Desperate to escape a fiancé who plans to marry, then murder her for her wealth, Margaret Atwater runs West as a mail-order bride. Freedom seems to be within her grasp until her stage coach is robbed and the driver killed. Her life is spared, only she’s taken and sold to a brothel. Now she’s a high dollar ante for the brothel owner, and the only eyewitness to cold-blooded murder.
Colorado sheriff, Grant Masterson, is looking for a killer, not a woman. When a round of cards turns into a high-stakes game for the life and future of the lovely and innocent Miss Margaret Atwater, he must win. Grant isn’t prepared for the danger and chaos that haunts his prize. Outlaws are trying to kill her. The brothel owner wants her back. And a man from her past is willing to do anything to reclaim what he lost. Will bullets and brawn be enough to save her?
Curled in a ball on the uncomfortable bench seat of the stage, her arm an awkward pillow against the jolts and rocking of the stage, Margaret Atwater snoozed fitfully. The heat was stifling, covering her like a wool blanket in July. Her dress clung to her sweaty skin, her hair damp and sticking to her brow. She’d undone the top few buttons at the neck, revealing the full swell of her breasts above her snug corset. The smallest of adjustment offered a reprieve from the endless warmth and the strict confines of polite society. Who cared about social mores when it was almost too hot to breathe, much less be covered head to toe in linen and cotton?
The leather curtains flapped noisily with each rock or lumbering sway. Rays of intense sun intermittently filtered through and burned through her closed lids. She licked her parched lips, anticipating the next stop on the route like a lost man in a desert finding an oasis. She must look as poorly as she felt. But she didn’t care. She was safely away from her fiancé’s clutches and that was her sole concern.
It was impossible to say exactly where she was beyond a two days’ ride west of St. Louis. She’d lost track in the tedium of horse hooves and the never-ending sway and dip of the stage. If she had to guess, she was somewhere in the new state of Colorado.
Deafening shots rang out, rousing her.
“What?” she whispered to herself, clearing her fuzzy head.
A second round of gunfire chipped pieces of wood out of the panel above her head and the stage lurched forward with incredible speed.
“Oh no!” she shouted, instinctively covering her head.
There was no time to panic, or even think. Chunks of wood flew through the air and landed in her hair, on her lap. The uncontrollable swaying had her reaching her arms out, one hand hitting the side of the stage, her fancy East Coast hat toppling off her head.
She spread her legs wide on the floor to help maintain her balance and grunted in an unladylike fashion as she held on. If any of her society friends could see her now, they’d probably faint dead away. Her dress was unbuttoned low enough to expose her ample cleavage the lace on her corset, her hat was crushed beneath her feet, and tendrils of her dark hair fell from its pins. Her dress was stained and wrinkled from travel, and most likely beyond repair.
Through the clamoring leather flap, she could make out a blur of the endless green prairie. A wheel caught on what felt like a deep rut and the stage jumped as if it were a feather in the wind. It fell more like a boulder from a cliff.
Dust kicked up as the stage slid to a rough stop and she coughed in the thick air. The stage—and Margaret—landed on its side, the horses unable to drag the heavy load farther. Whoever fired the gunshots were nearby. She heard their heavy breathing from where she laid, sprawled in a heap, her skirts around her neck.
Wincing, she rubbed her hip where she landed on the corner of the seat. Continuing on, she did a quick assessment of the rest of her body and found only a few sore spots and probably, come tomorrow, many a bruise. Attempting to get her bearings, she looked up at the roof, no, the wall of the stage. Carefully but without any ladylike grace, she pulled herself up to the window to peek out, standing on the other wall and door, which were now the floor. Her legs, tangled in the mess of skirts and petticoats, made it extremely difficult.
Two men on horseback waved their guns and one fired again into the air. Her heart leapt into her throat as she covered her ears and flinched at the deafening sound. Only a squeak escaped her throat, a full scream clogged by fear. She was going to die. Alone, standing in a tipped carriage, a complete mess, shot by bandits or robbers or desperadoes. She’d never contemplated how she would eventually die, but she always assumed she’d be old and gray, and not in the middle of nowhere!
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