Cade (The Morgans of Rocky Ridge)
When revenge leads Cade Morgan to hold up a stagecoach and kidnap his childhood friend, Isabella Morrow, he discovers his feelings for her are stronger than ever. He suspects Bella feels the same way, so why is she intent on marrying another man? And what kind of future can he offer her now that he’s wanted by the law?
Chapter 1Colorado, 1861
Isabella Morrow closed her eyes, blocking out the landscape outside the stagecoach and wishing it could be that easy to shut out her travelling companion. She’d been listening to the drone of the man’s voice all morning until she was ready to open the door and hurl herself onto the trail outside just to escape.
Through hooded lids, she cast a glance at him. Benjamin Wick. Slim to the point of appearing gaunt, he’d always made her uncomfortable. Why her father had sent him of all people to escort her home, she couldn’t fathom. She’d always thought man was arrogant, overbearing, and downright insufferable. Now that she’d been forced to endure his company for the past few days, she was sure of it. He reminded her of death. Why, she couldn’t say, but something about his appearance, his demeanor, even his voice, made her think about dying. Yet her father trusted him implicitly.
He sat opposite her, his long legs stretched out, one arm slung across the back of the seat. “Please stop talking, Mr. Wick,” she begged, “I have a dreadful headache. I’d like to try to rest for a little while.”
“Ah, headaches,” he murmured, quieter now, but still rattling on. “Now when I served under General Zachary Taylor back in … when was that? Oh, yes, back at the Battle of Monterrey, I had a headache almost every day. Made me violently ill, too—”
“Mr. Wick! Please. Stop.”
His eyes narrowed. He glared at her, but at least he stopped talking. She leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes again, hoping this time the silence would last for more than thirty seconds.
She heard him muttering, but although she couldn’t quite make out his words, it sounded like, “Dobson’s going to have his hands full with that one.”
At the mention of her future husband’s name, a shudder swept over her. Edward was almost twice her age, his body gone to flab and his hair already thinning. Which would be a little easier to overlook if he didn’t have the personality of a lizard.
She never would have agreed to this marriage if it wasn’t so important to her father. Every day, he pressured her, reminding her that she wasn’t getting any younger, that he wanted an heir to take over the ranch one day. She understood. He’d built the ranch from a small patch of dirt into one of the wealthiest properties in the state. He’d raised her alone, and given her everything she’d ever wanted. How could she refuse the only thing he’d ever asked of her?
But how could marry a man she didn’t even like?
For the past several days while she was caring for her ailing aunt in Colorado Springs, she’d fantasized about disappearing instead of going home. But her father would be frantic with worry, which certainly wouldn’t help the heart condition he’d recently developed. No, she couldn’t do that to him.
Then, as if her father had been able to read her mind, Mr. Wick had arrived on her aunt’s doorstep to escort her back.
And now, here she was, only a few miles from Silverdale, only a few days from a wedding she dreaded.
“What the blazes–?”
Isabella’s eyes flew open at Mr. Wick’s outburst and the sudden jostling of the stage as it bounced over the uneven ground. Straightening, she grabbed the strap dangling from the roof of the coach. “What is it, Mr. Wick?”
“Look for yourself,” he said. “Outlaws.”
Isabella’s heart lurched in her chest. Outlaws! Killers! The ridiculous thought popped into her head that at least if she was murdered on her way home, she wouldn’t have to marry Edward.
She peered through the window, squinting through the clouds of dust at three figures on horseback approaching from behind.
Mr. Wick drew a gun out of his holster and pointed it out the window. He took aim at one of the riders bearing down on them. Before he had a chance to fire, he let out a howl and the gun flew out of his hand. He pulled his arm back inside the coach and cradled it against his chest.
“Are you hurt?” Isabella asked, her eyes widening.
“No,” he replied. “He shot the gun right out of my hand.”
Other shots rang out. Loud voices carried through the open window, and the stage stopped with a jolt.
“Do something, Mr. Wick!”
“What the devil do you expect me to do without a gun, Isabella?”
Suddenly, the door flew open, crashing against the side of the stage. A tall, broad-shouldered man filled the small space, his nose and mouth hidden by a black bandanna. A pale blue shirt clung to his wide chest and disappeared into the waist of black canvas trousers. A few strands of sun-streaked chestnut hair had escaped from the dust-covered hat covering his head and curled on his forehead. Eyes the color of fine whiskey and ringed by dark lashes met hers.
