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Chapter One

Montana Territory

February, 1868

Angel Walker knew her hesitation could ruin her brothers' plan. Her reluctance might even cause their deaths.

She tore her gaze from the snow-covered peaks in the distance and kicked her horse into a dangerous gallop down the frozen hillside. The bitter wind nipped at her cheeks until her eyes watered. Her horse stumbled, nearly tossing her into the snow. She clambered for a better hold on the reins, her heart pounding.

A black and red stagecoach sped along the icy road ahead. Angel's stomach lurched. She considered turning back but had given her word.

A lump formed in her throat as her brothers, Duke and Lee, rode out from the forest to her right and closed in on the stagecoach. It was far too late to turn back.

She removed her Colt .44 from the holster nestled against her hip with shaky fingers and pulled the hammer back. Her gaze never wavered from the two men sitting in the driver's box.

The express messenger and driver stared straight ahead as though they didn't notice the outlaws closing in on them from both sides. Angel knew better. Their silence was an act to buy time. She nodded to her brothers, then urged her horse forward to confront the stagecoach.

She raised her gun into the air and pulled the trigger. Her arm jerked as the blast broke the silence. The express messenger whirled in his seat and leveled a double-barreled shotgun at her. She shivered as the driver cracked the reins over the horses' backs and forced the stagecoach to gain speed.

Only the glint in the express messenger's cold gray eyes hinted at the anger hidden within. She watched in horror as his finger curled around the trigger. Swallowing hard, she prayed her timing was right.

"There's a block in the road," the driver yelled.

Without delay, Angel guided her horse behind the stagecoach for protection from the messenger's gun.

Gunpowder burst from the barrel of the shotgun in the messenger's hands. A bullet whizzed by her ear. She choked down a scream as he followed her every move with the gun. Courage, she remembered her mother saying once, is the essence of life.

The driver turned and stared at the messenger with wide eyes. "Shoot 'em! Why ain't you firin'?"

When the messenger lowered his gun, relief rushed through her. "Because I don't feel like havin' a bullet pierce my skull in retaliation."

The driver twisted in his seat and glared at her with eyes as dark as coal. She raised an eyebrow at him and made the expression on her face cold and unfriendly. Within moments, he nodded and yanked the reins back, slowing the horses.

She blinked, not believing she had come so close to death and had survived. At any given moment, the messenger could have shot her. Her breath rushed from her lungs and she thanked the Lord for sparing her life.

She rode up next to the stagecoach and waited while Duke faced the men. Even at the young age of twenty-seven, her brother took control of most situations with ease and experience. He gestured to the driver with his Winchester rifle, a lock of his raven hair falling over his mask. "It'd be in both your best interests to hand yer weapons over and stand next to the stagecoach, mister."

The two men glared at Duke, then turned to glance in her direction. Finally, they placed their guns on the seat and hopped down. Robbing a stagecoach wasn't always so easy, and she considered the quick surrender a blessing.

A chill of apprehension skirted up her spine. She watched, unable to move, as Duke and Lee dismounted to retrieve the guns from the driver's box. The time had come to change into the notorious outlaw Jade Sinclair.

Angel dismounted and walked toward the stagecoach, stifling the urge to flee. She adjusted her silk mask to a more comfortable position over her eyes, then tucked a few loose strands of her unruly auburn hair back under the midnight colored wig she wore. The adherence to every detail protected their identity and was the only thing that ensured their safety.

She heard someone behind her and turned. Duke glared at her, the pupils of his blue eyes widening. She shifted uncomfortably but returned his stare. She had taken a risk, alerting the driver with the shots before her brothers had the chance to take them by surprise and could tell her brother wasn't happy about it.

"Remember," he said. "No fancy moves. These bastards stole our gold in the first place. We're going to go in and steal it back."

She nodded. They had every right to take back their gold. They learned long ago that the Hunt brothers were hired to steal gold from the Walker mines and transport it to an unknown party by stagecoach. Rather than facing starvation, Angel and her brothers took on the identity of outlaws and had successfully managed to take back most of their gold.

