BEAUTY AND THE BOUNTY HUNTER

Once Upon a Time in the West #1

 

   Cat pressed her gambler's gun to Clyde's spine as she rose.  “Repeat after me:  You or her?”

   “Wha--?”

   Cat placed the barrel against his temple.  “Say it.  You or her?”

   “Y-y—“ 

   She closed her eyes and, as it did every time she reached for it, and sometimes when she didn't, the past returned.  She couldn’t see through the blindfold, couldn’t move for the bonds.  But her ears . . .

   Her ears worked just fine.

   “You or her?” Clyde blurted.

   Cat’s eyes snapped open.  It wasn’t him.

   Disappointment flooded her, so stark, so deep her legs wobbled.  How long could she keep doing this?  How long before someone got the drop on her?  How long before she let them? 

   Cat shoved aside those thoughts.  She’d made a vow, and she would not stop until she kept it.  No matter how long that took.  No matter what she had to do.   So far, she’d done plenty.

   After testing the knot that bound Clyde’s wrists--never could be too careful--Cat nestled the gun more firmly against him.  “Let's walk.”

   Applause exploded from the shadows, and Cat started, nearly putting a bullet into Clyde’s back. 

   A man swam out of the gloom.  His Colt was strapped down like a gunslinger’s.  She couldn’t see his face beyond the brim of a dark slouch hat.  His hands, which were still applauding—slowly, sarcastically—were shrouded by black gloves.  There was something familiar about those hands.

   “I’ve never seen anything quite like that before,” he said.

   There was something about the voice too—an odd cadence, an accent she couldn’t place.  She was good with voices—had to be--even better with accents.  That she couldn't decipher this one caused the itch that had started up when she saw his hands to intensify.

   “Who are you?” she demanded.  “What do you want?”

   She half expected him to say he’d been waiting for her, that he was one of Letty’s regulars, sent upstairs to have a taste of the new girl.  A common enough occurrence in the whore business; it would be a simple matter to promise him she'd be available soon, then disappear. 

   The newcomer kept his head canted so that the shadow of his hat concealed his face, and that bothered her.  What was he trying to hide and why?

   “Fucking bounty hunter,” Clyde spat.

   “You nearly did, my sad little friend.”

   “Nearly did what?”  Clyde’s voice was mystified.

   “Fuck the bounty hunter.”

   Cat's eyes narrowed.  How did he know?

   Clyde glanced over his shoulder, and Cat shoved the derringer more firmly against him lest he try anything funny.

   “She’s nothing but a whore,” Clyde sneered.

   The other man stepped forward.  Cat only had time to tighten her grip on the gun before the body she was threatening it with crumpled.  It took her several ticks of the clock to understand that the first thud she’d heard had been a fist connecting with Clyde’s jaw, the second had been Clyde hitting the floor. 

   “Well, hell,” she muttered.  “How am I going to get his sorry ass downstairs now?”

   When she received no response, Cat glanced up.  The intruder leaned against the wall as if he hadn’t a care in the world, or a place to be in this century. 

   “What’d you do that for?” she asked, turning her gun on him.

   “I didn’t like his tone or his language.”

   "Names don’t bother me.” 

   Men like Clyde did.  She’d devoted what was left of her life to bringing them in, and if she checked each and every one to see if he was the one . . . Cat gave a mental shrug.  It was nothing less than she deserved for doing this job at all.

   “Obviously not,” he drawled, “since you use so very many.” 

   Cat stilled.  Did he want her to kill him?

   The man flicked an elegant, dark finger at the lightly snoring Clyde.  “Does he know who you are?”

   “I’m—“ Cat’s mind groped for the name she was presently using and came up blank.

   “That is often the problem with lies,” he murmured.  “So difficult to keep straight.  Shall I help you to remember . . . Cat?”

   Her trigger finger itched.  Should she set it free?  This man had seen what she'd done; he knew who she was.  She really didn't have much choice.

   "You plan to kill me with that?"  A dip of his stubbled chin indicated the derringer pointed at his chest.

   "You have been asking for it." 

   Laughter erupted, as startling as the applause had been.  "Kitten, that wouldn’t even slow me down."

   He might be right.  She should get a little closer.

   “They say Cat O’Banyon always gets her man.”  He indicated the gun, the bound Clyde, then the room with a languid twirl of one gloved finger.  “Is this how?”

