THE WRONG MAN
Deserted by her father at the tender age of seven, Jenna Leigh-Whittington had taught herself to ride, shoot, brawl…and steer clear of the opposite sex. But now, in a lonely Utah canyon, the Pinkerton agent has drawn her gun on a rugged stranger—only to discover that, far from the dangerous outlaw she’d been tracking, he is Branch McCauley, hired gun…and the most irresistible rascal ever to tempt and torment a woman!
THE RIGHT WOMAN
If there’s one thing McCauley trusts less than a female, it’s a female who packs a six-gun. But what a woman! Vowing to bring the sensuous hellcat to heel, McCauley has no inkling that their passionate battle of wills has just begun. Taming Jenna will be the most seductive—and satisfying—job he’s ever taken on.
A man’s naked chest was one thing, Jenna Leigh-Whittington told herself as she crept through the brush. After all, this was 1879, not the dark ages, and she’d seen men without shirts before. Back home in Illinois, farm hands often went shirtless, toiling under a broiling sun.
Besides, Jenna had decided fifteen years ago—at the ripe age of seven—never to make the same mistake her mother had in giving her heart to a man. So Jenna had no expectation of seeing more of the masculine form than a chest… until now.
Fully grown and over a thousand miles from home—in Utah—she stood in the woods, dressed as a boy and bent on doing a cold, dangerous job no one believed a woman could do. Scary, but worth it, because her success would insure her freedom. At the moment, though, she fretted, not over possible danger, but over the likihood of having to inspect a man’s bare bottom.
Jenna’s short Indian-style bow tangled in the bushes as she sneaked closer to the camp she’d discovered, thanks to its telltale scent of coffee. Without a sound, she worked the bow free. The damp ground beneath her knees smelled of summer growth. She grimaced at the dirt and grass stains being ground into her coat and trousers. Hopefully, they would not be her only souvenirs from tonight’s adventure. She needed the reward money success promised.
Rewards didn’t truly matter, though. All in the line of duty. A man’s duty. Which she was doing.
For days, Jenna and her sorrel, Gent, had tracked her quarry from Denver to Cheyenne and on west through every godless whistle-stop along the Union Pacific Railroad. So far he had avoided granting her a single peek at him. He knew good horseflesh; she had to give him that.
Finally, she had him, trapped in a dead-end draw west of Evanston, surrounded by aromatic sagebrush, sego lilies, jackrabbits, and the red crenellated sandstone cliffs of Echo Canyon.
To avoid detection, she had left the sorrel in the main canyon and threaded her way up the draw on foot. The branches thinned and she could see him now, sitting on the ground, his back braced by a saddle, while he gnawed a stick of jerky. Beyond the campfire, a horse stomped and swished its tail. Jenna envied the horse that long tail. A whole hoard of mosquitoes busily sucked her hide, and she didn’t dare slap at the pests—too noisy.
Muscles of iron strained the seams of the man’s chambray shirt and tan denim trousers as he sat up to dig another strip of jerky out of his saddlebag. A black Stetson shadowed his eyes. The dim light from the fire made determining the color of his mustache and beard difficult, but they looked dark. Dark enough to convince her she had found the right man—Black Jack Mendoza, cardsharp, frequenter of saloons, consort of soiled doves, train robber, and murderer.
A desperate, dangerous man.
She thumbed back the hammer and the click shattered the still night like the roar of a cannon.
The man lunged to his feet, his sixgun drawn so fast she never saw his hand move.
“Easy, mister, put the gun away.” Her voice came out a hoarse croak. “I’ve got you covered.”
Branch McCauley froze, his keen eyes seeking his adversary among the shadows, his guts snapping at his backbone like an angry badger.
Must be getting old, letting himself be taken unaware like this. Had Mendoza circled back on him? The voice sounded young. Hell, he hoped some idiotic kid, hungry for fame, hadn’t followed him from one of the railroad towns he’d traveled through searching for Mendoza. McCauley would far rather face a fully grown, cold-hearted killer.
Face carefully blank, body alert, he eased the gun into its holster and waited for his adversary to reveal himself. Finally, the intruder stepped into the weak glow of the fire. McCauley frowned.
A boy? What… Kid couldn’t be more than thirteen or fourteen. Damn.