She marched to the stagecoach and threw open the door. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness inside, and she counted four women and one man. The lone man, rugged looking though he wore a suit, stared at the gun in her hand with narrowed eyes. He pulled the trembling woman sitting next to him, presumably his wife, into his arms and kissed her forehead. A twinge of longing squeezed her heart, but she pushed it aside.

She leaned through the door and raised her gun to remind the passengers of the consequences if they decided to become heroic. Though she couldn't shoot any of the travelers, she found holding her gun in plain view was all the threat she needed to keep the heroes at bay.

There had been only one time that her plan hadn't worked and a man was shot. She shivered at the memory, wishing she could change that fateful day.

She turned to the passengers. "Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman. Step out here for a breath of fresh air and take a look see at the storm movin' in."

No one moved.

Reaching inside the stagecoach, she pulled a plump elderly woman from her seat. The woman stepped outside, then glared at her as she patted down her skirts. Angel pressed her lips together, biting back the urge to tell the woman what she thought of her. The old biddy. She stilled the instinct, knowing Duke would be anything but thrilled.

The bitter wind slipped down the back of her buckskin coat, chilling her to the bone. She pulled her coat closed with numb fingers and fastened the top button. A blizzard was brewing, and the last big storm of winter always came with a vengeance.

She pointed her gun at the passengers still inside the stagecoach. "If I were you, I'd think hard about joinin' the lady outside."

The young woman moved out of her husband's embrace and gazed quizzically at her. Angel reached for the woman's slender hand, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Lee blow the woman a kiss. The woman's fingers tightened on her arm and she leaned closer until Angel could smell the scent of her musky perfume.

Angel smiled, reveling in the scent of the perfume her mother used to wear. "Don't worry about them. They're as harmless as a pack of newborn pups."

"Don't speak to her, Laura," the man barked. He glared at Angel warily and led the woman to the side of the stagecoach.

She shook her head. The man's taunts were minimal compared to her previous experiences. During a robbery, it wasn't uncommon for the travelers to become irate or spit on her. Once someone even knocked her off her feet.

She turned back to the stagecoach and helped the last two women outside. Seeing her brothers check the passengers for weapons, she turned and searched the confines of the stagecoach. Finding nothing, she crawled back out and heard the distinctive crack of a hand meeting skin. She hurried over to her brothers and saw Lee wipe a speck of blood from his mouth.

"Damn! The filly slapped me!"

"You're too young to tame that kind of woman," Duke replied.

Angel giggled, then covered her mouth with her hand. Duke turned and stared at her with wide eyes as though he had just noticed her presence. Without a word, he ushered Lee away.

She heard their mumbled voices as they continued their conversation and stamped the heel of her boot into the frozen ground. Did they think she didn't know about the happenings between a man and woman? Her dearest friend sold her favors for a living! She wasn't blind and was far from deaf.

She heard the thud of wood hitting metal and turned to see Duke strike the lock on one of the traveling chests with the butt of his rifle while Lee stood guard. They would never consider her a grown woman. She would always be their little sister.

"I found one. There should be four more," Duke said, holding a large nugget of their gold in his hand.

She turned and addressed the travelers. "I'm not going to keep you. There's a storm brewin' and we need to send you on your way. My name's Jade Sinclair and these here are my brothers."

"What do you want from us?" the driver asked.

"You are not in danger. None of you are. We're only here to take back what is rightfully ours," Angel said as she pulled a wadded up flour bag from the pocket of her wool trousers and plastered a smile on her face. "Gather your jewelry. I'll need to inspect it."

She stopped before a middle-aged woman. The woman traced the engravings on what appeared to be a wedding ring with her finger, then handed the gold band to her with a tormented sob.

As Angel closed her hand around the band, she saw a tear slip over the rim of the woman's haunting green eyes. Her heart twisted with regret. "You're a newlywed, aren't you?"

