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Much Ado About Mavericks
 


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Much Ado About Mavericks


  Praise for

  Much Ado About Mavericks

  by Award-Winning Author

  Jacquie Rogers

  FIVE STARS! Jacquie Rogers writes some of the best Historical Romances on today’s market. Not content to simply write a plot and toss in a lot of bed scenes and/or filler, this author adds in subplots, humor, action, suspense, and some endearing strays. ~Detra Fitch, Huntress Reviews

  Much Ado About Mavericks is a great way to spend a lazy weekend! The third book in the Hearts of Owyhee series delivers a sexy romance full of fun. If you like men in chaps and a good time, this is the book for you! ~BookwormForever

  Much Ado About Mavericks

  Copyright © 2012 Jacquie Rogers

  Mélange Publishing

  Table of Contents

  Much Ado About Mavericks

  ♥ Hearts of Owyhee ♥ series:

  Other books to try

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Acknowledgements

  About the Author

  Much Ado About Mavericks

  Chapter 1

  Idaho Territory: September 1885

  Benjamin Lawrence had left the Bar EL ranch thirteen years before as a gangly boy who couldn't rope a fence post if it stuck itself through the loop. Now, he’d return as a successful Boston attorney in line for a partnership at the most prestigious law firm in the city.

  He tipped his derby up with his sword-cane. Local boy made good. With a little luck, they'd also forget the detestable nickname his father had bestowed upon him—Skeeter.

  The dusty stagecoach window dimmed his view of Idaho Territory’s scorching, sagebrush desert, and his thoughts kept returning his mother and sister again, whom he’d missed dearly. As soon as he settled his father’s estate, all three of them would board the first train back to Boston. Suzanne had grown into a beautiful woman and there’d be no trouble finding moneyed gentlemen to court her. His mother would finally get the lady’s life the sweet woman deserved.

  Desert temperatures hovered at over a hundred degrees and the alkali dust hung so thick in the air he could’ve sliced it with his epée.

  A kindly woman named Mrs. Perkins and her daughter shared the jolting, lurching stagecoach with him, along with a man of disreputable appearance who called himself Rastin. He was a bucktoothed cowhand sporting a week’s worth of grimy stubble, with a dirty bandana sagging around his neck. The only other humans for the ten miles between Nampa and Huston were the driver and the shotgun messenger.

  “Hold up there,” a man’s guttural voice boomed from a distance outside. “Stop the stagecoach!”

  Ben amended his assessment. Trouble had found them, although why anyone would hold up this stage was a mystery since it carried few passengers and, according to the shotgun messenger, no valuables.

  “Go straight to hell,” the stage driver yelled back. “Hyah!” He snapped the whip.

  Gunfire ripped through the heat.

  “Get down!” Ben shoved Mrs. Perkins and her screaming adolescent daughter to the stagecoach floor. Bullets pitted the wood around the windows as he forced the women out of harm’s way, the deafening blasts of gunfire unrelenting.

  The stagecoach raced over the rutted, rocky Idaho road, whip cracking and the driver yelling, “Hyah, hyah!” The woman and girl ricocheted around the coach interior is if they were ragdolls, battered by mailbags and luggage. Ben held on to them in an attempt to buffer the bruising.

  Rastin, however, sat through the ordeal with nary a flinch.

  More gunshots rang out. Mrs. Perkins held her daughter and the girl whimpered as she clutched her mother for dear life. Rastin drew his Colt, then leaned back without even glancing out the window. “Lots of holdups on the stages lately,” he remarked as if discussing the state of the stock market. He motioned to Ben with the barrel of his pistol. “Best be prepared to give up that fat bulge in your vest pocket.”

  Ben studied the man’s overly calm demeanor. Men of the west took great pride in maintaining their composure under fire, but Rastin showed no surprise about the alarming turn of events. One thing Ben had learned during his nine years as a lawyer was how to read a man’s demeanor. This miscreant was in on the job, Ben would bet Thomas Edison’s next patent on it.

  Rastin flexed his hands, as if delighted to have the opportunity to use his weapon.

