Sparks fly the moment Charlotte (aka Charley) and Slade meet.
Charlotte cast one last glance at the huge platform behind her. The journey by train had gone off without a hitch. No one seemed to notice the young boy seated by himself.
Clutching her bag to her chest, she weaved her way through the crowd, anxiously searching for the stage depot. When she found it, she hurried forward and paid her passage to Kansas. A man who introduced himself as Smitty took her bag and threw it on top of the stagecoach. He merely pointed to the small rickety ladder provided and she slowly climbed aboard. Once she was seated, another passenger had arrived. He was almost inside when the ladder swayed. Alarmed, he lunged and landed at Charlotte’s feet. She immediately reached out, but he waved her hand away and climbed onto the seat by himself. Another five minutes had passed and when no one else showed up to board, Smitty shut the door. They were on their way to Kansas. Charlotte made herself more comfortable and closed her eyes.
“Whoa, Smitty, hold up a minute.”
Charlotte’s eyes shot wide open and she immediately straightened in her seat, anxious to see to whom that deep, booming voice outside the coach belonged. Her heart thumped wildly. The door swung open and she almost burst into a fit of nervous giggles.
Staring was downright rude, but she couldn’t keep herself from ogling the handsome man. This was the closest she had ever gotten to a real cowboy since she had been a little girl and she was going to enjoy every minute of it as a woman. Besides, he probably wouldn’t give a hoot if she crossed her eyes and poked out her tongue.
His barely there nod set her tummy to flutter. He was so tall he had to hunch down or his head would have surely bumped the top of the coach. She only had a second to note how his broad shoulders tapered to a lean waist before he sat down. Denim pants wrapped snugly around muscled thighs and long legs. Her gaze settled upon his large hands and a tingle started at her toes, traveled up her legs, shot straight up to her hairline and settled between her legs. Charlotte clenched her pelvic muscles and it felt as if she had wet herself. She licked her lips and continued her perusal. There was a hint of a mustache on his upper lip and his chin sported dark stubble. Tiny lines at the corner of his eyes gave him a mature appearance and added to his appeal. She closed her eyes and sighed. She had to admit, he was much better looking than her dream man. Too bad she had to pretend to be a boy. She would have liked to practice a little flirting.
* * * * *
Slade grew more annoyed with each passing minute. Surely, the young brat seated across from him had been schooled in proper behavior. Staring was rude. Where were the kid’s parents? He was way to young to be traveling by himself. Maybe he was an orphan. A scrawny orphan at that. A strong wind could easily blow him over and those effeminate features had to be a curse. Slade had no doubt the poor kid had been a brunt of many jokes regarding his gender. Slade despised bullying of any kind. The very idea of the young boy possibly being subjected to abuse sickened him. Even though the boy irritated him, he’d make sure he came to no harm on the trip to Swiftwater. After that, the boy was on his own.
Slade tugged at the brim of his hat to cover his eyes and folded his arms across his chest. He was bone tired, but the trip to Cheyenne had been worth it. His bid had landed the pure bred bull Silas Henry, his boss and most of all, his friend, had wanted. The animal should arrive within a couple of days. Silas was a good, decent man. Slade had been a drifter since the age of eighteen after his parents had perished in a fire. As soon as he had given them a proper burial, he packed what few possessions he could scarf from the rubble and left Wyoming. He had spent the next five years picking up odd jobs here and there, riding herd, mending fences, branding cattle, and suffered through a few cattle drives, which he intended to avoid as much as possible. Then, the day came when he just didn’t want to roam anymore. At twenty-three, he decided Kansas would be his last stop. What cash he had saved was running out fast. He only had enough to stay in a hotel for a few days while he looked for work. By the time his money ran out, he had landed a job as foreman for Silas Henry on his cattle ranch. That was five years ago and the ranch was thriving.
Silas usually made the trip when it came to purchasing his own livestock, but this particular time a family crisis had kept him close to home. The wire his ex-wife had sent from Boston had him half out of his mind with worry. According to the missive, their daughter had taken off on her own and was on her way to Kansas. Slade muttered a curse. A woman traveling alone was just an open invitation for vermin. Silas should have taken his daughter in hand years ago. He had heard stories about Charlotte from old Buzz, a close friend of Silas’s. She had always been headstrong and it sounded as if she hadn’t changed.
He switched his thoughts to Bonnie, the pretty blonde he’d escorted to a few church socials during the past month. Bonnie was well behaved, quiet and polite. She’d make a good wife. Slade sighed. He had to make up his mind. He wasn’t getting any younger. Perhaps it was about time he picked a wife and had some children of his own. Bonnie was docile and wouldn’t give him a lick of trouble. She was a good cook and very easy on the eyes. He wasn’t in love with her, but was love really that important in a marriage? He’d be a faithful husband, a good provider and he wouldn’t raise his hand in anger. That should be enough. Besides, if he waited too long, time would pass him by and he’d turn into an old geezer like Buzz. He hadn’t made any promises to Bonnie. He hadn’t touched her inappropriately. Perhaps it was time he bit the bullet and proposed.