   “This?”  She smoothed a hand down the satin-covered ladder of her rib cage, brushing the un-corseted weight of her breasts with her fingertips, curving her palm beneath one ripe swell.  “Sometimes.”

   If she kept his attention on her body he wouldn’t notice anything else.  Like how close she was getting.  Just another step and--

He snatched the gun and tossed it onto the bed.  His other hand came down on hers where it still rested beneath her breasts.  Then he whirled her into the shadows, his large, hard, male body aligning with hers.

   Cat wanted to shriek and kick.  Instead she went still and quiet.  She’d learned disguise from a master, and it involved not only the outer trappings but also the spirit within.  Cat O’Banyon wouldn’t panic at the brush of a man’s thigh along hers.  Cathleen Chase on the other hand--

   Cat shuddered, deftly turning the quiver from fear to arousal with the almost undetectable addition of a moan.  She wasn’t stronger; she couldn’t fight.  Not with fists.  So she lifted her mouth, and she placed it on his. 

   She’d planned to take charge, to ensure he thought of nothing beyond this until the time he no longer thought at all.  She failed miserably as soft and gentle, his lips countered hers.  Slow and easy, as if he had eons of time to do anything that he wanted, and what he wanted was her.

   This was nothing new.  Men had desired her--it was how Cat made a living, or at least how she pretended to often enough—but they hadn’t desired her.  Because she wasn’t Sissy the whore, or Betsy the barmaid, or Dorothy the dance hall gal.  She was Cat—the woman who’d been born from the ashes that had tumbled across Billy’s grave nearly two years ago.

   A sob nearly broke free.  She trapped it in her throat, and the stranger set his hand there, as if he’d heard, as if he knew, as if he cared.  His tongue flicked out, testing the seam of her lips. 

   Lust flooded in and, shocked, Cat gasped.  He slanted her head with clever fingers, letting his thumb trail across her chest, leaving goose flesh in its wake.

   She wrapped her arms around his shoulders.  Funny, but when she touched him he didn’t seem so broad, and she had to reach higher than she’d thought, as if he were taller than he appeared.  Her brow furrowed; memory flickered--a mirage—there and then gone and then—

   He deepened the kiss, and he tasted like blue night, something dangerous but exciting, something that pulled you in even when you knew you had to get out.  She drew in a breath, and he smelled even better—his scent reminding her of places that were green and sunny and gone.  Warmth rolled off him; she wanted to bask in that heat like her namesake.

   And as long as he was kissing her, he wasn’t paying attention to her hand, which had, seemingly of its own accord, slid across his shoulder—definitely more lithe than large, how peculiar—down his arm, across his oddly slim hip. 

   Her sigh masked the shift of her palm from his body to her own, the arch of her spine, the press of her breasts into his chest concealing the track of her fingers as they disappeared beneath her skirt.

   His tongue traced her lower lip, tickled her teeth, slid through and danced a bit with her own.  What would it be like to give in?  To feel something more than nothing for a minute?

   Cat was tempted, and because she was, she got careless.  She concentrated on his mouth when she should have been concentrating on his hands.  Ain’t that always the way?

   He cupped her breast, one finger dipping beneath the lace and trolling across the nipple.  A sharp tug shot through her, awakening sensations she'd forced into slumber long ago.  That sob she’d been stifling erupted, becoming a howl of fury as it flew from her mouth.  She yanked up her skirt and reached for the Arkansas toothpick strapped to her thigh.

   “Looking for this?”  He pressed the tip to Cat’s throat, and she froze.

   She didn’t much care about living, but she wasn’t ready to die yet either.  Not until she found the owner of the voice that whispered through her nightmares.  Even if the interminable searching made her feel as if she were just chasing the wind.

   Cat lifted her gaze, prepared to beg if she had to.  Hell, she’d done it before.

   Then her eyes met his, and everything changed.

   She kicked him in the knee. “Goddammit, Alexi, what are you doing here?”

   Tall, dark and gifted, Alexi Romanov would command all eyes wherever he went.  He was that pretty.  Smooth, sun-kissed skin, wavy black hair, deep blue eyes and hands that could make a violin sing or a woman moan.  He could also lie to an angel and cheat the pants off the Devil himself.  He had taught Cat everything she knew.

   Cat shoved him.  Alexi stayed right where he was, although he did lift the knife from Cat’s neck just a little, probably afraid she'd skewer herself just for spite.

   “Move,” she ordered.

   “Make me,” he countered.