The woman nodded her head, unable to keep a smile from touching her lips.

"Your husband bought this ring in Helena for your marriage?"

Again, the woman nodded.

Angel shook her head. The ring had disappeared from her dresser that fall, along with several other precious pieces her parents had bought for her. Now she was certain the Hunt brothers took more than the gold from their mines.

"Don't fret," Angel whispered as she handed the ring back to the woman. "I wouldn't take such a treasure from you."

She gave the woman a genuine smile, then continued on to the rest of the passengers, trying to ignore the pressing sorrow in her heart.

She looked over the last of the jewelry and placed the empty flour sack back in the pocket of her trousers. They were not there to steal. Their sole purpose was to retrieve what was rightfully theirs.

"Are you really Jade Sinclair?" an elderly woman asked with a frown. The expression caused the woman's wrinkles to deepen.

"I'm Jade."

"The paper said she was twenty-eight. You don't look a day past eighteen."

"Guess they were lyin. I'm twenty-one."

She followed the woman to the side of the stagecoach and joined the passengers. A large snowflake floated before her eyes, then fell to the ground. To the west, thousands more fell, the wind blowing them in all directions.

She motioned to the women. "Back in the stagecoach, ladies. We don't want you to catch your death in this weather."

As her brothers moved the logs out of the road, she mounted her horse and sighed in relief. Now, they could afford to send their mother more money. Suddenly, a burdening weight was lifted from her shoulders.

Once the stagecoach was moving on its way, they rode in the direction of their cabin.

Ahead of them, a pack of riders crested a hill and plunged into the valley. A cloud of white snow rose from the horses' hooves as they drew closer. A chill ran down Angel's spine. She gripped the reins and glanced over to her brothers.

"Who the hell can it be?" Lee asked.

"I don't know but let's not find out," Duke said. He turned toward her, and she knew by the look on his face that he was worried. "Let's see what that horse of yours can do."

Angel spurred the mare after her brothers as they rode off at breakneck speed. She couldn't resist glancing back and counted seven riders. They were quickly gaining ground.

Just before she turned forward in her saddle, a shock of bright red hair caught her attention. She knew of only one man who had hair that color. Johnny Hunt wasn't happy with their meddling in his orders and he seemed hell bent on revenge. She kicked her horse into a gallop and slapped the reins on the horse's sides.

Angel caught up to her brothers and wiped the falling snow from her face. "It's the Hunt gang!" she yelled, knowing the wind had stolen her words as soon as they'd left her lips.

A shot rang out, sending her low in her saddle. Hanging on the saddle horn, she dug both spurs into the mare's flanks. The horse leaped, hitting the ground in a hard run. She rode low, balancing her weight in the right stirrup, and prayed the horse would shelter her from the onslaught of bullets.

As she pulled her Colt .44 from its holster, she saw Duke veer to the left and followed. The gang had caught up, now riding directly to her right. She fired at the pack of riders, missing them entirely in her fear.

She turned toward Lee and met his wide-eyed gaze, then ducked as another bullet flew past. She raised her arm and shot in the rider's direction.

Again, she hit nothing.

An agonizing pain shot through her right shoulder. The impact threw her forward in the saddle. She gasped for air and clutched at the saddle horn while struggling to remain seated. If she fell, Duke and Lee couldn't stop for her. She had to remain on the horse until they were safe.

She gripped the saddle horn until her knuckles turned white and glanced up, searching for Duke in the falling snow.

He rode next to her, adjusting his mask. She watched him turn with his rifle, aim and fire. One of the dark forms in the distance fell from its horse. Oddly, the gang halted in the blinding snow.

She didn't know what to make of it. The Hunt gang was ruthless. Why had they stopped?

The sleet and snow were coming down in sheets by the time they found an area braced from the wind. Angel was beginning to lose her grip on the saddle horn, but struggled to remain strong.

