The sharp crack of wood upon wood resonated through the small courtroom as the gavel fell with finality. In one fell swoop, a man Wisteria Turner didn’t know had cast judgement on her and taken away the last thing she had of value. The anger that had been slowly simmering throughout the entire proceeding began to heat to a full rolling boil. It had started well before today, however, following her father’s unexpected death over three years ago. If that wasn’t tragic enough, at the tender age of seventeen, she’d been left in the incompetent care of her older brother, Slim, who was subject to unpredictable whims and flights of fancy, each idea more ridiculously senseless and poorly thought out than the last. The inevitable outcome of all of them over the last three years was the same—complete and utter failure—accomplishing nothing more than ruining her life further.
“We’re adjourned,” the judge announced as he rose to his feet and prepared to take his leave. “Henry,” he called to the tall older man who stood with his three equally tall sons and his short, stocky attorney. As Wisteria watched with curiosity, the man looked up, as did three nearly identical pairs of deep brown eyes. “I’ll see you and Letty for supper on Sunday?”
“Right you are, Frank,” the other man replied. “She’s planning a beef roast with all the trimmings.”
“What about dessert?”
“For you? Apple pie, of course.”
Wisteria had seen and heard enough. Infuriated, she jumped up from her seat. “You know each other!” she protested. “This decision is hardly unbiased. I’d like another impartial judge.”
A stern scowl shifted her way. “Are you questioning my ethics, girl?”
“Well…” she drawled, aware that to answer truthfully would be a grave mistake, but her mouth finished the thought before her brain gave the go-ahead. “As a matter of fact, I am. You can’t preside over a trial and find objective judgement when one of the parties is promising roast beef and apple pie. It isn’t fair.”
“You’re trying my patience, young lady. You’ve heard my decision. I’d recommend being thankful for my leniency and that you mind your tongue before I get angry.”
“Leniency?” she nearly shrieked, such was her indignation. “This is a travesty of justice. I had no choice in this ridiculous scheme, so why am I being punished?”
“The ruling was explained in detail,” the surly judge said through downturned lips. “If you disagree, hire yourself a lawyer and appeal. I warned the lot of you before we started that you needed to be represented, yet you chose to do so yourself. These are the results.”
“That wasn’t my decision, either,” she protested, stopping short of stamping her foot, though her fists clenched in outrage. “And how am I to hire an attorney when you just took from me the only thing I have of value other than the clothes on my back?”
“Your brother decided for you. Take it up with him.” He began to walk off. As she rushed to the front to make her plea without a room, bench and table between them, it had to be clear to the audience who remained, standing transfixed by the scene unfolding before them, that all her common sense and reason had left her, and been replaced with desperation. When she was within arm’s length of her quarry, the bailiff caught her around the waist and lifted her off her feet, quite effectively keeping her out of reach of the judge.
“So I suffer because my brother is an idiot?” she persisted as she struggled within the court officer’s hold. “He didn’t even show up today.”
“I’m done talking about this.”
“Well, I’m not!” she called, struggling within the confines of the restraining arm that held her back as the judge put his hand on the door to leave. “You can’t do this. It’s Wyoming. Women have the right to vote, hold office, and own their own property. I want a new trial, separate from my brother.”
“Are you married and didn’t tell me, gal?”
Her mouth snapped shut and she stilled, puzzled by his question. She shook her head as she answered, “No. Why?”
“Those property rights you mentioned hold true for married women only. Produce me a husband, then we’ll talk. Better yet, run for office now that you can and get the laws changed. Until then, my ruling stands and all property, including your horse, is awarded to the victim to compensate for the mess you four made on his land. You included, Miss Turner. I needn’t remind you that there were witnesses. You were in that mine illegally, like the rest of them. Be grateful I didn’t order prison time.”
It was true; however, feeling like she had no other choice, she pressed on, using a softer approach with her next entreaty. “Please, sir. Don’t do this. My horse is all I have left and my only way to get home.” To her frustration, her voice quavered as tears threatened. That’s all she needed, to burst out crying when she was spouting off about women’s rights and fairness. She’d be seen as the weak-willed female who needed a man to take care of her, which was the exact way she was being treated.
