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Sheltered all her life, Eliza Hunter never imagined herself alone in the vast Utah plains, much less trailing a mysterious man hired to hunt down her beautiful younger sister. And when she finds herself sharing the warmth of Grady’s campfire, she gives in to her deepest desires.
Grady Wolfe is a man forever on the run. He knows he should leave Eliza alone, but she stirs something in him he hasn’t felt before. Now he’s lost in the woods for the first time in his life—with a dangerous job to do. And no one—not even the luscious Eliza—is going to stop him…
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Eliza nearly dropped the glass on her foot. Her heart pounded frantically as she held back the scream of fear that threatened to explode from her throat. She forced herself to set the glass back against the wall as quietly as she could.
The men were in the living room, sitting by the fire and talking in whispers. Eliza had discovered if she put a glass against the wall and then her ear against the glass, she could hear conversations in the next room.
A handy skill to have when her sister’s life was at stake.
As she listened, she pressed her hand against her aching chest and closed her eyes. For the past week, Eliza had thought her sister had disappeared at the hands of her husband, Josiah. However, from what she just overheard, Angeline had run away, run! To where, Eliza had no idea, and she was still worried beyond measure.
Josiah Brown was in there along with her father. They were talking about Angeline and how to find out where she went. Eliza was still reeling from the news Angeline had run away, and she needed to know more.
“We need to send someone after them.” That was Josiah. “I will not be made a fool of by two of my wives.”
Two? That meant Lettie probably went with Angeline. Good for her! Josiah was a horse’s ass and a mean one at that. He deserved no wives, much less three.
“I know of a man.” Her father spoke slowly, as if the words were being pulled from him. Eliza wished she could see his face. “He will track her for a price.”
“Two hundred dollars. He’s not a man from the ward. He’s an outsider with a great many, ah, skills.” Her father made a funny sound, and she realized he was sucking on his pipe. A disgusting habit she abhorred.
What kind of skills did the man have?
“You will talk to this man and tell him we will not be hornswaggled. I want him to find them, find her. Punishment is required for an infraction such as this. She is not a godly woman, Silas.” Josiah’s words were sharp, scathing.
“I know that now, old friend. She was raised without a godly mother, and the devil has obviously inhabited her soul. I suspect it might be too late to save Eliza, too.”
What? Save her from the devil? Oh, for pity’s sake, she was a scientist not a devil-loving heathen.
“What is his name?”
“Wolfe. Grady Wolfe.”
The name struck a chord deep in Eliza’s soul; it resonated through her, raising goose bumps in its wake.
He sounded like a predator, a man sent to track human beings. She didn’t like him already.
“Don’t worry, Josiah, we’ll find them. Angeline will know God’s wrath for her misdeeds.” Silas spoke of his daughter as if he hated her, as if she was a scourge on his family name.
Eliza wanted to punch him.
“When will he begin his quest to find them?”
“Tomorrow. He will wait for the money at the saloon at dinnertime.”
“Then I will sleep better tomorrow in knowing the Wolfe is chasing the runaway bitches.” Josiah coughed or perhaps laughed, she couldn’t tell which, but footsteps sounded and she realized her father was coming into the kitchen.
She ran to the stove and stirred the stew, realizing too late the glass was still in her hand. She slid it into the folds of her skirt as her father came near.
“When will supper be ready, Daughter?”
“Shortly, Father. I only need to take the biscuits from the oven and set the table.” She kept her voice steady while her body nearly shook with anger and fear for Angeline.
“Set a place for our guest. He will eat with us.” Without another word, her father left the room.
Eliza slumped and let out a huge breath she’d been holding. They were sending a man after Angeline, which meant she’d be dragged back here for her punishment. Eliza couldn’t let that happen. She’d have to find her sister before the bounty hunter could.
How, she had no earthly clue, but her books could help her. After supper, she vowed to find a way to help Angeline. Eliza hadn’t been able stop the wedding, but she’d die before she failed her little sister again.
