The rose water lavished upon the lace handkerchief did little to alleviate the dust billowing in from beneath the flapping canvas. Nor was the trip anything like the gentle rocking described in the Wells Fargo brochure. That promise ceased to exist a few miles back with a single gunshot and shout from the driver box. A lurch to the right, she gasped and slid across the cowhide to the other side of the stage. Her hat threatened now to tumble down over her face and she wished the presence of forethought to have placed a second pin.
Raising a hand, she hoped to hold her hat into place when another shot whined closer. There was a grunt and the coach shifted at a precarious angle. Hooves thundered past. Fearing the worst, she cried out for the driver. Silence echoed. Cold fear surged to the pit of her stomach forming a dreaded knot.
Should she look?
The wild sway lifted the curtain and exposed the rapidly turning wheels against the cold hard ground. No, it would be sheer suicide to j ump from this moving beast.
“Whoa!” came a sudden shout.
Then as fast as the coach began, it gave a violent jerk tossing her from her seat to her knees. Using her hands for balance she waited as the coach slowed to a stop. Rising ever so gently, she heard muttering. Knowing to act expediently, she arranged her clothing as best she could. Then removing her hat, she raked her fingers through the thick strands of dark hair she had carefully arranged on her head. She recalled the picture torn from a magazine labeled Gibson Girl. She doubted she resembled that now.
While in the process of replacing her hat to the correct angle, a knock sounded on the door. She held her breath.
“How many?” a deep male voice questioned.
“Wh-what?” her voice trembled.
“How many in the coach?”
Drawing her reticule close to her chest, she answered. “O-one.”
Dampening her dry lips, she picked up the parasol that matched the soft blue silk she wore. Anger at the unknown brutes steeled her backbone. A tug dropped the veil to the level of her chin and she emerged.
Four men stood gawking. She blinked against the bright Western sun and took each in her stare. Two of the men wore a traditional dark felt hat. Their calico shirts and striped trousers were worse for wear and covered with dust. Their faces a mystery behind the blue bandanas tied just below their eyes. A third, still mounted, leaned upon his saddle horn to gain a better look. His hawk eyes and hooked beak raked her from head to toe. He appeared more like a clerk in a white shirt, string tie, and brown trousers and vest, all quite out of place.
“Well, well, well,” came the drawl from the fourth who stepped forward dressed in a black duster and low Arizona Stetson. “Ma’am”
She gave him a look of disdain as he whisked his hat from his head.
“Won’t you step down?”
He offered her his arm. She dropped her lace across and before touching him gave each member of his gang a warning glare. Then lightly, so he would not soil the gloves, she stepped down, and popped her umbrella open to provide protection from the day’s heat.
“Gentlemen, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
The man in black cheek twitched. Someone behind him spat a wad of tobacco to the ground. Her eyebrows arched. They locked eyes. Beneath a shaggy blond droop of hair that covered his brow a pair of deep green eyes sparkled in response to her spunk.
“Hank,” he drawled. “You’re in the presence of a lady. I’ll kindly remind you to spit away from her shoes.”
The man seated upon the horse chuckled, but his glance never wavered. “Robert.”
She tilted her head higher in challenge.
“Ma’am,” He touched his hat, “We’re looking for something.”
“Obviously,” she snapped.
His jaw twitched again as the men guffawed behind him. She lifted her handkerchief to dab the moisture at her chin.
“Perhaps some shade?” He motioned to an outcropping of rock and trees. With a nod she began to move in the direction. The crunch of rock beneath his boots hinted he followed.
In the shade it appeared to be ten degrees cooler. A small stream gurgled against the shadows. Lowering her parasol, she breathed the air.
She gave him a measured glance.
It slapped against his palm.
“Nothing, Leroy!” came a shout.
She intertwined her fingers before her and glared back. He chuckled.
“We have word you are carrying something, something very important.”
She blinked. Opening her reticule she tossed a few coins at his feet then reaching inside turned the fabric over.
“Then it must be on your person.”
Her eyes widened. She cast a worried glance toward the stage.
“They won’t bother us,” he replied drawing his pistol. “Jacket first.”
She glared. He pulled back the hammer. Her fingers ripped the buttons. Pulling it off, she threw it as his feet.
Her fingers pulled the pins loose. He took it examining it closely.
“Nice,” he reflected.
“Paris,” she explained.
“Hum.” His brows arched. “Skirt.”
Her mouth dry, she reached behind her, loosened the buttons, and let the fabric melt at her feet.
“Keep going.” His words were slow and measured.
She watched his eyes deepen in color as each layer fluttered to the ground until nothing stood between them but her stockings and corset. Her hands fluttered to cover the swell of her breast.
“Please,” she cried plaintively.
He stepped forward, moved behind as her breath sped. His lips burning a path from her shoulder to her ear while fingers worked the laces. Her eyes closed as the string popped and his hand filled with the lush flesh.
“Welcome home, Etta.”
“Oh, Sundance,” she whispered leaning into his embrace.
About the Author: Being married longer than being single has led Nancy O’Berry through some remarkable experiences, many of which she likes to weave into books. Having written a paranormal romance involving a mermaid in Norfolk, Virginia, she is sliding back toward her first love-- westerns. A member of RWA, she has work out with Midnight Showcase and a new series with Red Rose Publishing entitled Sweetbrier Academy. You can visit her website at www.nancyoberry.com or her MySpace page at http://www.myspace.com.nanoberry/