Isabella scrambled as far back into the corner of the coach as she could. Her pulse skittered as her gaze slid from the outlaw’s face to the six-shooter in his hand. “What … what do you want …?”
The outlaw motioned with his gun.”Outside. Both of you.”
“How dare you!” Mr. Wick sputtered, but at the same time, he hurried to obey. He climbed out and turned to help Isabella out of the coach.
Isabella’s knees quivered. Her heart thudded against her ribs as she took Mr. Wick’s hand and stepped down. Her legs threatened to buckle, partly from being cramped in the stagecoach for hours and partly from fear. She gripped the door handle until she regained the strength to stand.
The midday sun beat down. Forests, hills and canyons covered this part of Colorado. A stream gurgled nearby. If they could reach the trees …
“You took care of the driver, Trey?” the outlaw called out to one of the other masked men who had disappeared from Isabella’s view.
How foolish, she thought, calling to each other by name. Obviously they weren’t very competent outlaws. She made a mental note to remember Trey’s name. Surely any detail she could give the sheriff would help.
The man she assumed was Trey approached from the other side of the stagecoach, a rifle pointed at the driver’s back. The driver’s hands were in the air, and he was visibly shaken. “Over there, beside him.” He nudged the driver with the barrel of the rifle.
Once the driver and Mr. Wick were together, Trey stepped back. He picked up his horse’s reins, but didn’t mount. Instead, he stood silently, watching.
Isabella met the whiskey-eyed outlaw’s gaze, her fear fading. She had no reason to believe he wouldn’t shoot them all, yet there was something in his eyes … something that told her this wasn’t a violent man, that he wouldn’t hurt her.
“Do you have any idea who you’re tangling with here?” Mr. Wick snarled.
The outlaw’s eyes crinkled in amusement. “I know exactly who I’m tangling with,” he told Mr. Wick. “Now throw down your gun.”
“I don’t have a gun,” Mr. Wick’s retorted. “You shot it out of my hand.”
The third outlaw, still on horseback a few yards away laughed. “Good shooting, Junior. But don’t ever trust a man who says he’s not armed. He might have another pistol or derringer hidden somewhere. Search him.”
Junior. Did that mean the man sitting astride the ebony stallion was the outlaw’s father? Or was it just a nickname?
Isabella studied the three outlaws. All of them had eyes the same shade of golden brown. The one they called Trey was a little shorter and slimmer than Junior, but it was quite possible they were all related.
The man on horseback, too, wore a bandanna across his face. A dark brown Stetson covered his head.
“You will not—” Mr. Wick protested.
“Would you rather I just assume you’re lying and put a bullet between your eyes?” the man she’d decided to name Brown Hat asked from his seat in the saddle.
Mr. Wick opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
Brown Hat laughed. “I didn’t think so. Go ahead, Junior.”
As Isabella watched, the man called Junior closed the gap between him and Mr. Wick, then proceeded to run his hands over him, searching for a concealed weapon. A moment later, he paused, his hand near Mr. Wick’s ankle. “What have we here?” he asked.
With the outlaw’s broad back blocking her view, she couldn’t see what he’d found until he straightened. A small derringer dangled from his index finger.
“You’re a very lucky man today,” the outlaw said. “Lucky that I don’t use this to put a hole right through you for lying to me.”
Mr. Wick gulped, the color draining from his face.
The outlaw tucked the gun into his waistband. “Any other weapons I missed?”
“Get the money and the jewelry,” Brown Hat ordered, tossing a burlap sack to Junior. “Put everything in there.”
Junior plucked the sack out of the air. He turned to Mr. Wick. “And don’t forget the diamond money clip in your pocket.”
She slid a glance at Mr. Wick as he obeyed the outlaw’s instructions. Quickly, he slid an emerald ring off his pinky finger and tossed it into the sack, then took a money clip holding a wad of bills out of his pocket and added it to the sack.
Isabella squinted at the faded printing on the sack. It might be a clue that would help the sheriff when he formed a posse to track the outlaws and bring them to justice. Assuming she survived, of course.
Junior snatched the sack from Mr. Wick’s hand and handed it Brown Hat. “You know what to do.”
Brown Hat nodded, but kept his gaze on Mr. Wick and the stagecoach driver.
“Good,” Junior said. “Bella and I will meet you later.”
Isabella gasped. Bella? No one had called her by that name since she was a child. How did he know that?
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