Eliza breathed slowly through her mouth to avoid the stench in the alley. She never imagined anything could smell worse than an outhouse, but apparently she’d been wrong. The darkened stretch between the two buildings was the ideal place to wait for the man she was following. However, she was loath to admit, even to herself, her courage was beginning to wane. It was dark, obviously smelly, and there were numerous noises around her she couldn’t attribute to anything human. Her heart thumped madly as the reality of the world around her assaulted her senses with each passing minute.
She nearly gave herself away when something dropped on her head, yet she held in the screech with effort, managing to squash the offending insect with only one long shudder as she wiped her hands on the grass beneath her. The man had been in the saloon for at least an hour. All she had to do was stay put until he left, then follow him. It was a simple plan.
Eliza felt anything but reassured by the simpleness of it. What she had decided to do, what she was currently doing, she’d never even dreamed of, and that was saying a lot. Eliza had spent too much time dreaming of so many things, she’d forgotten to step outside that world.
Now she was completely out of her element and scared. She had no experience in tracking or hunting. Realistically, she’d never been more than ten miles of where she’d been born nearly twenty-one years earlier.
Yet here she was in the town she’d been forbidden to be in, alone, with a borrowed horse and as much courage as she’d ever been able to muster. All she had to do was remember her sister Angeline, and Eliza’s fear seemed petty and unimportant. She pushed her glasses up on her nose and shifted her feet to relieve the cramping in her legs. All she could do was hope the man she was waiting for would appear before her entire lower half went numb.
Just as she began to wonder if the stranger would ever leave the saloon, aptly named the Drinking Hole, a man emerged through the batwing doors. The light behind him silhouetted him, making him into a dark unknown. However, she recognized him from earlier when she’d watched her father pay him. Mr. Wolfe was tall and rangy with a loose-hipped walk that made him stand out in the small Utah town. His clothing was as black as the night around him, along with his hat and likely his heart and soul as well.
Eliza chided herself for jumping to conclusions about the man. There was no reason to judge him just because he’d been hired to hunt her sister. Or maybe there was a reason, but it wasn’t Eliza’s business. She really didn’t care about why he accepted the money, just how she could use him to find Angeline. Eliza had to be smart enough to follow him without his noticing her. Definitely easier said than done.
He lit a cheroot, a flash of orange and red in the velvety blackness around him temporarily lighting his features. He looked like a creature of the night, a predator. It sent a shiver down her spine. What was she doing? Eliza lived her life in books, never venturing farther than she could walk, and there she was about to jump off a proverbial cliff. She had no experience in being on the trail, couldn’t hunt or fish, and the only knowledge she had came from books and her own experiments.
Panic clawed at her belly as the stranger stepped toward his horse. She either followed him now or she lost the trail to find Angeline. This was the moment she decided if her sister’s life mattered more than hers, if comfort and familiarity, even if it included unhappiness, was better than the unknown danger awaiting her.
Tears stung Eliza’s eyes as she thought of Angeline, the sweet blond girl who had trusted her father to keep her safe, to always make sure she was out of harm’s way. He’d failed at his job, failed Angeline completely, and left her to her own devices, as limited as they were. Now it was up to Eliza to help Angeline, and she’d never been so frightened in her life.
His boots scraped on the dried mud on the wood-planked sidewalk, loud in the quiet surrounding them. Fear coated her tongue, but Eliza rose, keeping her eye on him as she held on to the reins of the horse behind her. Melba was mostly a plow horse, but her father had ridden the gelding for the past ten years. Another reason he’d be furious with her, but at that moment Eliza didn’t give a fig for what her father would say. He lost his rights as a parent as far as she was concerned.