He must have heard the break in her lower, huskier tone because he turned and for once, his hard eyes held some compassion. “I know it seems you’re getting the short end of the stick here, Miss Turner; however, this is territorial law as it stands. Your brother hightailing it out of here and leaving you holding the bag might be an opportunity. He seems a bad influence on a young woman such as yourself and in my opinion you’re well shed of him. You’re pretty and of marriageable age; my advice is to find yourself a good man and settle down. Or, if you don’t like that idea, talk to Mr. Jackson there.” He nodded behind her to where the four Jackson men stood, no doubt watching her, scrutinizing her as though she were an oddity in the sideshow of a traveling circus, as they’d done throughout the proceedings.
Wisteria glanced their way. Up to that point, she’d avoided making eye contact with all of them, in particular the middle son, Luke Jackson. Twice, they’d had run-ins and she found it startling how big and powerful he was, like all of the Jacksons were. Except in Luke’s case, there was something else that stood out and made him seem different. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was, but among the three strikingly good-looking near identical men, Luke seemed even more attractive than his two brothers.
He’d taken charge of her after they’d been caught red-handed on Jackson land. While his lawman brother hauled Slim and the others to jail, he’d taken her up on his horse and followed. Although she’d been full of spit and vinegar, giving him an earful with her sharp tongue, he’d treated her in a gentlemanly fashion. Firm, yet gentle, if not a bit patronizing, like she was made of glass and in need of a keeper. That couldn’t be his appeal, could it?
She discarded that notion because it was no different than every other man in her life. They saw her slight frame and diminutive height and took her for a delicate hothouse flower in need of tending. Well, she didn’t need tending, not by Luke Jackson, not by her brother, not by anyone. She could fend for herself if these irritating men would only get out of her way. And if she had Shasta, her horse, back.
Her gaze collided briefly with Luke’s. As predicted, he was observing her intently, his brow furrowed. She couldn’t read his expression. Concern, displeasure, contempt—it was one of those or something else, she couldn’t be sure. Trying to ignore the little twinge of disappointment that it might be contempt, she pushed that thought away, looking back to the judge when he went on.
“Henry’s the new owner of your horse,” he stated unequivocally. “He’s a fair man. Even though your brother and his friends blasted his land full of cavernous holes in your ridiculous pursuit of fool’s silver, he might cut you some slack. That’s up to him, so I advise you talk to him more respectfully than you have me. That’s the best I can offer.”
He disappeared through the door the next instant. Once he was gone, the bailiff released her. Shuffling footsteps and muffled conversations told Wisteria the courtroom was emptying out behind her. Stunned, alone, and without any clue what to do next, she could only stand there, staring at the closed door in a daze.
The irritatingly familiar voice came to her. She ignored it, unable to deal with him.
“Girl, are ya deef?” it persisted a minute later.
Jagged nerves already on edge, she closed her eyes, praying for patience. She knew her request wasn’t granted, as usual, when hard bruising fingers gripped her arm and spun her around.
“I’m talking to you, woman. It’s time to go.”
Indignantly, she glared up at Jarrett Skeens, her brother’s best friend and partner in nearly all of his demented schemes. Small-boned and of medium height, he still outweighed her by fifty pounds and towered over her petite frame. Although he looked like a strong wind could knock him over, Jarrett was tough and mean. As was normally the case, his thin lips were twisted into a scowl of irritation that was directed at her. Right now, she was too angry to care.