  The coach bounced with tooth-crunching violence over ruts and washouts, the axles enduring tremendous force. Ben hoped to high heaven they didn’t break and leave them stranded in this god-forsaken country. Shots came in volleys so he placed himself between the gunfire and the ladies for what little protection he could offer.

  When men on horses raced by, Rastin opened the passenger door and as the coach slowed, he jumped out, tumbled in the dirt a few times, then sprang to his feet.

  Ben held his cane with one hand so he could draw the sword if he deemed it the most effective weapon; otherwise, he’d use the pepper gun hidden up his sleeve. While he couldn’t see the bandits, judging by the shots and the voices, there were two or three of them—and one of him.

  Shouting and shooting continued, the coach slowed to a stop, and after some shuffling noises and a thump, Ben saw the driver’s limp body hit the ground not far from the coach door.

  “He don’t look too healthy.” Rastin kicked the wounded man. To his cohort, he said, “That there lawyer has a nice roll of bills in his left vest pocket. He sure does.”

  Ben kept the ladies beneath him. “Stay calm, and stay here.”

  The woman and daughter held each other, the daughter sobbing quietly, the mother deathly pale.

  His money clip was the only item of value on the entire stage, and he carried barely enough for traveling expenses and his ticket back to Boston. Either the robbers had bad information or they weren’t very competent criminals. This holdup and Rastin didn’t smell right.

  “Everybody out!” one of the robbers ordered.

  Ben motioned for the women to stay in the stagecoach.

  “Allow me, ladies.”

  The woman and girl remained huddled together, appearing all too happy to comply. With a little luck, he might be able to save them from harm, even if he had to sacrifice his money clip to do it.

  A bullet crashed through the coach wall but didn’t hit anyone. Ben glanced outside.

  The shooter was a big, scruffy man mounted on a nice looking paint. “C’mon out, city feller. We’re having a party.”

  Rastin snorted. “You can party with the feller—I’m having me a piece of that sweet young thang in there. I been looking at her all day long.”

  “Boss won’t like that,” the big man warned. “We got our orders.”

  “Boss ain’t here.”

  “Naw, but he’ll find out, sure as shit.”

  Ben wondered who their boss was. Must be a powerful man to buffalo this despicable band of scoundrels.

  Their erstwhile fellow passenger yelled, “C’mon out, city boy.”

  Ben’s every muscle tensed, on high alert. The odds weren’t great, but he did have a chance of talking his way out of this debacle and removing the ladies from further peril.

  Three men, two on horses and Rastin, drew bead on him. One of the mounted men, a string bean, fired a few inches from Ben’s foot. “Let’s see a city feller do the two-step!” he shouted to the others’ guffaws.

  Ben took the opportunity to spring into his fencing stance and palm his pepper gun in his left hand. Bullets thundered into the dirt around him, kicking up a cloud so thick he could barely breathe.

  “Hold your fire,” Ben shouted. “What is it that you want?”

  “Your citified hide—and your money roll wouldn’t hurt my feelings, either.” The hefty robbe
r spat a wad a chaw that landed a foot from Ben.

  “I’m rather fond of my hide, but you can have the money. All of it.” He still couldn’t make sense of this holdup, but his skin crawled with the horrifying notion that they were more interested in hurting someone, probably the women, and the felons knew they’d have to get rid of him to do it. The money roll was only an excuse. He had to keep them occupied until he could position himself more strategically.

  “Hell, boys, quit your dawdling and do what we came to do.” Rastin sneered and cocked his Colt. “We got more fun waiting in the stagecoach.”

  The skinny villain obliged by shooting at Ben’s feet two more times. The dust made good cover for him to grab a rock and leap within a step of Rastin.

  Ben squeezed off a lucky shot that sent the skinny man’s pistol flying from his hand, and then Ben heaved the rock at the fat one and knocked him off his horse. In a split second, Ben had the pepper gun aimed at Rastin.

  “Your buddies might shoot me, or you might try, but either way, you’re a dead man.”

  Rastin dropped his sidearm and backed away. “You’re bluffing.”

  An explosion and pellets from the guard’s scattergun sent the two robbers’ horses rearing and the villains landed in the powder dirt, which billowed around them, obliterating any visibility at all.