Slade adjusted his hat on his head and thoughts of marriage and kids flew out the window. Blasted kid was still eyeballing him. He should take off his belt and whip the boy’s backside good. As far as Charlotte Henry was concerned, all he could do was hope the young woman came to no harm. She was most likely miles away from here. He might be too far away to protect her, but this young boy was within his reach and he intended to teach him a lesson or two about manners. “Something on your mind, son?”
* * * * *
Heat flamed Charlotte’s cheeks and blazed a trail straight to her hairline. Darn, he had caught her staring. “Um-” She cleared her throat and spoke more gruffly. “No, sir.”
“Then quit staring.”
Ordinarily, she would have taken offense at his reprimand, but she sat there like a fool. He had pushed back his hat and his steely blue eyes took her breath away. “I-I apologize.” She swallowed hard and turned away. Felicia had been wrong; this cowboy was very mannerly and handsome.
The thin man seated beside her spoke for the first time. “Surely, Mr…”
Charlotte couldn’t stop herself from looking at the cowboy once again. One dark brow arched. “Slade Hazard.” He offered his hand. “And you are?”
“Basil, Basil Hornberger.” Both men leaned forward, shook hands, then fell back against their seats. Charlotte’s heart skipped a beat. Slade’s hand had completely enveloped Basil’s.
“Are you related to the boy, Mr. Hornberger?”
Basil shook his head. “No, why do you ask?”
Charlotte’s temper flared. “The ‘boy’ is right here. Don’t be rude and discourteous by speaking over me.” Her fury was aimed directly at the cowboy.
“For a kid who’s barely out of the schoolroom, your impudence is not appreciated. Respect your elders,” he countered sharply.
The nerve of the man! She was not a kid. She’d been out of the schoolroom for over a year. She threw back her shoulders proudly. “I am nineteen and have the right to voice my opinion.” His big hands clenched and he straightened in his seat. Charlotte was surely within a hair’s breath away from being throttled.
Suddenly, the interior of the rocking coach seemed awfully small. Apparently, he wasn’t used to being spoken to in such a belligerent manner. In all honesty, he had made a valid point. She had been taught to respect her elders. “Again, I apologize. As long as we’re introducing ourselves, my name is Charley. In answer to your question, Mr. Hazard, Mr. Hornberger and I are not related.” For some unknown reason she didn’t want to be at odds with the man. As a matter of fact, she hoped to enjoy herself in his company even though she had to keep up her pretense and act like a boy. She wondered what he’d do if he knew she was a woman. Would he be as quick to reprimand or would he tip his hat and beg for her forgiveness?
A swathe of hair fell in disarray across his tanned forehead and he removed his hat. With his black wavy hair, blue eyes and muscular form, he put the dandies back in Boston to shame. The material wrapped around her chest tightened and she had difficulty breathing. Charlotte panicked and poked her head out the window for some much needed air and got a face full of dust instead. A fit of coughing plagued her.
“Here, it’s clean.”
A handkerchief landed in her lap. Slade’s throat was now bare and she watched his Adam’s apple move up and down as he spoke to Basil. “In answer to your question before we were so rudely interrupted, there is a reason why I asked if the two of you were related. I had hoped the kid wasn’t traveling by himself.” He directed his gaze at Charlotte once again. “Staring is also rude and discourteous, Charley. Pick the wrong man and you might find yourself face down in the dirt with your ass sticking up in the air and getting more than you bargained for.”
Charlotte gasped. Her overactive imagination conjured up a picture of what he had described and her stomach churned with disgust. Only a monster would do such a thing to a young boy. Surely such human depravity did not exist. She’d rather believe the world was a much better place. Charlotte dabbed at her face with the handkerchief he had carelessly flung in her direction. His scent permeated her nostrils. Sweat, man, and a hint of mint. Oddly pleasing. Keeping the checkered cloth for her personal enjoyment would more than likely raise an eyebrow. She thanked him for his hospitality and turned away. The train ride had been quiet and uneventful. There was absolutely no reason why this short trip to Swiftwater couldn’t be the same. All she had to do was close her eyes for a spell and keep her mouth shut.
* * * * *
Deafening gunshots woke Charlotte from a fitful sleep.
Slade twisted in his seat and stuck his head out the window. “Smitty, what the hell’s going on?” He ducked back inside seconds before another round of shots were fired.
“Someone’s taking shots at us.”