“Go?” she hissed at him. “Go where? Back to Denver and the house I grew up in? No, wait. I can’t. Slim sold it to buy useless mining equipment, which is now,” she snapped her fingers, “with the bang of a gavel, gone. Maybe I’ll take my horse for a leisurely ride about town. Oh, that’s right. I can’t because she’s gone too.” Sarcasm dripped off her words and noticeably rankled Jarrett, yet in for a penny, in for a pound, Wisteria went headlong down a path few traveled and poked the ornery man further. “I could sell all the trinkets and baubles you jackasses promised when you dragged me along with you on this insanely ridiculous scheme to great wealth and prosperity, but I can’t do that either, can I, Jarrett?” She wrenched her arm out of his grip, despite the biting pain it caused. “I’m not going anywhere with you ever again. Do you hear? Get out of my life. You’ve done enough damage as it is.”
“Miss Turner, a word, please.” She spun and looked up, way up, craning her neck in order to face Henry Jackson as they spoke. Her eyes shifted briefly behind him, taking in the three silent men who stood, ever-present it seemed, at his back.
“Are those words going to include a promise to return my horse?”
“That wasn’t my first intention, until—”
“Then we have nothing to discuss.” She took a step backward, away from them all. “In fact, I have nothing more to say to the lot of you, except good riddance.”
Wisteria then whirled and stomped to the exit door. To what end, she didn’t know. Where she was going and what she would do when she got there, she had no idea about that either. She only knew she needed to get out of there, away from these men who had the power to control everything around her and thereby ruin her life. Ignoring the calls for her to stop, she broke into a run and flew full speed through the side door before she burst into a torrent of frustrated tears.
“Daggone it, Wisty.” Jarrett’s shout was accompanied by a resounding bang. With a glance back, she saw the wooden door swinging back on its hinges as he surged through, the Jackson brothers in his wake. Her nemesis since age five when Slim had brought his gap-toothed, redheaded, freckle-faced, troublemaking friend home, Jarrett halted at the edge of the boardwalk as if she were his business, blocking the other men’s way as he stood with his hands on his hips. “You come back here, right now,” he demanded at the top of his lungs, offering further proof he was delusional if he thought she was his to command.
“Stop, girl, let me say my piece,” called Mr. Jackson; at the same time she heard Luke say in his deep honey-smooth drawl, “Darlin’, wait!”
She disregarded every one of them and headed up Main Street, determined to see the last of Laramie, Wyoming once and for all. The booted footfalls pounding on the boards behind her only made her run faster. Realizing their long-legged strides would soon overtake her, she used her quickness and agility to get the edge, darting into a crowd of pedestrians outside the general store and weaving her way through the throng of shop-goers beyond.
With a fleeting glimpse over her shoulder to see if they were gaining, she spied only Luke’s light tan Stetson bobbing over the other heads in front of the mercantile. She ducked into an alleyway up ahead, ran to the end and made another turn, losing them once and for all. Her lips turned up in a little smile of satisfaction when they didn’t follow. She’d lost them. The joy of her small victory soon faded when Wisteria realized she was back to square one, with no money, nowhere to go and with no horse, no way to get there if she did. At a less frantic pace, she hurried farther away from Main Street, the Skeenses, and the Jacksons, toward the uncertain future that loomed ahead.
Hot and sweaty from the unusually warm September temperatures and being in the saddle all day, Luke urged Track faster. His stallion, spying the familiar grounds, stepped lively along the road to the ranch’s main stable where he knew feed and a good rubdown awaited him. Eight hours of fruitless searching had worn down both horse and rider. Where could the girl have gone?
She had vanished like dust in a breeze on the busy street outside the courthouse where the crowds blocked the numerous alleyways and side streets that had aided her impetuous getaway. But she was in an unfamiliar town with no allies to turn to for assistance; they all thought she would have turned up by now.
“Stubborn slip of calico is what she is,” Jarrett Skeens had grumbled. “Headstrong, always has been. Her daddy spoiled her that way. She needs a good tanning and I’m the one to give it to her.”
“Sounded to me like the little lady wants nothing to do with you, Skeens,” Luke remarked offhand, the crude, brash man setting his teeth on edge.
The shorter, slighter man had turned in surprise. “What’s it to you, Jackson? Rose ain’t none a yer business.”
“Wisteria Rose Turner,” he grumbled, staring at him as though he were daft. “See, you don’t even know her name, so stay out of it. The case is closed, anyway, or didn’t you hear?”
