Wild Wyoming Wind
Sparks fly when lawman Jake Langford takes over Maddie Boone’s homestead to trap an escaped killer. Fiercely independent since the death of her abusive husband, Maddie wants nothing more than to be left alone to build a new life in the Wyoming wilderness. But living in close quarters with Jake exposes emotions far more threatening than the killer watching them, forcing her to question the past, and eventually, to trust in the future.
Read an excerpt …
Chapter 1Wyoming, 1880
“Get off my land!” Maddie Boone’s finger trembled on the trigger of the Winchester in her hand, but she held the barrel steady.
The stranger drew his roan-colored stallion to a halt. Leaning on the pommel of his saddle, he met her gaze. His horse whinnied and shuffled, raising a cloud of dust in the drought-ridden yard.
“I told you to get out,” Maddie repeated, adjusting the rifle’s aim until it rested in the centre of his broad chest. “I’m not about to tell you again.”
“Are you Mrs. Boone?” he asked.
She didn’t answer. If the man didn’t know who she was, she saw no reason to tell him.
“I’m looking for Caleb Boone,” he went on. “Is this his place?”
Looking for Caleb? Funny, the man didn’t look like most of Caleb’s friends. He was far too clean, for one thing. And even from where she stood on the porch of the cabin, she could see his clothes, though creased, weren’t stained or torn. And he sounded sober. Nevertheless, she wanted nothing to do with anybody from Caleb’s past. “What do you want him for?”
“Well, he’s not here,” Maddie said. “Now get out before I fill you full of lead.”
Maddie hoped the stranger didn’t hear the nervous trill in her voice. She’d never actually shot a man, but there was a first time for everything. She’d had a lot of ‘first times’ in the past few weeks, and no doubt she’d have many more before she was finished.
To show she meant business, she raised the sight of the rifle to her eye and clicked the hammer back with her thumb.
“When will he be back?” the stranger asked, as if he wasn’t the least bit worried about the possibility of being shot, even though she did notice he was sitting a little straighter in the saddle.
Should she tell him the truth? For a moment or two, she thought about it, then decided that it was none of his business. She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Then I’ll wait, if you don’t mind.”
Damn right she minded! She wanted none of Caleb’s friends anywhere near her homestead. Besides, he’d be waiting until doomsday before Caleb came back. “You can wait as long as you like,” she said, “as long as you do it someplace else. Not on my land.” Her curiosity got the better of her. “What do you want to see him about, anyway?”
“I apologize, ma’am,” the stranger said, the corners of his lips lifting in the beginnings of a smile. “I should’ve introduced myself properly. The name’s Langford. Jake Langford. I’m a deputy U.S. marshal.”
Maddie couldn’t help the bitter laugh that escaped from her lips. Where was the law a few weeks ago, when she could have used some help? “You’re a lawman.”
“If you’ve come to arrest him, you’re too late. He’s dead.” And good riddance, she added silently. “So you might as well just turn that horse around and head on back where you came from.”
He didn’t leave. Didn’t even budge. Instead, he just sat there, watching her. Then he leaned forward and rested his hands on the saddle horn as if he was having a pleasant conversation with a friend instead of facing an armed woman with a shaky trigger finger.
“Dead? What happened?”
Maddie kept her eye squinted through the sight, the barrel aimed at the third button on his dark blue shirt. “Got caught a few weeks ago sneaking out of a woman’s house in town. Her husband took exception.”
“My sympathies,” Jake said softly.
“It’s done and over with,” she murmured, as much to herself as to the marshal.
The marshal eyed her curiously. “Can I get down and speak to you?”
“I have nothing to say to you.”
Maddie didn’t answer for a few moments, considering the consequences if she allowed him to set foot on her land. Marshal or not, he was still a man, and she was a woman with no husband to protect her. The last time she’d relented and allowed a man – one of her neighbors, no less – to dismount, she’d ended up having to chase him off with a pitchfork.
“You say you’re a federal marshal.”
“A deputy marshal, but yes, ma’am, federal.”
Maddie noticed the slight movement of his hand towards his open jacket, and her heart began to thump. Was he reaching for a gun?
The marshal’s hand stopped. Then he lifted both his arms and held his hands with his palms open, facing her. “I was just going to show you my badge.”
Maddie motioned with the barrel of the rifle for him to go ahead. “Slowly.”
The badge pinned to his flannel shirt glistened in the afternoon sun.
“You mind if I get down now? I’ve been on this horse for two days and I’m a bit saddle sore.”