   She lifted her knee, fast and sure.  He blocked the attempt to unman him—permanently--with his hip; then he grasped her waist and yanked them together in an effort to preserve certain parts he would no doubt need later.  For someone else.

   Cat rolled her eyes, pretending boredom.  At times, with him, it was the only weapon she had. 

   “What,” she repeated, voice tired now instead of angry, “are you doing here?”

   "If I let you go, will you shoot me?”

   She didn't point out he'd already taken her pistol.  She should have known right then who he was.  He'd once taught her how to disarm any fool who ventured too close with a gun.  Snatch the barrel, while turning to avoid the bullet, then twist.  The element of surprise, and quick hands, had thus far guaranteed every weapon Cat had tried it on had become hers.

   “If I shot you, Alexi, I wouldn’t have a friend left in this world.”

   “I’m not your friend.”  He stepped back.

   “I know."

   As Alexi moved away he ran one finger along her forearm, that single touch reminding Cat of a hundred and one nights in his bed.  She’d come to him broken, bleeding inside, and he’d mended her somehow.  Not completely, but enough to go on.  She’d begun touching him back as payment; she’d stopped touching him for the same reason.

   Cat didn’t think his name was Alexi, or Romanov for that matter.  But that was the wonder of America.  If farm wife Cathleen Chase could become the legendary bounty hunter Cat O’Banyon, then an Al could become an Alexi.

   Alexi was a confidence man.  He crossed the country lightening the loads—and the pockets—of the citizens.  He insisted he didn’t steal and, in truth, Cat had never seen him take anything that wasn’t freely given--even if what he gave back was often more mud than magic.

   Cat ran her gaze from his dark slouch hat, past the shoulders that were oddly broader than they had been, down to his overly dusty boots and understood why she hadn't recognized him right away.  Alexi’s talent lay in making people see whatever he wanted them to.

   “You’re supposed to be a bounty hunter?” Cat asked, and her lip curled.

   Alexi smirked.  His disguise had worked.  It always did.  He didn’t merely pretend to be someone else; he became someone else.  She’d never seen anything like it.  She was good, but Alexi . . .

   Alexi was better.

   He lounged against the wall, head tipped so that his hat again concealed his face.  With gloves covering the hands she knew so well, dirty denims combined with a white cotton shirt and the scratched grips of some mighty big guns peeking out of their holster, not to mention the three day’s stubble across his chin . . . 

   He was a bounty hunter.

   “You keep playing around in things you don’t understand,” Cat said, “you’re gonna get killed.”

   Alexi snorted.  He was right.  Though the body beneath the costume was lithe and slim, it was quick and much stronger than it appeared.  However his body wasn't what made Alexi dangerous, but rather his clever, clever mind. 

   Cat eyed him now.  He seemed half asleep, but she knew better.  The last time she’d seen Alexi, he’d been asleep. Naked in her bed as she’d tiptoed out in to the night and never looked back.  Now he was here.  That couldn’t be good.

   “How’d you find me?”

   “ i,” he muttered, sounding exactly like a Frenchman. "You think no one knows what you’re doing?  That a woman can trounce hither and yon, snatching up men and disappearing with them into the sunset, with no one noticing at all?”

   Cat frowned.  “Say what you mean, Alexi.” Dear God, just once, say what you mean.

   He came away from the wall with cougar-like speed, one instant languid and sleepy, the next tense, edgy and so close he made her tense and edgy too.  “A female bounty hunter attracts attention.  But a female bounty hunter no one can identify . . . “ Alexi shrugged.  “She becomes a legend.”

   Cat shrugged too, though hers wasn’t half as graceful.  “So?”

   “The problem with legends is that everyone wants a glimpse of them.”

   A chill trickled over Cat’s neck.  She wouldn’t put it past Alexi to capture her and place her in a gilded cage.

   “Come one, come all,” she murmured.  “Step right up and see Cat O’Banyon in chains.”

   His beautiful face creased.  “I’d never--”

   “Of course not,” Cat agreed.  But she moved closer to the gun on the bed.  She even risked a glance in that direction.

“Shit,” she muttered as her gaze lit on nothing but sheets.  “How do you do that?”

   “Do what?”

   Cat didn’t even bother to answer.  “Why are you here?” she asked. 

   He certainly hadn’t come for a kiss, amazing as it had been.  Alexi’s kisses were always amazing.  And they were always a prelude to getting what he wanted.  Cat didn’t think he’d ever kissed anyone for the sake of the kiss alone. 

   Of course neither did she any more.

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