“I heard, but I’m making it my business, especially when a woman spurns the unwelcome advances of a bothersome jackass.”
“Who you calling a jackass, you highfalutin fancy man?”
Aaron swiftly stepped between the two men before they came to blows, while Heath and his pa burst out in laughter.
“Fancy man? Have you met my brother, Skeens? He’s the least fancy man in these parts. The only suits he’s acquainted with are the ones in a deck of poker cards.”
“S’truth, boy,” his pa added. “If Letty could get him to dress for Sunday supper, she’d think the world was coming to an end.”
Heath snickered while he added, “The man would wear Levi’s to dinner at the White House.”
“And a dusty, sweat-stained Stetson to the president’s funeral!” Henry Jackson chipped in further.
“Alright, you two,” Aaron cut in. Though the youngest, he was also most often the voice of reason for the Jackson bunch. “I’m trying to stop a street brawl where Luke will undoubtedly end up separating this imprudent man’s head from his shoulders and I’ll have to arrest my brother for murder. Meanwhile, my father and oldest brother are cutting up like a vaudeville troupe come to town. All of you are acting like we don’t have a distraught young woman running scared in a dangerous, unfamiliar town and getting further and further away.”
“Dang if he isn’t right as usual, Heath,” his pa said, sobering promptly.
“Yeah, really gets your goat sometimes when your infant brother has to put you in your place.”
Luke hadn’t taken his eyes off his quarry the entire time, but they shifted to Aaron when he asked, “What’s it to be?” His brother’s regard switched to Skeens, though his question encompassed both of them. “Join forces and find her, or brawling in the middle of Main Street where I have to haul you both in for fighting and disturbing the peace?”
Realizing there was strength in numbers, Luke backed off, his disdainful glare focusing on Skeens. “Let’s find the girl before she gets herself into trouble.”
Skeens sent a disgusting spray of tobacco juice into the dirt by his feet. “Shows how well you know Wisty Rose, fella. Her brother and I always said she don’t need to find trouble, ‘cause trouble finds her, in spades.”
Luke didn’t doubt that one bit. Each of the three times he’d seen the raven-haired beauty she’d been in a scrape. The first time covered in black dirt and grime, fresh out of a mine they’d blasted on in the easternmost section of Jackson land. Wisteria was right in that it was a ridiculous search for silver. Everyone in these parts knew there were only gypsum and other less valuable minerals beneath Laramie and the surrounding area, including the earth beneath Silverbend Ranch. The government had it surveyed twice, back in the 50s and 60s after the gold rush had begun.
The Turners and Skeenses the only ones none the wiser, it seemed, as they’d blown a good two dozen holes in the Jacksons’ prime grazing land searching for wealth that simply wasn’t there. Wisteria had been spitting mad about that too. Calling her brother and the rest of their makeshift gang of miners everything except smart men. While Aaron and his brother had taken them to jail, the job of containing the little spitfire, as he called her, had fallen to him. No hardship on his part. Despite the dirt, her beauty had shone through. And as she transferred some of her grime to his clothes as she’d struggled, Luke had enjoyed the feel of her lithe body wiggling against his. Her pert little breasts and round bottom had been unmistakable under her men’s garb. She’d stirred him; that was for certain.
The second time hadn’t been any different. She’d saved his sister-in-law from the clutches of her dastardly uncle, shooting better than any woman he’d ever seen, and many men for that matter. She’d only cleaned up nominally after the mine by then, but her pretty face had been washed enough to reveal both the delicacy and strength of her beautiful features. Framing her daintily pointed oval face was a wealth of sleek, satiny black hair and smooth, perfectly arched brows. They enhanced a flawless porcelain complexion and high cheekbones, the blush on which gave her an exotic appearance. Her incomparable violet eyes and the Cupid’s bow mouth, the double curves of which tempted a man’s control such that he wanted nothing more than to taste their texture. Yes, Wisteria was enough to tempt a saint to sin. What chance did he have when he was no saint, not by a long shot?