She considered his request, then finally, she shrugged. She wasn’t about to let the rifle out of her grasp, but she did lower it to waist level, keeping the barrel aimed at him. “I’m warning you. Don’t you come within ten feet of me, or I’ll blow so many holes in you they’ll be using you to sift flour.”
Maddie didn’t realize just how tall the marshal was until he was standing on level ground. Even though she was standing on the porch, she barely reached past his shoulder, and she had to crane her neck to look up at him. When he took a few steps, she felt her fingers tense on the butt of the rifle. “I told you–”
“Just stretching my legs, ma’am.”
As he moved, Maddie noticed he had a slight limp, and wondered if he was injured. She wasn’t about to ask, though. She didn’t care anyway. It could be a trick to make her let down her guard. One of Caleb’s friends had tried that, too, the day she’d buried Caleb. She might not have much education, but when it came to common sense, she had more than her share.
She squinted as the setting sun moved behind his shoulder, putting his face into shadow. As if he sensed her unease at not being able to see him clearly, he took off his stained brown Stetson and ran his jacket sleeve across his forehead.
He really was a remarkable looking man. Square-jawed, with a hint of a cleft in his chin, tanned skin, and golden highlights in dusty brown hair just a shade too long to be respectable. But it was his eyes that trapped Maddie’s attention. Hazel with tiny flecks of gold that seemed to sparkle in the sunshine, framed by long dark lashes.
Their eyes met, and he smiled.
For no reason, her heart began to flutter with the speed of a hummingbird’s wings. Stop it! Maddie admonished herself. Didn’t you learn anything from Caleb? Just because a man is nice to look at on the outside doesn’t mean he’s the same on the inside. If nothing else, you found that out the hard way. Don’t go making the same mistakes again, taking men at face value. They turn on the charm when it suits, and then when it’s too late, you find out what they’re really like.
She forced her gaze away from his until her heartbeat slowed. “Now tell me what you want and then leave. I have work to do, and as you can see,” she looked up at the sky, where the sun was hugging the mountains in the distance, “I’m running out of daylight.”
“Do you know Caleb’s brother, Tyler?”
“What about him?”
“He escaped three days ago from the state prison in Laramie. We think he’s headed back here.”
Maddie couldn’t prevent the gasp escaping from her lips. Her heart began to thump in her chest. “Why?” she asked. “There’s nothing for him here.”
“There’s a lot of money waiting for him here,” the marshal responded. “Over ten thousand dollars that Caleb hid from the robbery that got Tyler sent to prison.”
“Ten thousand dollars?” The words were little more than a whisper. Caleb had ten thousand dollars stashed somewhere, and she’d had to scrimp just to buy enough flour to make bread to feed them? Maddie shook her head in denial. “That’s impossible.”
“The money from the bank robbery was never found, and we know …” he paused, as if he was judging how much information to give her, “Caleb hid it.”
Maddie didn’t know anything about the robbery at the bank in Eagle Creek other than what Caleb had told her. And he certainly hadn’t told her he’d been part of it. Caleb had forbidden her to go into town after the robbery. She’d wondered why at the time, but she knew better than to question him. Because she’d been isolated, she didn’t know anything other than that Tyler had been arrested and sent to prison.
“There’s no money here, and Caleb couldn’t have had anything to do with that robbery.” Why she was defending him, she couldn’t say. It just seemed as if she she should.
“What makes you so sure?”
“I don’t know,” she replied softly. “I just can’t imagine …”
The marshal stared at her, frowning. Suspicion was evident in the firm set of his jaw. “You trying to tell me you didn’t know Caleb was in on that robbery right up to his neck.”
“No. I swear I had no idea.” She searched the marshal’s face for a sign that he believed her. For some unfathomable reason, it was important to her that he did.
“Seems to me a wife would know what her husband is doing when he’s not home,” the marshal said.
“That depends on the wife … and the husband.”
“Caleb didn’t tell you where he went when he went out?”
Caleb hadn’t told her much of anything after the first few weeks of their marriage, and if she was being honest, she didn’t want to know.
“Your husband was just as guilty as his brother, Mrs. Boone, but the sheriff couldn’t get enough proof. One of the girls at the Broken Horse Saloon gave him an alibi. There wasn’t much evidence against Tyler either, but when it looked like he might get away with it and want his half of the loot, Caleb testified against him. We figure Tyler’s headed back here to settle the score.”