Silas Hunter wouldn’t have recognized his elder daughter, not that he’d ever really seen her clearly. She had not only found her way to town, she’d also found the man called Grady Wolfe. The stranger scratched his bay behind the ears, earning a wuffle and a nudge from the horse’s big snout. The stranger murmured something Eliza couldn’t hear, then unhitched the horse and mounted quickly with an agility that surprised her. He obviously hadn’t had too much liquor or he would’ve been a lot less graceful. Or perhaps he was always that athletically gifted.
Just because he was thin didn’t mean he wasn’t muscular or agile, that much was obvious. As a scientist, Eliza admired his skills. Then she reminded herself he was now trotting away as she stood there like a bespectacled fool wondering which muscles he’d used to get on the horse. She’d remind herself later to look it up in the anatomy book tucked in her bag.
Eliza threw herself up on Melba, with significantly less agility than the stranger, and started after her prey. Although not a regular rider, Eliza always had a good seat and rode astride whenever Papa wasn’t around. She’d even made one of her skirts into a split riding skirt a few years earlier, which came in handy when she’d been readying for a life on the run. And now here she was riding into the night alone, following a man hired to find Angeline.
It was frightening and exhilarating. For at least the first fifteen minutes. Then the lights from town faded from view and the cloak of darkness settled around her. She recognized the sounds of the birds, frogs, and insects, as well as the constellations in the sky. Much as she enjoyed nature in all its fine glory, her thighs and fanny would never forgive her.
Two hours into her adventure, Eliza questioned her own sanity for embarking on it. As the cold seeped into her bones, she shivered, not realizing just how cool the night would get. Her bag bumped against her knee with the constant jarring motion of the horse. As her breath came out in small puffs, she shifted in the saddle because her behind was numb, along with her thighs. How long could the man ride? God help her if he planned on riding all night.
Grady had known someone was following him. Whoever it was didn’t know what the hell he was doing, that much was obvious. The idiot didn’t have the common sense to be stealthy as he plodded along behind him. Since he didn’t know why he was being followed, he kept riding longer than he would normally have before stopping for the night.
His human shadow stayed close behind him, apparently determined to freeze to death right along with Grady. He prided himself, and heavily relied, on his instincts. They were standing up and howling like a pack of coyotes right about then.
The moon was high in the sky before he stopped near a thicket of trees. The sound of water nearby masked his movements as he jumped off the horse and crept over to wait for whomever was trailing him.
Apparently oblivious to Grady’s movements, the stranger kept riding along. Grady crouched, his heart beating steadily as his muscles readied themselves. He sprang at the other rider, knocking them both onto the ground. As they rolled in the tall grass, he held on tight to the bastard until he heard him speak and realized he’d caught himself a woman.
“Oh, my goodness, unhand me.” She had a husky voice, but it was definitely and unmistakably female.
Grady reared back and peered at the face beneath the floppy hat. “What the hell?”
“Did you just curse at me?” She pushed at his shoulders. “I’ll thank you to take your hands off me, you ruffian.”
He couldn’t help it. A laugh burst from his throat, rusty and sharp. “Ruffian?”
“Scoundrel. Rogue. Miscreant. Choose your favorite, just do as I say.” She pushed again, this time managing to shift a rock, which promptly dug into his hip.
“Ow. Jesus Christ, woman, give me a minute to—”
“I would prefer now instead of waiting a minute.” She sounded like a damn schoolteacher scolding him. Her vocabulary spoke volumes about the young woman who followed strangers around in the middle of the night. She didn’t belong, so what the hell was she doing?
Before he could ask, she tried to extract herself and this time used her legs and feet as weapons connecting solidly with his balls.
Pain ripped through him, and his stomach ended up somewhere near his throat. He rolled to the right, releasing the she-devil and trying to find a manly way not to throw up all over himself. It had been years since anyone had gotten the drop on him and gave him a kick to the nuts. He’d forgotten just how agonizing it was.
Grady heard her scramble to her feet, then brush off her clothing with sharp strokes. He wanted to toss her in the mud.
“You had no right to attack my person, sir. I am sure you’ll apologize for your behavior.”
