It took her all of five minutes to find out the group of riders was led by none other than Jak Copas, a man she'd believed, deep down, to be only a myth. She'd heard stories about him for most of her life, little hushed streams of gossip that had seemed like tales from a storybook instead of real life.
None of them had mentioned guns or warhorses or a dozen riders looking more like outlaws from a different era than bounty hunters.
She stomped into the old saloon, clenching her fists. This Copas was obviously very real and had every intention of stealing her target.
No way was she going to let that happen.
The little building was bursting with people and noise. Sweat and testosterone mixed with greasy smells of cooking meat. Men bellied up to the bar and tossed back whiskey. Their enormous booted feet crushed peanut shells on the wooden floor as they yelled for food and pinched enthusiastically whichever barmaid happened by.
She stopped just inside the door and closed her eyes, trying to reorient herself. It was like being transported from Gamlog all over again, and she felt the familiar dizziness take hold. Once a medicine man had told her it was all in her head. She hadn't really believed him until now.
A couple of townspeople rushed through the doorway, nearly trampling her in their hurry to get to Copas's gang. She stumbled into a wall and had one of her knives out before she remembered she'd converted and, to them, was nothing more than a bothersome boy standing there gawking at the riders.
She stuck her knife back into its bed and ambled casually to the long bar at the front of the room. There were no free stools on which to sit, so she pushed her way between a couple of the huge riders.
"Gimme a whiskey," she told the bartender.
He raised his eyebrow. "How old are you, boy?" He narrowed his eyes and came closer. "Who are you?"
The man on her left peered down at her, grinning. "Give him a whiskey," he roared. "Let's see if this little bean can handle it."
The rider on her right grabbed her by the seat of her jeans and hauled her up onto the bar, and suddenly she was right where she least liked to be. The center of attention.
The bartender shrugged and plopped down a dirty glass, then filled it with whiskey. "Your ma comes at me with a hatchet for this, boy, I'll find you."
"I have no mother," she said. When the men paused with glasses in midair, she blushed and shouted, "I ain't got no ma!" Then she downed the whiskey in one long gulp.
They cheered and whooped, the fools, acting like she'd just saved them all from a wild boar instead of drinking hard liquor. From the hideous, sour taste of it, she could understand their congratulations. Guffawing, they tossed back their own drinks and demanded more, and with no further ado she was accepted and forgotten.
She'd drunk her second glass of bad whiskey before she saw Copas.
It has to be him. She peered around the vast shoulder of one of the riders and stared into the shadows where a man sat alone at one of the small, rickety-looking tables against the wall.
She plucked at one of the rider's sleeve. "Is that Jak Copas?" But she knew it was.
The rider frowned at her in irritation, then glanced over his shoulder. "Yup, Bean, that's him. Stay away from him. He don't need no kid aggravating the piss out of him."
But the rider on the other side of her slammed down his glass. "Send the kid over. Jak's looking for a boy."
That didn't sound good, but that wasn't her problem. She jumped off the bar. Her pack caught on the edge, and off balance, she fell to the floor. It only added to her disguise though, so she didn't let her temper flare when the men laughed uproariously. Let them have their amusement, the fuckers.
How the hell she was going to be able to get Copas off the Skinner's trail was a mystery. She had no idea what she'd say when she reached the table. She shrugged. She'd wing it. Nothing she hadn't done before.
Boldly she pulled out a chair and sat down, leaning forward to make room for her bag. Her stomach tightened as he stared out at her from under his hat, but she would die before she let him see she was nervous. "I need a horse."
He pushed back his hat, and she nearly gasped aloud. He had gorgeous olive skin and dark hair, but his eyes were what held her captive gaze. They were extremely light. One second she thought they were very light green, and the next she saw them as pale gray.
Whatever their color, they were beautiful. The Gamlogi inside her roared to the surface, overly sexed and as lustful as any of her full-blooded Gamlogi kin.
She only realized she was gaping when the rider who insisted on calling her Bean came up behind her and snapped her mouth shut with the back of his hand.
"He's not a sharp lad, Jak, but I think he'll do."
She glanced at him, slightly dazed. "Do?"
"For someone to tend to the master, here. Take care of him. He had a girl, but she was useless in that department, huh, Jak?" The man, whose name she had yet to learn, shook his empty glass in disappointment. "Good God! Can't you find a bigger fucking glass, barkeep?" And he strode back to the bar.
Jak still hadn't spoken. She stared at him, her eyes narrow, thinking about what the man had just said. "I'm not a servant. Besides, all I want is a horse. One like you have. Where'd you get him?"