  “He ain’t bluffing,” the guard rasped.

  Rastin caught his spooked horse by one rein, mounted, and sped for the hills, leaving his buddies to run after him afoot.

  The guard’s wounds, two shots in his right arm, spewed blood and he tipped, about to fall off the side. Ben leapt for the driver’s seat and hauled him back up to the top of the stage.

  “I hope that shotgun blast isn’t the last thing you ever do, buddy. We’ll make a break for Huston just as soon as I get the driver.”

  “You’re a good shot,” the guard rasped

  “Beginner’s luck I guess—first time I ever shot that pepper gun.”

  “I meant the rock.”

  “Pitcher. Harvard Base Ball Club.”

  “Is Pudge alive?”

  Ben assumed Pudge was the driver. “Don’t know.” He reloaded the shotgun and shoved it into the slumped guard’s hands. “Can you handle this?”

  Without waiting for an answer, Ben jumped off the stage.

  “Make way for the driver,” he shouted at the women. Pudge was a big man, an unconscious big man, and it took every ounce of Ben’s strength to haul his dead weight inside the stagecoach. Ben wasn’t sure whether the bandits would return and he had no time to waste on gentleness.

  “Give him some water and put pressure on that wound.”

  The girl shrank away from the pale, bleeding man, but her mother had no such qualms. “I was a nurse back in Chicago. Get us out of here and don’t worry about the patient.”

  “You might take a look at the guard, then, once we get down the road a few miles. He’s in rough shape, too.”

  An hour later, they pulled into Huston. Both the guard and the driver still held onto a thread of life as a few local men carried them into the building.

  The saloon owner dropped the glass he was drying. “Good Lord, it’s Pudge and Gordy. Put Pudge in my room and Gordy in the men’s hall.”

  “They’re hurt bad, but we’d all be dead if it weren’t for Mr. Lawrence!” the young Miss Perkins announced.

  “It’s true,” her mother affirmed. “We’d be in serious trouble if Mr. Lawrence hadn’t scared off those robbers.” She shuddered. “And to think, we rode all day with one of them.”

  “Rastin.” Ben asked the locals, “Know him?”

  After a bit of murmuring and frowning, the saloon owner said, “Nope, don’t know anyone called that. Don’t mean we don’t know him, though. Might’ve used a phony name.” He slapped Ben on the shoulder. “I’ll buy you a drink. Being a hero is thirsty work.”

  * * * * *

  The next afternoon — Henderson Flats, Idaho Territory

  Ben adjusted his derby, twirled his sword cane, and worked up the courage to disembark. As a scrawny boy, a string bean with feet and ears, he’d been ridiculed and teased. He could only hope the townspeople would give him a little more respect now that he was a Boston attorney of high repute.

  The stagecoach passed several new buildings that hadn’t been built when he’d left for Harvard thirteen years before, but the older buildings looked just the same. Not that he cared. His goal was to settle his father’s estate and get back to Boston as soon as possible.

  As he stepped off the stagecoach, it lurched and pitched him off the step, into mid-air, and he landed face first on the ground, a cloud of dust bursting around him. So much for coming home with dignity.

  “Are ya hurt, mister?”

  Ben stiffened at the woman’s cool but practical tone. He blew the dirt from his mouth and pushed himself to his knees. The dust settled, the sight before him nearly took his breath away again. A Colt revolver, strapped onto the most shapely britches he’d ever seen, glinted in the hot, afternoon sun. He glanced upward to a green flannel shirt covering some nicely rounded feminine curves, then to the beguiling cornflower eyes beneath a sweat-stained Stetson. His mouth would have been dry even if it weren’t full of dirt.

  “Never been better, ma’am.”

  She tilted her head and raised her perfectly arched left eyebrow. “You must be Skeeter.”

  Damn! Even strangers knew the nickname his father had foisted upon him. And here he was, flat on the ground. In front of a beauty, too. Jumping to his feet, he straightened his shoulders. “My name is Ben, ma’am.”

  She flashed a smile that nearly melted his bones—a sensuous smile. “I ain’t no ma’am. Let’s get that straight right now.”