“You’re fucking loco, lady,” he gasped out between the pulses of pain.
A gasp of breath was her only response. He got to his knees, almost anyway, and pressed his forehead into the cool ground. His breath was uneven as it escaped from his mouth. One hand cupped his crotch—there’d be no more riding that night—while the other slowly pushed himself up.
“You’re out here in the middle of the night following me, then you kick me in the balls and you want an apology?” He snorted. “Not a fucking chance.”
“You have an interesting vocabulary, sir. I’ll thank you to stop using profanity.”
“And you talk like an uptight woman who spent her life in books. God help me if you’re ugly, too.” He expected a reaction, but certainly not a poke in the back. “Did you just poke me?”
She ignored him. “I have no qualms about lodging a complaint with the local authorities.”
Grady gritted his teeth against the incredibly annoying woman and managed to get to his feet. “Then make sure you tell them how you kicked me and poked me.”
His vision was a bit blurry, but he was able to finally get a good look at her. She was kind of short, barely brushing his shoulder, with long dark hair, pale skin, and spectacles shining in the moonlight. Damn she looked like a schoolmarm, which really begged the question as to what she was doing. He was damn sure going to find out.
“I did no such thing. I simply extricated myself from your attack.” She folded her arms across her chest and stared.
Grady finally made it to his feet and sucked in a big breath. “How about we just call it even?”
“What do you mean?” She peered at him, her brows knitted.
“You go on your way, and I’ll go on mine.” Not on a horse until at least morning, that was for sure. Damn girl had feet like rocks.
“B-but I don’t understand.”
Grady realized two things at that moment. First, since the woman had definitely been following him, it would be a good idea to keep a close eye on her. Second, she had no idea what she was doing. She had on a thin cotton dress for pity’s sake. The nights went down to near freezing in the fall. He wasn’t one to have a soft heart, but she’d likely be dead in a day or two if he didn’t at least get her to the next town before he was rid of her.
“What’s there to understand? You obviously don’t want to be around me, so be on your way.” He made a little shooing motion with his hand.
“It’s late and dark. I was going to stop here at this clearing for the night.” She sounded quite sure of herself, or perhaps she was just a really good liar. Grady would put good money on her being the latter.
“What clearing?” Grady peered around, still trying to focus on where they were.
She pointed to the left up ahead of them. “That one there. I hear a source of running water, and there is a line of boulders to block the wind.”
Damned if she wasn’t right, the little vixen. It was the perfect clearing to stop for the night. He’d be a fool to continue on with throbbing balls in the pitch dark. She turned her back and retrieved her horse, leaving him standing there beneath the tree.
“Suit yourself.” Grady limped over to his horse, and by the time he made it over to the clearing, she’d already settled in and somehow unsaddled and hobbled her horse. The schoolmarm was currently building a ring of stones, presumably to make a fire.
He stepped toward her and she stopped, looking up at him with those spectacles winking at him. “Are you planning on sharing my campsite?”
“I’m planning on stopping for the night and resting my balls. You kicked them clear up to my throat, woman.” He ignored her disapproving cluck and hobbled his horse. As he uncinched the strap around the saddle, he kept an eye on his strange companion.
She created a perfect circle from the rocks, placing them so tightly together no sparks could get under or over them. Then she set about gathering twigs, and he was so amused, Grady sat down to watch her. Like a little chipmunk, she used her skirt to gather as many twigs as she could find in the moonlight clearing. She sat down on her haunches and built a triangular-shaped bundle in the middle of the ring of stones.
Grady wondered where the hell she’d learned how to make a fire. He’d never seen such a thing before. “Do you know what you’re doing?”
Again, she ignored him and continued on her task. She reached into a travel bag and pulled out what he recognized as waterproof matches. He honestly expected her to be there for at least another thirty minutes before she gave up and asked for help.
The fire flared to life, making his eyes sting at the sudden brightness.