No shit. The coach hit a bump and bounced straight up into the air, sending Slade sprawling across the seat. Sonofabitch!
“I could sure use some help up here, Mr. Hazard. Got no one riding shotgun on this trip.”
“On my way.” He slid to the opposite side of the seat, but the tug on his pant leg prevented him from swinging out the window. He hunkered down in front of the kid and swore he’d never seen such a stunning pair of green eyes. In that instant, Slade knew he’d burn in hell for admiring such traits on the boy. It was perverted. He must be losing his mind.
“Where are you going?”
Slade cleared his throat and spoke more sharply than he had intended. “Up above to help the driver. Keep your head down and out of the way.” Those eyes shone with tears and he muttered a curse. “Don’t worry, Charley. I’ll get us out of here safe and sound.” Basil was out of sight, huddled under the seat. Slade readied to lunge out the window, but another shot exploded, followed by a resounding crack of a whip. The coach burst into full speed and Slade was flung backward on the seat.
Caught off guard, Charlotte was thrown forward and landed headfirst between his wide spread legs. Her fingers sank into his upper thighs.
Holy shit! Slade pushed her roughly to the floor. Damn, he had to get out of here. The kids’ face in his lap and shaken him more than he cared to admit. “Both of you stay down,” he barked, annoyed at himself for having these abnormal reactions toward a young boy. It was wrong. He switched his focus to the matter at hand. Once they were out of this mess, he’d head to the nearest saloon and partake of some female company.
Slade couldn’t recall the last time a stagecoach had been held up in these parts. Sheriff Tom Davis was a stickler for the law. The burly man despised trouble and made certain the citizens of Swiftwater behaved accordingly and visitors knew the rules. Whoever was out there would regret their actions.
Slade poked his head out the window. Swirls of dirt surrounded the stagecoach. Off to the left, he was able to make out three riders who were bearing down on them fast and, wait a minute… one of them had a gun pointed directly at him. Nah, couldn’t be. Not taking any chances, Slade ducked just as a loud whiz zipped over his head and passed through the window on the opposite side.
“Sir, please mind your language. We have a young boy here.” Basil’s high-pitched voice sounded from under the seat.
Slade gritted his teeth. Language hell, he almost pissed himself. That blasted shot had been too close for comfort. “Basil, the farthest thing from my mind is the use of proper language when I’m getting shot at.”
“There’s no need to be sarcastic, Mr. Hazard.” Slade swore again for the hell of it. A sudden movement sent his temper soaring. He snared Charlotte by the back of the shirt, spun her around and shook her roughly. “I thought I told you to stay down? Keep your nose to the floor.” He delivered a sound whack to the seat of her pants.
Charlotte sank to the floor. “Don’t yell me,” she snapped. “And don’t you dare strike my person again.” She reached under the seat and pulled out his hat. “Your poor hat has a hole in it.” She poked her finger through the ragged tear. “See?”
Slade ground his back molars until his jaw hurt. Don’t strike my person? Good Gawd! “Better than a hole in my head, don’t you think? You need a trip to the woodshed and not for chopping wood.”
“And you should be horsewhipped for beating me, you flea bitten cur.”
Flea bitten cur? A biting retort died on his lips as the coach slowed to a crawl and finally shuddered to a complete stop. Pounding hooves circled once, then all was quiet except for a snort here and there from the winded horses. Slade got into Charlotte’s personal space. “You keep your mouth shut, you hear?” He reached for his gun.
“I’m gonna open this door real slow like. Toss any weapons out first or the driver gets a hole in his head!”
So much for a sneak attack. Slade held up his gun. Rebellion lit the kid’s eyes for a mere second, then quickly disappeared. Slade had to admire the kid’s spunk, but now was not the time to play the hero. “I mean it. You mind what I said, Charley. So help me if you cause a lick of trouble I’ll peel a layer of skin off your hide.”
“Stop threatening me.”
“Stop giving me grief.”
The door opened and they both shut up. Sunlight and dust filtered inside the stuffy coach. “Toss the hardware.”
The terse order grated on Slade’s nerves. As the dust cleared, his eyes landed on the gunman and he near flew into a rage. All of them wore bandanas, but judging from the pitch of his tone, Slade was sure the one making all of the demands couldn’t be much older than Charley. Christ, they were bested by a kid. He’d take a chance and tackle him, but the other two men on horseback were watching closely.
Slade chucked his gun and jumped. Since his parents had been taken from this world way too early in life, he had given up on prayers. They had been good people and didn’t deserve to die such a horrible death. He still had issues with the Lord in that respect, but today he offered up a deal. If the little irritant in pants obeyed his order and remained quiet, he’d get his butt to church.
Charlotte stood poised in the doorway and Slade tensed. What was the kid waiting for? The last thing they needed was an agitated gunman.