When her brothers halted their horses, she blinked several times to clear her head. A black cloud was pushing from the corner of her eyes to block out her sight and she swayed in her saddle. Knowing her strength was failing, she tried to speak, but the words caught in her throat.

"This is gettin' too dangerous, Duke," Lee whispered.

Angel gasped for breath as pain surged through her shoulder. "Lee, I..." Time seemed to slow down. Mercifully, she gave into the darkness.

* * *

Reid Spencer gripped the worn lace curtains with shaky fingers and peered out the frosty paned window. The wind howled through a crack in the door and annoyed him to distraction. As if that wasn't enough, the swing on the porch slammed against the wall, rattling the glass until he was sure it would break. He jerked back and hit a chair with his hand, sending it clattering to the floor.

The storm didn't seem to be letting up and if it were anything like the winters before, it would continue for days. If the mountains got the brunt of the storm, he couldn't make it to town for at least a month. Grimly, he realized he didn't have enough supplies in the pantry for more than three weeks.

He yanked the chair off the floor and set it against the table. The larger wildlife wouldn't return to the higher elevations until the end of April. Rabbit meat would have to suffice until then. Running his fingers through his hair, he limped across the room.

The muscles in his leg locked up in mid-stride. He slammed his fist into his thigh. The vixen would pay for what she had done. He remembered the day he lost the use of his leg as if it were yesterday, though it had happened less than a year before. He continued the assault on his leg until the muscles relented.

When she took his leg, she also stole his identity. He couldn't even bear to travel to Helena for supplies let alone have a social life. The sympathetic stares of the patrons bore into the back of his head wherever he went, reminding him that he was half a man. He would never be a person of society again. He preferred the solitude of the mountains.

Reid tossed a log on the dwindling fire in the hearth. The blizzard would make the mountains cold. To avoid a sleepless night of shivering, he needed to put extra blankets on the bed.

He reminisced of a time when his wife's body was all he needed for warmth. Curling up next to her in their bed was his favorite memory of their time together. Still, thinking about it didn't make the cold nights pass any quicker.

He crossed the room and leaned over the writing desk to turn down the oil lamp. A picture resting on a shelf caught his eye. His hand shook as he touched the smooth surface. Sweet and lovely Alice. When he'd married her, his mother had been so proud of him. She said he'd married a pretty, southern belle and her description fit Alice perfectly.

A board on the porch squeaked with someone's weight, sending tingles of warning up Reid's back. He straightened and grabbed his rifle from its berth over the front door, cocking it. His finger lay ready on the trigger as he slowly approached the doorway.

He pulled on the latch, swung the door open and stepped outside, his breath catching in his throat with the shock of the frigid wind. He took a deep breath and exhaled, a filmy white cloud floating in the air.

The pelting snow and sleet stung his face as he moved along the porch. His feet shuffled through the piles of snow on the planked wood as he approached the swing. It swayed with the weight of a body. The black heap lying on the seat moaned and turned into the light coming from the window.

"What the hell?" Reid swore. He squinted through the sheet of falling snow surrounding his cabin but couldn't see much beyond the porch. He uncocked his rifle and leaned it against the side of the cabin, then strode over to the bundle.

He tugged at the corner of the wool blanket until it came loose. As the light fell over the unconscious woman, his legs felt like lead poles. Why was she there? His hand began to sweat, and he let go of the blanket.

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. He straightened, all the muscles in his back tensing. Someone was watching him. He glanced into the darkness but saw nothing.

"Who's there?" he called.

Receiving no answer, he reached forward and ran his fingers over the softness of her cheek. He found her skin warm to the touch. Relief rushed through him. Either she hadn't been out in the cold for very long or someone had taken great care to keep her warm.

The woman's stark white complexion caused his heartbeat to quicken in concern. A person of good health would have a rosy tint to their skin after being out in the cold. She did not. Something was wrong with her.