She wished he'd hurry and speak, because she needed to get her information and leave. Staying too long in a conversion, though possible, tired her out, weakened her, and dulled her senses--rather like one of the many influenza bugs that were rampant on certain moons.
If she needed anything right now, it was strength and a sharp mind.
"You couldn't sit a warhorse, boy."
She shivered when he spoke. His smooth, deep voice slithered through her body with a slow, delicious darkness that left her breathless. "What?" was all she could manage. She cleared her throat and tried again. "I can sit an animal as well as you can." She was proud of her abilities and wasn't going to let anyone see her as less than she was. Especially not this man.
"I'll allow you to come along and tend to me and my horse. Once you grow up, we'll see about getting you a pony."
Her temper flared at once, but then she realized he was seeing not the famous bounty hunter but a smallish boy who had probably not seen his first beard. "I'm not coming with you. I just need a fucking horse."
He narrowed his beautiful, pale eyes, studying her. His gaze wandered over her face, her clothes, even her hair. "You're an odd boy. What is it about you?"
She didn't bother answering his question. He wasn't really asking her, anyway. Still, she stiffened at his probing stare. This man saw much. Maybe too much. She stood quickly, afraid some part of the real Cricket was peeking through. If he found out who she really was, at the very least he might have her contained until his mission was complete.
Then she'd lose not only an enormous purse but her promotion as well. If she couldn't prove herself capable of catching the Skinner, the Powers would never believe her worthy of a promotion.
She was damn tired of being told who to catch. She wanted to choose her own targets, and yes, she wanted the prestige that came with a higher ranking.
Copas didn't need the Skinner. She did.
He had a team of warhorses, a band of men, and a whole lot of firepower. She could have used everything but the team of men. She'd always worked alone and didn't plan on diluting her reputation by using men. They'd take all the credit, and before she knew it she'd be back at the bottom, under a man who did not deserve to be on top.
"Come with us," he said. "I'll train you to be a good hunter, and when you're ready you can go out on your own. With," he added, "a horse."
She frowned and sat down again. "Why would you want to do that for me?"
He was silent for a long time. His eyes glittered, and she saw something raw and agonized deep inside those glassy depths as he stared at her. Then he shrugged. "You remind me of someone I used to know."
Dammit. That Copas had feelings, emotions, was going to make it harder for her to turn on him when the time came. Still, he was offering her an excuse to keep an eye on him and his band. Together they'd find Skihn. When they did, she'd wait for the right time to snatch the killer right out from under Copas's nose. After all, he'd do the same to her.
She nodded slowly. "Okay, Copas. I'll go with you, tend you, and you'll give me a horse when I leave." And a gun. But she wasn't going to bring that up right now. One treasure at a time.
His lips quirked, and he reached his hand toward her. He raised an eyebrow when she jumped off her chair, her fingers resting on her knives. She gave a halfhearted laugh when she realized he was just trying to shake her hand.
"We have a deal, my jumpy little Bean."
Carefully she took his hand, and something deep inside her caught fire when she touched his warm flesh. "Deal," she croaked.
He squeezed her fingers gently, his beautiful, light eyes sparkling. "Relax a little, boy. I'll take care of you."
She should have argued. Any other time she would have jumped down his throat, telling him in no uncertain terms that she could take care of herself, him, and his men with no help from anyone. But right now she couldn't speak.
She could only stare into his eyes, her mind on nothing but the feel of his skin against hers. Her stomach tightened, and her mouth dried up. Between her legs a gentle pressure became a painful throbbing, and all she wanted was to fuck him. Right there on the table.
Oh shit. She wanted Copas. She wanted him bad. Fucking Gamlogi... Her nature wasn't a bonus, it was a curse.
His cool gaze became quizzical, then confused, and with a suddenness that nearly ripped her arm from her shoulder, he jerked his hand from her grip.
He actually wiped his palm on his duster, as though she were contaminated with some vicious germ. "Go get your things." His voice was harsh, his eyes angry. "If you're not here in an hour, we'll leave without you."
She stumbled out the door, needing fresh air to clear her fuzzy brain. What the hell was wrong with her? Had Copas seen the desire in her eyes? Is that why he'd suddenly become so angry?
That was just embarrassing. She was going to have to get a grip, and soon.
Because for the next gods knew how long, she was going to be riding with him.
Riding with Jak Copas.
Outside, she leaned against the side of the saloon and pressed her trembling hands to her hot cheeks.
This could go badly, no doubt about it.