  He snatched up his dusty derby, puzzled why such a beautiful woman would wear men’s clothing. He swatted the dirt off his hat and put it on.

  Smiling again, she showed another glimpse of her square, white teeth. “Your ma and them ain’t here—that there lawyer feller’s out at the ranch.” She turned and spat on the ground. “Looks like you’re stuck with me, Skeeter. I’m here to fetch you home.”

  What a fine piece of work stood before him—a Greek goddess who could spit, a red-headed Aphrodite with sidearms. His cravat seemed awfully tight.

  She bent over, giving him an even better look at two of her finer points, and picked up his sword-cane. “Skeeter?”

  He remembered to tip his hat to her and took the cane. “No, ma’am. I’m Ben Lawrence.” He’d been called by his rightful name back east, and he’d be damned if he’d let them call him Skeeter in Henderson Flats. He didn’t know a thing about her, but he had no doubt she’d heard all about awkward little Skeeter.

  But Skeeter no longer existed. The cattle baron’s son who could neither shoot nor rope had become one of the most powerful attorneys in Boston. She might as well get used to the idea.

  “Skeeter!” Grabbing his arm, she jerked him toward her. He glanced down and noted a glint of surprise in her eyes. Just inches from his bootheels, the heavy trunk hit the ground beside him.

  A suffocating cloud of dust billowed around them. She shoved him aside, then jumped back. “Your mama would have my hide if I let you get killed before she got to see you!”

  He realized that she’d just spared him in the nick of time from getting cold-cocked by his own trunk. What a way to get saved.

  “I’ll get this thing out of the road.” Grasping the leather handle on one end of the heavy trunk, he dragged it toward the boardwalk. After a few yards, the trunk lightened. He glanced around and saw that the woman had picked up the other end as if it weighed no more than a feather. They placed it on the planks, and she brushed her hands together.

  “Thanks,” he said as he straightened to his full height. He stood well over six feet, but she looked him nearly in the eye. Imagine that, a woman equal to him—in height, anyway. He dismissed the thought.

  “We’d best get you to the ranch. I’ll bring the buckboard
and load up your trunk.” She walked away, calling over her shoulder, “You might as well buy us a couple of sarsaparillas. Our whistles’ll need wettin’ before we get to the ranch.”

  Ben reined in his temper. Demanding women irked him, even in the best of times. “You can bring the buckboard over, but I’ll load the damned trunk myself.” Never would he let a woman do a man’s work.

  He strode into Hiatt’s Mercantile, chiding himself for cursing in front of a lady, but he’d meant what he’d said.

  Old Lady Hiatt, always industrious, polished the countertop. She glanced up and stopped cold still. “Well, if it ain’t little Skeeter Lawrence! Glad to see you home.” She put the rag down and moved from behind the counter, her chubby arms open wide. “Gimme a squench.”

  While he couldn’t claim to be overfond of his nickname, he’d always been fond of her, so he gave her a hug and a kiss on her soft, wrinkled cheek. “Glad to see you.”

  She pushed him to arm’s length and looked him up and down. “Gracious, boy, you done growed two heads taller since Ezra sent you back East to that fancy school.” Nodding slowly, she patted his shoulders. “Filled out right nice, too.”

  Ben smiled at her and stood just a little straighter. She’d always been kind, in a gruff sort of way. “How’s Mr. Hiatt?”

  “Marshal Hiatt. He’s lazy as ever.”

  “Congratulations to him. I’ll bet he’s a good lawman.” Ben hugged her again. “But you know as well as I do that there’s not a soul around that can out-work your husband. Best foreman in the country.”

  “You seen Jake O’Keefe yet?”

  Ben shook his head. “No, but I know that Pa named Jake my foreman and that I’m stuck with him for a year.”

  She raised an eyebrow and cocked her head. “Best in the territory.” She picked up the polishing cloth. “Can I get you anything?”

  “A couple of sarsaparillas, please.”

  She took a couple of mugs out of the icebox, dried them, and filled them. “Ten cents.”

  Ben paid and grasped both mug handles with one hand. “Nice to see you again,” he said as he left. He strode into the billowing alkali dust kicked up by the wagon passing in front of the store.

 
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