Maddie’s thoughts strayed from the stranger to Tyler Boone, the man Caleb had introduced her to at their wedding. Tyler was even more handsome than Caleb had been, dark-haired and with a tongue smooth enough to send the hearts of half the women in town aflutter. At first, she’d even been taken in by his flattery and attention. Then, she’d learned different, just as she had learned her husband wasn’t the kind, gentle man she’d fallen in love with in Denver.
Later, when she’d heard about the robbery at the bank, and Tyler’s arrest for the murder of three people, one of them a little boy, she’d been horrified.
“Do you think you could put the gun down now? I’d like to get my weight off this leg, but I don’t want to spook you into firing that thing. Looks like your arms are getting a bit tired, too.”
He was right. The muscles in Maddie’s arms were aching from the weight of the rifle, but did she dare let down her guard?
For several long moments, she considered his request. Could she trust him? His steady gaze made the decision for her. He didn’t seem the least bit jumpy, she reasoned, and that was usually a good sign.
Finally, she lowered the rifle and leaned it against the side railing of the porch. She stood aside to allow him to step onto the porch and sit down in a rocker near the rose bush she’d planted when Caleb had first brought her to Wyoming. The fragrance rose to meet her nose, and she breathed deeply, wishing she had more time to sit on the porch and enjoy the scenery. But she didn’t, so there was no use pining for something she couldn’t have.
She turned her attention back to the marshal. His presence seemed to fill the small porch, and as he settled in the rocking chair, Maddie couldn’t help but notice his long legs stretched out in front of him. Long legs with strong, muscular thighs. She felt her face flame with embarrassment. Heavens, what kind of lady noticed things like that?
Maddie lowered herself into the other rocker and perched her bottom on the edge, ready to run. “Since Caleb’s already dead, Tyler’s wasting a trip then, isn’t he?”
Perhaps Tyler had heard of Caleb’s death, and would keep on moving. Once she’d realized the type of man Tyler was, she’d always felt a little uncomfortable around him, and she’d be quite happy if she never saw him again.
“It’s unlikely he’ll know Caleb’s dead, since he’ll be staying away from towns or people. He wants revenge, and he wants the money Caleb hid. When the jury found Tyler guilty, he swore he’d come back here and kill Caleb. I intend to be here when he arrives.”
What? She couldn’t have heard right? “You can’t stay here,” she said, her voice rising a notch.
“It’s … it’s impossible. This is my home. I won’t allow it! You have no right to come here and take over–”
His voice softened, but still she recognized the determination and confidence in the tone. “That’s where you’re wrong, ma’am. I’m a federal marshal. Boone’s a fugitive from a federal prison. I have jurisdiction to track him down wherever I see fit. Right now, this homestead is where I stand the best chance of nabbing him.”
“You assume he’s headed back here, but you have no proof,” Maddie insisted.
“I’ve been tracking men like him for years, ma’am. I know how their minds work. He’ll show up here. I’d bet a month’s pay on it.”
Maddie’s stomach knotted as she bounded out of the chair. “But I can’t have a man staying here. What will people think?”
“Folks won’t think anything. It’s too dangerous for you to stay here, so you should pack up a few things and head into town until this blows over.”
“What? That’s ridiculous,” Maddie gushed. “Caleb is dead, and he never mentioned money to me, so what danger could I possibly be in?” she asked, faking a bravado she didn’t feel.
“Tyler Boone is a wanted man, a killer.”
Maddie shrugged. “I have a gun I’m prepared to use. Besides, I have too much to do. This homestead is all I have, and I have to earn a living or I’ll lose that, too. If I don’t stick to my routine, I’ll never get all the chores done.”
The marshal’s glance swept around the yard. “How exactly do you make a living out here?”
Maddie pulled herself up to her full height, the pride she felt evident in her voice when she spoke. It would take months, perhaps even years, to feel completely self-sufficient, but she was proud of the steps she’d taken towards independence since Caleb died. For the first time since the marshal showed up, she felt a smile creep onto her face. “I’ve just made arrangements with the general store in Willow Creek to provide them with butter and cheese, as well as soap and candles. I’m just starting out, you understand, so if I don’t fulfill my commitments, it’ll destroy my business even before it gets established, not to mention what a man’s presence here would do to my reputation.”
“I see,” he said thoughtfully.
“Besides, you still haven’t given me any reason to suspect he’ll come back here.”
“I’m as sure of it as I am that the sun will come up in the morning. He’ll be back, first to take care of Caleb and second to collect the money. And since Caleb’s already dead, he’ll figure you know where the money is.”
