Coyote Bluff, Arizona Territory, 1874
Olivia Hughes only had a moment to be confused before being hit from behind, then eating a face full of dirt. A heavy weight sprawled across her just as a team of eight horses thundered by, pulling a stagecoach behind them. A cloud of dry dust rose from the road, making her cough the moment she inhaled.
"Damn fool woman," growled the man on top of her. "Are you trying to get yourself killed?"
"Get off me!" she screeched, twisting this way and that. "I'll yell for the sheriff!"
The man gave a deep sigh and removed himself. Olivia wondered how she'd manage to stand in a dignified manner after being pitched so unceremoniously in the dirt, but she didn't have long to wonder. The stranger wrapped an arm around her belly and hauled her up, setting her upon her own unsteady feet. She wobbled a bit, but held her chin high, daring him to touch her again.
He lifted his hands in surrender. "You gonna lambast me when we've got an audience, honey? I'm the man who just saved your life."
Glancing around, Olivia noticed all hustle and bustle had ceased. Every soul in town definitely stared at her now. Her cheeks reddened at the realization they'd now have more to whisper about. Smoothing her hopelessly soiled skirts, she gave the man her best haughty glare. A lock of hair fell from her braid and hid half of her face. She pushed it back angrily. "Thank you."
The driver of the stage had stopped in front of the Coyote Bluff Hotel, seemingly unaware he'd almost trampled her with his team. A few people yelled and pointed, making him turn in shock to gaze at her a couple of blocks behind him. She shuddered and looked away, her heart beating wildly at the thought that she'd nearly been trampled.
"You're welcome," the man grumbled, brushing the dust from his denims.
Going to the general store was out of the question now. Olivia couldn't face the scrutiny, not when she looked a fright. Not to mention the fact she'd just had a man on top of her in the middle of the thoroughfare. Could she possibly withstand any further humiliation?
Her eyes burned as she turned away. Placing one foot in front of the other, she managed to walk, but soon found her rescuer by her side. He grabbed her elbow and continued on.
"Not so fast," he said in a tone that brokered no argument. "You're coming with me."
"Excuse me?" Olivia tried but failed to pull away from his iron grip.
"Be quiet." He ducked down an alleyway and pulled her along with him.
"Let me go or I'll scream." His handsome features twisted with irritation, but he didn't answer her. Studying his face, she thought she recognized him. Then the memory hit her like a lightning strike. "I know who you are!"
The man chuckled. "I bet you do." With one swift motion, he placed his hand over her mouth and dragged her. The alley led to a wooden fence with a closed gate that stood between the seamstress shop and the hotel. He opened the gate and walked directly to a waiting wagon with a canvas laid over the back.
Olivia fought in vain against him.
"Forgive me," he said, his eyes suddenly softening. "I wouldn't do this if I didn't think I had any other choice."
The man's name was Thomas Langston, an outlaw wanted for murdering a woman who'd been heavily with child. Olivia had passed his sun-dried wanted poster on the outer wall of the Thorny Cactus Saloon nearly every single day. The reward for his capture was two thousand dollars.
Dead or alive.
Fear clutched her heart. No one would mourn her death. Tears of panic fell down her cheeks as he twisted a piece of cloth in her mouth only to tie it behind her head. She tried to plead with him as best she could, but he wasn't looking at her. He concentrated on her hands, which he bound with a thin, scratchy rope.
Olivia wasn't going to make this easy for him. Twisting away from him, she tried her hardest to wiggle out of his grasp. But he held her fast between himself and the wagon, making her acutely aware of every inch of his large frame.
His eyes flickered up to hers, piercing directly to her heart. They were light blue, with flecks of gold surrounding his pupils. A band of deeper blue encompassed the lighter shade, making them so striking, she forgot to breathe for a few wondrous moments.
He held her gaze while he finished binding her. Olivia studied his face, trying to remember details she could tell the sheriff if she managed to escape. His strong jaw, colored with dark stubble, would become a beard with another week of growth. His nose had been broken at one time, making him even more handsome than he would have been otherwise. Full lips pulled back into a sardonic grin, revealing his perfect teeth while thick, dark hair fell over his forehead.
If he hadn't been an outlaw, Olivia would have sworn he was an angel from Heaven.
"Like what you see, darlin'?" he asked with a wink.
Her heartbeat quickened. She would have given him a piece of her mind, if she didn't have a gag stuffed in her mouth.
"Aw, don't look at me like that," he said, crouching before her.
She attempted to kick him, but instead he'd taken her ankles in his strong hands. With an unladylike flop, Olivia found herself on the ground, somewhat spooking the horse hitched to the wagon. Pain flared in her right shoulder and she cried out.
"If you didn't struggle so much, you wouldn't get hurt," he said, binding her feet together.
Olivia screeched and tried to kick him once again, but he merely laughed, hauling her to her feet.
"You fight like a wildcat," he told her, leaning in close. "Too bad I'm not tying you up for..." He winked and cocked his head. He let the sentence hang with a grin on his face.
Her eyes widened and dread bubbled within her. Before she could think hard on his words, he'd hefted her over his shoulder like a sack of feed.
"Don't mean to manhandle you, honey," he said, tossing her down in the back of the wagon. "But you're my ticket to freedom. I've been on the run for too damn long."
He hesitated and gave her a look of ambivalence. Setting his jaw, he pulled the canvas over top of her and secured it to the sides of the wagon.
Olivia's fingers went cold from lack of circulation and hopelessness overcame her once more. She was completely at this man's mercy. Mr. Thomas Langston was wanted for killing a pregnant woman. If he could be so cold-hearted to a woman with a new life growing inside her, then what chance did she possibly have?