Damning himself for not taking her inside sooner, Reid put the rifle inside the cabin, then hoisted the woman into his arms. Again, he sensed someone was watching him but ignored the warning. Helping the woman was his main concern. If the spying stranger intended to harm him, he would have done it by then. He guessed the person had probably brought the woman there but didn't have time to ponder it. He had to get her inside and quickly.

He carried her through the door and kicked it shut behind him. Her rapid breath fanned over his cheek and teased the hairs of his beard until his skin tingled.

Gaining a better grip on her body, he hobbled across the room and laid her gently on the bed. If she was ill, he couldn't help her. He was no longer a doctor and had vowed never to touch another patient in his lifetime.

He leaned forward with an exhausted sigh and smoothed her hair away from her face. Her skin was warm, but she wasn't burning with fever. The coolness of her forehead was a good sign, and he felt encouraged. She might survive the ordeal. He set the rifle against the nightstand and sat next to her on the bed.

He unwrapped the blanket, wincing as his gaze fell to the expanding circle of blood beneath her buckskin coat. With shaky fingers, he peeled it back. More blood soaked her once white linen blouse. Realizing he had to find the wound to stop the bleeding, he gritted his teeth and ripped the fabric from her body. The buttons flew in all directions, scattering across the floor. He cursed at what he found--a blood-crusted wound high over her right breast.

Reid pushed the rising questions from his mind and inspected the wound. The bullet had passed clean through her shoulder and had come out her back. She needed stitches. She needed a doctor and he wouldn't pretend he could do the job.

Yet, he couldn't just sit there and let the woman die.

He gnashed his teeth and let his gaze fall over the woman's trousers. Why would a woman wear man's clothing? It didn't make sense.

He quickly rid her of her clothing and threw them in the corner. Drawing on his years as a doctor, he blocked his reaction to the rise and fall of her soft breasts and covered her with a quilt.

He rose and crossed the room to search through the cabinets. He realized the weight of his duty but needed to remain calm. If he didn't, he could cause the woman's death and would never forgive himself. Someone had brought her there for help and he was going to do his best to save her life.

He slammed the cupboard door, his gaze darting around the room. When he'd quit practicing, he threw out his medical supplies. How could he have forgotten? The only utensils suitable were a spool of silk thread, a needle and plenty of whiskey. As of yet, he wasn't entirely sure whether the whiskey was for the woman or himself.

He sterilized the needle and prepared to stitch up the wound. If the woman awoke, he would have to sedate her. A woman could never handle the pain.

Reid stared at the bullet hole and frowned. Did he still remember how to close the wound?

Ceasing all thought, he concentrated on the task at hand. He cleansed the wound with the whiskey, then threaded the needle and took the first stitch. One after another, he made small, even stitches along the wound, forcing himself to work with meticulous care. Time passed. As he labored, memories of his training flooded back. He could almost hear old Doc Smith's voice coaching him the night he had closed his first wound. Don't pull the thread too tight. Make even stitches...you don't want to leave too much of a scar.

Moments later, he'd finished. Confident now, he set about doing the same to the bullet's entry point. After he'd stitched both wounds, he retrieved clean linen from the pantry and wrapped her shoulder.

Leaning back in his chair, he watched the beautiful woman sleeping in his bed and groaned with exhaustion. "Who are you, mystery lady," he whispered. "Why were you brought here of all places?"

He realized he hadn't studied the woman's features very carefully and leaned forward in the chair. Her hair wove in tangled knots over his pillow, intriguing him. The color was a rich brown and had peculiar highlights sprinkled through the tresses. A coppery sunset stolen right out of Montana Territory's sky seemed to streak through the shiny locks. He fought the urge to touch the silky strands, thinking that somehow they would burn him.

The woman's long eyelashes fluttered over her high cheekbones, drawing his gaze to her petite nose. The rose-colored mole at the corner of her pouting red lips caught his attention. He had to admit she was striking.

As Reid watched, her mouth parted and curved into a lazy smile. Her eyelids fluttered again and he wondered what color hid beneath her lashes. Green? Or were they blue?