A wide-brimmed hat failed to hide the brat’s soft, delicate face that had yet to feel the scrape of a man’s razor. Baggy trousers and an oversized coat hung on the slight frame like a half-stuffed scarecrow. The boy carried a short bow over one shoulder, a quiver on the other— and somewhere in between, the puerile assumption of manhood. He had eyes the size of tin plates—fear induced, McCauley reckoned—and slender, fragile-looking hands. Chances were that the fragility was deceptive, considering the heavy weapon the kid had aimed at his chest.
Definitely not Mendoza.
McCauley’s jaw clenched. Blasted kids. They saw only the glory side of killing. Never the ghosts. Or the regrets. He’d thought he’d left his reputation behind in the Colorado gold camps. Wrong, obviously. He sure hoped he wouldn’t be seeing this boy’s pretty, innocent face in future nightmares. Nightmares peopled by the dead of McCauley’s past.
Jenna scowled as she studied the man by the flickering glare of his campfire. He had the right build and appeared close to thirty, Mendoza’s age. But something didn’t fit.
The Denver police chief had described her quarry as a spoiled aristocrat, too busy wooing Lady Luck and every other female to be much of a train robber, let alone a killer. But the rogue in front of Jenna looked too lean and hard to be spoiled, too wary and aloof to be a ladies’ man.
To Jenna he appeared the perfect gunslinger: cold, tough, and ready to spring. Like a big yellow cougar perched on a ledge. Or a rattler, tightly coiled. Either way, his bite would be deadly.
In spite of the cool night breeze, sweat oozed from her pores. She couldn’t forget that lightning draw. Why had she come here? How had she expected to take an outlaw Pinkerton’s other agents had failed to bring in? No, she was every bit as capable as any man to capture Mendoza. She had to believe that, the same way she had to do what she’d set out to do. Only one question remained: Was this man Mendoza or not?
“Who are you, mister?”
“Who am I? Hell, who are you?”
Blast! Did no male exist in this empty wilderness that wasn’t so taken with himself he couldn’t cooperate for a change?
She took a calming breath. A body could catch more flies with honey than vinegar, old Charley Long Bow used to say. Jenna figured flies might fancy the hairy creature facing her, so she decided to try being friendly. “Listen, I smelled your coffee and hoped you might spare a cup, is all. You can understand me being a mite leery of walking into a stranger’s camp without knowing who I’m hooking up with.”
Firelight glinted on the man’s straight white teeth as his whiskers parted in a cold smile. “Don’t recall inviting company, but I’ll play your game. Name’s Branch McCauley. Now it’s your turn.”
His smile unnerved her. No humor, only a lethal sort of grimness that cannoned her stomach into her throat and made her wish she’d wired William Pinkerton for instructions instead of going off half-cocked as she had. “I’m Jim… Jim White,” she lied.
“All right, Jim, how about some honesty? You come here looking for me?”
“I’m not looking for anyone named Branch McCauley. If that’s who you are, you’ve nothing to worry about.”
The wide, innocent eyes McCauley studied held honesty. He relaxed. “In that case… be glad to pour you some coffee.” He reached for the battered graniteware pot. The kid’s next words froze him in a half-stoop: “I’d feel more welcome if you’d set aside your gun first.”
Cool as Montana sleet, McCauley straightened, hand poised above his holster. “Reckon you would. Wouldn’t do much for my sense of well-being, though.”
So much for trying the friendly approach, Jenna thought. What now? She clenched her knees together to still their shaking and swallowed the knot of fear in her throat.
“Look.” McCauley shifted his weight to one leg. “Why don’t you put your gun away and have a sit? Could be I might know something about the hombre you’re hunting.”
Hombre. Sounded Spanish. Like Mendoza. It must be him. She had to get his six-shooter away from him. Surprise seemed the best means. She squeezed the trigger of the .44 Starr. The bullet kicked dirt onto the man’s scuffed boots. He jumped and let out a yelp as though she’d set his feet afire.
“Dammit, kid, going up against me won’t get you anything but a six-foot hole in the ground.”
“Shut up and toss over your gun or I’ll turn them boots into sieves. ’Course, my sights might be a bit off.” She raised the muzzle toward his groin.
“You made your point,” he growled, as he unbuckled his gun belt and tossed it over.
Instead of the fancy weapon she had expected a gunslinger to own, a plain Colt lay at her feet. No ivory handle or engraved barrel. Only an ordinary .44 Peacemaker, crafted and worn for one reason—to kill. The thought did funny things to her innards.
“All right,” she said, getting back to business. “You aren’t going to like this, mister, but I don’t know any other way to make sure who you are. Drop them trousers to your ankles.”