With each subsequent meeting, his thoughts had taken a decidedly carnal turn. Like today in court, when she had railed at the judge without caution. Didn’t the girl understand he held her fate in his hands? She needed someone to look after her. Someone with more backbone than her would-be suitor, Jarrett Skeens, and her shiftless good-for-nothing brother who hadn’t even bothered to show up today. She needed someone to take her to task for her reckless ways, like when she got in the judge’s face and had to be held back by the bailiff. If she were his woman, such a thing wouldn’t be allowed to pass without a trip over his knees for a lesson in ladylike decorum.
His eyes fell to her skirts, the narrow waist over gently curved hips and what he knew from tactile memory was a delectable round behind. He’d imagined it upturned on more than one occasion, bared and quivering as she waited for his first open-handed swat to fall. The milky white skin blushing with each successive spank changing from a pretty pink, to a dusky rose, and when she was really naughty and in need of thorough chastisement, such as now, glowing crimson. His palm itched and his cock lengthened, hardening uncomfortably in his trousers right about the time Track arrived at the stable. He sat frustrated and sweaty astride his back, perspiring not from the heat, but for an entirely different reason.
He reined in close to where his older brother was standing. It looked like he’d just arrived as well.
“Any sign of her?” he asked Heath as he dismounted.
“No, I rode west ten miles, stopping to ask at several homesteads along the way. No one has seen her.”
“Aaron said as much about his search east toward Cheyenne,” Luke informed him, taking off his Stetson and wiping his damp brow with his sleeve. In frustration, he speared his fingers through his overlong hair, raking it back off his forehead before replacing his hat. “I don’t like this. She’s upset, patently reckless, and alone. There’s no telling what trouble she’s gotten into by now.”
“Jenny is concerned she’s gone to some of the unsavory businesses in town to look for work,” Heath mentioned.
“Aaron’s deputies searched through town all day. There was no sign of her on Sixth Street, if that’s what Jenny was thinking, or in South Town or anywhere else in Laramie for that matter. It’s like she’s vanished into thin air.”
“Or,” Heath added shrewdly, “she’s behaving like someone not wanting to be found.”
“Where would she hide without funds?”
As they lapsed into silence, hooves pounding the hard-packed road behind them had them turning. The incoming rider was instantly recognizable. Soon, Henry Jackson reined his horse to a halt beside his two sons.
“One of the hands sighted a stranger sniffing around the stables this morning and ran him off,” he began without greeting. “Short, thin, baggy clothing, a hat pulled low over jet black hair.”
“It could be the Turner girl,” Heath guessed right off.
“She’s looking for her horse, no doubt,” Luke interjected.
“You think she’d steal it back?” Heath asked.
Luke frowned. “I wouldn’t put much past that girl. Besides, she thinks the mare is hers, so I don’t suppose she’d see it as stealing.”
“Tarnation,” Henry cussed, slapping his knee with his hat. “I was trying to tell the girl before she ran off yesterday that she could have her danged horse back. I was wanting her menfolk to pay, not that slip of a girl. Her story is heartbreaking. We’ve got to help her before some other scallywag gets his hooks into her.”
Both Heath and Luke looked on as their pa became agitated. He had a soft spot for women, even those who might have done wrong. It wasn’t the case for any of his sons growing up, however. Although he was a loving father with three boys to raise, he’d been strict, laying down the law and the leather strap, if need be, for any misdeeds and wild behavior. He’d tanned them without remorse when they messed up, of which Luke had seen his fair share. He imagined the good Lord knew what he was doing when he gave Henry Jackson boys; girls would have had him tied around their little fingers and run roughshod over his rules.
“We’ve got to find her first,” Luke said, his need to find Wisteria as strong as his pa’s. Something about the girl had gotten to him.
“Let’s set up watch at each of the stables,” Heath suggested.
“Good idea,” Luke agreed with a nod. “If she’s set on getting her horse back, it’s only a matter of time.”