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Story Summary

Bounty hunter Bret Sterling kills Rufus Petty, thief and murderer, less than ten feet away from a frightened, half-starved woman. Rufus should have surrendered. The woman should have kin to help her. But Rufus went down shooting, and the woman has no one. Bret figures by the time he finds a safe place to leave Hassie Petty, he’ll earn the five hundred dollar reward several times over.

Hassie doesn’t mourn Rufus, but the loss of the ten dollars he promised her for supplies is a different matter. The bounty hunter gives her nothing, takes everything, ties the body on one horse and orders her on another. Afraid if she defies him, he’ll tie her down tighter than Rufus, Hassie mounts up and follows the icy-eyed killer.

Mismatched in every way, the sterling man and petty woman travel the West together, hunting thieves, deserters, and murderers. Wary traveling companions, friends and partners, lovers, Bret and Hassie must decide what they want, what they need, and the price they’re willing to pay for love.

Excerpt

Hassie wiped her wet eyes and runny nose on the sleeve of the purple dress, unwilling to look at Bret again. She let go of his arm and tried to put some space between them. Tried. His hand clamped around her upper arm like a vise. “Let’s go.”

Too afraid to resist, she let him propel her out of the street, up on the walk, past groups of curious bystanders. The pain in her side had subsided. Her throat and chest still burned, although her heart and lungs had slowed. Fear and humiliation burned worst of all, fear of what he was going to do, fear of what he thought. Humiliation over her situation, her failure.

The sight of the hotel changed her mind about resisting. She jerked and pulled against Bret’s hold, desperate not to set foot in the hotel again. He ignored her, all but lifting her off her feet by the arm. Unable to bring herself to fight him the way she had fought the Restons and Zachary, she gave in.

He threw the door open so violently it crashed into the wall, cracking the etched glass panel that had graced the top half. Across the silent lobby, up to the shining mahogany desk.
Bret smashed the silver bell with the butt of his pistol so hard the bell fell apart with a sad little ting. Undeterred, he used the gun like a hammer on the polished surface of the desk. Hassie flinched at the sounds as one deep gouge after another marred the wood.

Mr. Reston emerged through the door to the owners’ private rooms, his usual smile fading fast when he saw who stood at the desk. He reached for the door behind him as if to flee back through.

“Not unless you want to lose a hand,” Bret said. “Get out here, and get your wife.”

Pasty-faced and trembling, Reston called his wife and moved behind the desk when ordered.

At the sight of Bret, Mrs. Reston’s face hardened, but she smiled. “Good afternoon, Mr. Sterling, we thought you left town.”

“I bet you did. You round up everything Mrs. Petty brought to this place and get it out here. Now.”

Defiance and anger flashed across the woman’s face. “I understand you’re upset, but we did exactly what we promised. Hassie did not work out here. Guests were already complaining about dealing with a du—mute. Sally Nichols offered to take her, and a job with Sally would be much more suitable.”

“How much did you sell her for?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We didn’t sell....”

“One hundred dollars,” Hassie said, knowing no one would understand the words, but hoping like her mother, Bret could understand the rhythm of an expected phrase.

“Hear that,” Mrs. Reston said self-righteously. “No one could understand that. She sounds like an animal. If we’d heard that before we hired her, we wouldn’t have done it. You left. We did the best we could.”

“I understood. You sold her for a lousy hundred dollars. Now you get her things.”

“We don’t have anything of hers. She didn’t have anything worth a nickel. Go talk to Sally.”

The glass globe of the lamp on the wall to the right of the desk exploded. The sound of the gunshot hurt Hassie’s ears so much she covered them, even though it was too late. Glass showered down over Mrs. Reston. Mr. Reston squealed and disappeared behind the desk.

Mrs. Reston twisted around to look at the ruined lamp, the scratches on her cheek disappearing amid the bright red that suffused her face. “Do you have any idea how much those lamps cost? We had them shipped from New York City.”

The lamp to the left of the desk exploded. Another squeal sounded from under the desk.

“Run to the brothel if you have to. If you don’t get her things and get them fast, you’re going to need a whole new hotel shipped from New York City.”

Still angry but a lot less defiant, Mrs. Reston crunched across the broken glass back to their rooms.

Bret banged the pistol on the desk again. “Get up here, Reston.”

Mr. Reston’s hands appeared first, gripping the edge of the desk, then the top of his head, then his wide eyes. One eye had a bruise developing underneath, a nice complement to the scratches on his wife. The sight gave Hassie considerable satisfaction.

“Please,” Reston whispered. “Please, I didn’t want, don’t want....”

“I don’t give a damn what you want. Mrs. Petty had almost forty dollars this morning. We’ll round it off and call it forty. I want it back. Now.”

Reston stood all the way up and turned as if to follow his wife back to their rooms.

“No,” Bret said. “You get it out of that drawer right there in the desk.”

“I don’t have forty there.”

“Find it.”

Mr. Reston fumbled with his keys, opened the drawer and counted out thirty dollars. He dug in his pockets and added a ten dollar gold coin. Bret finally let go of Hassie’s arm, scooped the money up, and shoved it in a pocket.

Mrs. Reston returned with Hassie’s carpetbag and thumped it down on the ruined desktop. “There. That’s all we have. I tore some of her clothes for rags and threw the rest in the burn barrel. I’m sure Sally did the same.”

Bret pulled the bag toward Hassie. “Check and see if anything else is missing.”

Hassie opened the bag. Her Bible, hairbrush, and comb didn’t even cover the bottom. She looked up, tempted to tell Bret everything was there just to calm him down and get him to leave. Except the things missing were Mama’s things, the ones Hassie most treasured, and Mrs. Reston had a smug look on her face as if she knew a dummy wouldn’t, couldn’t complain.

Stretching to reach, Hassie grabbed the register from the other side of the desk and the pen from the inkwell tray. She uncapped the ink, dipped the pen, and wrote.

Bret read aloud. “Embroidered tablecloth, gold locket on chain, gold ring.”

Mrs. Reston disappeared before he finished the last word and reappeared seconds later with the cloth in one hand. She raised the clenched fist of the other hand.

“Don’t,” Bret said. “If you throw anything, you’ll be down on your knees picking it up.”

The tablecloth landed soundlessly on the desktop. The jewelry rattled. Hassie shook out the cloth, checked both sides, refolded it, and tucked it in her bag with the necklace and ring.

To her surprise, Bret broke his gun in two and replaced the empty cartridges with fresh rounds. “Six is better than four,” he said, his voice almost normal. “Let’s go.”
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