“But I don’t know–”
The marshal raised his hand. “Tyler Boone doesn’t know that. He won’t believe you. If you don’t give it to him, he’ll probably decide to kill you instead. And since he hasn’t had a woman in the last two years …” His voice trailed off. It wasn’t necessary to finish the thought.
His gaze swept over her much the way Caleb’s had done when he’d first courted her. “That’d be a real waste.” Again, her heart did its little dance, and suddenly, it seemed as if all the air had been sucked out of her lungs. Heavens, what was wrong with her?
Taking a deep breath, she looked away until the sensation left. “How do you know Caleb even hid the money around here?”
“I don’t. But it’s safe to assume he’d hide it somewhere he could get to it quickly. They both grew up here. They’d know every tree, every creek for miles. They’d know where to stash the money so nobody’d find it.”
Maddie supposed his reasoning was sound, although she hated to admit it.
“Now do you understand? You can’t stay here,” the marshal said. “It’s too dangerous.”
If nothing else, she’d made one decision since Caleb died. Never again would a man tell her what to do. Whether she was right or wrong, she would make her own decisions. “That’s where you’re wrong, Marshal. I’m not leaving.” She glared at him, daring him to argue further.
He leaned forward, trapping her gaze with his. Gold flecks twinkled out of his hazel eyes, and he was close enough that she noticed a small chip out of one of his teeth, the only flaw in an otherwise perfectly white set. And lips that she sensed would be both gentle and demanding all at the same time. She couldn’t keep her eyes off them.
“Tyler Boone has a reputation as one of the most vicious men in the state,” the marshal went on. “Once he finds out Caleb’s dead, you’re his only lead to the money. He won’t take kindly to you holding out on him.”
Maddie laughed. He must be joking. “In the first place, I’m not alone. My mother is here with me. She’s quite ill, but she’s still very capable. And in the second place, take a good look around, marshal. Does this place look like I have any money?”
The marshal turned away from her and looked out, and Maddie followed the direction of his gaze. Then she turned her attention back to him, noticing his brow crease in a frown. Surely she’d finally made her point.
His gaze swept the yard, and for a moment she was a little embarrassed at the disrepair of the homestead. The chicken coop needed fixing, the barn roof leaked like a sieve, and the paint on the front porch had peeled off in places, leaving the bare wood to the mercy of the Wyoming climate. One of the porch stairs was cracked, and if she wasn’t careful where she stepped, one of these days she’d fall right through and probably break her leg.
Finally, he turned back to her. “Even so, he’ll be back. And if you don’t tell him where the money is, he’ll kill you. You need me, and I intend to protect you and your mother whether you want me to or not. It’s my job.”
She glared at him. “Wrong again, Marshal. I don’t need you to protect me. I don’t need anybody. I can take care of my mother and myself quite well.”
A hint of a smile quirked the corners of his lips. “I’m sure you can. But right now I’m in charge. I want Tyler Boone. And I’m not leaving here until I get him. If you insist on staying here, stay out of sight.”
“I will not. I told you, this homestead takes work, from morning until night. I don’t have time to stay indoors in case Caleb’s brother shows up here. This is my land, and I have every right to shoot trespassers.”
She reached down and picked up the rifle. Somehow, feeling the cold metal in her hand gave her courage. “Right now, you’re coming very close to taking a bullet. If you want to catch Tyler, do it somewhere else. This is a big country. You can set up camp anywhere you please, as long as it’s not on my land. Now get out!”
“No.” He stood up then and moved towards her. Her heart began to pound. Why she would react this way, she didn’t know, but she didn’t like the feeling one bit.
“I mean it,” she repeated, louder this time. “I’ll shoot you right where you stand.”
“Sorry, ma’am. I’m not leaving. So you’d better just fire that thing and get it over with, or put it down before you hurt yourself.”
The man was daring her to fire! Of all the arrogant, egotistical–
She couldn’t shoot a man. Lord knows she’d had reasons to in the past, but even then, she couldn’t bring herself to take a life. Damn him if he hadn’t seen right through her bold talk and recognized just what a coward she really was.
“Fine,” she ground out. “You can stay. But you’ll earn your keep. There’s enough work around here to keep three men busy. There’s oats and hay in the barn for your horse, and you can sleep in there, too. Supper’s at six o’clock. Sharp.”
With a final glare at being outmaneuvered, she turned and stomped into the house, giving the door a heavy shove to make sure it slammed behind her.
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