He reached over and took the whiskey bottle from the nightstand. Twisting the cork off the top, he raised it to his lips and took a hearty gulp. The amber liquid burned a path down his throat, setting his stomach on fire.

He didn't understand what had driven him to save the woman. He knew she would have died without his help and had somehow found the strength to override his fears. He hadn't entertained the idea of returning to doctoring for over a year. Now, the idea wouldn't leave him any peace.


She didn't seem to notice his grunt of pain as he rose or that his lame leg refused to bend as he sat next to her on the bed. He touched her arm and stared into her luminous eyes.

The intensity of the emotions in her gaze surprised Reid. Her eyes weren't green as he had first predicted, but was a brilliant sapphire blue that seemed to reach all the way to her soul.

The color of her eyes belonged in the stormiest of seas. She blinked. Her pupils widened until he could see himself reflected in the clear depths.

"Mama?" she cried again, surprising Reid. He stared in wonder as her hand snaked out and touched his cheek.

He flinched at the touch, pulling himself from the woman's spell. He raised the bottle of whiskey to her lips. "Drink this."

She glanced at him with the innocence of a child, then parted her lips to accept the liquid. When it slid into her mouth, she sputtered and started to cough. He eased her forward in the bed and lightly patted her back until the coughing ceased.

"I didn't mean to do it, Mama, but we needed the money."

"What did you do?"

The woman pouted and distracted him with the sight of her full lips. "I can't tell you." She tilted her head, exposing her creamy neck. "You would never forgive me if you knew."

He frowned, wondering whether he had enough herbs left to make a tea to stop her hallucinations. She was obviously in a great deal of pain. "Of course I would."

She smiled and placed a soft kiss on his cheek. He closed his eyes as her lips puckered against the coarse hair of his beard. Her lips felt like a feather, drawn lightly across his skin. She pulled away, the faint fragrance of roses assaulting his senses. He wanted to pull her back in his embrace but stilled the notion.

Instead, he urged her back against the bed, and she settled without protest. He pulled the covers from beneath her, then tucked them around her body. She needed sleep now, but he would wake her in an hour to eat.

He returned to the chair and watched her sleep. He was helpless to take care of her in the mountains with a storm raging. If her fever rose and infection set in, she wouldn't survive. Why had he thrown out his supplies? Whoever had brought her to him obviously didn't know what he had become.

The woman moaned and turned toward him. The covers fell away to reveal a pink nipple. As he watched, it tightened into a hard bud in the chilly air. His arousal heightened until it strained against his pants. He hadn't had a woman in years but wasn't about to take advantage of his patient. He might not be a practicing doctor but he still had the morals of one.

Reid reached forward and pulled the quilts to cover her properly. With a tired groan, he sat back and tried to numb the desire roaring through his veins. How was he ever going to spend three weeks in a secluded cabin with this woman without laying a hand on her? Was he crazy?

Perhaps he was, but he wasn't about to torment himself with the woman's nakedness any longer. He would find her a flannel shirt.

* * *

A scream rent the air. Reid's eyelids snapped open. Disoriented, he stared at the ceiling, searching his mind for a hint of a remaining nightmare. He'd heard the scream. Where had it come from? Leaning on his elbow, he took a ragged breath and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

The rustle of something hitting the floor jolted him. He wasn't alone. Memory of the wounded woman flooded through his mind. He bolted up just as she emitted a torturous moan from the bed in the corner.

He pushed himself from the cozy warmth of his pallet and stood. Shivering in the chilly air, he tested his bad leg. The cold caused the damaged muscles to stiffen and made any type of movement painful. It was the main reason why he hated winter.

He slipped into his trousers and hurried to the woman's side. She shivered violently, the sweat beading up on her face. He placed his hand on her forehead. The heat of her skin nearly seared the flesh from his bones. What he feared most had occurred. Infection thundered through her veins.


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