ab interrupted. “Them beeves two of your boys just butchered back of camp are Circle A stock.”
“So?” Moody challenged.
“That’s only two days’ ride from Spring Canyon,” Ab said flatly. “I told you three days and no less.”
“’Twas three days, dammit!”
“What y’all riding?” a third voice asked sarcastically. “Two-legged possums?”
That comment was followed by loud voices and swearing between the Culpeppers and Moody’s men about the speed of horses versus mules.
Case listened intently, trying to sort out the voices.
Parnell Culpepper was easy to recognize. His voice was thin and grating. His cousin Quincy had a fuller voice, but no easier on the ears. Reginald Culpepper, who was both cousin and brothe
Kester Culpepper wasn’t much more talkative, unless he was drunk. Then he didn’t shut up until he passed out or someone got sick of his rambling and knocked him senseless.
Moody’s men were harder for Case to sort out, because he had spent less time stalking them. There was one called Crip, whose left arm was withered. Word had it that he made up for the injury with the strength of his right arm and a sawed-off, lever-action rifle.
Another man was called Whiskey Jim. He drank. When he was sober, he was a good hand with dynamite, a useful skill for former bank robbers.
There were at least five others in the gang known as Moody’s Breeds, but Case hadn’t put names with the faces or voices yet. He had been too busy keeping track of Culpeppers.
This time he was going to be certain that not one of them escaped. The Culpeppers’ long history of raiding, rape, and murder was going to end here, in the wilderness of red stone.
No more men coming home to find their ranches ruined and their women tortured and killed, he thought.
Winter Fire by Elizabeth Lowell / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes